Denis Dyack (‘Too Human’), Matthew Karch (‘Time Shift’) Couldn’t Disagree More On Role of Story in Games (GDC 2008)

Nine times out of 10, developers get along with one another at the Game Developers Conference. That wasn’t the case at this morning’s “The Future of Story in Game Design” panel.

Though five members of the industry were featured, the fireworks were clearly between two in particular. Denis Dyack, President of Silicon Knights and Director of “Too Human,” and Matthew Karch, Co-owner and Game Designer at “TimeShift” developer Saber 3D, were visibly and verbally butting heads over the importance of story in video games in the future.

The two split on basic philosophies of game development. Dyack, always the passionate visionary, said developers need to stop designing games based upon a gameplay mechanic. “Too Human,” he said, came from a desire to comment on the continued melding of humans and technology. Karch, however, said gameplay is king and any story elements acts as a support for that gameplay, a motivating factor to keep going.

Karch pointed to some of the best selling games of last year, “Call of Duty 4″ and “Halo 3,” suggesting that their phenomenal sales had little to do with the narrative. “Yeah, there’s stories [in these games], but I don’t think people played those games for the stories,” said Karch, who believes the visuals and visceral gameplay of both games were the main draw. “We can pretend that we want to elevate games to the level of Shakespeare, but the reality is, the audience that we’re dealing with today wants that [gameplay focus].”

You might guess that Dyack vehemently disagreed with Karch’s assessment. Read on to find out his reactions (one of many) to Karch during the panel’s hour-long debate.

“I have to say that I completely, absolutely, horribly disagree, and this whole school of thought where people think videogames cannot aspire to serious literature is completely –” said Dyack, before being cut off by Karch.

“That’s not what I’m saying!” claimed Karch.

“Half-Life 2″ then entered the debate. Dyack suggested Valve’s shooter wasn’t story driven, while Karch believed it was, but that’s not why people played it.

The shooter talk didn’t end, either, as Dyack showed his respects for what id Software’s “DOOM” brought to the table when it was released, but criticized that the runaway success of the horror shooter skewed the industry into almost exclusively producing storytelling in the first-person-perspective. As you might imagine, Silicon Knights’ games are primarily placed in the third person.

That quickly elicited a response from another panel member, Tim Willits, Co-owner and Creative Director at id Software, who quickly took a jab of his own. “Too often there are game designers who take themselves way too seriously,” he joked to the crowd. Willits seemed to side with Karch, as he wondered why you’d obsess over story when that’s not necessarily what will end up driving sales in the marketplace.

“Portal” and “Mass Effect” quickly became the counterpoints to that argument, but as the arguments danced between playful and surprisingly tense, it was clear Dyack and Karch weren’t going to find much common ground with one another.

Even the moderator chimed in in, suggesting Karch’s philosophies were more in line with the money-making mentality of a publisher, rather than the idealistic visions of someone like Dyack. Karch didn’t appear to disagree with this assessment. “It’s about making money,” he said. “No money, no games industry.”

Readers, is he right? Or do the sales of the story-driven “BioShock” and “The Orange Box” suggest the two philosophies can exist harmoniously in the marketplace?