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GDC's game design challenge gets emotional over 30-year games

Four renowned developers create touching games meant for a lifetime of play

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Game Developers Conference last week, organizers brought back the game design challenge panel, hosted by NYU professor and GameLab co-founder Eric Zimmerman. Four well-known game designers were given the difficult task of creating a game that takes 30 years to play. The result was an hour-long presentation that was equal parts thought provoking, heart warming and laugh-out-loud funny.

Here's a summary of the game pitches that came out of the panel, and a few links where you can experience them for yourself.

Nina Freeman's virtual soap opera

Nina Freeman, level designer at Fullbright and independent developer of the game Cibele, looked to television for inspiration in creating her game. There are few genres in TV that have lifespans as long as soap operas, Freeman reasoned, so her solution blended soaps with interactive fiction.

"What’s so special about soaps is that they’re driven by real, human characters," Freeman said. "They're about the conflicts these characters face and that any one of us might face in our daily lives. Soap viewers dive into the daily dramas of these people's lives for decades, every day of the week, exploring their vulnerabilities, their love, their strengths and their challenges.

"This draws viewers in and helps them feel connected to these stories, like they’re checking in with a friend about what they’re up to every day. Soap operas make long-time viewers feel like it's real and they make viewers feel like part of the family."

Players would receive daily updates to Freeman's game, each with a collection of scenes revolving around the show's main characters in the form of text and still images. Players would have the opportunity to interact with these images, in a manner similar to otome-style games. They could click on a given character's cell phone to read their conversations, or hunt around on their computers or read their diaries. Then, at the end of the day's scenes, players would be able to provide input as to their understanding of how the main characters were feeling in the form of emoji.

This player feedback would go directly to the game's writers, and help them steer the narrative arc in a way to surprise and delight committed fans.

"It’s also inspired by reality TV," Freeman said, "In this game the writers are relationship DMs, or drama managers. Players would also be able to see an aggregated version of this relationship interpretation data as well. This is important because the players are reacting to the scenarios, not writing them. They’re not making decisions for the characters, or making decisions about plot points. But they can see how their personal interpretation factored into how the story is moving forward."

Zach Gage's Generation Lamp

For game designer Zach Gage (Ridiculous Fishing, Tharsis) the problem of the 30-year game was particularly difficult. To illustrate his point, he used poker as an analogy.

"If I play poker with my friends sometimes," Gage said, "that’s a great game. But if I play poker with my friends one night a year, with a $100 buy-in, and we continue that ritual for 30 years, it’s going to turn it into a brilliant game and probably be one of the most meaningful play experiences of our lives.

"To a player, these two games are vastly different, and the 30 year rule is an incredibly substantial change. And yet, paradoxically, as the designer, despite having added the key rule of 30 years, I feel like I haven't really made a meaningful contribution. It's still just poker."

What Gage did was rapidly prototype as many games as he could in the weeks leading up to the presentation, several of which he shared with the audience.

First came Duel, a one-on-one game where players race to be the first one to type "bang" into a text box in 30 years' time. But, Gage said, it "didn't feel quite weighty enough." So he supplemented his presentation with The Password Game, which he describes in the video below.

With these two tongue-in-cheek games out of the way, Gage finally shared his true solution to the game design challenge, an idle game called Generation Lamp.

"You get three 30-year blocks in life, at best," Gage said. "Being able to look back over 30 years as a human is fairly astonishing. 30 years ago I was less than a year old. There was no internet. There were barely computers. I was basically not even a person yet. In 30 more years who knows where we'll be, who even knows how many of us will still be around when we get there.

"To be totally honest, I'm not sure there's anything more meaningful to the actual person playing my game than just betting that they'll still be here, and winning that bet."

To play Generation Lamp you take an old smartphone or tablet, log in to Gage's website, turn the brightness to high, turn off the auto-lock, and plug it in. After that, your smart device will become an constant companion, slowly changing through more than 16 million possible colors at the rate of one per minute for the next 32 years.

"It’s about celebrating and marking your time," Gage said. "When you start, you'll see a lot of whites and blues, then eventually more yellows, then greens and onward. And because it's living on a server, you don't have to worry about losing it. As you live, as you move, as your devices presenting it die out, you can plug in new devices and point them to the same link and continue living with your lamp until you — or it — dies."

Anna Kipnis' Drawing Conclusions

Double Fine senior gameplay programmer Anna Kipnis' game took a decidedly philosophical bent. For inspiration, she initially looked to a quote from the French philosopher Albert Camus.

At 30 a man should know himself like the palm of his hand, know the exact number of his defects and qualities, know how far he can go, foretell his failures — be what he is. And, above all, accept these things.

She wanted her response to the 30-year game challenge to be a vehicle for self-reflection, but she also wanted it to be engaging. For that she invoked a few other inspirations, including party games like Telestrations, a version of the folk-game Would You Rather and the work of renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.

The result was Drawing Conclusions, a game about sharing and interpreting abstract thoughts through Crayola drawings.

"The curator draws a picture in the form of a question," Kipnis explained. "Basically, just a drawing that needs a response. To make the question clear you put a question mark somewhere in the drawing. Then you hand this question to the player.

"They answer your question by modifying the drawing you made, preferably in a different color so you can still tell what the original question was. And then step three the player hands back the drawing to the curator. The curator looks at the answer and tries to come up with some analysis based on the player’s answer."

Those interpretations can be as long or as short as the curator wants, but the idea is to think hard about how the player answered and return to them some insight on themselves.

"The important thing is that you save the drawings, either the physical copies or some electronic version so that you can look back at them later in time and reflect on yourself."

It was Kipnis' game which would go on to win the challenge, based solely on audience applause.

Chris Crawford's design process

Designer and author Chris Crawford, the co-founder of the Game Developers Conference, finished off the panel with not so much a game as a series of amusing and poignant thought experiments.

Crawford posited that just about any interactive experience that players engaged with for 30 years was, more likely than not, going to be incredibly boring. To keep players engaged, designers had to constantly feed them information over 30 years — a nearly impossible task.

So he searched for experiences that already existed in the real world, that took place over a long period of time and sought to determine what made them special. Then, he cleverly made a go at comparing them to games.

What followed was more of a heart-warming series of jokes than a real game pitch, and perhaps the best goof came at the expense of organized religion.

"If we think in the terms of the divine," Crawford said, "there’s a game that’s been running around for thousands of years. It's called religion, and the game designers are called priests.

"The basic idea of this game is that you get points by doing good, and you lose points by doing bad. In the Hindu religion those points are called karma, in the Christian religion they’re called grace. In the Hindu religion your goal, the victory condition is to attain nirvana. In the Christian religion it is to get to heaven. ... As we all know it’s a good idea to give players multiple lives, and in fact the Hindu religion is very generous about this. You get an infinite number of lives. You just keep playing until you win. That’s a very positive, constructive attitude towards it. The designers of the Christian religion on the other hand are not so generous. You get just one life to win or lose the game."

In the end, Crawford said, he decided to narrow his design goals somewhat. Instead of tackling all of being and morality, he elected for something a bit more finite. He called it The Marriage Game.

"The idea of this game is to get married and to be happy for at least 30 years," Crawford said, showing a slideshow of pictures from his own life and marriage throughout.

"It’s all very enjoyable," he said. "You work together. You play together. You share in each other’s triumphs, as well as your tribulations. And I can assure you, if you play this game with determination and serious effort that you are going to win this goddamn game no matter what. This is the best game in the world."

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