Tagged in: gdc

GDC 2016 Wrap-Up

I’ve been to five GDCs now and each one has been different, and each one has been much, much better than the previous one.

This year I livetweeted over a dozen sessions I attended for those stuck back home without access to the vault. You can find them all here: https://storify.com/lizardengland/gdc-2016-session-livetweets

This year VR was huge. I initially thought VRDC would kind of segregate or corral VR people into their own separate, smaller conference but I was wrong. VR was everywhere, and lines for their talks filled up the hallways. I stayed away from them in general, since I worked in VR for the year prior to moving to Ubisoft and don’t really carry much developer interest in it anymore. (Small indie studios, please stop just testing sim sickness on yourselves. Test a wider range of people. Your products are going to give VR a bad name.)

I also saw lots of long lines for some of the indie summit business or marketing oriented talks, which obviously don’t carry much interest to me. I ended up only attending one indie talk – on procedural generation – and leaving the rest to catch up on the vault.

I filled Monday and Tuesday with a ton of talks from the Narrative Design summit. I had never attended it before but looking through the vault from previous years had stemmed my excitement because they largely seemed to be talks for writers with very little on design. This year felt different – it felt like design, systems, and narrative structure in games were at the forefront. My favorite talks were in the Narrative Design track, including my best-of-GDC award for “Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond” by Meg Jayanth, which delved into ways the player lacked power over NPC stories.

One of the trends I’m seeing from the Narrative Showcase, the narrative-focused games up for IGF and on the show floor, and the conversations I had around me is that systems are becoming a lot more integrated into narrative, and there’s a lot of narrative innovation coming out that is very specific to games. This might be my own biases sneaking in since I love interactive narrative so much.

Beyond the sessions, this year I attended a couple break-out sessions in the park organized somewhat spontaneously. Alex Jaffe from Spryfox organized a system designer hangout one morning, and Emily Short organized a group interested in procedural interactive fiction. Both were better than the official roundtable formats, since they encouraged mingling and smaller groups of similar interests rather than a handful of people dominating the conversation. Tying into my prior remark about narrative systems – the procgen IF group was huge, and the system designer group pretty much talked about procedural narrative and social simulation half the time. I suspect the rise of the “roguelike” and success developers have been making with procedural content is on a collision course with the narrative-focused developers. To be fair, I’m pretty trendy too – the last side project I made was a procedural interactive fiction game.

As usual, I said yes to any opportunity to do outreach. Last year I talked with IGDA scholars, and this year I spoke with women scholars from Diversi, a group that helped a whole bunch of students and scholars in games (and games-adjacent) programs attend GDC. This year I also was recruited to talk to a crowd in a less formal Q&A with two of the creative directors from Ubisoft Toronto – I think it went well, but I had to defer answers to others fairly often with my limited experience at the studio. For the first time I got on the list to attend the Women in Games Luncheon hosted by Microsoft and I definitely appreciated that outreach (in spite of their pretty epic stumble at their party the same night).

I did give a talk this year as part of Richard Rouse’s “Rules of the Game” microtalks. While I think the content is solid, I also think I flubbed a bit on my delivery (I think my 10min talk went to 13min). You can find my slides (as well as the other speakers) on his website here (direct download): http://paranoidproductions.com/miscwritings/RulesOfTheGame2016.pptx

This is also the first GDC where “I know you from twitter!” almost became a meme for me. It was great but also kind of awkward – I don’t know how to respond and my instinct is to question, “Do I tweet too much?” In the end it doesn’t bother me too much, and it was great to put names to lots of faces I’ve chatted with online. It’s even cooler when someone I want to meet from twitter also just happens to want to meet me for the same reason, and I found myself in a few ‘consultation’-like meetings where I let people extract whatever they wanted from my brain and vice-versa. Someone even brought me a birthday cake (no, I did not eat the whole thing). For all its flaws, twitter has been invaluable for making friends with like-minded designers.

There was one big downside to the whole conference: I was sick. Now, it wasn’t the GDC flu and thankfully I’ve avoided that. But I have had real issues sleeping starting about a month ago which means that almost every day at GDC there was a window of time where I started to fall asleep where I sat, regardless of how exciting the talk was or how hard I tried to stay awake. I was exhausted in the evenings and couldn’t stay out too late at parties, and I had about an hour commute on BART to the couch I stayed on at a friend’s house. I don’t really have a lesson here other than it’s hard to attend GDC without your full health and know when to take a break and take it easy.

That’s all. Fingers crossed I will be there again next year.

GDC 2015 Talks on Design in Sunset Overdrive

My blog’s been silent for a little while because I’ve been really busy with preparing for GDC. This was the first year that I’ve spoken at the event and gave not one but two talks on design in Sunset Overdrive.

Since I’ve now given both my talks, I’m going to share my slides and – since there are no notes on the slides – my talking points.  Keep in mind that these notes are rough drafts and since I practice and memorize my talks they eventually fall out of date to the actual presentation. Regardless, my talks should be pretty easy to follow without the video if you consult the slides and notes together, but I expect them both to be on the GDCVault eventually.

Level Design in a Day: The Worlds of Sunset Overdrive

This is a 25 minute talk that covers the first two cities we built before we made our final city, and talks about what happened with those cities that made us decide to throw them out and start over again. I focus on how the changing design of the game – the emphasis on traversal, the open world vs. linear spaces – led to major changes in the geometry.

Transitioning from Linear to Open World Design with Sunset Overdrive

This is an hour long talk that goes into Insomniac’s changes in the design department to adapt to the new needs of an open world game, but also the specific needs of a game like Sunset Overdrive. I talk about the structural differences between a linear and an open world game, how designer roles and responsibilities changed, what our new workflow looked like, and the pros and cons of those changes. Whenever possible, I compare and contrast development on Sunset Overdrive with development on Resistance 3.

Mini Post Mortem

So I mentioned before that this was the first year I had ever given a GDC talk, so maybe some of my experiences might help others thinking about giving their first talk. I made it a goal the year before to pitch a talk, but the day proposals were due I still had no idea what to write about.  So I recruited Lisa Brown (@Wertle) for an emergency lunch session, and somehow dragged Drew Murray (@PlaidKnuckles) into the conversation at one point. By the end I realized that I had a lot to talk about with how things changed at work for designers as we moved into open world development.

(My advice for others who want to give a GDC talk and don’t know what to talk about? Recruit others. It’s hard to know what you know without others pointing it out.)

So I wrote a pitch for my talk on transitioning from linear to open world design, sent it in, and the GDC advisory board approved it. I had some emails back and forth with my advisor, Clint Hocking, who gave me some really excellent feedback and asked if I’d be interested in also participating in the Level Design in a Day summit. If I had to do it over again I might not have agreed to two talks – at least not for my first GDC. It was a bit overwhelming, especially since I went off travelling for a bulk of that preparation time.

There are some things I learned after the fact. Like, did you guys know there’s a “presentation mode” for slideshows that actually displays your current and next slides AND your notes? I didn’t. I never used it. I didn’t have any notes to read off of for my talks – it was entirely a mix of ad-lib and memorization. I also learned to ignore people who say that you’ll talk faster at a podium: as friends pointed out, I am already a fast talker. My practice times and my actual presentation times were the same, so my Level Design in a Day talk ended up cut off short (and I quietly snipped a few bits from my longer talk the next day to get in on time).

Some other things I learned:

  • Most people use something called “Presenter Mode” that shows them their notes and the previews the next slide and… I didn’t know this. I just memorized everything. I did it the hard way, apparently.
  • I was warned the speaker’s party would be terribly lame but instead it was just perfect
  • 25 minutes is too short to go really in depth, and not short enough for a distillation of a single idea. Go 60 minutes or join a 10 minute microtalk.
  • I get more nervous speaking to smaller groups, but the large GDC crowds didn’t intimidate me at all when it came time to speak.
  • There’s a LOT of studios that shall go unnamed that found my presentation on moving from linear to open world incredibly relevant.

That last bit was really important to me – I didn’t want the crowd to feel like I was wasting their time. I’ve been to too many GDC talks that I really didn’t enjoy because I didn’t find them relevant, or they were too basic and didn’t dive deeply enough into a topic.

One side effect of doing a GDC talk is that I learned a ton during the preparation stage. I had to focus deeply on a topic and dredge up everything I knew, research what I didn’t know, and then determine what parts make the ‘cut’ into the presentation and which don’t. I had a lot of doubt about the content of my talks since I was (unfairly) concerned about being wrong and not having the time to get more team members to proofread my talks. But then, Drew Murray, our creative director, may or may not have said, “Look, we’re all just making shit up” and he’s one of the best presenters I know.

Hopefully my evaluations come in positively because I already have a topic in mind that I’d love to speak on next year.