Random thoughts from Wednesday at GDC…

I was deterred from attending Sony bigwig Phil Harrison’s keynote by the long lines outside the auditorium, which is a shame, because apparently Sony is jumping on the same games + Web = awesome bandwagon that I and everyone else seem to be on these days. Luckily, more diligent attendees were there and taking notes, so we can all pretend that we know what’s up with Sony’s Xbox Live/Second Life mashup Home.

I don’t know why I’m surprised by this, but I actually saw some stuff at the conference that’s directly useful to my job. The upshot of the Dynamic Difficulty talk given by Ken Harward and Aaron Cole of Ritual (now Mumbo Jumbo) was that gathering statistics on AI performance — and, by implication, on player performance — can only lead to good things. Their message was that these statistics can be fed back into the AI engine to tune a game’s difficulty in near-real time to adapt to the player’s skill level. My own reaction was to feel better about all the obscure metrics-gathering code I’ve been sneaking into the AI drivers at work.

Usually, when gamers talk about “accessibility,” they’re referring to expanding the market past the usual core demographic. At the Accessibility Arcade, though, they were showing off games that use the term in the more universal sense, with interfaces that are usable by people with visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive impairments. And just like in the Web and desktop software worlds, guidelines for making games accessible to people with disabilities can also have a side effect of improving usability for everyone, regardless of their abilities. Also: audio-only games? Just plain cool.

Damion Schubert led a roundtable discussion on potential next-gen MMORPGs, with the goal of finding a way away from the “men in tights” fantasy genre that dominates the field. Perhaps tellingly, most of the other genres and licenses that people posited as potential subjects for an MMO — Firefly, Cyberpunk, Westerns — had large and obvious holes in them, while the list of reasons why Tolkienesque fantasy works so well kept growing longer and longer. A sample:

  • Fantasy is, at various levels, accessible to a very broad audience (cf. dragon and unicorn patterns in the needlecraft aisle at Michael’s); this meshes well with Rob Pardo’s “donut” design of providing content for both core and casual audiences;
  • Lots of existing stories/archetypes/patterns to “borrow” from;
  • Our (where “we” are presumably western/northern european-influenced cultures) long history with fantasy themes (elves, dwarves, etc.) leads to high resonance with audiences; this is amplified by the fact that elves, dwarves, etc. are basically just “people” with certain exaggerated features;
  • Inspires prettier, “happier,” more inviting environments (cf. the pastoral newbie zones in WoW);
  • Fantasy is about characters (i.e., identities), where science fiction is about ideas;
  • Fantasy is about heroes, and about a hero’s progression from low power/weak enemies to high power/strong enemies; this obviously maps well onto a gamey structure. [Tolkien was a better level designer than he was a writer.]
  • Epic items (named swords, etc.) figure heavily in fantasy mythologies, which fits in well with the item-based economies that dominate MMOs;
  • The settings are escapist and out-of-this-world, but not so alien as to be incomprehensible or require tons of explanatory exposition;
  • Fantasy universes allow for a wide variety of intermingled environments and mythologies;
  • The core archetypes support the standard tank/dps/healer roles in MMOs;
  • It’s been done so many times by now that you can design a fantasy world with hardly any effort, i.e., Fantasy is EASY.

The big takeaway from the roundtable was that if you’re going to branch out from the typical fantasy-themed MMO (or if, lord help you, you’re going to try to compete in the fantasy space), you need to make sure that your game captures all these qualities (or at least has very good answers to them).