GDC 2013, Day two highlights

Today’s sessions:

  • Designing for Mystery in Kentucky Route Zero, Jake Elliott (Cardboard Computer) and Tamas Kemenczy (Cardboard Computer)
    • synopsis: discussion of the use of puzzles to structure a game story
    • highlight(s): inspired by experimental video art from the 60s and 70s; the game endeavors to tell the story of Americans today who are living through the current economic hardship
    • have a look: The Dig
  • The Emerging Landscape of African Game Development, Wesley Kirinya (Leti Games) and Eyram Tawia (Leti Games)
    • synopsis: an overview of the current state of video game development in Africa
    • highlight(s): Africa is a very fragmented market, culturally, linguistically (influenced by the colonial history of Africa), and technologically — very difficult to make a go of it for African game companies; but there is growth, and interest, and some locally grown companies are becoming established
    • have a look: Leti Games, Haki, Okada ride, Matatu
  • Design Occlusion is Killing Your Creativity, Dylan Cuthbert (Q-Games)
    • synopsis: a talk about the difficulties of letting an idea go
    • highlight(s): nothing must go into your game — sometimes even good ideas should not be added
    • have a look: Q-Games
  • Storytelling as Problem Solving: Defender’s Quest, James Cavin (Level Up Labs), Lars Doucet (Level Up Labs)
    • synopsis: a talk about the importance of connecting a game’s story to its mechanics
    • highlight(s): a game’s story must explain its mechanics; do not have story elements, or mechanics, that are inconsistent with each other
    • have a look: Defender’s Quest

    Defender's Quest presentation slide

  • Designing Without a Pitch – FTL Postmortem, Matthew Davis (Subset Games), Justin Ma (Subset Games)
  • Ahead of the Curve: The SpaceChem Postmortem, Zach Barth (Zachtronics Industries)
    • synopsis: a look at the “what went right” and “what went wrong” in the making of SpaceChem
    • highlight(s): design-based puzzles — player’s don’t find solutions to the puzzles, they design them
    • have a look: SpaceChem

    Design-based puzzles

  • An Indie Expedition Through the Jungle of Free-to-play, In-App Purchase, Ad-Supported, and Analytics, Aaron Isaksen (AppAbove Games)
    • synopsis: a case study, using the game Chip Chain as an example, of the various revenue-generating strategies available to indie developers
    • highlight(s): you must incorporate these revenue-generating mechanisms into your game design — it does not work well to “bolt them on” after the fact
    • have a look: Chip Chain

Extra discussion. I was particularly interested by the discussion of video game development in Africa. The two presenters were very well-spoken, young, and passionate. My favorite part — in Africa, as here in the US, there is the perception that games are a waste of time, and therefore without value. To overcome this perception, Leti Games is developing games around heroes from African legend. Neat.

Final thoughts. Can’t say that I’m excited by the content of the sessions related to revenue-generation, but clearly these strategies are key if you want to make a go of it as a small indie developer.

GDC 2013, Day One highlights

Please note: unlike my blogging of past GDCs, this year I will only be presenting a list of sessions I attend each day, with synopses and highlights.

Here we go…

GDC 2013

Drove in from Chico on Monday morning for the start of GDC. Traffic as expected, no serious delays. Good start.

My day one sessions:

  • Continuously Bootstrapping an Indie Studio by Remaining Agile, Devin Reimer (Owlchemy Labs) and Alexander Schwartz (Owlchemy Labs)

    • synopsis: tips and tools related to prototyping, development, and marketing of indie games
    • highlight(s): prototype versions should take less than 7 days of work; 1 day of prototyping = 7 months of polishing
    • have a look: Trello, Unity Asset Store (in particular 2D Toolkit plugin)
  • How to Make an Original F2P Game, Daniel Cook (Spry Fox), David Edery (Spry Fox), and Ryan Williams (Spry Fox)

    • synopsis: tips and tools related to designing and prototyping F2P games
    • highlight(s): prototype your game until it is fun, do not be afraid to throw away your prototype if the fun is not there
    • have a look: Spry Fox
  • The Unfinished Swan: From Student Prototype to Commercial Game, Ian Dallas (Giant Sparrow)

    • synopsis: tips and tools related to prototyping, development, and marketing of indie games
    • highlight(s): prototype versions should take less than 7 days of work; 1 day of prototyping = 7 months of polishing
    • have a look: Trello, Unity Asset Store (in particular 2D Toolkit plugin)
  • Creatrilogy: Three Talks Exploring Indie Game Creativity, Andy Hull (Story Fort), James Lantz (Independent), and Davey Wreden (Galactic Cafe)

    • synopsis: tips from three different designers for generating game ideas
    • highlight(s): find inspiration in toys; the “4 cardinal points” of genre innovation (*see below); when you have a new idea for a game, put it into words as soon as possible; develop a creative schedule — it takes practice and discipline
    • have a look: Mercury, Stanley Parable
  • Scaling F2P Mobile Across Platforms – And Across the World, Darya Trushkina (Game Insight)

    • synopsis: how to grow a game business and game revenue by going cross-platform with your game
    • have a look: Tizen, NARR8, Dragon Eternity
  • From Click to Tap: Building Kingdoms of Camelot for Mobile, Michael Li (Kabam)

    • synopsis: best practices and obstacles for moving a web-based game to mobile devices
    • highlight(s): Unity does a lot of the work of porting to multiple platforms for you (Yay Unity!)
    • have a look: Kingdoms of Camelot, Unity

Extra discussion. The “4 cardinal directions of genre innovation” — I’ll do my best to convey a summary of the idea. Essentially, the idea is that a game designer does not have to come up with a new genre, but rather can use a few “tricks” to come up with something fresh using a well-established genre.

4 Cardinal Directions of Genre Innovation

Take the platformer genre. Following are the “4 cardinal directions” as applied by some indie games:

  1. isolate and expand: isolate one or two mechanics from the genre and build a game experience around these “isolated” mechanics — example, Canabalt (isolates and expands upon the run and jump mechanics of platformers)
  2. pull and abstract: pull a mechanic from the genre and dissociate it from its traditional use in the genre — example, VVVVVV (jump is no longer “jump over” but rather “change what is the ground”)
  3. pick and destroy: pick a mechanic in the genre and introduce a new mechanic that “destroys” it — example, Braid (gives the user the control of time to reverse the game, effectively destroying the traditional “time and the game always moves forward” expectation of the player)
  4. smash and combine: smash mechanics from other genres together into the expected mechanics of the genre — example, BIT.TRIP RUNNER (smashes platformer mechanics together with rhythm mechanics)

Final thoughts. Creatrilogy was the highlight of my day. Three really talented designers with lots of interesting ideas. Davey Wreden, who designed the Stanley Parable (you have got to try this game if you have not already) is a really interesting guy — when the play the game, you’ll see some of his personality come through.

GDC 2012, Day One, movie night

We stuck around for the screening of a documentary, “Indie Game: The Movie,” (IMDb entry here) and just barely got in. The room sat 220 people, and James and I were people numbers 224 and 225, or thereabouts.

So no seats. And we stood in a very long line. We ate free popcorn. And then we got in — they let 10 of us stand at the back of the room. So we stood and watched the 2-hour documentary. I would say it was worth it.

Indie Game movie screening

Indie Game movie screening


The movie followed the makers of Super Meat Boy (Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes) and FEZ (Phil Fish and Renaud Bedard) over a span of time as they developed and then approached the days of their games’ releases. Super Meat Boy launched on XBLA, and FEZ is still in production (though it appears they may be getting close to a release).

Also featured was Jon Blow, the designer/maker of Braid. He shared his experience (a lot more of it negative than one might have guessed) in making Braid, and the emotional highs and lows that he experienced in the process.

What was most interesting about the movie was that it did not explore the processes, the technology, or really even the design work behind these games. The focus of the movie was the passion, and emotional investment, of the games’ designers and makers. It is really a story about what it takes, in terms of personal and emotional investment, to release a larger indie game.

And it takes a lot. These guys have so much of themselves in their games that one wasn’t surprised to hear Phil Fish say “I’ll kill myself if I don’t finish this game.”

Because we had been standing for 2 hours, we did not stick around for the Q&A panel that followed, but I did capture a picture (sorry, not a very good one) of the “cast of characters” (minus Jon Blow). These are all very impressive people — a lot of extremely good programming skills, a lot of artistic talent, excellent game designers, and passionate people.

Indie Game cast

Indie Game cast


Highly recommended if you are into games, and in particular if you follow the indie games scene.