AVC at GDC '10, Day Three: Step into the Virtusphere

AVC at GDC '10, Day Three: Step into the Virtusphere

David Wolinsky 

Just in case there were any doubts about whether Nintendo bottlenecked the whole notion of innovation in its output at the creation of motion controls for the Wii and stopped immediately at launch after bungling the confused, staggered release dates for The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the GameCube and its latest system, Metroid co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto effectively confirmed the Wii’s stumbling pace this morning in a talk about that series’ newest iteration, Other M. Sakamoto is a guy who’s been with Nintendo since 1982—a year before the NES was released in Japan—which made the man’s obvious initial concerns about the Wii’s lack of computing power all the more eyebrow-arching. While graphics or processing power are rarely the focus in talking about any Wii game, it was fascinating how forthcoming Sakamoto was in talking about his early visions for the game, basically dumbing down the game at every turn before Team Ninja and a handful of other developers intriguingly got involved. In his English-translated speech, Sakamoto talked about wanting to make Metroid: Other M an on-rails action game—a move that surely would further piss off the faction of fans that balked when the series turned FPS, a.k.a. the first step in incrementally destroying the entire point of Metroid and unapologetically telegraphing that confusion to the entire world.

This might also just be the translator working on this speech, but the word “beautiful” seemingly popped up at least once a minute in describing this new game, especially to describe the acting, which is funny because most previews elsewhere on the Internet had been using another word for the acting: “melodramatic.” Regardless, if Nintendo insiders have obvious hesitations about the Wii, it’d be refreshing if they just fessed up and admitted that trying to satiate hardcore gamers and developers alike by simply drudging up every series that was popular on its first system is a weak strategy. Yes, Metroid, Mario, and Zelda have all earned a special place in all our hearts, but that’s because they were once fresh and charging uncharted territory. Don’t just start at the controls and stop there—anyone who says they love willingly holding up their arms up for hours on end either has circulation problems or is a total liar.

Though, as Microsoft and Sony have both illustrated with Natal and Move respectively, motion controls are something all the big boys are now willing to throw money behind. Based on a panel I sat in on near the end of the day headed by NYU-Poly professor Katherine Isbister on the psychology of Wii games—and why some games employing movement mechanics are more successful than others—it may or may not be to Microsoft and Sony’s advantage to have held back on the great motion-sensing arms race. It might be because a lot of what Isbister had to say sounded like common sense, which is largely what’s been lacking from a large amount of shabby ports and downright lazy games shoveled onto the system. It may not apply because she hasn’t gotten her hands on either Natal and Move, and neither has most of the gaming public. Basically, what Isbister lectured for an hour about boils down to this:

1)    Realistic movements should be blended carefully and feel natural—don’t fight the controller’s limitations, embrace them. This is why No More Heroes, which employs a series of button presses followed by a flick of the Wiimote in combat, feels more satisfying than, say, Boogie Superstar, which needlessly distracts players with onscreen prompts for unnatural movements that even the pre-teen girls it was intended for would have trouble following.

2)    Movements create emotions. For developers, that means building backwards from the kind of feelings you want to instill in players by “bodystorming” the kinds of motions associated with those emotions. Yes, it sounds a bit new-agey, but her proof was solid: Wario Ware: Smooth Moves’ quick, embarrassing motions foster an appropriately silly atmosphere for players and onlookers alike.

3)    Showing what to do is tricky. Educate the player on what sort of motions they’ll be expected to do, but no amount of tutorials can overcome poor metaphor mapping—what the Wiimote’s actions represent.

4)    Make the movements matter by giving the player feedback. In other words, people don’t care about point tallies, they just want to see that their movements matter. There was a great deal of elaboration on this, but it’s summed up pretty well by this video she showed of people attacking the living shit out of a padded wall:

5)    Movement is social. Wario Ware: Smooth Moves was praised on almost all the reasons listed here for why some Wii games work better than others, but the aforementioned embarrassing moves it requires makes players more likable to their peers because they let down their guard and make themselves more vulnerable by, say, pretending to shave or pick a virtual nose with the motion-sensing hunk of plastic.

Meanwhile, today was the first day GDC’s show floor opened up and it’s pretty safe to say that a lot of companies have motion controls on the brain. They ran the gamut from the familiar motion capture technologies first fussed over in Mortal Kombat, apparently now ideal for dancing around in the most dignified fashion imaginable…

…to a look at tomorrow’s technology, today: the Virtusphere. Forget motion controls, the future is in running around in an enormous hamster ball, fully strapped with virtual-reality goggles and wielding a fake plastic gun. It can be yours for a paltry $55,000, and if you can’t find room for that in your gaming budget, take heart: Virtusphere’s web site lists education, virtual museum tours, and exhibiting at tradeshows as just three of its other practical applications. Laugh all you want, but even the most jaded and judgmental person would would want to try this. The line to check it out was ridiculously long, so I made do with trying out Cave Story in Nintendo's booth. I didn't have a great deal of time to play, but the conversion seemed spot-on and tight from what I experienced. Our review of it will come shortly after it hits the WiiWare store on March 22.

Also spotted on the floor? Steve Wiebe, who recently recaptured his Donkey Kong Jr. high-score title, flashing his underdog grin with the pack of people waiting to take an awkward photo with him next to an arcade cabinet.

Moments after this photo was taken, Wiebe told this guy to "suck it, Wiebe-style." Has all the media attention gone to his head?

Just as awkward was Q-Games programmer Jaymin Kessler giving an hour-long talk about the fluid and particle physics in PixelJunk Shooter. (You can read our review of Shooter here.) Okay, Kessler was actually pretty charming, but he started his talk by confessing about being extremely nervous talking to strangers and large groups of people, so copped to being pretty apprehensive about the whole thing and exuded an understated charm throughout—getting a big laugh early on from the predominately programmer audience by joking that Shooter employs the same kind of formulas used by astrophysics, which Kessler says always “impresses the ladies.” The average layperson could follow a good portion of Kessler’s talk, but slides showing the math behind the magic, like the one below, which he described as “dead simple,” wouldn’t be out of place in those dreams where you realize you’re not wearing any underwear in the midst of a terrifying math final you didn’t study for:

Still, the concepts governing the nightmarish algebra was pretty fascinating. Only a third of the room had played Shooter (and if you haven’t, you really should check it out) and people were marveling over how they made the PlayStation 3 create the illusion of liquids in the game by breaking them down to fundamental particles that must always maintain a constant distance from each other. (Something Kessler says the Xbox 360 is incapable of doing.) If you have played the game, none of this is news, but having it articulated to you in such a way helps you appreciate it all the more. All those tiny details in games that make you like them all the much more aren’t there by accident: They’re agonized over in sleepless nights by all those names in the credits you button-mash past to skip. Anyway. Kessler confirmed that indeed Shooter 2 is forthcoming as previously announced, but was fearful of saying too much about it so instead erred on the side of caution by leaving it at that. Similarly, I’ll leave it at that for today. Here’s John...

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John Teti

My day started with a demo of Civilization V. The Civ developers deserve praise for how they've managed to improve on a basic concept so compellingly, without any real bum entries in the series. Civilization came out in 1991, so for almost 20 years, they've managed to not screw this thing up. (Even side projects like Civilization Revolution have been pretty good.)

And no, this is not all a prelude to a declaration that Civ 5 breaks the trend and looks terrible. It does look different, though. Most notably, the map is cut up into hexagons instead of squares. The reaction to the "hexes" so far has been positive among Civ fans, which is not a shock—nobody was married to one particular polygon. The even bigger change, anyway, is the new "one unit per hex" rule. Civ warfare has traditionally been waged by what producer Dennis Shirk called "stacks of doom"—a ton of military units all piled onto the same tile to batter an enemy into submission. In Civ 5, you can't stack at all, so positioning your troops matters much more. You have to set up battle lines across wide swaths of territory, flanking comes into play, and the terrain affects your chances of victory more than it used to. I have to say, after seeing the way battles will be fought in this game, stacks seem pretty stupid all of a sudden. There are a bunch of other feature tweaks, but that's not what this blog is for (we can chat in the comments, though). Suffice to say that I'm looking forward to Civ 5

After that, I saw a game demo that I can't tell you about because it's embargoed until next week. Man, there's nothing more irritating to people who write about games than arbitrary embargoes.

The annoyance continued back at the Moscone Center, where I tried to attend a talk on environmental storytelling (at your request!) and got shut out because it was being held in one of the tiniest lecture rooms, and they ran out of room. This was perplexing, as environmental storytelling is the hot hotness in development circles, so the tiny venue was an unforced error on the part of show organizers. But hey, it happens, and most people dealt with it better than the dork who was screaming at hapless show volunteers outside the door that he HAD to be let in. "The panel will be available on video," offered one of the poor, neon-green-shirted helpers. To which screaming dork replied, "Don't you understand? This is ENVIRONMENTAL STORYTELLING. I have to be IN THE ENVIRONMENT." So today at GDC, I discovered a line even douchier than "Don't you know who I am?"

There was no trouble getting into an afternoon talk by independent developer Chris Hecker on the potentially harmful effects of Xbox 360-style achievements. You may remember Hecker as the guy who, at GDC '07, declared that the Wii was a "piece of shit" because it was essentially "two Gamecubes stuck together with duct tape." Hecker, then at Maxis working on Spore, had to apologize, for he had committed the cardinal PR sin of telling the truth.

In his talk today, a less profane but no less lively Hecker dove into the psychological research surrounding rewards. Hecker provided a body of behavioral psych research dating back four or five decades. The research showed that in most cases, outside incentives are not effective in boosting intrinsic motivation to perform interesting tasks (as opposed to "dull" tasks, which are loosely defined as tasks that people wouldn't be motivated to perform anyway). In fact, external rewards tend to diminish people's motivation.

In other, less academic-speak words, if you offer someone a reward for each book they read, their personal motivation to read books will decrease. It becomes more about the reward than the joy of reading. Another example: Research has shown that when parents offer kids cash rewards for getting "A"s in school, the kids' grades tend to go down, not up.

(I'm doing a poor job of summarizing the information because there was a lot to process. Hecker talks very quickly, and his talk was dense and fascinating for the full 45 minutes.)

Hecker is concerned that by offering rewards like achievement points or trophies for in-game accomplishments, game creators are actually reducing the enjoyment that people get from playing games. He also noted that, according to the body of research out there, extrinsic motivators don't work so well to make people want to do interesting tasks, but it does work well for dull tasks. So as game designers fall in love with optimizing their reward systems that keep players coming back, they may unwittingly gravitate toward games that emphasize dull tasks. (Pretty much everyone in the audience assumed he was talking about Farmville et al., but he didn't say this explicitly.)

One of the things that made this lecture so smart is that Hecker didn't try to say anything that the data didn't justify—he didn't overstep his bounds. As he emphasized repeatedly, he just doesn't know if his concerns about game psychology are borne out in reality, for the research isn't there. The title of his talk was "Achievements Considered Harmful?" and he emphasized the question mark. He'd like psychologists or other researchers to dig deeper in the question and see what the long-term psychological effects of achievements are.

Then it was time for the awards show: the Independent Games Festival awards and the Developers Choice Awards. Here are the IGF winners:

Best Student Game: Continuity. We reviewed Continuity in Sawbuck Gamer a couple months ago. A deserving winner.

Technical Excellence: Limbo. This is a gorgeous monochrome side-scroller about a boy walking through a moody wilderness. The lighting and ambience of the game manages to stand out in a field of nominees that was high on visual style.

Excellence In Design: Monaco. A four-player cooperative subterfuge game. If Monaco hadn't won the design award and the grand prize, it would have been an upset. The game has been the talk of the show among indie circles.

Excellence in Audio: Closure. Another game that has made a Sawbuck appearance.

Best Mobile Game: Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor (iTunes link). Another slam-dunk winner. Here's the Sawbuck review.

Excellence In Visual Art: Limbo.

Nuovo Award: Tuning. By Cactus. It looks like a platform game, but it's far stranger than that. It's sort of a puzzle game, in that the puzzle is figuring out how the 3-D space works in each level.

Seumas McNally Grand Prize Award: Monaco.

As for the Developers Choice awards, all you need to know is that Uncharted 2 won pretty much everything. The weirdest moment came from the guy accepting the Best Online Social Game for Facebook game Farmville (who immediately became known among the buzzing attendees as "that Farmville asshole"). He used his acceptance speech to take a swipe at all the indie types who had been trashing his game all week, and then he said that Farmville maker Zynga had plenty of openings, not-so-subtly implying that if any of the indie kids wanted to get a REAL job, they could submit an application. Thus he achieved the impossible feat of making everyone in the room hate Farmville even more.

Second-prize awkward moment: Host Warren Spector came out on stage wearing Mickey Mouse ears. He's working on this game Epic Mickey, see! So he had Mickey ears on! Then he took the Mickey Mouse ears off and put on a Mickey Mouse top hat!

Just to remind you, last year, we had Tim Schafer hosting this thing. So yeah, kind of a dropoff.