May 8, 2005

Post-post-GDC Post

by Andrew Stern · , 6:59 pm

Better late than never, I hope — here’s a writeup of my experience of last March’s Game Developers Conference. Perhaps the nine weeks that have passed since GDC has given me some additional long-term perspective on it all.

Personally I had less fun at this year’s conference compared to last year, because I was more stressed out this time. I was to moderate a high-profile panel on interactive story, give a programming talk and live demo with Michael on natural language in games (which we were still preparing for until minutes before the talk), and try to network with game developers that we may try to work with in the future — all self-imposed tasks of course. But all that was enough of a load to put me into a sleep-disturbed funk for the entire GDC week and beyond.

(But now I’m feeling better, especially because our interactive drama project is now so close to completion — it has taken forever to finish up all the niggling details, but we’re really, really close.)

Okay. Informed by this year’s GDC, in this post I’d like to summarize my impressions of the overall state of commercial interactive entertainment development, as well as my take on the state of interactive story development.

I did manage to attend most of the notable presentations at GDC, including the outrageous rant Burning Down the House, Will Wright’s Spore demo, the Emily Dickinson Game Design Challenge, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and the Independent Games Festival. None of them made a huge impression on me, including my panel, Why Isn’t the Game Industry Making Interactive Stories?

The rant was entertaining, and there were a few interesting points — Brenda Laurel reminded us that agency in virtual worlds is not agency in the real world, and Chris Hecker’s sneak-peek observation that the next generation console machines will be so CPU weak that it will greatly hamper AI innovation in future games. But overall I didn’t learn a whole lot during the hour, or come away feeling particularly pleased or inspired.

Spore was impressive in scope, and the procedural animation was nice (although less amazing than I thought it would be), and I appreciated Will’s attempt to explain their lightweight-prototype-centric approach to game design, but the truth is I’m unsure about how big of a hit Spore will really be, because I think it’s very science-y in theme. Well, I’m sure it will be a huge hit, but perhaps not with the mass appeal of the Sims. But that’s okay, of course; Will Wright has the wherewithal to make the game he and his team really wants to make, and it’s great to see that happening. And the more we can get people interested in science, especially kids, the better I suppose; it’ll be an enriching game that way.

The Emily Dickinson Challenge was a cool idea, but the presentations weren’t that satisfying to me. (That’s okay, I’m not complaining really; it’s a very difficult design challenge!) Clint Hocking’s design was the most ambitious and serious take on the problem, but I found it overwrought and confusing. Peter Molyneux’s demo was dazzling and seductive (I really liked it) but it had little or nothing to do with Emily Dickinson. And Will Wright, probably hoping that if he presented a farcical game design he would get to relinquish his crown and be not forced to participate yet again next year, failed; that is, he won. (I suspect he’ll anoint someone else to compete in his place next year.)

I found the Independent Games Festival lackluster. While it is inspiring to hear about how the Alien Hominid guys and other folks mortgaged their houses to fund the development of their games, too bad the games are pretty much just more of the same traditional game genre stuff, e.g. 2D-side-scrollers / platformers. Snore.

The Indie Game Jam theme, “People Interacting”, ultimately wasn’t as successful as last year’s awesome “2D Physics Engine” theme, but I applaud their ambition. The thing I liked the most about this year’s results was how several participants said, “People are hard“. No shit! While I was underwhelmed by the games produced, I found this Jam useful if only to demonstrate that point. Jammers had access to the complete set of Sims 1 models and animations, which is such a great resource, but in only four days time there’s not a whole lot you can do, other than using people as game pieces. (Apparently there were also the problem that the game engine wasn’t fully ready for the Jam, further hampering development.)

The rest of the Experimental Game Jam was spotty. I didn’t fully grasp the nature of the interactive narrative elements described in Jane McGonigal’s presentation of I Love Bees; hopefully she can re-describe that to us at some point. The gem of the Workshop was certainly Ragdoll Kung Fu, which just looked plain amazing, and an excellent example of innovation in game design coming from scrappy, passionate, self-funded individuals — and would have dominated the IGF had it been entered there. (Even though it now appears it will be released by Lionhead, my impression was that the game was developed on personal time over several years.)

And that’s where I’ll make my point about the state of the industry. We can rant about it all we want, but the truth is, developers don’t have much control over the blockbuster/sequel-oriented direction of the industry. I think it’s safe to say for the forseeable future, game development will continue on its current path, and there’s probably nothing to stop it. But we can do something in parallel. The only solution I can see, that I’ve said before and will say again, that I believe is eminently do-able, is for individuals to break away on their own and develop their own independent games, in a self-funded, lifestyle-sacrificing way as needed. There’s a lot of talented, experienced professionals who have cut their teeth making games they don’t like; they now need to quit their jobs for a couple of years and survive on peanut butter, or at least switch to part-time, and apply their skills and experience to making new, interesting games. Ragdoll Kung Fu seems like a perfect example; it sounds like it was a grueling, difficult project. But the results are worth it.

These indie games will be smaller than today’s massive GTA‘s and Half Life‘s. But smaller can be better — the price point can be lower, and time commitment from players can be less. Even think of them as shorts if you have to. (Note I’m imagining projects more ambitious than much of today’s indie games, including this year’s IGF.) Internet publishing makes this all the more feasible, of course.

I truly believe this is possible, folks. You just have to be committed to making it happen, and put yourself through some pain. But life’s too short to do otherwise, isn’t it? WTF!

How’s it all going to actually pan out? The game industry will of course continue to make huge-budget blockbuster sequels indefinitely, but also in parallel there will be a few small groups that make innovative hit/cult products in their garages. And this will be the state of interactive entertainment for some time to come. Realistically, does anyone else see it working differently?

Additionally I’m starting to see the seeds of an indie game movement from the small game prototypes coming out of grad schools, some of which were presented at the EGW. It seems so possible that a smart group of kids fresh out of school (or even in school) could create something amazing.

In a future post, towards this goal of indie game innovation, I’d like to pitch an idea for how game developers can work on academic game research projects, in a mutually-beneficial way. But I’ll save that post for later.

Okay, now part 2 of this post: the state of interactive story development, and the related panel I moderated.

In hindsight, I was a little naive about what could really be accomplished in this panel. My hope was to present three forward-thinking game developers of narrative-oriented games with three carefully-constructed questions (powerpoint) that cut to heart of the matter, that would generate productive answers.

I have my own answers to these questions (although as moderator couldn’t speak them), and was very curious to hear game industry giants Warren Spector, Neil Young and Tim Schafer’s take on them. Turns out, they don’t really have good answers for them, at least when it comes to solutions.

I suppose I should have seen this coming. These are folks who have to build games today, right now, under heavy budget and risk constraint. Although they’ve taken on some daring experiments, some which may succeed and others that have failed, I’m realizing they’re just not in a position to think too far outside the box, to push hard on innovation. That’s simply not a luxury available to them. (Or if they do have ideas, they’re not speaking about them in public.)

Everyone agrees that real progress in interactive story is very hard problem. But when asked if we need revolutionary, not evolutionary steps taken to make real progress in interactive story, they pretty much dodged the question. But really, were they in a position to agree? To admit that the current methods of game development are unlikely to result in significant progress towards real interactive story?

I wanted to make sure that at least some of the ongoing research in interactive story was presented on the panel. However the GDC organizing committee told me early on I was only allowed three panelists. So I sort of “snuck” Michael onto the panel, under the condition that he only speak at the end of the discussion about future directions. This arrangement was confusing to some in the audience, and was made further awkward by the fact that the chairs were laid out in such a way to not allow Michael to sit next to the other three; some intepreted this as “academia vs. industry”, which was unfortunate.

Anyhow… my take on the state of interactive story is about the same as my take on the game industry in general. It’s going to require independent, self-funded teams to push the envelope. High-agency interactive story is a very, very hard problem, and I’m less bullish than Chris Crawford on how soon we’ll see a truly satisfying interactive story. And based on what didn’t get said at the panel, I just don’t think that game companies are set up to do the required level of innovation.

However I did *not* get a sense that the interest from players and developers in interactive story is on the decline. It’s just that there is little or no progress to speak of.

Also, I have to admit I’m cynical about how quickly the game industry will move towards procedurality, e.g. algorithmically-generated models, textures, animations, behaviors, versus hand-made ones. There’s some lip service being paid to it, Spore is an early example of it, and I wish it were true, but I have a feeling progress will be pretty slow.

So, to sum up: at this year’s GDC the industry showed no signs of getting healthier, and if anything it continues to get more hostile to innovation. And so, it will require grassroots efforts (folks in their garages, or self-funded startups) to create interesting, exciting new interactive experiences. This is certainly possible to achieve with enough determination, inspiration and perspiration. I have faith we’ll see this happen, although probably slowly. I can’t imagine a future otherwise. We should set our expectations appropriately, and get to work.

21 Responses to “Post-post-GDC Post”

  1. Janet Murray Says:

    Hooray for Andrew for convening this panel and for Michael for his commitment to expanding procedural authorship.

    I want to know what Andrew’s answers to his own questions are: What is the pleasure in storytelling that is currently missing from games and why?

    I would also like to hear Andrew’s and other people’s answer to the reverse question: What moments in people’s own gameplay have created intense story pleasure or have aroused story expectations and succeeded or failed in satisfying them in a memorable way?

    Finally, I want to ride one of my own hobby horses one more time: when games fail to satisfy our story expectations it is often because they lack dramatic compression: the game actions are too diffuse, too much like real time actions and too little like the chained compressed, literarily abstracted actions of fiction or drama. This lack of dramatic compression applies to the events of the game and especially to the actions of the player/interactor. I wonder if this tension is intrinsic to games and differentiates them from stories or whether it is just that we haven’t figured out how to use interactive conventions for maximum dramatic agency. Filmed action looked intrinsically less immediate and riveting than theatrical action until filmmakers learned how to compress and compose action for the screen: do we need to invent similar conventions for games or are game actions intrinsically less dramatic?

  2. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    I tried linking here from my new shiny, but trackbacks don’t seem to work well at GTxA, so there.

  3. Erik Says:

    Andrew, if you like ragdoll martial arts bunnies (yes, rabbits), you might like lugaru (you currently require a mac). He wrote the game and engine himself while a student and I think the animation, terrain paging and fading panoramas and motionblur quite amazing considering.
    Anyway, it sounds to me like you may just need a bit more sleep, ie you are temp burnt out!
    Janet, the tension-compression metaphor is interesting, but do you really think it is apt? When I think of games I think of recoil or striking, not tension, when I think of drama, I think of either being drawn ‘into’ the dramatic encounter of a character or of time ‘floating’.

  4. andrew Says:

    I meant to say, for any GTxA readers who were at that panel, e.g. Ian, Jane, Jesper, Espen, Rob, Robin, Walter, Michael of course, and anyone else, I’d be curious to hear your recall of what good or not-so-good things got said at the panel, that I’m not remembering or pointing out. You all probably had an easier time relaxing and listening to what was being said than I was able to. (Someone told me there was some amusing whispered heckling from non-narrative folks like Richard Bartle, which sounded pretty funny.)

    Also in a future comment I’ll comment on Ernest Adams’ History of Interactive Narrative lecture he gave, which like everything else I saw this year, didn’t make a big impression on me.

    Janet, sure, I should have enough free time tomorrow to writeup the answers I would have given to those questions, as well as answer your reverse question. I’m looking forward to hearing others’ answers too.

    Dirk, cool to see you have a new blog; I’ve added to the blogroll, and responded to your post there.

    Erik, yeah, I’m certainly fried right now, although I’m better than I was just after GDC, so it’s probably good I waited till now to write up this post. Yes my state is probably coloring my perception of things a little, but so be it… :-)

  5. Kenneth Stein Says:

    Dramatic tension requires substantive immersion. I define immersion as “identification through attention.” In the video game context, if a player identifies with that to which they are attending they are immersed. The depth of immersion is proportionate to the quality of the identification.

    There are two forms of immersion, “adjective” and “substantive”. Most games created today rely on adjective immersion. Adjective immersion occurs when a player is glued to the screen as a result of the triggering of innate survival-centric impulses. Game elements including quick movement, bright colors, great variability in audio serve to immerse the Player. They are not however ‘essential’ elements. While they carry attributive value, that value is not essential to identify the Additionally, the reliance on adjective immersion comes at the expense of attributing semiotic value to the images on-screen. NOTE that the game ICO relies less on ADJECTIVE IMMERSION than on SUBSTANTIVE IMMERSION as an example of present direction.

    Substantive immersion results when one is attending to those attributes that are the essential attributes of the things with which the Player is interacting. What is an essential attribute of a thing? Depends upon the thing. The essential attributes are those invariant distinctions that enable the identification of the PARTICULAR thing. NOTE that one ought not confuse an individual for a group. You might think that black and white stripes are essential attributes of a zebra, but those are essential for all zebras (except the albino zebra) and are not in themselves enough to distinguish individuals. The specific patterning of the stripes, however, has been compared to the human fingerprint.

    And so, if the Player’s attention is directed in relation to in game attributes that are considered the essential attributes for the things so signified, then the player is SUBSTANTIVELY IMMERSED. While their attention may still be indirectly directed, it is being accomplished with an artistry not practiced with the sledgehammer techniques leveraging adjective immersion.

    Drama entails substantive immersion as one retains an awareness of their sense of self while so immersed. Therefore, the Player can empathize and the tension becomes the Player’s tension. Beyond this lies the Player’s ability in self-reflection and that is fundamental to establishing dramatic tension.

    Janet, it seems the answer to your question lies in developing games that center on “essential attributes.” Substantive immersion is a necessary condition to achieving genuine drama in video games.

  6. chrisf Says:

    Yeah, but adjective immersion that allows free transmission of substantive immersion is helpful. Ideally, you want both. I’m nearly finished ICO at the moment and I know what you mean. But it’s not without adjective immersion, just because there’s no big HUDs. EG The sofas are a nice way of providing a clean and poetic way out of the world at save points, because you’re most likely sitting on one while you’re playing.

    Substantive immersion seems like a nice way of talking about it that seperates out all the stuff that publishers need to talk about to shell out. Yet you’re still basically talking about the interface and the game world. Drama as a game concept is still very much based in references from movies, so it has to be about the characters and the internal relationships in the world. However, I would argue that in games (and ‘interactive entertainment’ I suppose) the drama that exists between the player and the game is the most unique and interesting thing a game developer has to work with.

    Dirk, I love the *talentless actors = a good thing* post. But I reckon that recursive behaviours should only be able to nest so deep, or you’ll be hitting a believability problem.

  7. andrew Says:

    Kenneth, it’s true that today’s games are often focused on “innate survival-centric impulses”, akin to breathtaking spectacle-laden action films (which can be a lot of fun!), and not as much on the “essential”, “substantive” or perhaps “empathetical” attributes of their scenarios, the kind of reflective experience we’d get in a drama about, say, the details of people’s lives (which can be very moving).

    That said, substantive immersion will be just one ingredient we would need for achieving satisfying interactive stories; as Chris alludes to, and I’m always proselytizing, agency will be key. We could make an interactive piece that is about something personal and down-to-earth (versus about saving the world), that is very reflective and thoughtful in tone and leaves all kinds of room for players to be empathetic, but if there is little or no agency, then I’d argue it’s not going to be significantly different in its power than a film or play. Agency is primarily where I (and Michael) are focusing our attention — it’s where the technical issues are most challenging and necessary to solve to make progress, and is at the heart of the interactive medium.

    Janet, I’ll agree that dramatic compression is missing from many games — often the pacing can be slow, and players end up spending way too much time doing rote or boring things. MMOGs for example seem plagued with this problem. However I know that some game designers, perhaps in other game genres, e.g. the Half Life series, explicitly give a lot of attention to the pace of a game, to really attempt a satisfying gaming experience. Such games purposefully give players a carefully-tuned amount of time they need to figure out how to get past an obstacle, to make sure the challenges come fast enough but not too fast, etc.

    But in a general sense, it’s probably true that the structure of many of videogames, e.g. trial-and-error play pattern of trying, dying, and restarting, or the play pattern of try-this-try-that in the more pure simulation games, inherently thwarts dramatic compression. Player experimentation in general (players trying different things as they play) is probably at odds with dramatic compression. I’d bet this is one of the roots of discontent that ludologists have with narrative. To suggest that we need dramatic compression really is a request for new play patterns and new genres, I think. And/or games that offer substantial room for player experimentation but are also drama-managed.

    In my next comment, hopefully tomorrow, I’ll give my own agency-oriented responses to my original panel questions, and Janet’s reverse question.

  8. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    chrisf wrote:

    Dirk, I love the *talentless actors = a good thing* post. But I reckon that recursive behaviours should only be able to nest so deep, or you’ll be hitting a believability problem.

    I’m still building up the argument, and trying to get to the point that you adress as fast as possible, but yeah, you’re right, it is tricky. There’s this area where you have to make the recursive movement to somehow “petter out”, and make its forces “dissolve” into the content, instead of going deeper. Since what you’re doing there is inexplainable by mathematics (at least that’s what I think now), formalization and looking at “models” won’t help, and it’s all down to seat-of-the-pants experimentation and learning from experience. Must be “where the art is”, then…

  9. andrew Says:

    More on the unhealthy direction of the game industry — in “Does expression come in HD too?“, Ian Bogost reacts to the ill-conceived claims of the newly announced XBox 360, and its related GDC keynote (which at the time we couldn’t bear to sit, er, stand through).

  10. andrew Says:

    Spector and Costikyan voice their anxiety over what the coming new generation of game hardware means for game developers.

    And more on the need to break away in new directions — Costik writes “Old Farts and Young Turks“.

  11. andrew Says:

    I want to know what Andrew’s answers to his own questions are
    I would also like to hear Andrew’s and other people’s answer to the reverse question

    sorry for the delay… Big Hair got in my eyes. I’m writing this up. I’ll try to be succinct, but it’ll be long enough that I’ll turn it into a new post, soon.

  12. Michael Says:

    Hmm, after my Fever-addled Impressions post, a number of people commented on my deep angst regarding the current state of interactive story (I actually wasn’t feeling any deep angst). But your GDC post beats mine hands down for gloominess (I can hear Gonzalo holding up one of his beloved Gloomy Bears and saying “Gloooomy”).

    Also, I have to admit I’m cynical about how quickly the game industry will move towards procedurality, e.g. algorithmically-generated models, textures, animations, behaviors, versus hand-made ones. There’s some lip service being paid to it

    I think there was more than lip service being paid. Though folk like Chris Crawford have been talking about process intensity for years, it was being talked about at a whole new level of exposure at GDC this year. Yes, it’s the early stages, and yes, there will still be games produced for awhile by armies hand-crafting a zillion assets, but there’s the real possibility of an industry-wide phase transition towards process intensity. Though EA’s talking about it, perhaps the charge will be led by the indies – indie developers don’t have armies, and process intensity is a way to make games without armies. I agree with Andrew that Ragdoll Kung Fu was one of the coolest games at GDC; and lo-and-behold, it’s a low asset (an animation-asset-free fighting game) indie game.

    Someone told me there was some amusing whispered heckling from non-narrative folks like Richard Bartle, which sounded pretty funny.

    It was Ian – he was sitting in between Espen and Richard, who apparently dropped dry wisecracks through the whole thing. He said it was like sitting inside the head of the most cynical person on earth.

  13. Ian Bogost Says:

    It was charming cynicism tho! Only the very best kind. I very much enjoyed the session as mediated by the company of Espen and Richard :)

    (Live from E3, where interactive narrative is only a kind of sushi)

  14. andrew Says:

    On the topic of wanting change in the game industry is a new Pointless Waste of Time article, A Gamer’s Manifesto. (via game girl advance)

  15. andrew Says:

    Ron Gilbert at Grumpy Gamer has a new post, Failing at your Entertainment, including a link to a Reuters article about gamers seeking smaller, more fun games.

    Also, I have a new top-level GTxA post answering Janet’s request, Toward Authentically Interactive Characters and Stories.

  16. Zenith Medium Kane Says:


    One way around this would be to have a feature where time goes faster / skips forward to the next important section.

    You decide to launch the Voyager probe.
    You don’t need to do anything else gameplay-wise until it runs into trouble.
    So, the gameplay fastforwards it shows you a picture of the probe going across the solar system.
    But then when difficulties loom, it slows down and a scientist asks you what you are going to do about the asteroid field ahead of it.
    -> At which point you can make some gameplay choices.

    Likewise you could choose a meta-goal, infiltrate stealthily, or neutralise all threats. And the game would stop to ask you what you wanted to do at certain points.


  17. andrew Says:

    This month, IGDA Culture Clash is wary of the current direction of the game industry.

  18. andrew Says:

    See Will Wright’s GDC Spore presentation at GDCTV.

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