GDC Microtalks: Jaffe, Lemarchand, Brathwaite on gaming's future

GDC 2011: 10 game designers, thinkers, writers, and luminaries get together to talk about what the act of playing means to them.

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Who was there: David Jaffe (director of Twisted Metal and God of War series, cofounder of Eat Sleep Play); Michael John (creative director at EA); Richard Lemarchand (designer at Naughty Dog); Brenda Brathwaite (industry veteran, game designer, social media and gallery games maker); Asi Burak (copresident of Games for Change, a social impact games collective); Jamin Brophy-Warren (cofounder of Kill Screen magazine); Jason Rohrer (game maker and creator of Cultivation and Passage); Colleen Macklin (associate professor at Parsons the New School for Design); Naomi Clark (game designer, Gamestar Mechanic); and Brandon Boyer (games critic, writer, musician, chairman of the Independent Games Festival).

What they talked about: GDC microtalks are short-talk-format presentations where each speaker has a fixed time limit to deliver a particular idea based on a predetermined topic. This year, the topic was: Say how you play. Each speaker was given a maximum of 20 slides and 5 minutes and 20 seconds to give his or her presentation. Lemarchand opened the discussion by introducing the topic and the speakers and wrapping up with a Mahatma Gandhi quote about the importance of speaking the truth.

MICHAEL JOHN: John's talk focused on his relationship with his daughter and the idea of fatherhood as it applies to the game industry. He began by asking who the true father of video games really is: the computer, or games themselves? John believes it is the former, because games are defined by the fact that they are run on computers. He then made the analogy of a child playing with a cardboard box. On the surface, we would question why the child would be interested in such a seemingly uninteresting object. However, to the child a cardboard box represents infinite possibilities--a world where anything is possible. Similarly, the computer represents the same ideals to game programmers.

John then turned toward the topic of education, saying that video game design should be made a viable option for children to study at school. Children learn by playing, which means they are the perfect game designers. "Programming is the 21st-century literacy," he said. John then closed by presenting a slide of his young daughter, who is learning how to program and is currently making her very first video game.

JAMIN BROPHY-WARREN: Warren's speech centered on the debate that the games industry needs to change the way it characterizes both its games and its audience. He said that we need to think about games as objects; objects have stories, and only by learning these stories can we attach meaning to the objects themselves. Video games are objects with stories, Warren said, and those who consume games are storytellers.

Warren then talked about what he calls "the dinner table problem." When the subject of video games comes up at the dinner table, the situation turns either awkward or uncomfortable, because no one is really interested in the subject matter. The reason for this, according to Warren, is that video games lack a vernacular--a common tongue we can all speak. Thus, the question should no longer be: "Are you a gamer?" but rather, "What games do you play?" The industry needs to overcome this problem by telling those who do not play games about the stories that games and gamers create inside the medium.

NAOMI CLARK: Clark began her speech by admitting she enjoys playing casual games on Facebook because she finds herself drawn to mindless grinding actions that offer little reward. So what does that say about her as a person? Clark focused on the idea that by playing games, players can understand how their own minds work at a basic level and the motivations that drive them. Games can provide a terrain to explore our own drives and decision-making by looking at questions like: Why did I do this in a game? Why did I obsessively collect this stuff, or kill these dudes? Clark said that developers want players to experience the dreams and goals they create for them, and just as Shakespeare said that the purpose of theater was to hold a mirror up to nature, so too should the purpose of video games be something just as meaningful.

DAVID JAFFE: Jaffe took a more literal interpretation of the panel topic and introduced his talk with a photo of his washroom, jokingly stating that this is where he spends most of his time playing games. He then called out console developers for pushing players away with countless barriers, from things like the amount of time it takes to load up a console to how long it takes to install a game, check for DLC, watch the opening credits, watch cutscenes, and so on. Jaffe insisted that people are time poor and do not want to spend even the smallest amount of time waiting around to play a game; they want instant gratification, something that console games do not offer.

Jaffe then got a raucous response for his next quip about developers introducing new content to titles in the same week that they ship, leading to even more installs and upgrades. He then went on to say that the console multiplayer experience has lost sight of those things that make playing together fun; massive multiplayer worlds scare off players because it doesn't allow them to feel like they actually make a difference. So, while Jaffe still loves console games, he believes everyone should be playing iPhone, iPad and handhelds. On the toilet, preferably.

COLLEEN MACKLIN: Macklin's approach to the panel topic was somewhat interactive. She began by stating that there is a danger involved in play-testing a game too much; by being wild, games can be subversive, and Macklin believes that is a good thing. She then asked the audience to participate in a game called Outliars, where the audience would be asked a question, given two choices, and asked to hold up either a red or purple card to indicate which choice they'd made. All those in the majority would be asked to sit down, and so on until only one person remained (for the record, the game was won by a guy called Mark).

ASI BURAK: Burak began by recounting his childhood experience growing up in Israel and playing text-based adventure games. To him, these games were masterpieces, letting players be anyone they wanted to be and go anywhere they pleased. So, given our technological innovation, why aren't games today as innovative and fun? Have we become lost in the world of fancy graphics and limited actions like jumping, crouching, and shooting?

"Are we going backwards?," Burak asked. "We’re supposed to be the heroes of new media. Sure, games are the same stage now that silent films were a long time ago, so I suspect it's only a matter of time, but at the moment, we're not even scratching the surface of this medium. The potential for video games as tools for social change, art, and education remains largely untapped. Where is the Schindler's List of video games? Where are the games that can change generations?"

Burak closed by asking that we get rid of the word "gamer"--only then can we start to change the medium forever.

JASON ROHRER: Rohrer began by saying that expressive games are all well and good, but most of them are boring to play. As a game developer, you have to keep in mind that no matter how profound your expression is, there's no point to doing it at all if the audience is walking out. He then began to look at how other mediums engage audiences, from books to film to music, resting on the idea that it is plot that holds the audience's attention and lets them become engaged with a piece of art.

Rohrer suggested that because games require active consumption, they are more successful at engaging audiences. However, because of this extra element of interaction, simply having a plot in a game is not enough: audiences need to be challenged in order to stay engaged. If a game is challenging, it can engage you for hours; if it's not, you will walk away. "Imagine if the only movie plot we knew was 'bank heist'--it would be limiting, wouldn't it? Films would kind of get boring, wouldn't they? That’s where games are right now. And the solution is not to throw out plot or challenge, but to make these expressive tools in their own right."

BRANDON BOYER: Boyer began by saying that video games are the best tool available for exploring imagination. He then praised Little Big Planet for its naivete and beauty in re-creating a childlike wonderland, and wondered why so few developers stand up and create something with meaning. "We are on the brink of something big [in the industry], but there are 10,000 tiny voices out there. I am worried that these will not get recognized. We need to band together and bring these people in the spotlight. I want us to create the games that remind people of why they used to play, instead of reminding them why they no longer do."

BRENDA BRATHWAITE: Brathwaite got down to business right away, sharing details about her 30-year history in the industry and interlacing it with that of her partner's, the legendary game designer John Romero. She then reiterated that both she and Romero spend their entire day playing all sorts of games, the rules of which they make up on the spot. "If it can be played, it will turn into a game," Brathwaite said. She then talked about how she and Romero work to help underprivileged children find a career in the gaming industry and the importance of preserving games and game design for future generations.

Quote: "Where is the Schindler's List of video games? Where are the games that can change generations?"--Asi Burak, speaking about the current state of game development.

Takeaway: Listening to so many great ideas coming from such a wide range of key industry players was both overwhelming and inspiring; while each speaker interpreted the topic in his or her way, it was clear they all shared a common theme: the question of how to keep the games industry moving forward and evolving toward greater growth, stability, and innovation.

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