GDC 07: Game Design Challenge threads the needle

This year's session asked a trio of industry luminaries to imagine a game played with fabric, thread, and a needle; see what they came up with inside.

The winner, and NEW game design champion...

SAN FRANCISCO--The age-old activity of sewing hardly seems like a natural fit for next-gen console gaming. But at the Game Developers Conference's annual Game Design Challenge session, unusual ideas are precisely the point.

Last year, participants were asked to envision a game that could win the Nobel Peace Prize; the year before that, the challenge was to create a game design based around the works of Emily Dickinson.

This year's challengers: game design luminaries Alexey Pajitnov (Tetris, Hexic), David Jaffe (God of War), and defending champ Harvey Smith (Deus Ex, System Shock). Their task: Design a game played with fabric, thread, and a needle.

Panel moderator Eric Zimmerman (gameLab) specified that built-in sensors would detect which thread was in use, and when and where the needle was passing through the fabric. However, one constraint was that the sensors would not be able to detect folds or recognize gestures. The three challengers were given two months to develop a design and then 10 minutes each to present their ideas. They were also asked to step the audience through their design process.

As in previous years, the results were both zany and provocative. All three designers were warmly received, but the audience ultimately crowned Pajitnov the new champion.

Pajitnov fleshed out his idea with a number of specific rules.

Pajitnov's winning design, Stitch & Cross, is a simple two-player game in which the player tries to cross a rectangular game board before their opponent. Players start on perpendicular sides, and moves are made in real-time by stitching the fabric interface with different lengths of thread and with different needles. The player can send their opponent back to the start by "crossing" their opponent's stitch.

In contrast with the other two panelists, Pajitnov focused on creating a consistent and complete rule set. After presenting his overarching vision, Pajitnov addressed problems with his initial design and offered solutions. For example, to prevent moves from becoming too predictable, Pajitnov proposed two types of stitches: hidden stitches that would be shorter but impervious to crossing, and visible stitches that would be longer but vulnerable. He also suggested melting away the tale of the stitched path to reduce vulnerability, as well as adding obstacles to differentiate each level.

By the end, Pajitnov had identified nine rules and numerical relationships that encompass all the gameplay mechanics.

Jaffe's design, Playper, was perhaps the most conceptual of the three designs. In Playper, the player uses a special fabric with paperlike qualities to fold and sow paper airplanes. The needle position and stitch locations create virtual paper airplanes that can be thrown through a virtual obstacle course. Jaffe explained, "I didn't want to do anything you could do with [another interface]."

Jaffe envisioned that the core "fun" of the game would lie in the iterative design cycle of stitching together the physical airplane, testing them in the virtual environment, and then returning to the physical model to tweak the virtual behavior. He also suggested that players would browse each others' planes over the Web, compete on leaderboards, and buy customized add-ons to stitch into their planes.

Smith presented the most ambitious design of the session, proposing a physically simulated 3D adventure game called The Tailor's Daughter. Armed with a magic needle, Noah (the protagonist) journeys through an ancient kingdom to save her father. Battles are fought by Noah's stuffed animal companion, and players find new needles and fabric pieces that can be stitched onto the stuffed animal for power-ups. Players open portals by stitching them in the fabric, and they can close those portals to prevent monsters from following. Smith also imagined that players would move around the world by poking the fabric at different places.

Smith also shared a detailed vision for the design of the fabric-and-needle controller. Citing Shigeru Miyamoto as a personal hero, he reiterated that designers should "always think about the controller from day one." Smith revealed, "Until I could visualize the controller, I had trouble designing a game." Ultimately, Smith settled on adapting the lap loom, a familiar object which already "maps to the living room." In the center of the device, the special fabric would be stretched over a frame. On each side of the device, small screens would show minimaps or options. Smith envisioned that the device could be flipped over to control the character in a different way or on a different scale.

Despite an overwhelmingly playful atmosphere throughout the session, the panelists did face tough questions from the audience. One attendee, commenting that sewing has typically been a female-dominated activity, asked Zimmerman why no female game designers had been invited. Zimmerman responded that "gender was not the primary factor for inclusion."

Zimmerman explained that each year's challenge is designed to simultaneously parody and pay homage to buzz topics in the industry. This year, the topic was inspired by the recent success of alternative gaming interfaces used in games like Wii Sports and Guitar Hero.

As in previous years, Zimmerman concluded the session with a short motivational speech. "There's nothing stopping us from conceiving of [such] games," Zimmerman reminded the audience. He urged, "It's up to us--all of us here at the GDC this year--to make our industry better."

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35 comments
Sealord13
Sealord13

"They still won't commit to a release date or tell us which platforms these stitching games will be available on. I hope they release the PSP version here in America..." -theKSMM they arent real games

theKSMM
theKSMM

They still won't commit to a release date or tell us which platforms these stitching games will be available on. I hope they release the PSP version here in America...

cjcr_alexandru
cjcr_alexandru

Very interesting ideas... It will be better if at least one of them will becomes a real game.

ketsuatama
ketsuatama

I'm going to take up extreme knitting and make myself a suit!

YukoAsho
YukoAsho

Hopefully since Pajitnov's employed by MS, we'll see Stich & Cross on XBLA... That just sounds amazing.

sj420
sj420

pajitnov's chinese-checker-like design concept is brilliant. would be a great ds title as part of a mini-game compilation. we need more pics gs

dn3datomiced
dn3datomiced

Hmmm...I didn't get Pajitnov or Jaffe's concepts, but I am intrigued... and hell, if they released it, and it turned out fun, I'd give it a whirl. I just wish more attention would be BROUGHT to those quirky games. They seem to be largely ignored, even by Gamespot.

Axe_336
Axe_336

I wonder if the stich bear adventure idea could be done on the Wii. I mean, you suture in Trauma Center right?

zsc4
zsc4

This is just strange, strange because it seems interesting.

BettyBot
BettyBot

I used to play a game I found in my grandmother's basement which was just like Stitch and Cross only you played it on a game board and connected an existing line, or "stitch" in this case, to your next move, aiming for the other side of the board, by placing a peg in a nearby free hole and then a stick across the old peg and new peg to continue the line.

weeeoops1520
weeeoops1520

wow, im impressed!! these turned out really nice!!

goodknight_13
goodknight_13

that is defenetly goty material-HA get it material(bad pun).

Kempatsu_basic
Kempatsu_basic

awesome - i bet sylvester stallone is the best at this game

Mikazukinoyaiba
Mikazukinoyaiba

Ackad: "Lets just see who will win" Er... they already declared the winner I thought.

Ackad
Ackad

Lets just see who will win :D

racerx737
racerx737

these excersizes are pretty cool and a good idea for designers to practice for new ideas

cbofthecs
cbofthecs

It would be a fun flash game that I would want to play. Or even a download for the Wii or PS3. But I wouldn't pay much for it.

Mikazukinoyaiba
Mikazukinoyaiba

Actually the winner sounds like a pretty fun short puzzle game. Wouldn't pay much for it but it does sound like a lot of fun.

Sonovius
Sonovius

the noah one seemed stupid. he just made a platformer using the three items. the other two guys actually seemed to think about the challenge more.

-Squirrel-
-Squirrel-

Umm... neat...? Nah I'm glad they are doing things that expand their minds and eventually the market. I'm sure somebody would by a sowing sim or somthing. And I better find Pajitnov's game on newgrounds in the near future cuz i think it'd be a nice lil' lfash game.

jaredgood1
jaredgood1

Pfh. The needle is a piece of s***! You can do so much more with screen printing. Two needles duck taped together don't even compare to screen printing.

Gravidtron
Gravidtron

We can make a sewing interface that plugs into the Wiimote port, right? Good, then let's start on all three of these.

Myriam_D
Myriam_D

Well, this is certainly intriguing. In fact, I was looking back on the other two competitions' articles-these ideas really are feasible. I dun think anyone's going to make an interface with fabric though-too much competition from consoles right now, :P. How's about a couple DS titles though, ne? Best to ya, Myriam.

Hellswrath99
Hellswrath99

lol, very creative. A good exercise for some of the run-of-the-mill game designers to try!

Johann_Lieberg
Johann_Lieberg

what the...needles, stiches...this is all nintendo's fault :D

PotatoSklls
PotatoSklls

Brilliance! I love it! It's a good sign for our industry that such unusual ideas can be credited.