MonthMarch 2018

Reflections and Lessons from GDC 2018

For the last 4 years, one of my favourite times of the year has been the week in March marked by the Game Developer Conference, or GDC for short. It’s the biggest game conference in North America, and attracts a bajillion extremely interesting and inspiring people. This year, we were fortunate enough to bring the whole team. Our goals included some team bonding, learning, keeping up business relationships, and more. I definitely think we succeeded, and wanted to share a few of the most important things that I learned. I hope this post will be useful to game developers and non-developers alike.

First off, talking to the amazing devs at GDC for me thinking about Ultimate Chicken Horse and about its future. I’ve had a bit of a feeling that we’ve been working on the project for a long time, and I want to start working on new stuff… but on the other hand, the game is doing well, the community is great, and there’s still a lot of potential. So what’s next for the future of UCH? I didn’t outright ask people their opinion on this, but it was somewhat obvious that it is / was on my mind, so I got a lot of feedback on it. Do we want to go more casual and community-heavy? Do we want to add more mechanics to level the playing field, like Mariokart-style? Do we want to go more competitive? What’s required if we do that? How can we improve the tech? What does the community want? Do we have the funds to hire more people, and if so, what will they work on? I won’t go into too much detail here about my thoughts on the matter, because I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up (or down) before the team talks about it and decides what’s next, but it’s definitely on my mind more than it was before.

Many, many games come from game jams or quick prototypes.

It feels like the majority of the successful indie games that I saw at the conference started off as game jam ideas. This was the case for Ultimate Chicken Horse, and it doesn’t really surprise me that it’s the same for many other games. It seems like game jams are a good way not only to practice skills, but also to come up with great ideas. There’s some fairly common wisdom that it’s easier to be creative given some constraints, and without thematic or timing constraints I think it can be easy to stare at a blank page forever, waiting for the next revolutionary idea to pop out of your brain. Even in the AAA studios, some of the games came from quick pitches from someone who wasn’t an owner or creative director at the company. These were as simple as a short presentation with some mechanics and some concept art, and they were off to the races. Of course, I should emphasize that it’s absolutely critical to be able to kill the project early on if it’s not working, but that’s the case whether it came from a game jam or any other method.

Ask. Just ask!

We’ve been pretty good at this, as I’m somewhat shameless when approaching people for help. But it works! You’ll never know how much you could be missing if you don’t ask other developers, publishers, platform holders, friends, family, etc. for help. The industry has a lot of wisdom that it’s very willing to share if you’re able to overcome the shame of not wanting to bug people… so do it!

Different ways work for different people, there is no right way. This point is actually what my talk with Tanya Short (Kitfox Games) was about, though we looked at it from the business side. We talked about general things that should be considered: burn rates, revenue sources, projections, diversification of studio into multiple projects or not, etc. But I also spoke to people about the creative process, and it was interesting to hear some pretty opposite views.

The big one that stood out to me was when I was talking to someone about coming up with content updates. He said that he tries to envision what the trailer for the update will look like– that is, what’s interesting that the public will latch on to, before starting work. The idea there is that a patch with a bunch of bug fixes and user interface improvements isn’t enough to get people excited, and the trailer helps guide the production toward something useful and exciting. On the other hand, some people like to go the more organic route and play around until they find something that works well. It’s not marketing-driven and is easier to get early feedback on, but whether one way is better than the other is really up to the studio. And as with anything in this industry, many different strategies can work!

You need to build a community before launch.

This is actually a bigger topic, and I’m going to write a full article on Gamasutra and my personal website about this sometime soon. The basic idea is that you give yourself a much better chance at success if you’ve created a community around your game before the game launches.

On a less educational note, there were a couple of highlights that I wanted to point out from the conference this year, that include talks and just general feelings.

The first one of those was my favourite talk, the ‘Composer Confessions 2’ session. The talk was done last year as well, and it brings together five composers to talk about some times that they’ve screwed up and what they learned. I’ve always had a very strong personal interest in game music, and I like to write some myself (even though I’m not nearly professional), so it’s really inspiring to hear people like Austin Wintory (Journey, Assassin’s Creed, Tooth and Tail), Gareth Coker (Ori and the Blind Forest, ARK), Darren Korb (Bastion, Transistor, Pyre), Peter McConnell (Hearthstone, Psychonauts), and Gordy Haab (Battlefront 1 & 2, Halo Wars) talk about their craft.

I only mentioned a couple of the games they each worked on, but there’s a ton more and these guys are absolute legends in the field. Some of the main lessons included making sure to delegate work and not be a control freak, learning to accept what the client wants even if it’s against what your musical instincts tell you, and learning to show completed examples instead of work in progress because producers can’t imagine the finished product in the same way musicians or the composer can. Beyond that, the talk was hilarious. Each person had a 10 minute slot to talk about whatever they wanted, and somehow they all ended up being hugely entertaining and funny.

Another thing that I really liked was THAT Party, a party I hadn’t been to before because tickets sell out super quick and I had other, more “businessy” parties to go to each year. This time I went and I found it really nice to see and meet some indies that I haven’t met, but also to be able to “party” in more of a traditional sense, with drinking and dancing and such. This isn’t because I’m a natural born party animal, but rather because I like the idea of moving from the business contact mentality to the friend mentality, so a mix of that combined with more professional cocktails was nice this year.

Beyond that, I feel like our team had a good chance to bond– not necessarily all of us at once around a table, but in pairs that would split off as we walked places, shared hotel rooms, and talked about non-game stuff together.

Alright, so it looks like this post has become huge and I should probably stop writing before everyone falls asleep. Thanks for reading if you made it this far, and I’ll have more articles coming soon so check the website or follow me on Twitter @RichMakesGames for updates.

Some of My Favourite Design Elements in Super Mario Odyssey

Recently, I’ve been trying to look at games through more of a designer lens. In order to improve my design abilities, I think it’s important to look at games as a designer. This means thinking about the choices that were made while designing the game, the levels, and the systems, as well as trying to understand what an average user would experience in your position.

That being said, I finally started Super Mario Odyssey last weekend. I know, I’m late to the party. If you’ve ever played it, you already know that it’s great. But I wanted to talk about some of the things that I think the average gamer might not have noticed, but are really fantastic design elements or layers of polish. These are things that even independent developers on a tight budget can do in their games, so I think they’re important to talk about.

The first two involve the level design, and the clarity with which the player is directed through the level. Firstly, players can always see where they need to go without looking at a map, and yet don’t feel forced to follow a path because of the opportunity for exploration. The thing is, the opportunity for exploration is very carefully given to you. When the game wants you to go somewhere and not step out of line, it shows you clearly. In the below image, this is the part right before encountering a boss. Behind Mario is a ton of open space to be explored, and in front is a clear goal without distractions or options:

The game strikes a nice balance of making you feel like you can explore and wander off and discover things on your own, while still giving you a very linear path to follow, similar to how Ocarina of Time on N64 felt.

The second level design point is that the game doesn’t just aimlessly add places to explore in the levels. I’ve seen some games where it seems like the mentality was “the level looks too much like a boring square, let’s add some nooks and crannies”… and it’s awful.

In Odyssey, every time you explore a place you haven’t seen before,
you get rewarded.

These rewards can be seeing cool stuff, finding things you’ll interact with later, finding a Power Moon, or finding a mini-game (which leads to a Power Moon, as shown below).

Another game that did this really, really well was the new (2016) DOOM game. The level design was obviously quite a bit more complex than in Mario, but it trained the player well in the same way. It gave the player options to explore that were somewhat hidden, but once the player had decided “okay, I’m going to check this out” it always gave a reward. In the image below, let’s say the pink arrow is the story / linear path, the green path would be shown with some hints or a semi-broken door, and the player would explore.

This trained the player to look for hidden things and secrets (apart from the game obviously telling you that there are “secrets” in the levels), and so when a player felt that there was a hidden path, they would explore it.

This is where DOOM and Mario both do magic; you never have the disappointing experience of “Oh, I was sure there would be something here” or “Why can’t I do that? I expected it would lead me somewhere”. Those feelings are bad for design because they break the immersion by breaking the rules that the designer had created previously for the universe / game / level. Both games reward your exploration and you don’t even feel like exploring in the places where the game doesn’t want you to explore, because it directs you through those places well.

The next main point I wanted to talk about was the purchasing system for outfits. In Mario Odyssey, you can purchase things from a shop at the beginning of the kingdom you’re in. There are two currencies, the regular coins and one that is specific to the kingdom.

Some of the options in there include Power Moons, but also include custom outfits or souvenirs from the region which you keep with you on your ship as you travel throughout the game. This is super, super cool. Character customization stuff is always cool, and seeing it in Mario is certainly unexpected, but that’s not what I find so interesting about this game design choice. What I find interesting is that

The game rewards you based on the effort you’ve put in, leaving you feeling more accomplished than simply having “beaten a level”.

This ability to purchase allows you to choose your reward, choose what you value in the game, and creates a feeling of a collection challenge. Some people like to try to finish everything in a game (they’re called completionists). I’m not one of them, but, with this new feature I really want to go back and get all of the kingdom-specific currency in order to buy all of the cool things in the region. As it stands, I moved forward but made sure I had at least one physical souvenir from each kingdom and that I unlocked all of the outfits; that left me feeling satisfied and accomplished, much more so than simply “you beat the level”… which is easy enough in most Mario games.

As far as polish goes, there were a couple of things I noticed in the first couple of hours of gameplay. Personally, I love it when games throw me off and react to something that I do when I don’t expect it.

When you encounter this sphinx (it makes more sense in the desert level, even though it’s kind of Mexican themed and there are ancient Egyptian style ruins and a sphinx…), it asks you a “riddle” to pass. I tried climbing on it to get somewhere at one point, and your magical hat says to you “Er, Mario? You’re not a hat.” There are a few minor things like this that I found really great.

Another one I noticed was that when you move into 2D mode with Mario wearing an outfit, he keeps the outfit on and they made a pixel art version of this. It’s somewhat logical, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it just defaulted to the regular Mario… I was pleasantly surprised. Surely there are many other little things like this, but I really appreciate that extra effort that the developers made.

That’s all for this time, I just wanted to jot down some of my ideas and hopefully some other game designers can read this and get inspired by some of the choices made by the Nintendo team. And if you haven’t played it, I highly suggest it… I’ll be getting back to it as soon as I can!