GDC 2011 Preview: Randy Smith

GDC 2011 Preview: Randy Smith

This week, we've asked the speakers of some of the most promising sessions at next week's Game Developers Conference to write for us about their presentations. We start with Randy Smith, who began his career at Looking Glass Studios in 1998 working on the Thief games, which he continued to do when the series moved to Austin-based Ion Storm. After this, he was appointed creative director at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles before founding Tiger Style Games, releasing Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor for iOS in 2009. Smith is an Edge columnist.

I’m honored to present at the Indie Game Summit for the second time. Compared to the Main Conference, the Indie Summit has an exciting “off the rails” energy which frees us to be more innovative with presentation material, less buttoned up and quantified. This year I’m sharing Tiger Style’s work in progress and some of the design ideas we’re experimenting with, specifically around the topic of “player expression.” My secret ambition is to inspire fellow indie developers to run experiments of their own, essentially suggesting to them a chemistry set of design tools they could play with. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream developer bashing out a game concept based on something like this, but it’s not impossible that an indie developer would thread it into their work, or even see what happens when you take one of these tools and crank the knob to 11.

We were very proud of our first game, Spider, but something troubled me: the game implied it supported more player expression than it really did. We even claimed you could “draw webs of your own design” which is true in terms of gameplay. But when I think of expressive web building, I think of Charlotte’s Web – suppose you could draw pictures or write words (“SOME PIG!”) with spider silk. Even if it were less artistic in nature, it would be interesting if some parameters of your web building factored into which insects you could catch, or something like that.

Tiger Style's Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor

We erred on the side of approachability for Spider, but we wanted to support more player expression for our new project, a sci-fi game set in a cave on Mars, which we'll be demoing a bit of to illustrate our work. We spent a while contemplating what player expression really means and the different ways it manifests in games. In a way, any player choice is an expression of a sort. Choosing dialog from a menu is an expression. Picking out equipment is an expression. Building the world in Minecraft is expressive. Games such Spelunky or Super Smash Bros with more tactical range and depth provide the player with options about which tools or which characters to focus on, essentially empowering expression of play style.

Many games let you customize the look of your avatar, such as Rock Band and Fallout. In Fallout your equipment is both a significant part of the gameplay and your character’s appearance. This reminds me of a more primitive example of the same concept: Nintendo Ice Hockey (circa 1988) in which you could fill your team with skinny, big, and medium sized players, each of which had different hockey-relevant attributes. This is the part of the phenomenon that intrigues me most: expressions tied to gameplay relevance. Some of the player expression I find most fascinating is when players choose to accommodate suboptimal gameplay side-effects for the sake of a particular expression, whether that’s being flashy, or goofy, or undertaking extra risk to prove they can, or any of a number or other examples. People build the most beautiful and interesting ships in Captain Forever, and then they have to attempt to pilot them to victory. What is this phenomenon all about? What does it bring to games? How do we do more, and else can be accomplished?

Mojang's Minecraft

There are also plenty of examples of games that seem like they should be very expressive, but in practice you can observe evidence that players are making choices for non-expressive reasons. Scrabble, for example, seems like it would be a game about thinking up interesting words, and it is, but it’s easy to observe that the scoring system drives players to pick words for point value in a way that leaves no room for expression. This also happens in games: the more the content and system design drives players to optimize, the less freedom they have for pure expression. This is what I mean in the title of the talk by “Leave Enough Room.” How do we as designers find our way off the stage so players can find their way onto it?

Ultimately, player expression is interesting to me because it is so close to the core of what makes our medium unique: the promise that you can not just observe, but participate in the artistic experience. Unlike fancy real-time rendering, player expression is more about developer imagination than brawn, putting it well within the reach of even a small indie studio. In fact, as games like Minecraft and Infinite Blank show us, indie studios are often the ones to lead the way into these new frontiers.

Tomorrow Ron Carmel, one of the people behind World Of Goo, will discuss his upcoming GDC presention.