This year’s Game Developers Conference, held in March in San Francisco, truly represented the current tension in game design between remote player experiences and a strong, local multiplayer movement that relies on collaboration and socialization in the physical rather than the strictly digital.
One noticeable trend at the conference is that games or interactive art objects designed for mobile devices are no longer afraid to build slow experiences brimming with intent and craft. 80 Days, by Inkle, is a strong example in its crafting of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days into a narrative adventure game that often has the player wait patiently while the characters travel the world. It’s not a quick tap-tap game, but rather a long tale that unfolds and weaves together a unique world. I’m always interested in fostering player agency within an experience, and the interactive narrative design of 80 Days hits a sweet spot between choice, chance and world-building that should be investigated for storytellers and designers alike.
Breaking Down the Screen Barrier to Socialization
Bounden, a game by Game Oven in collaboration with the Dutch National Ballet, extends the small mobile game into the physical space by asking partners to roll a marble around a ball-shaped puzzle by each holding a corner of the device and moving their bodies. The game is beautiful to watch as it makes each player as close to a ballerina as they’ve ever come (barring actual ballerinas, of course). The game has to be experienced to be understood.
Here at ESI Design, I’m constantly pushing against the barriers to socialization that a digital device can bring to an experience. In other words, how do I get participants to play, collaborate and learn with digital support rather than digital oversight? Bounden seemed to be a complete success in breaking down the screen barrier that can occasionally hinder collaboration.
Unexpected Treasures and Delights
Another great find at the GDC was Line Wobbler, created by Robin Baumgarten. From their website: “Line Wobbler is a one-dimensional dungeon crawler game with a unique wobble controller made out of an upside-down shoe tree and a several meters-long ultra-bright LED strip display.” This unexpected treasure was spotted in the Alt Control section at GDC amongst the weird and unique collection of non-traditional game types and physical representation. This is game design at its purest and most abstract and the experience was entirely delightful. Players guide a light blip along the LED strip while dodging obstacles and destroying enemies in 10 levels each with a “boss fight.” Line Wobbler can be set up almost anywhere or as a permanent installation. I have to say that I was pretty jealous of this one and wish I had one at my desk. I think this game can be filed under ‘unexpected delights’ as a great example of a playful experience that is unobtrusive but still a spectacle.
There were plenty of local multiplayer games on the main floor, mainly from the indie crowd, that drew large crowds. One such game was Killer Queen Arcade, a 10-person arcade cabinet designed by Joshua DeBonis and Nikita Mikros. This game is a favorite here at ESI Design, and I suggest everyone play it if they get a chance. There are only about 12 cabinets out in the world at the moment, but Josh and Nik assured us that more were on their way.
Killer Queen takes the best of local multiplayer games and has elements of competition and collaboration with tight design. The game encourages natural team building and plays to a variety of player strengths—meaning that for every type of player there’s a powerful role that can be self-selected. I’m always interested in group games that are balanced to let a player self-identify their play style. I find that it allows the player to have a more immediately immersive and successful experience.
Trending now: Wearables and VR
The last apparent trend worth mentioning is wearables. From Virtual Reality (VR) rigs to hands-free gaming, everywhere I looked some lucky player was throwing in-game objects with their eyes or controlling fire with just a motion-control ring. Players are looking for more immersive ways to enter their game world and developers are excited about the possibilities in game mechanics and narrative. I heard more than one developer that they were convinced that we are entering a new era of gaming that’s no longer on the horizon but right under our feet. We are constantly getting cool VR toys at the office and they keep on getting impressive. I am curious if VR finally has the clout to become a consumer friendly product. The cumbersome headset still presents a problem, though, and since I personally tend to get nauseous I predict that until those issues are resolved, VR rigs will not be flying off the shelf.
The energy was electric at GDC for most of the developers there espoused that games were in an exciting place and about to hit another “golden era.” With the diversity of platforms, interfaces, design and experience that I saw on the floor, I am inclined to agree.
Keep it playful out there!