Experience Boost: A GDC Postmortem

I made my decision to attend the Game Developer Conference long before the I attended my first lecture at the ETC. I came into the program with the game design fairy whispering into my ear.  The fairy pushed me to explore the industry for a slot that I can comfortably fit. Now with GDC 2019 behind me, I still don’t have a specific role other than “game designer,” but I feel like I’m finally looking in the right place.

Initially, I planned to attend talks all day, but over the course of the week, I discovered that is not sustainable. By treating GDC as a strictly educational retreat, I was ignoring what ended up being my favorite aspect of the conference: the community and the people that make it-but I’ll get to that later.

Among the talks I did attend, I can easily name my top two. Early in the week, Ken Wong, the creative director and founder of Mountains, gave a talk titled “Letting Go: A ‘Florence’ Postmortem.”  Wong discussed the journey of designing Florence from the project’s inception, through its turbulent design evolution, and how the game achieved its emotional power. On Friday, Cory Barlog, Creative Director at Sony Santa Monica, gave a twofold presentation on 1) his experience pitching the reimagined God of War and 2) his experience struggling with doubt through the development process. Both talks examined the wild ride that is the creative process and the unique problems that arose for each team. Ken Wong struggled with over attachments to ideas while Cory Barlog struggled with the inverse, doubts. I too struggle with both sides of this coin every day, and I’m positive everyone in the Moscone Center does as well. I found profound comfort by acknowledging how similar Wong, Barlog, and every creator at GDC are. Though the challenges will always be there, at least we are all attempting to conquer them together.

Other talks of note include: Bryan Intihar’s talk on Insomniac’s Spider-man game, a game design workshop exploring the MDA method of design, a workshop on designing ethical dilemmas, and level design talks from Santa Monica Studios and Insomniac.

The Blacks in Gaming event took place on Wednesday evening. Before the event started, I was a ball of insecurity and excitement. I had never met a black game developer before and I feared that the community would keep me on the fringes. I have historically struggled with this form of imposter syndrome due to my light tone effectively camouflaging my true mixed race nature. Thankfully, my anxieties were unsubstantiated, as they often are. I was welcomed with open arms. It may have been the Solange playing through the speakers or all the free beer (Thanks Microsoft!), but around these wonderful people of color, I finally felt comfortable, inspired, and self-actualized.

By the time Thursday came around, I had developed talk fatigue. I decided to take it easy the last two days and thoroughly comb the expo floor. I visited all the big name booths like, Epic Games, Sony, Google, Amazon. Off my head, my favorite experiences on the expo floor took place in the alt.ctrl section. I’m a sucker for nontraditional interactions.

At the risk of spinning hyperbole, attending GDC changed me.  I would absolutely recommend attending GDC to anyone interested in the industry. I gained heaps of knowledge in the talks and workshops. I met diverse and passionate people. I played plenty of mind-expanding games. I found a community, a home.


Cory Barlog: “Pitching and Doubting”


Ken Wong: “Letting Go: A ‘Florence’ Postmortem”


Cowboys and Bokoblins: Nonlinearity in Two Open Worlds

Over the past decade, open world games have made leaps and bounds of progress. Games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild garner critical acclaim for their world that “feel totally alive”. On the surface, these two examples have a lot in common. Both games encourage you to explore every nook and cranny of their painstakingly designed virtual worlds, often on horseback. Both worlds have multiple biomes that are all aesthetically distinct from each other. For all they have in common conceptually, RDR2 and BOTW are designed in radically different ways. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on one aspect of their mission designs that forms the backbone of the entire experiences: linearity, or the lack thereof.

Since the days of GTA3, Rockstar has utilized the same general mission structure: Hey, you gotta go to this place! On the way, you’re going to have a conversation with a NPC you’re aligned with for the moment. Once you arrive, you’ll see a cutscene which will devolve into either a car/horse chase, shootout, or some combination of the two. Repeat this a few dozen times and bam, game complete. This formula seeped into almost every open world game for over a decade. It was for this reason that BOTW was such a breath of fresh air.

After constraining you to a small tutorial area, BOTW sets you free with one goal: Defeat Ganon. Though you may be weak, you are equipped with all the tools you need to solve any puzzle the game throws at you. If you are up for a challenge, you can head straight to Ganon, and if you are skilled enough, you can defeat him. Most players, however, will need to grow stronger before this fight and set off to roam the wilderness in search of treasures. Nintendo refuses to hold your hand as you tackle missions. In fact, they encourage you to experiment. If you think you may be able to solve a puzzle a different way. You probably can, as long as you have mastered all the systems Nintendo has presented you with.

When I went in to RDR2, I hoped this would be different. Leading up to release, it seemed that Rockstar was finally committed to creating a world open to possibilities. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. An attempt to creatively solve a problem in RDR2 that wasn’t the way the designers wanted you to was met with a “MISSION FAILED” screen. As incredible as the characters and story are, I felt no ownership of my experiences in RDR. Nintendo had really spoiled me with BOTW.

I’ll be interested to see how both these games influence the industry moving forward. Both are incredible achievements in their own right, though they are incredibly different. I pray for the day where a studio can give me a rich story full of incredible characters but allows me to approach its challenges without holding my hand like a wee lad. Until then, at least I have TWO awesome horsey games to spend my time with.