More GDC brain dumping, from Thursday…

Today was one of those good conference days, the kind where you keep finding common threads and themes running through all the talks you go to, which results in a very flow-like state that leaves you exhausted but exhilarated.

Nicole Lazzaro gave a talk on how game developers need to get away from the usual “groupthink” approaches to evaluating designs and shift our focus onto the player emotional reactions, examining the different kinds of fun people have while playing games. She also talked about how designers can get value from play testing by reading the emotions on player’s faces as well as their performance in the game (this was a nice kick in the pants for me, as my tendency these days is to stare at people’s hands and how they hold the Wiimote, rather than their faces).

Shigeru Miyamoto (you may have heard of him) also talked about focusing on the face of the player in his keynote, which was short on press-friendly announcements, but long on designer-friendly inspirational wisdom. In addition to the usual (but important!) company line about expanding the demographics of gaming by making more inclusive and inviting games, he talked about how some of his designs have evolved over the years: A personal avatar-making tool had been a pet project of Miyamoto’s dating all the way back to the Famicom days; it evolved into more and more complex forms on the N64 and GBA before finally surfacing as the Wii’s Mii Channel, with a simplified interface that’s astonishingly similar to the original Famicom prototype. Another very cool thing he mentioned was that Animal Crossing and the original Legend of Zelda were explicitly designed to encourage — require, even — collective intelligence to fully master. Yet another cool thing was a poetry card museum in Kyoto that Miyamoto had a hand in designing, which uses modified DSes and screens in the floor to make the exhibit accessible and attractive to people of many different ages, carrying the “Nintendo difference” into areas outside of gaming.

The keynote ran long, so I was late to Ben Sawyer’s talk on alternate, often unintended uses of games by gamers. When I walked in, the first thing I saw was a YouTube video of some guy demonstrating the homebrewed looping sequencer he had built using a Guitar Hero guitar as a controller. The talk itself had a laundry-list feel to it, but it was impressive to hear about the different ways in which users take control of media and put it to unexpected uses: Activist filmmaking in The Movies; school orchestras playing the Halo theme; using Second Life as a meeting place to plan WoW raids; reconstructing Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water in Half-Life 2; and on and on.

Justin Hall was presenting a poster on a project he’s working on that also involves unintended secondary uses, although in this case he’s building a “passively multiplayer game” that uses Web browsing as its core mechanic. Given how much fun (“easy fun” in Lazzaro’s schema) it is to explore the Web, it seems only natural to try and map some sort of gamey structure on top of that activity.

Clint Hocking gave a talk that was all about exploration of systems, spaces, and “self.” The idea of game systems as a conceptual space that can be explored like physical (or virtually physical) spaces may be familiar to those who know their Bartle types. More interesting is the idea of self exploration, of designing games that encourage or force the user to take a hard look at their own personal values. Using Ultima IV as an inspiration, Hocking imagines a game in which morals and values aren’t just another system that we can min-max our way through, but a way for us to gain a better understanding of ourselves.

By the time I got to Raph Koster’s talk on the relationship (or lack thereof) between games and the Web, my brain was pretty much completely fried by overstimulation. Luckily, much of the ground he covered was stuff I’ve heard before, although he did a very good job of putting things in business terms rather than beardy designer or starry-eyed idealist terms. He also hammered home the point that the insanely fast iterations that Web 2.0 developers go through are totally owning the ponderous, risk-averse, and expensive processes of game developers, and that a lot of the values that came out of the open source movement in the 90s — “release early, release often,” “cathedrals vs. bazaars” — are things that gamers need to learn and adopt before they find their audience slipping away to more responsive, satisfying experiences.

Also: The Game Design Challenge was highly entertaining, but I really need some sleep, so you’ll have to rely on other people’s writeups.

Also also: I’ve never met Alice Taylor, but she’s my new hero, because she seems to go to all the sessions that I really wanted to see but missed, like the announcement of Three Rings’ Whirled. I’m going to have to figure out a way to finagle an invite into this…