To help inspire submissions for the GDC 2012 call for papers, the event's advisory board members for the Game Design track spoke out on the biggest challenges facing game designers, and outlined what they hope to see at the upcoming March 2012 San Francisco-based event.
Canabalt creator and independent designer Adam Saltsman (pictured) and Civilization IV and Dragon Age Legends designer Soren Johnson came together to discuss the often-overlooked areas of game design, notable innovations, rising trends, and more as part of their drive to encourage submission ideas for the GDC 2012 Main Conference.
As GDC advisory board members, these industry veterans - alongside colleagues such as LucasArts' Clint Hocking and Cerny Games' Mark Cerny - oversee the show's Game Design track and ensure that each of its sessions remain relevant and hold up the high bar of quality that GDC attendees have come to expect.
The call for papers for GDC 2012 will close on September 6, with a list of Game Design-specific topics available on the official website. In the following interview, the advisory board members discuss key issues they'd like to see addressed at next March's show.
What are some key games from the past year or so that have impressed you with their new approaches to design - and why?
Adam Saltsman: Amnesia: Dark Descent and Bit Pilot are very interesting games. These are fairly hardcore horror and arcade games respectively, but neither game allows you to attack. Instead, your goal is to hide, avoid, and survive. For me this is a really welcome and interesting break from aiming and shooting games, but without sacrificing any of the awesomeness one might expect from a survival horror game or an arena shooter.
Soren Johnson: I was very impressed by Magicka's concept -- letting players cast spells by simply combing simple elements such as fire, water, electricity, arcane energy, and so on. This system encourages a sense of discovery absent from so many games; I loved trying out certain combinations just to see what would happen. That the game often supported my assumptions and guesses made the world feel alive. Allowing play based on intuition from existing knowledge instead of memorization of invented lore is always a big advantage.
The other development that stands out to me is how the best small-scale, indie games, like Frozen Synapse, Bastion, Atom Zombie Smasher, HOARD, etcetera, are creatively outpacing games from the big publishers simply because they can take risks and maintain their own vision. Many game genres and formats are simply not feasible for the big guys to make anymore, and this has surprisingly been great for the industry, because there are now so many gaps for the indies to fill.
How do you think the rise of social games will influence design in other areas of the game biz?
Adam Saltsman: One positive outcome that I am looking forward to is the expansion of our audience. PopCap helped do this, and a few years later the Wii helped do it again. Social games are having that effect right now; I think it's really great to have people that haven't played video games in a decade or more playing games again. Not everyone that plays FarmVille is going to rush out and get a PS3 next week, but there is a basic literacy thing happening that is going to have a huge long-term effect.
Soren Johnson: Social games are still so young that they are difficult to judge. To date, most of them turn the social interaction into a tax that helps the game spread virally instead of a benefit that makes the game much more compelling. The social games that make this leap will be the ones that move the format forward. Right now, the primary lesson for the rest of the industry is that players will nag their friends for whatever in-game bonuses we hand out -- I'm not sure if that is a healthy path.
A second lesson is that the size of an actual mainstream audience is far larger than we ever imagined, and their needs and interests diverge significantly from our traditional core audience. A final lesson is that a demand exists for "sporadic" games, which can be played in bite-sized chunks throughout the day, but which still have persistence and a multi-session arc. These games can appeal both to the mainstream audience as well as the traditional core users because they fit a hole in players' schedule where persistent gaming did not previously fill.
What sort of design challenges do you feel the industry has yet to overcome?
Adam Saltsman: This is a gross generalization, but I think if you look at The Sims and Call of Duty, the things in those games have been completely explored at this point. That leaves a lot of territory on the table. I think Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, and Afrika are headed in some of the right directions. These games all have monumental flaws, but like Amnesia: Dark Descent, the driving force behind the games is not about domination and destruction. This isn't exactly a new thing, by any means, and maybe this is the decade that adventure games finally make their triumphant return -- or maybe not.
I think chilled-out variety games like Pilot Wings and Wii Sports have secured a very healthy foothold in the space. And there will always be room for some games about exploding things with guns. But our chances at reaching this massive new audience and their budding, social-games-driven computer game literacy will be much better if we are willing to branch out and take some risks.
Soren Johnson: The biggest design challenge is learning to match the fidelity of a game's graphics with the depth of its mechanics. Many games are graphically rich but are mechanically barren, so players quickly discover that most of what they see is not real and has no consequence to their gameplay. Sometimes, the graphics even become a hindrance as players begin to understand the "real" game that lurks within and lose patience with the meaningless window dressing.
Are there particular genres of game that you think are under-utilized and stand to see a lot of design innovation, if better explored?
Adam Saltsman: Chances are if it is already a genre, then it has been mined pretty heavily. I am certain there is still gold in any genre we could name, somewhere. But at some point the effort we have to put in to find it is going to outweigh the benefit of discovering it, especially when there are so many unexplored frontiers. I'm not sure which genres have crossed that threshold and which haven't, but I'd venture that at least some of them are getting awfully close.
Soren Johnson: Real-time strategy is heavily under-utilized. Obviously, there is a glut of RTS games, but it doesn't take long to discover that they are all essentially the same game -- harvest some resources, build a barracks, rush with tanks, and so on. The design space for real-time play occurring in real-time should be much broader -- think of games like Railroad Tycoon, Populous, SimCity, even M.U.L.E. Some developers have started to expand this space once more with games like Swords & Soldiers, Atom Zombie Smasher, AI War, and even Plants vs. Zombies, but it is sad that the letters "RTS" still only mean one thing.
What subjects are you particularly excited to see covered in this year's Game Design track?
Adam Saltsman: There's something we've been talking about for a lot of the tracks, which is this idea of a "design walkthrough" or "design history." The idea is that developers can select some part of their game that turned out especially good, but was very, very hard to develop. Then they'll walk us through the different ways they tried to solve the problem, and the different obstacles they had to overcome. It's different from a traditional postmortem, more focused, with more of a narrative. We have had a few amazing talks in the past that had this sort of structure, and I am very excited to see more developers taking this approach.
As far as specific topics go, talks about deep multiplayer system design, especially competitive games, online or otherwise, are just something I am personally interested in at the moment. This is a really rich space and it's always great to hear people talk about what they're doing in it.
Soren Johnson: I thought the most important talk at last year's GDC was Ben Cousins on the post-launch development of Battlefield Heroes. Simply put, the team discovered there was a huge difference between what players said they were willing to buy and what they actually did buy. Much of microtransaction-based design is still shrouded in mystery, as few developers understand what actually works. I hope other successful teams come forward to share their stories.
GDC 2012's call for papers for the Main Conference is now open until September 6, with Game Design-specific topics listed on the official website. Potential speakers are encouraged to send in their session proposals via GDC's online submission system -- the event itself will take place March 5-9 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
For more information on GDC 2012 as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC news page via RSS, Twitter, or Facebook. GDC Europe is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.