I attended the Game Developers Conference up in San Francisco this year.
This was my first GDC, and I got a lot out of it - interesting discussions, meeting lots of like-minded strangers, and reuniting with friends I haven’t seen in years. It was held for about a week starting on February 28, so the timing on this writeup is comically poor. (let’s pretend you’re reading this a couple months ago.)
I loved hearing Andy Schatz talk about Monaco’s history, namely, in how Monaco originated as a side-project borne out of frustration from another project. In a matter of weeks, this quick ‘n dirty diversion became an amazing full-fledged game (that’s at the top of my “things I gotta play” list).
I imagine this happens surprisingly often. My game Flotilla bore a similar development cycle - Flotilla began as something to take my mind off another project that was being pouty with me (a very early version of Atom Zombie Smasher). I wanted to teach myself how to code 3D graphics, and Flotilla’s space combat fit the bill.
This also reminded me of something my college professor said. He said that viewers can instantly recognize whether the filmmakers enjoyed making the film. Enthusiasm and energy have a way of just leaping off the screen. Alas, the opposite is also true - if you or your team is miserable, your misery and disgruntledness just oozes out of your work.
I wrote about Eric Chahi in a previous post, but one thing I wanted to add was how _crazy _is it that just one guy made the entirety of Another World. There’s such a beautiful recklessness in Another World’s design.
This was one of the best talks of the conference. Chris Crawford talked about very early video games & development and compared them against their modern counterparts. It was fascinating to see how in a lot of ways, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
It brought to my mind what I think is one of the more exciting aspects of small-studio independent development: failures are okay. Development time is fast enough and cheap enough to absorb failed experiments. Sinking and making a new & better rowboat is do-able. Sinking and making a new mile-long oil tanker? Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin to do.
It was a joy listening to Peter Molyneux talk about Bullfrog’s history and Populous’ development. I especially loved hearing how much of the game design was made ad-hoc through happy accidents, futzing around in multiplayer, and discovering via the debug tools that “hey, lowering and raising terrain is actually kinda fun.” I love that excitement of discovery, and game development provides no shortage of it.
When you take a look at Bullfrog’s work, it’s really quite spectacular to see how diverse and forward-thinking their lineup is. Populous, Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper. The fact that all of those came from one company is very impressive.
There was a great surprise at the end of his talk. He fired up Visual Studio C++ on his system and attempted to compile his pet project. It unceremoniously fizzled out several compile errors. He eventually tracked down a pre-compiled binary and ran it.
It was Populous! But not just Populous, it was Populous with all the niceties you’d expect from a current game. The UI was modernized, the screen resolution was crispy, and multiplayer supported 256 players. It was wonderful to see that an established developer like Mr. Molyneux still enjoyed mucking around in the code on fun hobby projects.
(doubly fun when you realize this Populous redux will likely never see the light of day due to legal/licensing reasons)
Strategy Games panel
This was a nice way to end the last day of GDC. The panel was a who’s-who of strategy game developers - lead designers of Starcraft II, Civ 4, Civ 5, and the Age of Empires games. One point brought up was the need to streamline strategy games, a genre often characterized with over-complexity and obtuse UI. I couldn’t agree more. I feel the user experience is of utmost importance - getting lost in a bank of 100 UI buttons is rarely a good way to start a game.
And to top it off, my game Atom Zombie Smasher was mentioned by the moderator Tom Chick during this panel talk. It caught me completely off-guard. Somehow, I managed to resist the temptation to whisper to my neighbor, “I totally made that game!“