GDC 2010: Enjoyed and Annoyed

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I’m finally back in the saddle after a week in lovely San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference. GDC’s always a lot to take in but here are the things that made the deepest impressions on me.

Biggest Surprise:

NBA Jam

I’m not much of a sports gamer, but I went to EA Sports’ event last Tuesday to find out just what the House of Madden had up their sleeve. Rumors were that there’d be a major announcement, which wound up being news of EA Sports Active: More Workouts, an expansion pack to the popular fitness title. I was ready to rule the night out as a bust until I got my hands on the in-progress revamp of NBA Jam. Jam’s probably my favorite sports game of all time and I’d been wary about the news that EA was going to release a new version on the Wii. But the build I played on with USA Today’s Mike Snider felt responsive and smooth, with 2D faces and wacky animations paired up with very realistic player models. Though I did manage to get Shaq on fire once during our match up with the Lakers, I never broke the backboard. The chance to do that, along with the fast pace and easy controls, will make me come back for more.

One to Watch:

Spy Party

The best thing about GDC is that it’s a chance to get up close and rub elbows with the folks who make the games. Getting to tell Dylan Cuthbert of Q Games how much I love PixelJunk Eden or mentioning to Ubisoft’s Clint Hocking that I appreciated having a Haitian playable character in Far Cry 2 doesn’t happen just everyday. This year, the unique opportunity I got was a very early look at Chris Hecker’s Spy Party. Hecker worked on Spore and is somewhat infamous for his hyper-intelligent, occasionally prickly rants at GDC. He’s struck out on his own after Spore shipped and Spy Party’s been the focus of his efforts since then. The game’s premise is super-simple: one player assumes the role of a spy and must complete up to four missions in a one-room crowded cocktail party. The other person plays as a sniper watching the party and his job is to kill the spy. As the spy moves about the room doing his missions–bugging the ambassador, swapping out a book from one bookshelf to another–he’s always aware of the laser sight of the sniper trying to pick him out of the crowd. For the sniper’s part, it’s very difficult to distinguish who the other player’s controlling and you can wind up shooting a civilian which ends the game. Even in its pre-natal form, Spy Party does a great job of creating a new kind of multiplayer psychological tension. It’s something that wasn’t even on my GDC agenda, yet it wound up rocking my world. Hecker says that it’ll be at least two years before Spy Party sees the light of day but, unless something radical changes, it’ll be worth the wait.

Best Takeaway:

Sid Meier’s Keynote

The other best thing about GDC is learning about how game makers think about their craft. The man behind the legendary Civilization franchise dropped mad game-design science on Thursday morning, with a talk titled The Psychology of Game Design: Everything You Know Is Wrong. It’s really too much to sum up here but Meier used examples from his own work to talk about right and wrong ways to engage the player into suspending disbelief and wanting to play more. One fascinating bit centered on protecting the players from themselves and how giving too much control over settings or loading and saving to the user can cause them to self-sabotage their own experience. Meier talked about how any game should an Epic Journey and his keynote certainly took me on one.

Worst Invocation of Secrecy:

Hunted: the Demon’s Forge

Bethesda Softworks put out the blockbuster hit Fallout 3 more than two years ago, so when they sent out an invitation to come see a new game during GDC, I jumped on board right away. Folks speculated as to what Bethesda might be showing: would it be Fallout: New Vegas, a new Elder Scrolls announcement, a sequel to Wet? When the curtains were finally pulled back, the game in question was Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, which is being developed by inExile entertainment. While the fact that Brian Fargo, one of the guiding lights behind Baldur’s Gate and The Bard’s Tale, is involved adds points to Hunted’s pedigree, the stuff I saw seemed to early to be secretive about. Right now, the game looks like a mix of melee, ranged and magic-based action and exploration. Think Gears of War meets Lord of the Rings. I’m not mad at the possibilities of the game to come, but I’ve never been a fan of cloak-and-dagger game reveals.

Biggest Travesty:

Assassin’s Creed 2 being shut-out at GDC Awards

Look, I loved Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I really did. But it wasn’t the only well-made game out there last year. Among Thieves built on the successes of its predecessor in really strong ways and added clever multiplayer modes. But, when you compare the Uncharted series’ evolution to that of Assassins’ Creed, I think that the Ubisoft Montreal team that brought us Ezio’s adventures achieved the greater feat. They meshed together free-running, varied tiers of weapons combat and a bunch of strategy systems in a way that created a seamless, living open-world experience. Whether you used courtesans or hired thieves to distract guards or went in with gun and sword, AC2 gave you an astonishing amount of flexibility to play how you wanted. It was clearly a tough game to make well and should’ve gotten some love for that accomplishment.

I’ll have some more reports from my time at GDC later this week.

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