Cliff Bleszinski, Amy Henning, and Other Great Game Developers Talk About How Time Plays A Role In Videogames


Posted March 9, 2012 - By Guest Writer

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Game developers Cliff Bleszinski from Epic Games and Amy Henning from Naughty Dog know a thing or two about videogames, and during the Microtalks at GDC 2012, they and others discussed the idea of time, and how it influcences game design. 

If you've ever wondered what what Cliff Bleszinki's rules are for starting out in the videogame industry, read on to find out what he -- and other great videogame minds -- think about the topic of time. 

Between running all over the place for preview events, dealing with the massive block lengths in San Francisco and the crunch of deadlines, I haven’t had time to see many panels at GDC. Thankfully I was able to cover the conference’s famous microtalks—in which ten developers and influential industry figures are given just twenty slides that can only be displayed for 16 seconds each to talk about a theme. The theme this year was “playing for time,” which, as Richard Lemarchand said, is largely about uncertain futures.

Richard Lemarchand – Designer, Naughty Dog

Lemarchand introduced us to the theme of playing for time, explaining the point of the subject matter would hopefully spur building something with value and a legacy.

“Are we building games that have some lasting value, that respect people’s time and give them new ways at looking the world? Embracing play as an important, powerful aspect of life that can help bring friends and family closer and help to learn more about what it means to be human?”

David Sirlin – Sirlin Games

Sirlin focused his discussion on the notion of time pressure and unconscious thought theorem, which says that the more time we have to think about something the more useless busywork our brains make out of it by making useless computations. Sirlin cited examples like the timer for Yomi, a card game that emulates a fighting game. The timer for the game is so long that you can do almost anything with that extra time—and that’s the problem.

“Games that tap into the unconscious are interesting in that they reveal something under the surface about ourselves, about other people. You get to kind of find out what you’re made of. You get a window into a part of yourself that you can’t usually access.”

“A game that’s about your unconscious thought versus someone else’s unconscious thought has wide appeal. It doesn’t feel like homework. It probably doesn’t take long to play. It’s interesting because it’s getting deep down inside us and it can still be enormously strategic.”

Cliff Bleszinski, Amy Henning, and Other Great Game Developers Talk About How Time Plays A Role In Videogames

Erin Robinson – Indie Developer of Puzzle Bots, Gravity Ghost

Robinson posed the question that given the finite amount of time we have on earth, how can we make anything that lasts at all. The idea is that, especially for games -- or for other cultural traditions like storytelling -- any lasting culture has to be able to propagate quickly and easily. Robinson used Mancala as a good example, since it’s a game that you can make with “whatever’s lying around.”

“We tend to think about time as a really personal thing, we’re in the present and everything else is the past and really we’re just in this long continuum.”

“Things like stories and music and dance can really be passed along easily, much more easily than a physical artifact.”

“What about our cultural values? You know, if you looked at games now, what would you assume our values were? Warfare, espionage, treachery…snowboarding?”

“I think we can do what the great games do, they can embrace simplicity and accessibility, be easy to teach and propagate and hopefully be as fun as games that are played with pebbles and played in dirt.”

Cliff Bleszinski – Epic Games

Bleszinski took the idea of starting over in the industry, like you’re suddenly 17 again (“like some sort of wacky ‘80s body-switching comedy,” he said) and you want to do things differently. Cliff’s rules:

  • Start small—small team, small project, simple idea
  • Base the game around the mechanic, the narrative can come later
  • Don’t be afraid to throw out ideas if they’re not working
  • Watch your scope: it’s easy to overshoot and if there’s too many ideas you’ll never ship
  • Don’t burn out, which is easy to do if you overscope

“The number one mistake developers make is that they have 10 features at 15 percent instead of three at 85 percent that you could actually ship.”

“Forget focus groups, all they do is just give you bad information. They suck. They just need to go away.”

“Remember: it is a marathon, not a sprint.”

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Alice Taylor – Founder, Makielab

Taylor talked about using 3D printing to make “game objects and toys in the same world.” She explained how 3D printing works—basically you take a 3D model and then use a special printer to recreate the digital object in real life using special plastics. 

“Who doesn’t want souvenirs from the games we spend time in?”

“Fitting stuff into the printer is a packing problem. You stuff everything in at various orientations—here’s our doll, we put her in standing up, she was 120 euros. We chopped her up, packed her in, she was 60. We call this the serial killer’s suitcase solution.”

Mary Flanagan – Graphic Designer and Author of Critical Play

An unusual break from the proceedings, Flanagan’s talk had us standing up and working with a partner to play a game with our hands. The point here was to illustrate how competition can benefit from cooperation, and thus how cooperation is just as important as its opposite in game design.

“Successful cooperation is part of the very part that makes us human: attachment to something intrinsically, childlike, primal and good. And it can inspire awe. It affects us profoundly. I think we need it to make better games and become better people.”

Brandon Sheffield – Editor-in-Chief, Game Developer Magazine

Sheffield’s talk was all about the success of making games for yourself—the more true to yourself you stay, the better chance you have at making something that could actually be successful.

“There’s something, I’m sure, that you like more than anyone else you know does. Maybe it’s Apple II-era platformers. Maybe it’s Fractals. Maybe it’s Dubstep, god forbid. Find that niche and dive right into it.”

“If the mandate is ‘everything blows up,’ than make everything blow up, even your UI.”

“Nobody expects you to make a game that targets their weird special interests, so if yours matches theirs, they’ll sing your praises to the ends of the earth.”

Heather Kelley – Co-Founder, Kokoromi

Kelley talked about experience—why do we all seek this in games so much and what does it mean? She said that “getting your hands dirty” with a game is important because having experiences is what makes us human; the message a suggestion to challenge game makers to really think about how their game translates that feeling to the player.

“Frankly, the term experience is far overused in English, especially in advertising and marketing…so why is experience such a growing concept in the last few decades? Why do we want it so bad?”

“What experiential games resist is pure instrumentality: the idea that rules are only useful for getting something done, and that players should enjoy any activity as long as it leads to, say, a badge at the end.”  

Cliff Bleszinski, Amy Henning, and Other Great Game Developers Talk About How Time Plays A Role In Videogames

Dan Pinchbeck -- Designer, Dear Esther

Pinchbeck’s idea was simple: things we need to stop saying about games. They are:

  • Games need to evolve
  • Games are derivative
  • Games need to be smart
  • Games are all about mechanics
  • Games are too expensive
  • Are these games or not?

“Really, actually when you talk about games, you’re talking about a monkey with a gun. Now, I don’t know about you but I’ve never had too much trouble being a monkey with a gun, I quite enjoy the monkey-with-a-gun aspect of playing games. Is that such a bad thing?”

“I have a demanding, tough, intellectual job. I don’t go home and read quantum physics.”

“The idea that we have to drive game prices down is something that is a corporate agenda, it’s rotten and it’s made by people who do not care about the craft of game development.”

Amy Henning – Creative Director, Naughty Dog

The gist of Henning’s talk was simple: out of all the inspirations Naughty Dog drew on to created Uncharted and Nathan Drake, one has been overlooked: Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels. The juxtaposition of comedy and drama in Sturges’ in film is a good analogy for Uncharted—both because it’s light-hearted and fun, but has real emotion to it, as well.

“There’s nothing wrong with escapist fun. It’s ok to just entertain and in fact that ought to be our primary goal. Our games have the power to transport people out of their daily lives. And even the midst of all the gun-slinging, two-fisted combat, stunts and spectacle, we can still tell a story about beauty, despair, compassion, fear, loss, regret, and grace…but with a little sex in it.”

-- Steve Haske 


Cliff Bleszinski, Amy Henning, and Other Great Game Developers Talk About How Time Plays A Role In Videogames


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