GDC 2008, Day 3

by Steve Bowler on February 21, 2008

in design,multiplayer

Today was the first official conference/Expo day, and I managed to hit a few talks and walked around the show floor.

First I hit Ken Levine’s Bioshock talk, which was (in retrospect) a really amazing speech.  He discussed how he made the narrative passive in Bioshock, which forced the player to engage in it as much or as little as they desired.  Admittedly, this was a really nice feature.  I for one found the tape decks fascinating, and would listen to each one as soon as I found them.  However, he mentioned that there was even more story there in the forms of PSA announcements, the plasmid vending machines, and even the movie posters tied into the story if you cared to dig deep enough.

I think the big take-away that I’m seeing a lot of folks discussing was the idea that the story came very late in the process.  I don’t think that’s entirely accurate, and I feel that perhaps he mis-represented his point in his discussion.  It is blatantly obvious to anyone who’s played Levine’s titles before that he is obsessed with Randian narratives, so his story was no doubt roughed out long before the development process began.  The bones and skeleton were laid out, and they followed this roadmap as much as they could.

One of the primary examples which supports my theory was his Little Sister example.  From the game’s inception (at least that seems to be the case), he knew there would be an Adam gathering concept, that a “Little Sister” creature would come out and obtain Adam from dead bodies, and that a “Big Daddy” would protect them.  This was all taking place in Ryan’s underwater distopia, and the only question that remained was what the Little Sister looked like.  In its original conceptual inception, it was a giant maggot like thing with teeth.  People speculated that it wasn’t really appealing and why would anyone want to guard that, so attempts were made to make it more familiar.  These ranged from dogs in a wheelchair to miniature old ladies.  Eventually, they landed on the little girls we’ve all come to recognize.  But what this is isn’t a change in the story, it’s a change in the aesthetics of the game.  The story, the mechanics, and even the dynamics are all unchanged in this example.  Only the surface of the model itself changed.

Truth be told, this tangentially changed Tenenbaum’s motivation for protecting her “little angels,” or at least made her motivation more believeable for the audience, but in the end, the story remained unchanged.  Little Sisters still harvested, Big Daddies still protected them, and Tenenbaum still cared for them.  Only player perception of the situation changed.

Granted, this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t story polish and rewrites and additions, I’m sure these things happened.  The story is too polished for it to not have happened, but I think if one were to simply read the notes on Levine’s talk, one would walk away with the impression that they didn’t really work on story until later in the the development cycle, and I don’t think the evidence and meat of his talk really supports that.  I think the big take-away here is that developing your story is just as important as all of your other core elements of your game (if you’re making a story supported game), and should be developed in parallel with them as your title moves through the development process. 

But the real point of the talk, the juiciest bit, was that we as developers should be concentrating our narrative on the game world itself, and not on cutscenes.  Go read the whole thing.  You’ll be very glad you did.

The second big talk I hit was Blizzard’s take on Multiplayer game development.  I saw a bunch of information I had already heard in one of Rob Pardo’s videos when Starcraft II was announced, but he made some great points on how to use your Beta test to your advantage.  Try some radical tweaks, for instance.  If someone isn’t playing some characters or classes, de-nerf them, and bump their stats up higher than they should be.  This will cause people to try them out (as people want to find any advantage to win), giving you the needed statistical data to properly balance them.  Chances are it’s easier to get people to play something too powerful and dial it back than it is to dial something up that people aren’t really interested in playing.  There were a lot of other interesting ways to make Co-op it’s own PVSomething, such as finding ways to allow people to compete non-violently, such as economies, races, dating, and points/rank ladders.

Finally, I tried to hit one of the other discussions later in the day about storytelling in gaming, but after Levine’s big one, it really left me flat and uninspired.  I cut out early, as it wasn’t going to compare with the fountain of data on storytelling gleaned from the Bioshock gig.

The last speaker I was going to see at 4pm on heroes in gaming didn’t even bother to show up.  If GDC paid his way to come speak at this thing, I sure don’t want to be in his shoes right now…

Gotta run.  Time to plan what I’m going to go see tomorrow.

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