Hyper Mode: GDC Diaries, Part One

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Hyper Mode: GDC Diaries, Part One

Our game editors spent last week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Assistant editor Maddy Myers’ recollections will run in three parts through next week.

SUNDAY

I dragged my suitcase up the Powell Street train station steps, looked up at the San Francisco buildings around me, and resisted the urge to twirl around and sing like Julie Andrews. A good thing, too, because almost immediately, a string of homeless natives begged me for money. My journey from raw excitement about finally reaching San Francisco to feeling sick and disillusioned by the promise of San Francisco lasted about ten seconds.

I expected the stench of pot smoke, the experimental street musicians, and the richer-than-they-look hippies with fashion that would put Bostonian potheads to shame. But, even though people warned me, I never understood the depressing visibility of the absurd class discrepancy in SF; the homeless gathered in small groupings on every lavish corner, often screaming out loud in open desperation as they rubbed shoulders with uncaring, trim suits and T-shirted start-up teams. I never stopped stuttering “sorry” at these women and men who screamed at me in the street for a week. It wasn’t even just “sorry I have no money,” although that’s definitely true — it was just sorry. I’m sorry.

The Hotel Metropolis was affordable to me because it straddled the line between the Tenderloin and the Nordstrom Rack (as for why they call it the Tenderloin, well…). As the Yelp reviews of the hotel will testify, when you leave the hotel, you turn left — always left — never right. I climbed over sleeping homeless men on the ground in order to enter the front door on my first night. The next few nights, a cop would often be waiting outside the hotel to be sure no homeless would try to sleep there. Sometimes, the cop would double-check: “you’re staying at this hotel, right?” I would say yes, and he wouldn’t ask again. I look like the kind of person who would be staying in a hotel, after all. I’m white.

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Attending the Game Developers Conference in this environment of poverty juxtaposed with absurd ostentation felt shameful, and yet fitting. I kept my GDC pass in my pocket until the last minute every day, only putting it on once I reached the Moscone Center, too embarrassed to show San Francisco’s native homeless population the extent to which I was part of the problem. I watched people walking the streets, in restaurants, in the mall with their huge GDC passes swinging in the breeze, and I cringed for them. Did that King-branded lanyard not start to feel morally itchy to anybody else as soon as it was brought ten feet from the Moscone? The interior of GDC felt like some Randian paradise in which intellectuals (often white, often straight, often men) had sequestered themselves for a week, discussing in-game monetization strategies but, also, the importance of “art.” The rift between Us and Them couldn’t have possibly felt wider.

On Sunday night, I checked in to my hotel and listened to the second half of the Critical Proximity un-conference held by games journalists, critics, researchers and academics. Critical Proximity wasn’t directly associated with GDC — for one thing, it was free, and all the talks are available online in both video and text form — but it did take place in a Moscone Center conference room. On that first day, I didn’t have it in me to meet a bunch of new people yet. I spent my evening evaluating several days’ worth of messages from a particularly resilient stalker and trying to decide whether to call the cops (being a lady journalist is fun), as well as unpacking and psyching myself up for a week of meeting strangers and sticking out like a sore thumb while doing so (again, being a lady journalist is … fun).

I didn’t sleep much, but I gave it my best shot. By the end of the week, I stopped noticing the sirens.

MONDAY

Outside of the Moscone Center, I didn’t feel like I belonged — my New Englander grunge-meets-gothic-lolita fashion sense clashed with the easy, summery style of SF. Inside the Moscone, I didn’t belong either, but for entirely different reasons. I can’t find a statistic on how many women attended GDC in comparison to men, but whatever the ratio was, it didn’t feel great. I’m going to guess ten percent of the attendees were women, but I might be lowballing it based on what that ratio “felt” like. If you’re a person of color or a queer person or part of any other minority intersection, that sense of not-belonging and being outnumbered probably feels even worse. It wasn’t so much that I stuck out, although I did — I felt like I was in the wrong place.

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GDC kicked off with two days of Education Summits; many of the panels oriented themselves around how to teach college students about games, either for the purposes of making them or studying them or both. I write about games for a living as a journalist and critic, so hearing about game education programs was new to me. I’ve never taken a single class on videogames, but now it felt like I had gone back to school.

11:15 AM ? Teaching Games with Games

This series of micro-talks featured game educators discussing games they’ve used as teaching tools in the classroom to great effect. Three talks stood out to me.

Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth College kicked off the panel by asserting that “games did not start with Pac-Man or Pong — games are a human practice.” Flanagan showed a slide about the history of hopscotch, which began its life as a game played primarily by boys, but which has now evolved into a “girly” game. Flanagan asked her students to create a “hyper-gendered” version of hopscotch, which meant they had to either incorporate extremely masculine or extremely feminine stereotypes in terms of play. This forced her students to consider their own hang-ups about gender stereotypes in a light-hearted and (literally) playful setting, as well as to consider how those expectations might be affecting their game design decisions.

Later, Naomi Clark described two different games that she has used with students. One involved players deciding whether to be a “wolf” or a “sheep” without knowing the consequences of their decision; after learning what those roles would mean in terms of point distribution, players could re-select and play again, as well as decide whether to and how best to work together to win. The game ultimately relies upon the students’ ability to cooperate within constraints, rather than competing with one another or choosing their own roles out of self-interest. Clark also described a “buyers and sellers” game which disproportionately favored one of the sides, and encouraged her students to figure out how to make either the buyers or the sellers seem more sympathetic depending upon the game’s narrative, characterizations and external branding.

Stone Librande, who teaches a game design course at CMU, described his efforts to help students understand how to balance a game, particularly an RPG game with multiple character types. He noticed that when asked whether students would choose to be a “fighter,” a “wizard” or a “thief,” everyone tended to divide into three more-or-less even groups — even when they didn’t know each others’ decisions. The students would then pretend to be their class types and act out an MMORPG-like game via pen and paper, all the while ensuring that each of their point accrual systems felt balanced and made sense. By the end of the game, if any one class seemed disproportionately overpowered, the students would know that the game needed some tweaking.

That first panel did not set a good precedent for what the rest of GDC would feel like. I would soon learn that most GDC panels swing around to money, sooner or later. There’s a sense at GDC that everyone must prove their literal worth — their value — their financial stake — in the games industry. In the Education Summits, this sentiment was less explicit, but money still reared its ugly head in the next two panels I attended.

1:45 PM ? Engineering Better Dialogue

Given the title of this talk, I didn’t necessarily expect a panel about feelings and art and how important it is to put more feelings into your arty art, but I didn’t expect the polar opposite of that, either. Jennifer Hepler and Sheri Graner Ray traded off every few slides or so, each laying down their best advice for how to advance a dialogue-heavy scene without boring or disengaging the player. At no point did Hepler or Graner Ray discuss how to make characters sound more human, or how to make conversations flow in a realistic or emotionally gripping way. Instead, the pair focused on how to deliver exposition to the player without making it seem as though exposition is being delivered. “If you can take the player lines out and it doesn’t change the scene, then the scene needs to be scrapped,” Hepler said.

The talk also focused on how to make players feel like they’ve made their own choices even when the end result of their “choice” is the same event, quest or location. Hepler admitted that “it can be really easy to slide over the line and come up with something pedantic and hand-holding,” but that writers need to focus on giving the player a choice — even if only an illusory one.

Hepler and Graner Ray also emphasized the importance of making two drafts for dialogue trees: one for the sake of ensuring the non-playable character’s dialogue is “good” (with no real discussion of what that entails), and a second pass to ensure that the player has enough choices and interactivity.

Perhaps I’ve been to too many woo-woo writing seminars, but I expected at least a few nods here to classic techniques like “listen to strangers’ conversations on the train in order to understand how people talk” or maybe even a trite “write what you know” or perhaps “be brave, and write what you don’t know.” I was to see many a talk later in the week about “art” and “writing from personal experience,” but the practical advice that I remember getting in my creative writing classes in college did not ever make an appearance at GDC. These talks proved their value to the games industry in terms of a technical or financial sense, and that refrain would beat again and again and again before the week was out.

2:20 PM ? You Need An Editor! — Cameron Harris

My apologies to Cameron Harris, but I found myself using her slide about how hiring an editor will save developers money as my go-to example for summing up GDC. It’s not that I don’t think editing is important — it’s that I’ve literally never heard anyone use saving money as a reason to hire an editor. Specifically, Harris explained that dialogue-heavy games should hire editors to save on localization costs, because editors will cut out more words and make dialogue briefer, which means fewer words to translate. If you don’t think that is a bizarrely utilitarian defense of the value of editing, then I’m not sure what to tell you, but trust me, it is.

There was, hidden between the lines of this talk, a sense that editing is valuable for its own sake, and not simply for financial reasons. But the fact that Harris felt the need to provide financial justification for dialogue editing, complete with her own monetary estimates for how much could be saved on translation costs per word — as opposed to emphasizing that brevity in dialogue might be good for any other reason, like, say, player enjoyment or humanity or realism — sums up GDC’s hyper-calculated ethos to a tea.

3:00 PM ? Death to the Three-Act Structure

When Richard Rouse III and Tom Abernathy put up a slide about how low completion rates are on most videogames, even extremely popular and well-sold games, I quickly began to type out the numbers as a good journalist should. I may have even whispered “wow” aloud. 40% completion rates on most games!

Luckily, I was sitting right next to indie developer Christine Love (Digital: A Love Story, Analogue: A Hate Story, and so forth), who saw me writing and whispered quickly that the figures shown were misleading because they take into account buyers who purchase a game and never even play it at all, which vastly brings down the completion rate percentage. “You have to look at achievements,” she explained. I thought about the number of games I’ve bought during Steam sales and never even touched.

As usual, this talk seemed focused on numbers and evidence; in this case, Rouse and Abernathy were deconstructing Hollywood’s classic three-act structure for films, and attempting to determine whether it was useful for games to use. It turns out that players tend to remember characters, not stories, simply because it takes so long to complete most games; for example, even though Uncharted games often follow a three-act structure, they take so many hours to play that the player can’t remember the narrative beats effectively enough to be emotionally invested in the story. However, the player can remember the characters, especially if they’ve spent most of the game with a few key charismatic folks. The numbers don’t lie: write good characters. But also write a great three-act structure, because, uh, reasons. But be okay with the fact that no one will notice that you’ve done so.

No one in this talk had any concrete advice about how to “write good characters,” because although we can poll people about which characters are their favorite (Lee from The Walking Dead got name-dropped here), it’s hard to pin down why one character works when another fails.

Luckily, Sean Vanaman — of The Walking Dead fame — was about to pick up the slack.

5:00 PM ? Pursuing Interactive Suspension of Disbelief

One of Vanaman’s first slides was a picture of Coleridge, the Romantic poet who wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” This reference to Coleridge set a particular “we are going to talk about art now” tone that made me feel more comfortable; as a former English major, this is a conversation with rules I understand, even if I don’t always agree.

Vanaman spent his talk discussing the importance of relying on human experience in narratives; “make your game worth taking seriously,” he said, “don’t just assume the player will do so.” Vanaman also addressed the common misconception that players should forgive certain aspects of a game in order to enjoy it, such as clunky dialogue, boring sequences or elements that don’t feel thematically relevant. Even when writing a fantastical and therefore “unrealistic” game like The Walking Dead, Vanaman believed focusing on the universality of the human experience would keep the player engaged. A zombie apocalypse is not “realistic,” but The Walking Dead’s characters react to it in ways that feel human and tangible, and that’s enough to allow the player to come along with the ride.

Vanaman calls this “dancing with the player,” further explaining that “we wanted the player to be a participant, not an all-powerful entity.” Since “life has different outcomes,” so too did The Walking Dead need to have that sense of multiple outcomes — or, at least, the appearance of them.

Vanaman did not attempt to convince the audience that they needed any particular number of endings or dialogue choices in order to have the “right” amount for the player, nor did he present any studies or evidence to suggest that some perfect number would work. In terms of concrete advice, Vanaman only offered a couple of simple suggestions.

First, Vanaman admitted that he saw quick-time events as often feeling “like stepping on a player’s foot,” although at times even The Walking Dead incorporated these. Vanaman simply warned developers against overusing them, especially when they do not provide tonal consistency.

Secondly, Vanaman explained that in his experience, if a player can pick their own expertly written line out of a series of choices, they’ll think the game has good writing. If that same great one-liner is in a cut-scene, however, the player might not even see or notice it.

Much of Vanaman’s talk lacked evidence, studies, or numbers — it seemed to rely almost entirely upon Vanaman’s own gut feelings and personal experiences about how best to tell a story in a game. It’s possible that Vanaman now has enough clout to be his own authority on narrative due to The Walking Dead’s success, whereas other game narrative speakers felt like they needed studies to back up their own personal experiences — or perhaps Vanaman’s own belief in the power of human experience extends even to his talk’s construction. It’s worth noting, however, that while Jennifer Hepler has come under severe fire for her opinions about the importance of narrative in games, Sean Vanaman has suffered no such hate campaign, even though The Walking Dead has very little “gameplay” in comparison to the BioWare titles that Hepler worked on.

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I don’t mind GDC’s focus on money, per se; the need to make a living while still doing creative work is a tension that is felt constantly, in every talk, and some talks lean more towards one spectrum than the other. However, the need that women at GDC might feel to prove their “worth” in a tangible sense — in comparison to the men who dominate the conference and who already feel as though they belong in a very literal and visible sense — did haunt and disturb me from the get-go.

It’s not that I think monetizing a game is inherently evil, nor that making something for a specific audience is bad, nor even that I don’t think developers should consider the player’s experience — but creating work with the express intent to make it appealing often results in the opposite: a manufactured, fake-feeling facsimile of the human experience that satisfies about as much as cotton candy. Also, there’s an unfortunate implication at GDC based on who the most successful speakers are that some people’s “human experience” has a bit more value — and is seen as considerably more marketable — than others’.

Read Part Two.
Read an addendum to Part Two.

Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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