Tagged in: outreach

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  Keep in mind that these notes are rough drafts and since I practice and memorize my talks they eventually fall out of date to the actual presentation.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.

Artifact Hunt, A Board Game Design Workshop

I haven’t been blogging much right as we race to finish Sunset Overdrive at work, so now seems like a good time to talk about and share a cool board game design workshop that I’ve run with Molly Jameson (@UltraRat), a fellow gameplay programmer, and Lisa Brown (@Wertle), a fellow designer. I’ve run this workshop three times for girl scout troops, and once for a young girls game coding after school class.

You can download the materials here:


(Full credit goes to Anthony Ortega and Juancho Buchanan, who created the workshop at Harrisburg University, who passed the lesson plan to Lisa Brown, who passed it on to me.)

It requires:

    • A large poster-sized printout of a very simple board / team
    • A rules handout / team
    • 4 token pieces / board
    • 2 player pieces / board
    • 2 dice / board
    • Pens or pencils

The first step is to set up the boards with all the pieces. I’ve found that teams of four are good for this, but it works well with anywhere from 2-5 students. We’ve run this workshop for 10-18 year olds and it’s worked out really well each time with minimal fuss.

The first thing you do is have the teams play the board game. If you look at the rules, you’ll notice that there are some major flaws in the game’s design. It’s incredibly easy to get a stalemate so that it’s impossible for either player to win. It’s easy to end up in a tie, where both players reach the finish with the same number of points. Almost every single group will one into these problems.

While teams are playing, walk around and make sure that if they have questions about the rules that you can explain them (especially for younger students). Play usually takes 5-10 minutes. We usually wait til everyone has played one full round, and a couple groups have usually played a second by then.

When all the teams finish the first round, that’s when you start to solicit feedback. Some good questions to ask:

    • Did you like the game? Did you not like it? Why?
    • Who won?
    • Did you think it was fair?
    • Did anyone do any battling? How was it?

Usually that’s all the questions we need in order to get teams to open up and talk about their experience. The important thing is to get them to express why they liked, or didn’t like, the game and to think about the mechanics and rules.

The next step is to have the team go back and, together, choose ONE rule that they will change. They can remove a rule, replace a rule, or add an entirely new rule. But they can only change ONE! After they have changed it, they will play it again as a team. This process usually takes about 10 minutes, sometimes a little longer.

I usually offer students extra dice, players, and tokens at this point if they want to involve those in their rules. Wile they are hammering out their ideas, walk around and ask them if they know what they are going to do, and encourage them to play the rules. Some groups will take a long time figuring it out, but we’ve never run into any that didn’t come up with something eventually.

When they are done, and everyone has changed a rule and played their games again, we stop them and ask them a series of questions:

    • What rule did your group change?
    • Did it make the game more fun? Why?
    • Did it cause any new problems? How would you fix that?
    • To the rest of the class, did anyone else change the same rule or do something similar?

You can do a second round, but this is usually where we end it. I sometimes bring handouts on free game-making software for students to take home.

Some of the changes we see are: added tokens to create asymmetrical play, the ability to ‘steal’ tokens from each other, changes in how score is calculated, changes in dice are rolled and calculated during battling, disallowing diagonal movement, allowing movement outside of the play space, removing or changing the movement penalty for carrying tokens.

At the end I usually talk a little about what design and iteration are, and how they are involved in making games. It’s important to only change one thing at a time because every change has cascading effects. If you change too much and the game is better or worse, you won’t necessarily know which change brought about that new dynamic. On top of that, this lesson gives students a chance to design without worrying about the technical or artistic skills involved in game development.

One of the great things is this lesson really runs itself. The kids – and young adults – are always engaged, they are having fun, and they are thinking critically when challenged to talk about the mechanics and how they make the game fun or not fun. I feel like it’s a very good introductory lesson to have at the beginning of a game design class or otherwise introduce students to design.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me at my email – lizengland07 @ gmail.com