Independent or publisher-financed, usually the biggest constraint on game development these days is money. Technology has opened the doors to pretty much anything a designer can imagine, and pretty soon that'll include every part of the human body, too. Video games used to be designed out of constraint because there was no other choice; technology was a limiting factor, putting designers in a box they had to work within. Creativity flourished. There's something to be said for restraint and rules, and that was exemplified at the Gamma IV setup tucked away in the back of GDC last week.
Each year, experimental game group Kokoromi assigns designers a rule for their gaming submissions to qualify. 2010 took a cue from the best iPhone games and demanded the games be designed with one button, and it was remarkable to watch what some clever developers came up with around that ruleset. It's not that big-budget releases couldn't achieve the same level of simplistic creativity found in the Gamma IV games, but innovation in "triple-A" games tends to happen in a much larger stroke.
There isn't a whole lot of media to explain the brilliance of the Gamma IV entries, but hopefully I've collected enough to compliment my explanations for why they're special and worthy of your attention.
It's not hard to pick my favorite Gamma IV entry, however. That mention goes to 4fourths from the duo that is Mikengreg (aka programmer and designer Mike Boxleither and artist Greg Wohlwend), an inspiring and stressful one-button shooter that relies on the strict cooperation of several other people, both directly and indirectly, in order to succeed. You cannot go it alone in 4fourths; that's the point.
There are two ships, each assigned to one side of the screen and each controlled by two people. Yes, two people per ship. See, one player's button operates the ship's engine (it can only move up and down, so the button handles the engine propulsion) and the other focuses strictly on the shooting aspect. Both teams need to be on top of their game to take down the monstrous ships that fill up the center of the screen, as various shields need to be disabled to reveal the ship's vulnerable core.
You hopefully won't have to wait too long to try 4fourths for yourself, either. The developers were telling people at GDC that they're hoping to have the game appear on Xbox Live Arcade or another downloadble service sometime in the future, since they're so happy with the concept.
Both Faraway (check out a video here) and Silent Skies (see what it looks like over here) impressed me for similar reasons, as the developers of those games managed to find a way to provide a surprising amount of control over the direction of the player's character without having access to an analog stick or actually letting the player dictate whether they should go forward, back, left or right. Rather, the one-button mechanic in Faraway relies on the player hooking onto nearby starry objects, swinging around them and identifying various colored items in the environment to retain a forward momentum. Silent Skies keeps the player's airship moving in a constant forward motion that's always veering to the left, but if the player holds the button, it veers the plane right, allowing full movement.
Everything shown at the Gamma IV seemed to be labeled by the developers as a conceptual experiment, not something they were necessarily ready to release to the masses and expect payment in return. But that's what makes Gamma IV such an interesting showcase, as it pushes designers to do something they aren't always expected to these days by asking them to stretch imaginations with one arm tied behind their back -- or in this case, both arms and only one finger available to push.
Oh, and good luck figuring out Cactus' Gamma IV -- The Game. This one will throw you for a loop: