Hello and welcome, loyal VCCL readers! I apologize for the unprecedented period of radio silence over here, I spent the last week attending the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. I've got all manner of reportage I'm working on, and I can promise you that this reportage is simmering in an aromatic broth even as we speak. I'm gonna give that GDC coverage a nice braise until the connective tissue loosens and it slides right off the bone. I have copious notes. Stay tuned.
The GDC was my first time encountering game developers in the wild. I've read some fantastic blogs written by developers-- Steve Gaynor's Fullbright and Clint Hocking's Click Nothing-- but otherwise I haven't heard many actual game creators discuss their practice.
My impression was that while game designers are a generally whimsical bunch-- irreverent, enthusiastic, irregularly clad and ill-shaven-- they exhibited a clear-eyed sobriety when it came to the craft of game design. They could describe the process of design in clean, functional terms: in this game we wanted the player to feel this way towards this character; we wanted the player to cooperate with his team members; we wanted the game to have a certain pacing. With these aims in mind it came down to knowhow and trial-and-error: we tried this and it didn't work, we tried this other thing and it worked better. The game makers I heard speak often showed an impressive command of how to manipulate the various elements of the game's design-- lighting, game mechanics, level design, sound, controls, UI-- in order to achieve the desired effect.
Maybe this is a cultural thing, because the talks given by Japanese developers displayed none of this pellucid clarity. Mike Abbot wrote about a panel with marquee Japanese designers Fumito Ueda and Goichi Suda, and his overriding impression was that these men were fundamentally inarticulate about the magic of the creative process: “Watching Ueda today, I saw a designer who struggles to articulate his philosophy of design, as if he were being asked to elaborate on something that requires no elaboration. At various points in the discussion he appeared at a loss for words, often deliberating on a question before finally answering it with a few basic and seemingly obvious observations.” Keita Takahashi, the designer of Katamari Damacy and now Noby Noby Boy, gave a talk that was a celebration of whimsy-- a catalogue of his creative frustrations, unusuable ideas, and miscellaneous opinions. (His description of his recent opus: “Noby Noby Boy' is a ticket to go to a festival to change the solar system.”)
Perhaps this is not a matter of geography so much as sensibility. Suda Ueda and Takahaski were artists-- sculptors, painters, conceptual artists-- before they were game designers. Like Shigeru Miyamoto, who seems incapable of describing his creative process except through an occasional gnomic utterance, they gestured towards the irreducible mystery of inspiration when asked to describe the task of game development. Suda's explanation that "I go the the bathroom to poop, and I get ideas." seemed like a reductio ad absurdum of the mysteries of artistic inspiration. The challenge is about translating this bathroom vision into code rather than engineering a player response.
Their North American counterparts seemed far more practically minded when it comes to heeding the Muses. Perhaps this is because they tend to enter game development through programming or software design; they seemed more inclined to think of a game as a piece of software that will be used by human beings, human beings with certain known propensities, than their Japanese counterparts. They tended to view the game as a functional object-- so much so that Randy Smith drew on Donald Norman's “The Design of Everyday Things,” a book about door fixtures, stovetops, and teapots, to illuminate puzzle design in games. While they were palpably excited about the idea that games can rival other arts when it comes to delivering emotion and narrative and memorable experiences, these same designers were also conscious of the fact that these marvellous experiences hang on the creation of an uncluttered and intuitive user interface. In short, I got the impression that you couldn't be a good artist without also being a good technician-- for any given project there is a right and a wrong way to accomplish your goals and technique is the matter of knowing the difference.
Obviously I'm speaking in generalities here, and I clearly have a limited sample. Maybe the Japanese nuts-and-bolts dudes can't afford the trip. But after spending this weekend fighting Resident Evil 5's grabasstical interface I am somewhat persuaded that there's a real divide when it comes to eastern and western design sensibilities, and this divide has everything to do with the design-centric and productivity-centric tendencies of North American tech culture.
More to come!