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GDC '08: Of porpoises, puppies, and prokaryotes

The creators behind Tetris, Wizardry, and Planetfall rise to this year's Game Design Challenge with designs for games that can be played by humans--and at least one other species.


SAN FRANCISCO--The Game Design Challenge is one of the annual attendee highlights of the Game Developers Conference. Every year, Gamelab's chief design director Eric Zimmerman takes one current industry trend and asks a trio of industry legends to come up with a game that takes that trend to its logically absurd conclusion.

In 2005, Zimmerman skewered the licensed-game trend with a challenge to design a game based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Last year's challenge, devised in light of the Wii's success and its novel motion-sensing controller, was to create a game that would use a needle and thread as its interface.

The winner of that contest, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov, returned to GDC this year to defend his crown against two more esteemed industry veterans. Seeking to topple the Soviet bloc buster were Brenda Brathwaite, designer of the Wizardry and Jagged Alliance series and head honcho of the Sex in Games conference, and Steve Meretzky, Blue Fang games senior designer and the text-adventure titan behind classics such as Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Zork Zero.

As defending champion, Pajitnov presented his design first. Although he had considered incorporating a fly or a bee into his design, he eventually settled on dolphins. He said it had always been a dream of his to make a game set underwater.

Designed for up to eight teams of three (consisting of two humans and one dolphin), Dolphin Ride uses a dolphin tank as its playing field. Each dolphin has two video cameras strapped to its back, one for each human teammate to participate in the action remotely. The front camera includes a number of electrodes on it (or heat-producing elements) that somehow let one player control the dolphin's navigation. Pajitnov stressed that it would just provide some stimuli for the dolphin and not actually hurt the creature. The rear camera would be equipped with a paint gun, to be aimed and fired by the other human player.

Pajitnov's game would also have a virtual playfield full of multicolored balls that players could see overlaid on their camera images. The balls would be worth different amounts of points, and could be collected either by running the dolphin into them or shooting them with the paint gun. The gunner could also use the paint gun to shoot rival dolphins, which would prevent them from collecting any more points until the marked marine mammal touched base with its starting point.

Whereas Pajitnov's game appeared to be a twist on the deathmatch game mechanic, Meretzky's design also relied on an established genre--the strategy game--but with one very small (in fact, microscopic) twist. With a petri dish as its playing field, Bac Attack uses a camera on a tripod to turn a bacterial culture into a game of Desktop Tower Defense. Dubbed "The TrayStation," the camera shines light into the dish to activate the bacterial growth and give the player a notion of the "terrain" of the "level." It's up to the player to position various fortifications on a computer screen, fortifications whose defensive efforts will then be simulated by the microwave-emitting TrayStation to kill off the appropriate sections of bacteria in the dish.

"Because of the beauty of natural selection, the bacteria that survive are effectively leveled up the next time you play," Meretzky noted.

Not satisfied to come into the presentation with a game design, Meretzky also had a business plan for Bac Attack. The game would have a special end-user licensing agreement that would allow the publisher to own not only the rights to the software, but also the rights to the players of the game: the ever-improving bacteria. The publisher could then turn around and sell those bacteria to the biotech industry and make billions in the process.

Meretzky even had taglines for Bac Attack, saying it "puts the fun back in fungicide," and would be the "world's first massively microplayer game."

Although her fellow designers adapted traditional action and strategy genres for use in their designs, Brathwaite based her game on a still-emerging genre, the alternate-reality game. Like "i love bees" before it, Brathwaite's 100 Dogs would depend on a massive community and would constantly challenge players to cooperate in order to unlock a mystery and achieve a common goal.

The game would run over the course of four months, with the first phase consisting of dogs and their owners in 50 cities working together to complete basic challenges. The tasks would rely either on the owners (take pictures of their dogs playing with 100 other dogs) or the dogs themselves (calling on their tracking, herding, or other dog-specific skills). The players earn points by completing challenges, and eventually the top point-getter in each city is named an alpha dog.

With 50 alpha dogs set, the second phase of the game begins. All 50 alpha-dog owners then receive a Facebook invitation from a user named "Dog 51." The invite includes a challenge in it that will require the entire community of players to work together. Once the challenge is completed, an invite is sent out to everyone from Dog 52.

The game continues in that fashion until players complete the challenge of Dog 91, at which point there is no invite from Dog 92. Then the game becomes a mystery to find the lost dog. If the community can sniff out clues in the previous invites, players can eventually piece together the story and find the remaining canines, at which point every participant in the game will receive a 100 Dogs-branded collar.

As in previous years, the winner of the challenge was determined by audience applause. Whereas Pajitnov's Dolphin Ride received polite applause from the crowd, Bac Attack and 100 Dogs both prompted the audience to erupt in cheers and hollers. The ovations were close enough that Zimmerman decided a runoff was in order and asked the crowd to again vote for their favorite idea. After the audience again exploded for each idea, Zimmerman ruled that Meretzky and Bac Attack had won by the slimmest of margins.

As the crowd gave all the contestants yet another hearty ovation, Zimmerman implored the audience to follow the designers' lead, shouting "It's up to you, people in the games industry! Make the most weird, strange, perverted, f*****-up games you can. See you at Game Design Challenge 2009!"

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