GDC 2014 It’s Full of People
Always one of my favorite shows, last week’s Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) offered a surprising turning point for games. Although many struggled to define the one thing that defined this annual gathering of game developers from around the world; to me GDC14 was a watershed event. Hidden behind the explosion of VR headsets and ways to monetize teens (really?) was a new set of voices. The most important trend from GDC was not technology designed to give higher resolution experiences for our eyes or extract money more deftly from our wallets. What mattered most of all was the way a new breed of games made players feel. As a twenty plus year GDC veteran (my first was giving a talk on Paper Prototyping in the early 90’s) this was the first time where player emotion and creator expression appeared in more presentations that I attended than not. Whispering from a growing number of voices given time on stage was that emotions in games mattered.
This year there were fewer superheroes with oversized swords on psychotic killing sprees. The games that dominated hallway conversations were ones that created tension in ways other than killing 500 people in Washington DC. Instead these deeply personal games drew on their individual experiences to explore them and courageously expand the definition of what we mean by games. And oh, developers were by and large happier to boot. The bubbling pervasive positive mood at GDC during a time where so many have lost their jobs was quite unexpected. I take it as a sign of an industry reinventing itself. I think we are finally embracing the idea of finding and designing for fun.
What’s important about games is not the technology. What’s important about games is the experiences that games create. To be a vibrant medium requires multiple perspectives that reflect the diversity of players. This year session after session empowered by more accessible tools a new generation took their time on stage to explore where’s the fun to reinvent the medium of games to express themselves.
Here are 3 important trends of GDC14
#1 New Voices
GDC14’s Diversity Talks, Game Narrative Summit, and Independent Game Summit, gave stage to new voices ones of color, gender, sexual orientation, and just plain different views of what games could be. Game development is no longer a white boys club slaving away on large teams in established genres. Studio downsizing and closures have reduced the old structures and amongst the ashes after a forest fire, new voices have room to sprout and be heard. These talks and panels such as the Indie Soapbox and #1reasontobe gave spotlight to finding new creators of games with fresh new ideas, encouraging them to join the conversation, and as a result enrich our experiences. This year they were interesting, complex, and surprisingly polished.
Game makers this year embraced the opportunity to be heard by drawing on their own experiences for inspiration and emotion inducing mechanics from Cosmos and the Cave in the Experimental Game Workshop to the standing ovation for Deirdra Kiai creator of “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” in the #1reasontobe panel. Talks such as John Murphy’s explored how building empathy in team helped the developers at Young Horses grow up and make better Octodad games. They explored the importance of emotion and feelings between creators to make better games. And others spoke of the importance of raising children and life balance.
Presenters discussed their identity as game creators, the challenges they faced, and most importantly the new types of games they made. These games were often about difficult subjects, and many shed tears, as the creators surfaced their inner daemons for players to experience and hopefully vanquish.
Because play requires audience participation games are inertly first person the player cares (or not) and feels (or not) in anticipation and as a result of their actions. Games are first person even without and avatar and an axe. This year game makers tapped into their own experiences to get deeply personal to explore new types of games.
#2 New Genre: Expressive Gaming
By exploring the deeply personal these new voices created a new genre of expressive games. Exercising their new voices, the goals of many game developers shifted. Instead of a complex fascinating adventure in a richly detailed fantasy world whether a dragon’s lair, battlefield, or sports arena, this next generation of games at GDC14 was about expression of complex internal world of feelings. In 2014 developers targeted the deeply personal.
These expressive games forged a new genre focused on capturing and exploring the emotional experiences of the game creator. They strove to create richer more personal gaming experiences than those they grew up on.
Even white male developers embraced the opportunity to feel and to express inner emotions through gameplay. There were games about tango and sex at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop and empathy in Octodad. Many created gameplay to work out feelings, to express them, and ultimately understand them. This year it was important to have feelings and be emotional as a normal human being rather than an oversized super hero. Games where players expressed their humanity rather than saved it. Creators shared personal stories, internal pathos, as well as their deeply felt games. As opposed to an avatar that shows no remorse at a killing, these empathy games reveled in creating and exploring inner turmoil around player actions.
Even outside these tracks emotions took center stage in an unprecedented number of talks. While there were still a number of sessions advocating the use of addiction mechanics to the point where I’m sure that the word dopamine trended on Twitter, the awareness and catering to a range of human emotions through gameplay was the goal of many presentations. Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris expressed regret in not havign a trigger warning for her gender exploration mechanics in here sci-fi parody life-sim Redshirts. Eric Dods Lead Designer at Blizard had the word “emotion” on more slides that I’d ever seen outside my own talks. He took emotion through a litany of game design techniques ending in “Emotion Balancing” the mechanics for Hearthstone. Presenters weren’t talking about games. They talked about player experiences. Fiero! \o/
If you take a moment to look, even mega hit free to play games such as Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans, use emotion to motivate the purchases players enjoyed the most. In fact XEODesign’s research indicates a coming backlash to the compulsion addiction laced mechanics currently driving sales in free to play games in favor of opportunities to buy things that enhance the fun and emotion of gameplay. Already, players indicated that 34% of the fun came from purchases in free to play games, and these games owe a lot of their success to gamifying the stores and purchasing process. What players enjoyed the most and we see as the future of free to play games are mechanics that create four emotions to broaden or deepen the emotions players feel. The successful games create emotions such as curiosity, amusement, frustration, and desire. These emotions were responsible for unlocking new experiences that players enjoyed the most. See my GDC 2014 talk The 4 Emotions that Drive Monetization in Free to Play Games. It will be interesting to see what financial models work for this genre of expressive gaming.
#3 New Structures
Expressive gaming is reinventing games. These new developers creating expressive games threw aside the traditional structures they grew up with to re-interpret these game structures and make them their own. Brandon Dillon, Senior Programmer, Double Fine Productions presented a game where the character hacked the variables and code of objects in a dungeon adventure. Game makers poured their more personal narratives into new structures to rebel against old traditions. From text adventures from Choosatron by Jerry Belich printed on credit card receipts at the Alt.GDC booth, to the bit crush aesthetics of Papers Please A Dystopian Document Thriller by Lucas Pope, game makers experimented with form as well as content. In exploring the deeply personal they looked for new interactive structures than the games they grew up with.
The previous generations of game makers often increased emotional engagement by extracting patterns from the narrative design of traditional media such as books and film. Games borrowed from these media for techniques that moved players the most. For decades we’ve had film envy.
The challenge with the old narrative structures in games is crafting player autonomy through a story of predetermined events. Sheri Rainer Gray and Jennifer Hepler shared wise words on Engineering Better Dialogue by building and pruning narrative trees with techniques to increase engagement. These state of the art techniques keep players feeling like they are part of the story in branching narratives that often span 30K words. It’s a talk I highly recommend.
Narrative structures emerged in games because of their ability to create emotions through identifying with the dreams, misfortunes, and successes of another person. Richard Rouse III and Tom Abernathy encouraged Death to the Three Act Structure in their talk, and I agree. The new expressive game genre creates emotional connection with emotions coming from the direct experiences of play moment to moment rather than dividing a narrative into a sequence of three acts. While, Richard and Tom were unable to articulate the new structure to replace the emotional rise and fall a three act structure creates; examples of games that create tension and emotion abounded through the rest of the event and at the awards.
These new games set sail for unexplored engagement horizons with structures that come from and feel more like games than any other medium. Richard Dansky insightfully characterized these emerging structures as magical realism. Books like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel where things appear as needed to support the action. Games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, and last year’s Kentuky Route Zero are great examples.
I take this one step further.
With expressive games for the first time games are more about personal experiences than mechanic, super hero, or platform. Expressive games are not defied by platform (PC, mobile, social) audience (hard core, casual), mechanic (FPS, MMO, RTS). Instead these games are about sharing the experiences of the creators. They live and breathe the passion of the creators. For the first time developers define a game genre based on how it makes players feel.
Instead of interviewing characters in a branching narrative to pull the player to solve puzzles along a predefined story arc, these new games build a mechanic at a spot in the game world where there’s a player action to repeat over and over and use this to drive the people and events forward. In YearWalk by Simogo it’s navigating by pawing through the interface, in Paper’s Please by Lucas Pope it’s stamping a passport.
A New Future of Emotion in Player Experiences
While by and large the top grossing games from last year are still the top grossing games this year; the output of these new voices, genres, and structures promise a dawning of a brave new world for games. Success is not always about money. That said, hopefully next year’s trends will include how to cultivate and promote awareness of these new game experiences to a large enough audience to pay for them. These deeply expressive games are ones I want to play.
I expect this creative exploration of games to continue. Countless came thanking me for the 4 Keys to Fun model released at GDC ten years ago that mapped how game actions create the emotions players like most. I in turn am in awe in what developers are doing with their creative energy to put more emotion into their games.
We want to play this next generation of games because they move us and they touch our humanity. The best games compel us to question our morals rather than compel us to monetize. The best games are personal and make us feel. So remember whether you are an independent game developer hoping to make it on Steam or stepping up to Oculus Rift or Sony’s Morpheus people play games for the experiences they create. And the connection with others is often how we most feel.
Games they are full of people.