AVC at GDC '09, Day Three: Shigeru Miyamoto Does It Over The Shoulder

AVC at GDC '09, Day Three: Shigeru Miyamoto Does It Over The Shoulder

 

John Teti:
Four out of six isn't bad. After making my predictions for the Independent Games Festival award winners in the comments of yesterday's post, I've got to admit, the show became a little more exciting for me, like I had money on it. I wonder what the lines in Vegas were like for Blueberry Garden. Here are the IGF winners—the design and audio categories surprised me:
 
Technical Excellence: Cortex Command (also won the audience choice award)
Visual Art: Machinarium
Design: Musaic Box
Audio: Brainpipe
Innovation: Between
Grand Prize (Game of the Year): Blueberry Garden
 
The day started with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata's keynote. One of the commenters on the Day Two recap said that indie developers were easier to poke fun at than the big boys. I disagree; this speech was hilarious.
 
Iwata started with a solid half-hour of advice to developers on how to make better games. My favorite SNL bit this season was "Don Draper's Guide to Women," in which Don's best advice for getting laid is, "Be Don Draper." Iwata's best advice for creating great games was to be Shigeru Miyamoto. (Tip #2: If you end up being the president of Nintendo, let Shigeru Miyamoto do whatever he wants.)
 
The paean to Miyamoto was uncomfortably long, and it was accompanied by countless adoring images of Miyamoto projected on the Moscone Center's big screens. There was a cult-y feel to the whole thing. The high point came when Iwata talked about Miyamoto's tendency to "kidnap" employees for game testing. "This is his over-the-shoulder view," Iwata said, and he brought up a picture of Miyamoto grinning wildly while he stood behind a young woman and watched her play his DS game. Right, so none of the people at Nintendo who put together this keynote thought that image was creepy? I guess there's a reason they call it "blind" worship.
 
After the Miyamoto love, Iwata crapped on all the people making less money than Nintendo, i.e., everyone. He put up a bar chart comparing the sales of all the game consoles. The Wii bar was long (and girthy!), the Xbox bar was a lot smaller, and the PS3 bar was a little smaller than that. Iwata said, "But I can add another," and he put up a bar showing the installed base of the Wii Balance Board that comes with Wii Fit. And holy shit, it was practically as long as the PS3 bar. In other words, there are almost as many people who own a Wii accessory as there are people who own the PS3. Iwata should have just brought the president of Sony onstage and kicked him square in the groin; it would have been less painful for all involved.
 
The dick-measuring contest gave way an onstage demo of a Wiimote/balance-board rock-climbing game, which looked stupid, because people always look stupid playing the Wii. All you need to know from the rest of the speech is that a new Zelda game is coming out, for the DS. It's called Spirit Tracks because it involves magical trains or some such. It looks like Wind Waker, which is my favorite Zelda game, haters be damned.
 
Oh, and everybody got a free copy of Rhythm Heaven as a reward for sitting through the lecture. I only had time to play a little, but it was fun. (Russ Fischer will have a proper review of Rhythm Heaven here soon.)
 
The Game Developers Choice awards, for mainstream games, were given out after the IGF awards tonight, and it was a very LittleBigPlanet night. The game won so many awards, I lost track. (Full disclosure: I stopped counting after two.) I like LBP, but I was rooting for Fallout 3, an even better game, to take the Game of the Year prize, and to my surprise, it did. Sure, these awards don't matter a whole lot, but it was nice to see talented developers recognized for their peers for creating a monumental game.
 
I was impressed with both of the awards shows. The production values were great; the videos by Mega64 were mostly entertaining; Choice Awards host Tim Schafer of Double Fine was funny. Fellow AV Clubber Scott Jones, who has been to many more GDCs than I have, says that the award shows used to be much more shabby affairs, so the show has made a lot of progress in the last two or three years.
 
Between the morning keynote and the evening awards, I spent a lot of time at the independent games pavilion, playing through the various IGF award finalists. The festival put forth a fantastic field this year. Here are some very quick impressions of all the games that I played. (The ones I missed: Between, Coil, and Zeno Clash.)
 
Blueberry Garden by Erik Svedäng
The indie game of the year, like many of the nominees, is hard to describe, so prepare for a few sentences that don't make sense. You play a birdish-looking guy in a surreal garden. As you explore the garden, you find items—like a giant pencil or a patch of blueberries—with mysterious effects on your world. You have to figure out, through experimentation, how the little treasures affect the game. I know, sounds boring, but after 10 minutes, it's engrossing. And it's much easier to play than explain.
Available to the public? Not yet.
 
BrainPipe by Digital Eel
A trippy tube shooter (minus the shooting). I thought this one was just OK when I played it on the expo floor. But when I played it in my hotel room with headphones, I got into the trance-like visual effects. Probably the game of the year if you're stoned.
Available to the public? Not yet.
 
CarneyVale Showtime by the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab
Showtime is all about the kinetics. A circus acrobat, who you control with a single button and the D-pad, flies from trapeze to trapeze in a circus tent, trying to make it to the ring of fire at the top, and maybe collecting some balloons on the way. It's a mundane concept; the unrelenting, fluid movement is what makes this game.
Available to the public? Yes, on Xbox Live Community Games.
 
Cletus Clay by TunaSnax
In this side-scroller, a mountain man (or mountain men in co-op mode) fight off a landing party of space aliens. The detailed claymation graphics show a lot of painstaking effort, but I was bothered by the swishy controls.
Available to the public? Not yet.
 
Cortex Command by Data Realms
Cortex Command has the player control an army of robots and other cybernetic creatures from a brain-in-a-jar lair. This is one of those games where the designer obsessed over the details so that you could, too. There's already a thriving mod community even though the game is not finished yet.
Available to the public? Yes, on Windows and Mac, but in a pre-final version.
 
Dyson by Rudolf Kremers and Alex May
Send mechanical mining bugs into space to build your empire in a resource-rich asteroid belt. Dyson is a prettier, more complex counterpart to the iPhone game Galcon, which is also worth playing.
Available to the public? Yes, on Windows and Linux, with Mac version forthcoming.
 
FEIST by Rudolf Kremers and Alex May;
Night Game by Nicalis
I put these two titles together because they both make nice use of of a silhouetted art style, albeit to different effect. FEIST's forests and caves are spooky while Night Game's more open terrain feel dusky, like the sun just set and might never come back. I'm looking forward to the full versions of these beautiful games.
Available to the public? Not yet.
 
The Graveyard by Tale of Tales
The Graveyard is a game in the same way that Seinfeld is a motion picture—there are probably better terms you could apply. I'll call it an interactive art piece. You guide an old woman to a park bench in a cemetery. She sits down. A song plays. You guide her out. Everyone I've talked to at GDC about The Graveyard has responded to it differently. What hit me the hardest was the woman's limp. As she hobbled down the path, I felt guilty for holding down the button that forced her to keep walking. But I made her go anyway.
Available to the public? Yes, on Windows and Mac.
 
Machinarium by Amanita Design
Probably the most beautiful point-and-click puzzle game ever made. Machinarium reminds me of the animated film The Triplets of Belleville in the clever ways it tells a story pictorially rather than verbally.
Available to the public? Not yet.
 
The Maw by Twisted Pixel Games
Samantha Nelson reviewed The Maw in February.
 
Mightier by Ratloop
I couldn't play this game for practical reasons, but it's a unique idea. In each level of Mightier, you print out a puzzle—literally, on your inkjet—and solve it with a pencil. Then you take a picture of your solution with a scanner or webcam. The game turns your scrawlings into structures in the game's 3-D world. Check out the trailer.
Available to the public? Yes, on Windows.
 
Musaic Box by KranX Productions
A puzzle game where you fit blocky jigsaw pieces into a mold. Each piece has a symbol on it that corresponds to a musical passage. The pieces have to fit together such that the symbols produce a song for the solution to work. The levels I played were too easy; the developer told me they get much more difficult.
Available to the public? Yes, on Windows.
 
Osmos by Hemisphere Games
You start out as a microscopic mote floating alongside other motes in this dreamy, atmospheric game. You can absorb organisms smaller than yourself, and larger organisms eat you (i.e., game over). Every time you expend energy to propel yourself around the ether, though, you lose mass, so efficiency is key—I learned to let the world drift to me. The game is a bit thin in its alpha stage, which is to be expected. It has the potential to be the flow of 2009.
Available to the public? Yes, but only in an alpha version for Windows.
 
PixelJunk Eden by Q-Games
Gus Mastrapa reviewed PixelJunk Eden last August.
 
Retro/Grade by 24 Caret Games
I was eager to play this game after seeing the preview. It's a rhythm game in the guise of a side-scrolling space shooter. The gimmick is that the action runs backward in time, so instead of shooting laser fire, you watch it get sucked into the muzzle of your ship. And you have to push the "fire" button as each shot arrives, so you don't to distort the space-time continuum. Since the shots are timed to the music, your button presses end up matching the beat, and the result is PaRappa the Rapper meets Gradius. The game can be played with a gamepad or a Rock Band-type guitar. One sticking point: The music was pretty average. Hopefully Retro/Grade will acquire some better tunes by the time it's released.
Available to the public? Not yet.
 
Snapshot by Kyle Pulver and Peter Jones
Plenty of games feature a Polaroid-type camera mechanic. The 2-D platformer Snapshot makes an entire game out of it. The photos you take with Snapshot's camera can suck up objects and creatures from the landscape. When you bring your photo up on the screen, the captured objects drop back out, in essence allowing you to rearrange your surroundings with guerrilla scrapbooking. I didn't get as much time as I would have liked with Snapshot, so my impressions aren't too solid. I can say that the camera controls felt more natural than I expected.
Available to the public? Not yet.
 
You Have to Burn the Rope by Klan Bashiri
The standard joke about the extremely short You Have to Burn the Rope is that its title also serves as a full walkthrough. This Flash game has been hugely overrated in the indie game press. It makes a banal observation about forced choices in video games and then plays a catchy tune. A funny, well-executed gag, but hardly deserving of the outsized attention it's received, let alone a nomination for the IGF Innovation Award.
Available to the public? Yes.
 
Now, here's Chris.
 
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Chris Dahlen:
Today was day one of the "real" GDC Proper, the day that the panels kick in and the big names start lecturing and the keynotes and awards shows take place. Two panels stood out for me today. The highlight was the Game Design Challenge, a perennial favorite where three major game designers receive a bizarre challenge from Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman and take a few weeks to sketch out a solution. My first year at GDC, 2006, I heard CliffyB, Harvey Smith, and Keita Takahashi pitch games that could win the Nobel Peace Prize. Last year, the theme was interspecies games: each idea had to be playable between a human and at least one other species. This year, the challenge was to make a game about "my first time"—in other words, an autobiographical sex game. And the contestants were slated to be Infocom alum and last year's winner Steve Meretzky, Habbo Hotel's Sulka Haro, and Portal lead designer Kim Swift.
 
Except Kim Swift wasn't there. As Zimmerman announced, when Swift's boss, Valve, found out the theme of this year's challenge, they yanked her. I don't know the story behind why they made that decision, or whether they were being uptight or cautious or what. But there you have it: the designer of the super-vaginal masterpiece Portal was left out of a silly little sex game challenge. And people say the industry doesn't need unions!
 
Taking her place, Heather Kelley and Erin Robinson teamed up and presented a nifty little Wario Ware-style game that broke the act of losing your virginity into a series of quick mini-games. True to this year's theme, they made each game autobiographical: in Kelley's case, the games went "SHAVE THE LEG!"; "CHOOSE THE SEXIEST LP!"; "DON'T FALL OFF THE TOP BUNK!"; and "FLICK OFF THE SMIRKING ROOMMATE." Robinson gave a textbook tale of first geek sex: on the way home from ultimate frisbee practice, you have to "FIND A STATION THAT ISN'T COUNTRY"; "FIX THE TRACKING ON THE VCR" (so you can get in the mood watching Akira); "MAKE THE FIRST MOVE" (because the dude who, in her concept drawing, has white-boy dreads and a Tool t-shirt, is too scared); and then "FIND ALL THE TERRY PRATCHETT BOOKS," while you're looking at the guy's bookcase, from the couch. The scoring mechanism was a humiliation meter, and the goal was to get as awkward as possible without becoming totally humiliated and blowing the whole thing.
 
They won.
 
Haro had a clever idea that would have made the most replayable game: a multi-player web game where four strangers anonymously share their first brushes with love and sex, find relevant photos on Flickr, and try to make up new stories about them. Meanwhile, Steve Meretzky's game was a piece of interactive fiction that grappled with his memories of being shy, award and virginal in high school and the start of college. It was touching to hear his memories of being the geekiest kid in high school, and his personal stories were engaging. His slides were also hilarious, especially when he demonstrated how many existing games already had sexual titles: WII FIT. SPREADSHEET. RAM. FINAL FANTASY. WoW! And JONATHAN BLOW.
 
I realize I made it this far in today's post without mentioning penises. But don't worry: one of Meretzky's rejected concept sketches featured a big ol' honking penis, demonstrating what a sexual first-person shooter game would look like. It looks exactly like what you'd think it looks like.
 
The other stand-out panel was Margaret Robertson's talk, "Why Your Game Doesn't Need A Story To Be A Hit." I realize I wrote up another Robertson talk yesterday (on Spore). If she had a talk tomorrow, I would go to that too. Robertson addressed the "elephant in the room" about stories in games: they're expensive, time-consuming, and they usually don't work. She's also raising the topic at a time when people seem especially annoyed about long, pointless cutscenes. While Metal Gear Solid 4 is well-loved, the jokes about its half-hour cutscenes are sounding more and more pointed. We're realizing that while a handful of games can and do tell great stories, most of them don't need the baggage they're saddled with.
 
Robertson didn't argue against including any story in game: instead, she gave a list of ways that the story could be simpler, tinier, more engaging for the player, and best of all, cheaper. Her examples included games like Space Invaders (the whole story's right in the title), and Half Life 2 (where the lambda symbol, spraypainted on a wall, signifies a wealth of information about the resources available, the underground resistance that's helping you, the regard in which they hold you, etc.). Simple concepts can set the game in motion. Take one of her favorites, New Zealand Story, where you can sum up the entire story in six words: "A WALRUS HAS STOLEN MY FRIENDS." Significant information can be relayed by simple design decisions: for example, in Assassin's Creed, the protagonist comes off as a shifty bad-ass in part because he wears a hoodie. And indie games show how a complicated and dynamic story can come out of very simple mechanics and zero cutscenes—like Daniel Benmergui's Storyteller.
 
She also called for smaller, more intimate stories, instead of asking the player to save the world. As she put it, "I can't tell you how sick I am of saving the world. I've done it 800, 1,000 times?" Instead, consider a game like The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, where the world was in fact in danger, but most playesr were drawn to the story about reuniting the separated lovers Anju and Kafei. "I have never felt like more of a badass than when I made it work for those two guys."
 
Capped the day off by wandering into Moscone South looking for free beer, and getting roped into watching a 2+-hour awards show, which, once it got rolling, did not let us have food or beer. But dinner at the House of Nanking made up for it. Thanks again, Gus Mastrapa. Your taste in everything is impeccable.