Obsession In Game Design

What obsessions plague our top independent game designers today? What theories keep them up at night? What possibilities blow their minds, challenge their presumptions and make them sound like a bunch of philosophical hippies after two bottles of ice wine and carton of black bean hummus?

Kellee Santiago (fl0w), Jon Mak (Everyday Shooter) and Pekko Koskinen (LudoCraft) told us of their obsessions during our first session of GDC's Independent Games Summit. And these simple ideas that make their minds spin forced us rethink games a bit as well.

Kellee Santiago
Her obsessions: Intrinsic Rewards and Linear Gameplay

Kellee Santiago has been scratching her head over this idea of intrinsic rewards in games—rewards born from the game's construct itself. She illustrates the idea through Steven Spieldberg's "Director's Chair," a game in which players learn how to make a movie, make it and are "rewarded" with a movie. This game, from 1996 I believe, has been rocking her world a bit.

She then questioned the intersection between these intrinsic rewards and linear gameplay: are longer games better? Santiago points out that our current review system values length, not necessarily quality—which is ironically flawed since none of us have all that much time to begin with. She concludes, how many awards it has and how long it takes are not indicative of a game's quality.

Jon Mak
His obsession: Input/Output Theory

Mak explains that video games are a balance between inputs (users hitting buttons) and outputs (pretty graphics and sound). But he argues that the output—the superficial—may actually be the more important part of gaming.

He loads a small tech demo he designed of a red ball that can jump up and down. It's pretty boring, he explains. But when doing nothing to the controls and merely adding more eye-catching animations (the ball squeezes and squishes like a cartoon as it hops), he thinks that the "game" gets far more interesting. And the thing is, he's freaking right. In shameful predictability, I want to play Red Ball Jumps Up And Down: The Game. Where do I enter my credit card info?

He wonders if the next logical step is designing a game in which the player pushes the same button over and over, making new, interesting things happen on the screen. Then he wonders jokingly if this game has been made already: Guitar Hero.

Pekko Koskinen
Obsession: How can games play in any medium, and what does this mean?

Koskinen took a turn for the theoretical, immediately boiling down "video games" to the idea of just "games." He argues that games transcend their medium (you can play chess on a computer screen, with physical pieces or in your head) while other forms are "rooted in their media" (a painting is no longer a painting without paint).

Ed note: I think that, maybe, Koskinen is comparing unlike categories. For instance, if we say a movie is not a movie without film, it's a bit unfair to compare that to a game. "Games" makes a huge category probably better compared to something broad like "story," in which case we see this same media transcendence.

Koskinen continues that games boil down to a series of fictional player behaviors, ultimately meaning that the game exists in the player. Koskinen is fascinated with developers not necessary designing games, but designing "lenses" for these player/games to view the world. "Game design" then becomes something broader, like personality design or even life design. The game can then just be a lens on top of ""how we walk to the bus stop," for instance.

Mak responds that maybe this is where his own arguments on input/output theory fall short because, as he so simply puts it, "The game is playing you."

And if you got this far, I hope you feel compelled to discuss some of these ideas on the comments. Our brains are too tired.


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