Best Of GDC – Game Design


In the second part of this series on the best talks from the GDC Vault, I’m going to focus on game design. While there’s no way that such a short list can cover everything in the realm of game design, I’ve tried to select a mixture of talks that reflects the variety of the subject, by approaching it from many different angles. There’s a theoretical overview of open ended experiential games, a cautionary tale of hidden design complexity and a range of design retrospectives on everything from indie cult classics to mainstream mobile hits. Each of these talks offer valuable insight into the creative process of game design, documenting many individual approaches to the topic and showcasing the methods they use to realise design ideas throughout the development process.

As varied as they are, all of these talks share a few common themes. They show how the most creative and successful ideas are those that challenge conventional wisdom and seek to innovate by adopting a fresh perspective. They also underline just how important a good development process can be for a game’s success. A well managed process can support countless rounds of iteration, exploration and refinement, providing game designers with the space to explore their ideas and the tools to think critically about their work.

Gravity Ghost: A Postmortem

By Erin Robinson from Ivy Games – GDC 2015
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, the author describes his approach as a kind of creative archaeology, where the story has always existed, and the gradual process of writing just uncovers that narrative, piece by piece. The similarity with the process of game development is quite striking, with designers often piecing together ideas and mechanics that work well together, gradually uncovering a complete and balanced game.

In this excellent talk by Erin Robinson, we can clearly see many of the parallels between game design and King’s idea of creative archeology. Robinson shares a wealth of detail from the long creative process behind the making of Gravity Ghost, showing us a variety of prototypes and demos from throughout the game’s development. Her talk documents the true process of game design, showing us the successes, the failures and the decisions made through the cycle of experimentation and refinement that is a game’s development.

We learn about how the game started with just the planet hopping mechanic and the trail effects, and slowly evolved through many art and design iterations, from a simple game jam prototype to the finished product. To illustrate this story, Robinson shares many videos and screenshots of different versions of the game, highlighting the ideas that were abandoned along the way, explaining how each was intended to enhance the game’s design and why they didn’t always work as intended. The talk is an inspirational reminder that game design can be an experimental process, one where great ideas are not always immediately succesfull, taking time to find their place as the concept continues to evolve.

There’s no end of great presentations of this type on the GDC Vault, usually from indie developers comfortable with sharing the realities of game development. One great follow-up would be Ojiro Fumoto’s discussion of the evolution of Downwell, tracing it from a Spelunky-inspired platformer with a cool retro art style, to something so elegantly designed around it’s central gunboot mechanic that it has become an instant classic.

Landing On Mars: Our Rocky Path to Inventing New Gameplay

By Randy Smith from Tiger Style – GDC 2012
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

Tiger Style are a company that make innovative, yet accessible, games for a mainstream audience. Their games tend to fuse established mechanics with an unusual theme, with the aim of producing innovative gameplay ideas. In this presentation, Randy Smith talks us through the design and development of Waking Mars, sharing the studio’s struggle to balance fun and innovation within the game’s unique action-gardening gameplay.

As with most talks of this type, the presentation shares many prototypes and revisions of the game that were made during development. However, what makes this one stand out is Tiger Style’s approach to the process of iterative experimentation and refinement, as the studio appear to use a more structured approach than most, with clear goals that help to shape the final product, without actually defining that shape upfront.

In one of the most interesting parts of the talk, Smith discusses “interaction density”, the ratio of player actions to meaningful choices within a game. In Waking Mars, the team invested a lot of effort ensuring the gardening gameplay had a high interaction density, so that player actions resulted in more immediate responses. We see how early builds of the game required players to perform many actions just to grow one plant, and how later builds streamlined this process, speeding up gameplay, to make it more fun and responsive. Smith uses this example to highlight just how important it is to question a game’s mid and low level gameplay regularly throughout development. He notes how a design can evolve slowly over time, built from layers of interlocking systems, where small decisions made throughout development can add up to create an emergent design, capable of steering a project down pathways that can have both positive and negative effects.

It could be said that in game design, nothing is sacred until you actually ship the game. Every mechanic, system and feature should be flexible and open to change throughout the development process. This process of iterative design, experimentation, testing and refinement has been assembled into an excellent formal structure by USC professor Tracy Fullerton, in her book Game Design Workshop, highly recommended for anyone interested in game design.

MirrorMoon EP: A True Sci-Fi Game Postmortem

By Pietro Righi Riva from Santa Ragione – GDC EU 2014
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

Santa Ragione’s enigmatic MirrorMoon EP is a fascinating game, despite it’s low-poly aesthetic, there’s something truly alien about the worlds you explore, and a feeling of real isolation as you explore a universe that responds to you with nothing but cold indifference. With that in mind, it’s really no surprise that this excellent talk by Pietro Righi Riva offers up so much to think about after you’ve seen it.

Riva starts by asking the question, what is science fiction, and by extension, what makes MirrorMoon a science fiction game? For Riva, true science fiction is based around the quest for knowledge, exploring the unexplained, speculating on the unknown, discovering new ideas and, ultimately, trying to make sense of them. By that definition, Riva describes a true science fiction game as one that explores these themes through gameplay, something that became a central objective for MirrorMoon’s design.

The rest of the presentation sees Riva highlight many examples of how the game explores that central underlying concept through it’s gameplay. One of the most important examples is how MirrorMoon presents almost no guidance to the player. There are no tutorials on how to use the intricate navigation systems onboard your ship, there are a vast number of planets to visit, but no real indication of where to go next, and when you do land on a planet’s surface, you have little idea of what you might find there, or how it could even aid your quest. At every level of the game’s design, the player is free to explore, making up their own mind about what they have seen, and where they should go next.

This really is an excellent talk, full of insights into the game’s design that will make you question many well established mainstream design practices. For me, the key takeaway is simply to remember that for any game to truly be about something, it needs to explore that topic though gameplay, embedding those themes into the mechanics of what the player actually does, not just representing them through the game’s aesthetics and narrative.

As an interesting follow up to this talk, I would recommend watching Rob Jagnow’s presentation on the making of Extrasolar, another space exploration game that explores it’s themes through gameplay. Extrasolar is a very different game to MirrorMoon, yet both share a lot in the way they embed themes of exploration and discovery into their mechanics, breaking many established game design rules in the process.

Distilling A Franchise: A Lara Croft GO Postmortem

By Antoine Routon from Square Enix Montreal – GDC 2016
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

In this interesting presentation by programmer, designer and game director, Antoine Routon, we see how the Lara Croft GO development team approached the challenges of applying the successful Hitman GO template to a very different IP. What looked like it should work on paper, did not turn out so well in practice, but the initial conflict between Hitman GO’s methodical gameplay and the sense of adventure that is central to the Tomb Raider IP set the team on a path to designing one of the best mobile games of 2015.

Starting with some concept art showing the game’s original Hitman style dioramas, we learn how the team decided to gradually move away from that game’s template, and find a fresh interpretation that embodied the themes of exploration and adventure at the core of any Tomb Raider title. Routon shares artwork and level design concepts from many stages of the project, as he describes the design challenges the team faced. We see how the low-poly art style was adopted to reference the game’s 32bit roots, and how the team struggled to represent the game’s trademark sense of scale on the small screen of a phone. We also learn how the team fine tuned the balance between the smooth animation the series is known for, the stop-start nature of grid-based movement in the GO series and the need to keep the game responsive to realtime player input. Following on from this, we discover how the team approached designing the game’s puzzles, and how they introduced a feeling of realtime action and time-based pressure to a turn-based game where time does not actually effect gameplay.

Overall, this is a really excellent talk, one that gives genuine insight into the choices made during the creation of Lara Croft GO. It shows how good game design always requires a great deal of experimentation and iteration, even when working from clearly defined starting points or using elements from a long established series.

For a little more information on the game’s development, and some insight into the studio’s use of the Unity engine, see this Develop interview with the Antoine Routon.

The Art of ‘Severed’: Making a 2D/3D Hybrid

By Augusto Quijano from DrinkBox Studios – GDC 2016
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

This talk by DrinkBox Studio’s artist Augusto Quijano, is a fascinating look at the making of Severed, and a cautionary tale of how it’s all too easy to underestimate the scale and complexity of game’s design. There are many tales of development hell in the games industry, but this is not one of those stories, instead it’s a balanced and insightful overview of the development of a fantastic game, which just turned out to be a lot more complex to make than it’s creators had first envisaged.

As Quijano guides us through the game’s development, we learn how the initial idea for the game was developed from a simple flash animation, before being pitched internally and eventually green-lit by the studio. We see how holes in the game’s design were obscured by worries about technology, and how those technological problems led the studio to arrive at an innovative approach to building a 3D game, which played to their artistic strengths in 2D, but also created a huge workload as the scale of the game’s world expanded. We also discover how the game’s combat systems and characters evolved in tandem, both turning out to be far more complex to design and time consuming to implement than was initially expected.

Overall, this talk is another great example of the way game development relies on a gradual process of experimentation and iteration, and that this process can unearth surprising problems that can completely change the direction of a project. We learn not to underestimate the hidden complexity of our ideas, or assume that anything in game development will ever be as simple as it first appears, and we also learn not to give up, as these unforeseen challenges can often lead to innovative new types of games.

A good follow up to Quijano’s presentation would be Ryan Payton’s talk about the making of Republique. That game was similarly designed around a simple central idea – one touch controls in a cinematic stealth adventure – that turned out to be far more complex than anyone on the development team ever expected.

Dear Esther: Making an Indie Success Out of an Experimental Mod

By Dan Pinchbeck from thechineseroom – GDC 2012
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

Dan Pinchbeck’s 2012 talk on the making of Dear Esther explores many interesting aspects of the game’s design and development, while also providing us with a detailed example of what else is possible outside of the systems-based mechanics of most mainstream games.

In his talk, Pinchbeck describes Dear Esther as a game without traditional gameplay, stating that the aim of the project was to see what could be done to hold a player’s attention through the use of environmental exploration and story alone. He outlines how story functions as Dear Esther’s central game mechanic, one used to manipulate a player’s emotions, rather than challenge their abilities in any traditional sense. Further underlining this point, Pinchbeck explains how the environment was designed to directly mirror the narrator’s emotional state, becoming more dreamlike as the game progresses, literally putting the player within the narrators head. He also notes that while this interaction between the landscape and narrator was intended to steer players emotionally, it was only once the team added in Jessica Curry’s powerful score, that the game truly fulfilled these ambitions, as the music held the other parts of the game together.

In the end, Pinchbeck hopes that Dear Esther’s focus on the key elements of story and emotion, has helped show designers how to utilise what he calls the experience vacuum. He argues that quiet moments in games should be embraced, not avoided. If a game seeks to explore emotional themes, then giving players the space to slow down and reflect will greatly improve their experience of a game’s narrative and atmosphere. In addition to this, Pinchbeck says, it is not always a requirement that players fully understand every detail of a story, if they simply engage with the game emotionally and intellectually, then that can sometimes be enough.

For more on the making of Dear Esther, check out this excellent retrospective on the game, by environment artist, Robert Briscoe.

Infinite Play

By Richard Lemarchand from USC – GDC 2015
Watch this talk on the GDC Vault

A good follow up to Dan Pinchbeck’s discussion on Dear Esther, is this excellent talk on open ended games, by associate professor at USC and former Uncharted game designer, Richard Lemarchand. In his presentation, Lemarchand introduces us to the growing game design vocabulary that has emerged alongside the rise in popularity of experiential games, walking simulators, notgames and other kinds of open ended play.

Lemarchand sets up his discussion by arguing that objectives, outcomes and other formal elements traditionally identified as components of competitive game design, can also be found in more open-ended, non-competitive games. He states that while it’s easy to see how an RTS or fighting game is designed around closed systems that describe simple goals through combat mechanics and victory conditions, experiential games like Proteus and Electroplankton also offer their own objectives and outcomes in less traditional ways.

To explore this further, Lemarchand uses the contrasting concepts of “theatrical” and “dramatic” play, as defined by James P. Carse, in his book, Finite and Infinite Games. Lemarchand notes how theatrical play can be used to describe linear action games that are founded on the delivery of a cinematic narrative through closed systems such as combat and platforming, whereas what Carse terms dramatic play, seems to describe open-ended games driven by the complex interaction of simple rules, resulting in emergent narratives that accompany the gameplay. Of course, many modern games display elements of both types of play, and Lemarchand goes on to discuss the value that this combination of open-endedness and more structured systems can produce, whether it’s the quieter more introspective moments of Uncharted 2’s Tibetan village scene, or the unpredictable scenarios and AI behaviour created by Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System.

It’s a rich and detailed topic, and a presentation worth taking the time to think about in more depth, as it highlights the many ways in which games can be used to explore complex issues through gameplay and mechanics. One excellent example of this given by Lemarchand is Parable of the Polygons, a highly-systemic game with clear goals, which nonetheless encourages open-ended play, enabling the player to explore the complex topic of social diversity through the game’s mechanics.


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