One last GDC brain dump from Friday…

I imagine that if I had gone to a different set of talks this week, I might believe that the next big thing in game design is going to be physics-based puzzles, or microtransactions, or maybe just more clever specular maps. From where I was sitting, though, the idea that came up again and again was that the player is as important a part of the game as its graphics or its rule set, and that the next big thing in games is going to be exploring the relationship between designer and game and player.

Some of the most interesting research that took place last year involved ideas similar to what Hocking talked about yesterday, that some games do a better job than others in exploring ethics, at forcing players to examine their own values, and at giving them opportunities to express those values. Other game studies goodness dealt with the role of death in games and with WoW players grinding “together alone.” (Or is that alone together?)

Matt Brown, Kim Pallister, Raph Koster, and Ray Muzyka did a panel session on how developers can share control of games with players — or on how players cede a little bit of their control to developers. In addition to all the ways in which user-generated content is changing the roles of developers from sole creators to creator-shepherds, they talked a bit on how it’s possible to turn your loudest, angriest users into strong advocates for your game by getting them involved in fixing whatever problem it is that they’re so passionate about.

A roundtable of LGBT developers and journalists concluded that gaming is in its “celluloid closet” phase, with only the occasional Bully boy-kiss or double-coded reference to speak to queer gamers. On the other hand, as we begin to make games that help players explore and express their values, there’s an opportunity to explore sexuality and attitudes towards sexuality in new ways, which would not only help straight players understand queerness, but could help LGBT people (who often suffer from “gameophobia” themselves) to find games they can enjoy.

Chaim Gingold’s talk on the ways in which Spore’s editors encourage player creativity went into lots of meaty detail on the kinds of tradeoffs that need to be made to help users make good things with little effort. Professional tools like Photoshop and Maya have a very large range of possible things that can be made, a small range of things that will probably be made (that is, are easy to make quickly), and a small, probably disjoint range of things that are desireable to make (that is, don’t suck). The process of editor design involves shrinking the possibility space and shifting the probability space so that users are more likely to make things that are desirable. Sounds easy, right?

Finally, after all this abstract talk about possibilities and ethics and research and relationships, it was kind of nice to end the conference with a nice, straightforward, praxis-oriented talk by Damion Schubert on how to write better design docs. It turns out that good design documentation looks a lot like good documentation in general (structure information clearly, don’t ramble, don’t duplicate, etc.), with the added constraints of being written for coders (keep things extra-short and directed) and for iterative development processes (don’t design too far ahead of yourself).

Tomorrow: Home. Perhaps when I land, I’ll find that spring has suddenly sprung and melted all the snow. I’m not too hopeful.