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9 Games Industry Veterans Offer Insight at GDC Microtalks

The Game Developers’ Conference is packed full of fascinating talks, where the industry’s biggest names can present and expand on aspects of game design that they find particularly interesting. But what happens when the speaker is only given approximately six minutes and 20 slides to give a full presentation? You get GDC’s Microtalks session.

This year’s GDC played host to the eleventh Microtalks session, and the topic was “Lightning Fast Game Design.” Working within the constraints of the Microtalks parameters, nine speakers each gave a short presentation about overcoming common problems in game development. The roster of developers included Ryan Smith, the director of Insomniac’s “Spider-Man,” Jennifer Scheurle, lead designer at ArenaNet, and Lauren Scott, systems designer at Double Fine.

Opening up the session was Nicky Case, the developer behind “Coming Out Simulator 2014.” Case’s presentation centered around cognitive psychology and human memory. According to Case, thanks to the limits of short-term memory, the human mind can only really handle four “chunks” of new information at a time. For this reason, it may not be wise for game developers to frontload their games with tutorials. It makes more sense, Case said, to spread tutorials for new mechanics out over a longer period of time and let our long-term memory do its job.

“Long-term memory is pretty awesome,” Case said. “It’s why you never forget how to ride a bike. It’s why you know over ten-thousand words in your native language.”

Because long-term memory is more reliable than our ability to absorb loads of new information all at once, Case suggested introducing new mechanics to players at a slower, more deliberate pace. Let the core mechanics become a part of the long-term memory before introducing twists on the formula.

In her talk, Double-Fine’s Lauren Scott distilled the game development process into three symbolic roles: the historian, the detective, and the doctor. The process only goes smoothly if all three are working in tandem, she said.

“[The historian’s] specialty is collecting the bygone information of a project and making sense of it,” Scott told the audience. “She must use the evidence she finds to piece together what her foredesigners intended, interpreting without bias, but with opinion.” In short, the historian keeps the project’s ultimate goals in mind.

The detective’s job is questioning the historical facts and subjective present issues in the game. Basically, it falls to the detective to ensure the factual accuracy of a project.  

Finally, Scott described the role of the doctor. “She must treat the problems, obviously,” she said. “But, as the doctor, the designer knows that she’s working with an already-living, breathing body–she can’t just yank the problem out.” It takes careful consideration and a steady hand to right a project that’s taken a wrong turn.

For “Spider-Man” director Ryan Smith, the “fantasy of the familiar” is a pillar of game design, which is the sense of “I’ve always wanted to do that.” In this case, it’s stepping into the shoes of Spider-Man. Then, once that fantasy has been realized in a conceptual form, Smith said that the developer ought to build the game’s mechanics around the character.

“You need to think about that character, and figure out what things make that character special,” he said. “Then you need to put those things in your game.” In this case, the web swinging and agile combat.

Also central to Smith’s design philosophy is the idea of iteration, refining an idea via rigorous testing. “Ultimately, iteration is the key to the entire design process,” he said. “So don’t get too attached to the design you have in your head or that you wrote down at the start. The only thing that really matters is how it works in-game.”

Closing out the Microtalks was Mohini Dutta, senior product designer at Tumblr. Dutta tackled a more philosophical angle of game development: the question of whether or not it’s okay to be making games in a climate of global catastrophe. With political strife, war, and intolerance rampant in the world, should games be a priority? The answer, she said, is of course.

“Games are made for players, and players are human actors with agency with in-game systems,” Dutta said. “The keyword here is ‘agency.’ Knowing you have the power to change the outcome of the story is powerful.”

Beyond offering a sense of agency, games also help us understand our world, according to Dutta. Even in far-flung, fantastical games, systems are grounded in our world. As she put it, “games are speculative fiction for real-world systems.” This means even the most outrageous of game concepts can offer us clues to how our world works. This, Dutta said, is a landmark argument for games in a time of global strife.

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