I actually had to get up earlier for GDC than I normally do for work, which sort of made me think twice about this whole idea of the conference being a respite from crunch time — especially when the doors on the train got stuck, which nearly led to a full panic on a fully-packed train. Rush hour is ugly.

I managed to make it to Moscone just in time for the first session, a roundtable on player-generated content in casual games. It’s nice to start a conference with a session that has absolutely nothing to do with the work I do — it’s sort of a mental palate cleanser. It was also interesting to see the range of things that can constitute UCG, from filling in a suggestion form to amateur game design to virtual money markets. As a bonus, I got to meet Daniel James of Three Rings and pester him about tools for UCG in general and for Whirled in particular.

Spore is all about tools for UCG, of course, but the Spore-related talk I went to today was not so much about the tools as about the music that plays for the many hours that the player will presumably be spending with said tools. Brian Eno is credited as the main creative force behind Spore’s music, but this talk was given by two of the more in-the-trenches audio guys, Kent Jolly and Aaron McLaren. Traditionally, “generative music” is synonymous with “crappy music,” but it seems that with a combination of good source patches, smart use of seeded random number generators, and a whole lot of work, you can make something that sounds pretty good. And because everything is procedural, the music can respond to UI events, which is, of course, a shortcut to my heart.

A roundtable for AI developers was a little less heartening for me. It was well into the discussion before I realized that I was the only designer in a room full of hardcore AI programmers, and that when you get a standing-room only crowd of programmers together, mostly what they do is bitch about designers. Programmer Josh kind of knew where they were coming from, but since my job these days is basically to be the guy who sits at the nexus between programming, animation, and content design, it was a little depressing to see so many people who believe that there’s some kind of hard divide between code and content. Mostly, though, I just slouched and hoped no one saw the job title on my name tag.

Luckily, I got to round out the day with a nice, fluffy designers lecture: Ken Rolston and Mark Nelson worked on Morrowind and Oblivion, and talked about their differing views on writing and content creation. Rolston, an old pencil-and-paper RPG designer, likes to start design with setting and theme, which gives the team a firm foundation on which to build cohesive, unified content. Nelson, inspired by comics and Buffy, believes that strong characters and a compelling story are the engine that drive the game along. Of course, you eventually need all of the above to make a successful game, and the relative order in which things get fleshed out is going to change from project to project. In the open-ended Morrowind, the world map was the starting point for all the designs, whereas in the more focused and content-heavy Oblivion, multiple stories made splitting the work between designers much easier. Mostly, though, it was a pleasure to watch two people who’ve worked together for years spin a dialectic between them with the ease of a well-practiced comedy duo. A little repartee goes a long way.