In over my head at the Game Developers Conference

, | Games

Sometimes at GDC, I end up going places where I shouldn’t be. It’s like the intellectual equivalent of an MMO where I decide to see what’s over that hill and OMG EVERYTHING IS 20 LEVELS HIGHER THAN ME AND I AM GETTING TEH ONE-SHOTTED!

After the jump, talks that con red

For instance, I went to a talk with the tantalizing title “1000s of zombies, 1000s of problems”. It was about the challenges the developers of Dead Rising 2 faced with their co-op mode. I expected some frank discussion about why the co-op was never tied into the narrative (two Chucks running around for no reason) or even the gameplay (there was no incentive to deal with the hassle of co-op).

Instead, I encountered a dry technical discussion featuring screenshots of debugging tools to monitor network traffic and bytes and object properties and, uh, other stuff. To be fair, it was my own fault for not caring about the category of the discussion. This one was clearly labeled for programmers. Which I’m not. Although one talk I heard suggested that anyone interested in game design should learn programming. Not gonna happen. I’ll learn Spanish before I learn Four Trans or Sea Plus or whatever.

My other misstep was a talk on what CCGs can teach videogames. I like CCGs. I like videogames. Perfect, right? Well, not really. It was very businessy. I knew this was going to be the case early on when the speaker, one of the main guys at Wizards of the Coast, started calling CCGs “distributed object games”. Which reminds me, my favorite term at this year’s GDC was someone making a chart to explain fun as “exotelic aspiration”. There was a brief window of about six or seven minutes during the talk when I thought I understood the concept. That window has since slammed shut.

GDC is a bit like being back in school, and that’s great most of the time. For instance, I love how many speakers carefully — and rightly — dance around the word fun. As a writer, that’s a word I avoid because it’s a 99% useless way to communicate anything meaningful. I get the sense that game developers, having spent years trying to communicate things to each other, know the word is useless. It’s a shame that so many writers, who supposedly communicate things for a living, haven’t figured this out yet.

My favorite misstep at this year’s GDC was stepping into Clint Hocking’s talk on dynamics. That one was way over my head, but it was absolutely not dry or dull. Here’s a smart guy who wasn’t going to talk down to me. Instead, I had to listen up to him. Fair enough. It’s the least I can do for the guy who made Far Cry 2. The end result was a fascinating examination of the interplay among mechanics, meaning, and aesthetics. What do I do in a game? Why do I do it? And how does it make me feel? Hocking’s talk was a lens through which to consider games. For instance, what if Tetris was a game about packing Jews into concentration camps? Yeah, it sounds ridiculous, but Hocking used the concept to slam home an important point about the distinction between mechanics and meaning. It was at once lurid, intellectual, and accessible.

Hocking’s talk also featured one of the most unpleasant surprises at this year’s GDC. Did you know Hocking is at LucasArts now? Egad.