GDC 2017 Report: Fun Experimentation in Games
The annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco is a marvelous week long opportunity to meet developers, discover new ideas, and experience unfamiliar games. The conference has no shortage of material to keep attendees informed and entertained. Game exhibits, talks, and booths are primarily spread out across three distinct Moscone Center areas. Each of these areas is full of sheer energy and diversity that can inspire any attendee. We spent considerable time trying a diverse lineup of independently created games and had an excellent time. We’ll discuss our hands-on play sessions with a handful of the conference’s fun experimental games.
One of the most fascinating experimental game showcases is alt.ctrl.GDC. Being in its fourth year, the North Hall’s curated exhibit continues to showcase new ways to play. Many of the games encourage players to interact with devices and props that ordinarily would not be present in traditional console setups. A striking example is Sand Garden by DigiPen Team Psylight, which uses a Kinect camera to consistently monitor a playfield full of Kinetic Sand. Players move sand to match visual requests for certain height levels. At times players must remove all sand from a specific spot while building sizable hills in other locations. The result is a frantic, physical, and fun time attack experience that requires players to think and react on the fly. At the same time, however, it’s remarkable how well it utilizes sand, which is fundamental to many of our childhood play sessions.
Other alt.ctrl.GDC experiences include Maximity’s hysterical U.F.O. Bellies, which is a 2 on 2 team-based game. Players wear waist mounted controllers that resemble plush inner tubes with multiple colors. Games consist of multiple rounds in which the screen shows the name of a color, but the players respond to the text’s color rather than the text itself. Blue-hued text directs players to ram the blue part of their controller against their partner’s. The catch is that text can be secondary colors. Orange would necessitates ramming one’s yellow zone into the other player’s red zone. These mechanics lead to some fun dynamic haphazard interactions in which sometimes players read cues incorrectly and scramble to position themselves properly. Furthermore, teams also try to reach the score threshold before the other team by reacting as quickly as possible, which also creates a bit of chaotic fun.
One experience that was fun to watch and play is Super Furry Neon Cat Heads by the team of the same name. It is a rhythm game in which the player fills the role of a cat DJ. The player wears an HTC Vive VR Headset and a cat hat in front of a cat tower, which has actual paw print zones set at different elevations. These paw zones correspond to targets in the virtual space that the player must tap at the right time. As virtual mice move across the virtual playfield, the player hits the corresponding paw zone in time with the music. Experiencing the upbeat electronic music is a rather joyous time, and the psychedelic color changes and energetic cat crowd on screen are also entertaining as well. It is also quite satisfying experiencing how closely the physical paws’ spacing correspond to that of their virtual counterparts.
The Moscone Center’s West Hall tends to be more laid back than the rest of the Moscone Center. It hosts multiple relaxing environments for playing indie games. On the ground floor is Mild Rumpus, which is a laid back space with tree props, cushions, benches, and even stumps that act as television stands. We played Dziff & Ben Swinden’s Sacramento, which is a first person exploration game in which we traversed amorphous colorful terrain. Everything in the game appears to be straight out of a watercolor painting, and the bold outlines and ink washes are quite entrancing. The landscape seems to disappear from view at the horizon line, which creates a bit of a misty atmosphere. Objects sometimes fade from view as well, which further contributes to the overall mysteriousness and ethereal nature of the game.
Upstairs is the fourth annual Train Jam, which is a showcase of games developed during the 52-hour train ride from Chicago to San Francisco prior to the conference. The Train Jam area had multiple computers ready for straightforward game browsing and playing. Developing games in such short periods is never easy, and seeing eighty widely varying projects reach completion is inspiring. We enjoyed Kate Compton’s Travels in Od, which is a simple and soothing train conductor simulator set in a vibrant hilly space. Players click the mouse button to stop the train at designated locations, which automatically drops off and picks up passengers. Watching the train traverse the winding hilly landscape is joyous in itself. Another entertaining project is Cabezotta’s Life Arcade, which provides an challenging spin on familiar platforming action. In each level the player collects designated objects. However, following levels become increasingly harder as the game converts players’ movement paths in prior levels into hazardous moving obstacles. Dodging your own earlier movement in later stages is a dynamic challenging experience.
The North Hall’s GDC Play area features games from developing markets, and the games on display provide fascinating takes on established genres. Tinimations’ Klang hybridizes the action platforming and rhythm genres. The catchy electronic tunes help guide when to press buttons to deflect incoming projectiles, and the platforming is simple yet still empowers players with quick movement. Playables’ Mikma encourages players to explore a world that zooms closer and closer into objects as the game progresses. Players tilt a tablet in order to find focal points throughout the game environment. Doing so causes the world to zoom closer, and it can be incredibly thrilling seeing how differently objects’ scale changes as the game progresses.
The Game Developer’s Conference is a wonderful time to meet people and play new games, and the level of experimentation this year is quite inspiring and fantastic to see. We look forward to seeing how future years experiment with how we experience games.
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