Jed Merrill, Producer/Game Designer

Week 11 – GDC 2014

Monday through Friday.

I look forward to updating this page at the show!  I will primarily be on the Expo floor this year, networking and showing off games, my own and my program’s, though I’m dying to listen in on the Infocom Zork postmortem and several others.  See you there!  (Or follow me here!)

Friday Night.

After returning from GDC Friday afternoon, I anticipate attending TEDx in Provo, Utah.  I have not seen the schedule yet, but I anticipate there may be something relevant to game design at a conference short for Technology Entertainment and Design.

Monday.

I fly into Oakland on Allegiant Air, take the AirBART and the BART to Powell Street in San Francisco, find the Moscone Center (closed), and connect with my cousin Jon who lives near SF.  No games yet, but lots of GDC banners.

Tuesday.

I take the ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf and walk a few blocks to the Moscone Center, stopping briefly to have business cards made at Imprint.  I have the Expo Only pass (Wednesday through Friday), but get into several Tuesday sessions sponsored by Amazon AWS.

I also check out the video game museum and play (and win) the on site game show You’ve Got Game by iAm8Bit.  (I defeated two contestants from Carnegie Mellon, but we became good friends after.)  Who knew knowing the game “Zak and Wiki” for Wii would win you a t-shirt?

Wednesday.

First day on the show floor!  I arrive an hour early for the “Running of the Devs, Part I.”  An Amazon AWS marketing rep asks my opinion about the sponsored events from the day before and says he is actually in a position to do something about it if there is something I would like changed.

Truthfully, there was no reason to run in for most developers, but there was for EAE students.  A limited number of EAE soccer jerseys were to be handed out to those who did not make it to Rachel’s hotel distribution point.  It was an Easter egg hunt that ended in my narrowly scooping up the last XL jersey.

I systematically collected swag from the first half of the show floor until 4:00, when I was a student volunteer at the EAE booth.  Representing the school in red, I was privileged to meet reps from the NFL Player’s Association and the Director of People at Riot Games.  I helped the CyberHeist team show off their IGF nominated game, and got to play Magnetic by Nature for two minutes with someone interested in other games.  At 6:00, we close up shop.

The highlights of the show floor for me were:

A VR suit accessory for the Oculus Rift.  I play a zombie game where I can aim a weapon pretty precisely with my hands.  It gives the words “head shot” new meaning.

A presentation in the Unity booth by Nintendo on how to get your game on Wii U’s eShop.

A $4,500 camera that scans 3D environments like hotel rooms into 3D models for video games.

Beautiful swaying virtual trees you can license.  A great fit for the game I am working on in Corrinne’s Narrative class. 

A white New York Film Academy hat that looks decidedly less stylish once reexamined at home.

After expo, I attend the IGF 20th Anniversary Party at the Children’s Creative Museum.  Alongside stirring speeches, they have decent free food, and I make my first ever 14 second, stop motion movie / claymation animation / silent film about a clay figure (Rocky Balboa, but with clay) who does sit-ups, somersaults, and cartwheels on the beach.

I also play test four student games at the top floor of the tower.  My favorite is Puppet Punch, by a team from India.  It is part Fruit Ninja, part Punch-Out!, features beautiful masks from around the world, and has inventive, vertical shooter like bosses.  The game features in app purchases, which is a little confusing juxtaposed with an endless game with no real goal but to have fun and beat bosses.  Why pay to continue if there is no end?

Deepo Swim is also enjoyable, but I am confused by the extra letter “o”, suggesting they change it to Deep Swim or Flappy Guppy so people don’t think they are going swimming at Home Depot.  They defend the extra “o” saying the game is primarily for foreign markets where it won’t matter.  They hadn’t considered what the title might sound like in America.

A sword game is represented by a Castlevania-like trailer (no live demo.)  I ask what unique powers the character has, and the creator names off several great abilities like splitting your sword in half, none of which are reflected in the trailer.  Shouldn’t the USP’s (unique selling points) be in the trailer?  Maybe they are still too early in development.

The final team, from the Netherlands, demos a turn based tower defense prototype.  The visual cues are a bit confusing.  For example, “play game” is represented by a play button like on a VCR or DVD player.  There is some great hand drawn art, and I ultimately really get into the game, only to have the game crash on me three times as I complete a level.  This happens in games in Alpha, but the experience makes me appreciate the hard work of QA testers.

Thursday.

I cover the second half of the show floor, living off candy such as chocolate covered plums at the Poland booth and those pink and white licorice things at Google.  Good and Plenty’s?

At one point I get in line for Sony’s Morpheus VR headset demo, but am told I have to have a ticket, and those ran out in two minutes Thursday morning.  Come back Friday at 10 am!

Intel gets my pick for most engaging booth of the day, especially their tool for finding what draw calls are taking up the most resources and optimizing the call without leaving the game.  (Why not just build the optimization into the code?)

I also watch the Unreal 4 demo in theater, which looks great, but I am a little turned off by the coldness of the staff.  The presenter is asked a question, and says he’ll get to it later, but never does.  I’m not sure he knows the answer.  Their reduced fee of $19 a month (cancelable any time after one month without penalty) plus 5% of gross deal is a very real challenge to Unity.  It looks to me like game engines are going to become more and more physics based.  With the advent of VR, could we eventually be painting virtual sets by hand like we do in movie sets?  I should start a virtual workman’s comp business for those who accidentally fall in a spike pit while hanging virtual chandeliers in a game like Premonition…

At six o’clock, we march over to the IGDA awards.  The room is enormous, bigger than the Oscars’ Dolby Theater.  CyberHeist does not win the Student Showcase Award, losing out narrowly to Risk of Rain.  However, it gets audible oohs and ahhs from a crowd not used to seeing so much polish in a student game.  It’s still “strikingly topical.”  Maybe Premonition can take top honors in 2015?

I do wonder why we are so focused on making a game for IGF where we can only win $5,000 or $10,000.  It’s a great showcase, but I would much rather focus on making a game that is commercial and win IGF by accident.  Risk of Rain likely won because so many people (judges included) have purchased it via Steam and had a chance to play it.  EAE staff, please, please let students choose between IGF and commercial next year!  If we have 50 students and four teams, there is room for divergent paths. A commercial (market focused) game is always more influential than a purely academic game, and wins us more points in industry.

Friday.

I arrive at 9 am, trying to decide between the Career Center and standing in line for a Morpheus ticket I probably will never get to use.  I choose Running of the Devs Part II.  Turns out everyone in line has heard different numbers.  Morpheus tickets ran out in 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes or the first two hours, depending on who you listen to.  Since my flight leaves at 12:05, I realize I have to be one of the first three people in line to get a ticket or I will miss my plane.  It is even more unlikely because I have my rolling suitcase with me, so really I am just in line for a souvenir ticket.  The gun fires, or was it a radio?  We take off around the corner, but someone at another door let their people go ten seconds early.  I am like sixtieth in line, and I lose a shoe getting there.  The people behind me kindly hold my place so I can go find it.  Seconds after I get back, we learn that tickets are gone, in part because the show floor closes early today, at 3.  That means there were only 40 or 50 tickets for the day, and probably 150 for the entire show.  No wonder they were out in 2 minutes!  No complaints, though.  I have a story to tell AND I catch my plane.

I drop by the Career Center on my way out for five minutes, where I speak to reps from Capcom Vancouver and Sony about internships.  I learn that Canada won’t let you work for a game studio in Canada unless you have three years of industry experience.  I also pick up a publication called A Recruitment Index of Who’s Hiring @ GDC 2014.

Weekend.

If the big stories from GDC were Unreal 4 and Morpheus vs Oculus Rift, the big debate centered around whether story is overrated in games.

While I think game designers are not generally world class storytellers, I do think story is vital in terms of premise, and is more important than mechanics in actually selling a game.  From what I’ve heard over the last two weeks, it sounds as if men in particular have trouble focusing on story and gameplay at the same time.  Women are more capable of maintaining awareness of both.  Discussing this from the show floor, someone cited a study that found that men rarely notice the backgrounds of games, other than maybe while looking at box art or a magazine, while women are more likely to notice every detail.

I am a little disappointed in my own gender for being too lazy to use more than one part of one’s brain to play a game, but narrative apathy is a real issue that will probably only be addressed by more engaging stories, likable characters we invest in, and story worlds that tell themselves instead of relying overly on text.

This does help explain the difference in opinion (great narrative divide) between Roger and Corrinne…

If there is one last hidden highlight from the show, it is Nintendo’s Street Pass!  If you brought a 3DS with you, you probably got between 200 and 400 street passes at the show, sometimes from recruiters.  That’s five times more Street Passes than ComicCon, which, by the way, is coming back to Salt Lake from April 17-19.

It was enough for me to defeat the final boss in Warrior’s Way for a second time on the way home.  (Achievement:  You conquered the world a second time!  Here’s a ticket.)  I now have 7.7 million soldiers, and pretty much every hat known to man or Mii.

I also finally finished the 30th floor of Monster Mansion (end of game…or is it?) and grew my 66th flower of 80 in Flower Town.  (Why do I play that game?!  The power of play coins…)

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