Who was there: Eric Zimmerman hosted the staple GDC competition, with reigning Game Design Challenge champion Jenova Chen (of Flower developer thatgamecompany) defending the title against John Romero (Doom, Daikatana) and Jason Rohrer (Passage, Inside a Star-Filled Sky).
What they talked about: This year's Game Design Challenge was intended to play off the rise in popularity of social games. With social networks increasingly becoming intertwined with gaming, the goal this year was to elevate that tie to "humanity's oldest model for a social network," religion. The challenge Chen, Romero, and Rohrer faced was to design a game that is also in some way a religion, or a religion that is in some way a game. The developers were given a month or two heads-up on the theme and arrived ready to present their fleshed-out ideas.
Rohrer started by introducing his game, Chain World. He talked about his grandfather, the first mayor of Fairlawn, Ohio, a tiny village that decades ago was going to be bisected by the creation of Interstate 77. Specifically, Rohrer wanted to talk about the impact his grandfather had on the world. Rohrer's grandfather led efforts to keep the highway from cutting a destructive swath through Fairlawn. His efforts forced the interstate to be built in a circuitous route around the city, a decision that still impacts drivers today.
A few extra minutes of time on the road for drivers wasn't the only mark his grandfather left. Rohrer also talked about the house his grandfather built, as well as the city logo he designed. Rohrer said he even finds himself doling out his grandfather's advice to friends in need, even though he's not always sure it was something his grandfather actually said or just a pearl of wisdom the family attributed to him.
"My grandfather has become less a man and more the idea of a man as these details have faded," Rohrer said.
Rohrer said the effect is that he's essentially mythologized his grandfather at this point, asking what the difference was between such an idealized man and a god. The same thing is done with historical figures, he said, noting that people are willing to travel great distances to see relics of mythologized people in the same way they make religious pilgrimages. Rohrer noted the way people travel to Jackson Pollack's studio barn to see the artist's paint-spattered shoes or the steady flow of tourists travelling to Stonehenge.
Rohrer thought his game should have elements of that sense of mythology, of players leaving evidence of their time in that world the same way they impact the real world. The original idea, then, was to make a game that was only ever played by one person at a time and was passed from person to person after each was finished with it. He reasoned that if players were able to modify the world specifically with an eye for how future players will experience the world, much like his grandfather did with I-77, then that would lead to an interesting dynamic.
Rohrer then introduced Chain World, which is actually a mod for the open-ended indie hit Minecraft. There's only one copy of the game in the world, and it's on a USB stick Rohrer held up to the crowd. The player runs Chain World and plays until he or she dies exactly once. At that point, the game saves the world and copies it back to the USB stick. Then the player takes the USB stick and gives it to someone who expresses interest.
There are a few rules, however. Each player is forbidden from talking about the game experience to others. The only knowledge anyone should have of the gameworld should come from that single firsthand play-through. Furthermore, building signs with text on them is forbidden. One that is permitted is player suicide, and Rohrer said the world even has a lava pit next to the spawn point for easy access, should players choose to take that way out.
The end result is a game that carries additional weight with the player. Rohrer said he experienced that firsthand when he took his own turn at the game.
"I had one of the most heartbreaking and poignant deaths that I've ever experienced in my life--and way too soon," Rohrer said.
He was upset partly because he didn't have time to really do anything to shape the world and leave for future players to find, but the one life limit was inflexible. He then passed the USB stick to an audience member to be the game's second player ever.
Romero was up next, and he set up his religion around a Twitter user account: @Messiah6502 (ostensibly the son of @God6502). Romero said the messiah needed followers and told the crowd to follow him immediately. He read off the names of Messiah6502's first 12 followers and asked them to come up to the front of the room. The apostles were each given a colored pad of Post-It notes and told to convert as many people in the crowd as possible in two minutes by giving them the notes. Meanwhile, everyone else was told to check into MeccaGDC on 4Square.
After two minutes, the apostles reconvened. Romero said some of the Post-It notes had star-shaped stickers on them, representing a miracle performed in the Messiah's name. The crowd members with the stars then gathered at the front of the room so the apostles could tally their miracles, with the winner being the apostle with the most miracles. Once the miracles were tallied, the winner was told to kill John Romero and supplant him as the new head of the religion, bringing the developer's presentation to a close.
Chen was next up, saying he found the challenge particularly difficult because "I'm supposed to be an atheist from China." He took the presentation as a chance for him to examine his own beliefs. Chen's own definition for religion is "a core value with a particular set of practices and dogmas based on its time and environment that produce happiness." It needs to spread its way of life, to adapt to new environments, and to survive changing times.
As a designer, he wanted to make something simple. He noted the correlation between money and happiness. Money can increase happiness up until a certain threshold, but once you have enough to get by, it's not enough. Money doesn't address a sense of purpose, Chen said. He noted "The Hero's Journey" formula, and how the story ends with the hero bringing something back to his community. It's not enough for the hero to triumph in the face of adversity if it's only to benefit himself.
Purpose needs to be primitive and profound, Chen said. Every form of life needs a purpose to go on, and on the most basic level, that's a need to be born, grow, propagate, and die. Chen pointed to propagation as the most interesting phase of that cycle and decided to build his game around that idea. But while it's time consuming to propagate people, it's easier and quicker to propagate ideas. Chen said his game would revolve around everyone trying to spread their ideas, with the best and most adaptive of them surviving. The problem is how the selection should be made, who makes that selection, and why. That what God is for, Chen said.
He said there already is a group that shares his beliefs, the nonprofit Technology, Entertainment, Design group, which holds a series of conferences bringing together "the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers" to compress their most world-changing ideas into 18-minute talks. However, he said they're not good game designers. He criticized the group's website and said he wanted to make it more active, starting with the slogan. Instead of "Ideas worth spreading," Chen would use "Influence with your ideas" to reflect the group's underlying purpose. He noted that the videos on TED don't even have instant feedback. The users also would have personal pages akin to those on Twitter; only instead of followers, they would have "people who have been influenced by you."
For a game to work, it needs a feedback loop, Chen said. Just having badges for having a certain number of followers isn't enough. There needs to be a feedback loop like in Diablo, where killing monsters earns experience and money that make the player that much better at killing monsters to gain further advances. Chen ended his session saying he would call the game Propagation.
The winner of the challenge was decided by audience applause, with Rohrer emerging as the clear victor. Rohrer was given his choice of the King James Bible, the Book of Mormon, or L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. Rohrer took the Scientology tome, saying he gets offered the Book of Mormon all the time for free.
Quote: "Kids today don't have time to read a menu, so they don't have time to read a Bible."--Chen, on why he had to keep his design simple.
"There's no rules about that, I guess. And religion doesn't seem to have rules about it, either."--Rohrer, on whether he had considered Chain World players handing off the game to the highest bidder.
Takeaway: As the Game Design Challenge shows every year, there's no one way to skin a cat and no single answer to any design problem.