GDC — Starts With Two Head-Spinning Ideas About Video Games

San Francisco — You know you’re at the Game Developers Conference and not E3 when you leave a panel talking to your friends about ideas, not games or products.

As I left the kick-off panel for the Independent Games Summit — a satellite event of GDC running today and tomorrow (when I’ll be speaking), my head was spinning. I had just heard two provocative ideas I’d like to share.

The panel included Jonathan Mak, the one-man band responsible for the PlayStation 3’s “Everyday Shooter.” Mak is young, but he presents his ideas with an old-school touch: he didn’t navigate his laptop, which was projected onto a big screen, by using Windows. He types his commands right into his computer. And when a sample game he was running to make a point wasn’t displaying a bouncing red ball well enough, he jumped right into the code and reprogrammed it, on the fly.

Mak’s idea: Arguments about gameplay vs graphics don’t lead to any useful conclusions. Instead, think of games as a system of inputs and outputs. Press a red button at the right time and rock music plays: you’ve got “Guitar Hero,” proof that a rudimentary input, if triggering an engaging output (rock music), can make for a great game.

His idea expanded more –> See that picture at the top of this post? That’s “Everyday Shooter” as represented by Mak in the form of game icons. He showed that running in motion.

Does it look familiar? It’s the same as the image here. But now you’re seeing it with the graphics turned on. Now you’re seeing it with a more engaging output.

So what makes the game fun and satisfying? The input? The output? Mak said he was bored by “Call of Duty 3,” but thought he’d love it if it looked like ’Rez.'” Where that leads him, he’s not sure.

That was one interesting idea, amplified by Mak’s demonstration of a bouncing red ball he was controlling with “Mario“-style jump and run commands. It only looked engaging when he added a shadow, a propeller and some squishiness to the ball — all outputs representing his inputs. Subjective, but compelling. Outputs and inputs working together.

Then came the second head-spinner:

Mak’s ideas were interesting, but it was the brainstorm from game designer Pekko Koskinen that got me really thinking. He was trying to identify where games come from and what they really do.

He came up with this: “Can’t we then think of game design as an art of fictional behavior? You can think of game design as you coming up with a pattern of behavior” and then creating a game that brings that behavior about. He had started by talking about chess, about how the rules of that game are explained through the board and pieces, but how a player of chess internalizes those rules and then adopts them as a method of behavior. Chess causes its player to do things the player wouldn’t otherwise normally do, even if those actions only occur during the moments they are playing chess.

So think about how a game transforms the player.

That’s where Koskinen ended up. He asked a room full of developers: “Can we design a player in the same way we design a game? Can we make the player the product, in some instances, as well as the game? I think we can.” He took one more leap: “We can design personalities and design how we live through our lives, how we walk to the bus stop.” Game designers could do this, by creating games that change the way we act.

Can game designers re-make me in their own image?

Mak brought it around full circle: “The game is playing you. Its input to you is what you think is output.”

It got me thinking a lot, about what games do to me, and about what games might be able to do in the future. As I said, my head was spinning.