GDC Day 2: The Real and Virtual Realities of Game Development

Sony unveils Project Morpheus and Antichamber developer Alexander Bruce fixes 1,000 mistakes to bring his indie game to market. 

Shuhei Yoshida presents Project Morpheus at GDC 2014Shuhei Yoshida presents Project Morpheus at GDC 2014With the Game Developers Conference now in full swing, Sony dropped the biggest bomb of the day by announcing that it is moving into the virtual reality market. Project Morpheus is primarily designed for games, but will hopefully expand into non-gaming, non-entertainment uses, said Dr. Richard Marks, a researcher who is part of the Project Morpheus team.

VR is going to be pervasive, and by that I mean it’s going to be used for all sorts of things you wouldn’t think it would be used for,” said Marks, adding that Sony is already partnering with NASA to create virtual reality space exploration.

Strategically unveiling the Project Morpheus developer kit at GDC as a way to encourage the developer community to jump on board, the Sony team also touched on the challenges of creating experiences for virtual reality environments, which include limiting players’ head motions, keeping latency low, maintaining high frame rates, and incorporating haptic feedback that simulates what’s going on in the game.

A lot of the rules of game design simply don’t apply,” said Sony researcher Anton Mikhailov. “The player is in the game, not observing it.”

Project Morpheus - PS4

Developers will also need to be wary of motion sickness, which can happen when players are exposed to clunky game play. Despite debuting the product at a gamer event, the Sony team called virtual reality “a medium, not a peripheral,” adding that they expect to see VR experiences infiltrating everything from educational materials to hotel reservations.

There are no rules right now,” said Marks. “How often do you get to define a new medium?”

Sony had the big news of the day, but the rest of the speakers brought the knowledge too. In a session on the “overnight” success of his game Antichamber, Aussie developer Alexander Bruce laid down the cold, hard truth that indie game development is painfully slow, financially difficult, and fraught with emotional challenges. Bruce, who chronicled, in detail, his game’s successes, including a slot at PAX 10 and an award for technical excellence by the Independent Games Festival, was brutally honest about his own sacrifices to get there and the physical and emotional toll it took on his body.

It’s not that I didn’t make mistakes,” he said upon revealing that his game, seven years in the making, had 25,000 sales within the first 24 hours of release. “I made 1,000 mistakes and corrected them.”

Those mistakes range from building an initial game that players only engaged with for an average of five minutes—this average eventually went up to several hours as the game improved—to harboring jealousy towards games that were performing better. A few takeaways from Bruce’s standing ovation-worthy session included:

  • Genuine relationships in the gaming industry can pay. Bruce cited everyone from Kellee Santiago to Heather Kelley as key figures in helping him build a winning game and create a solid release strategy.
  • Just looking at the successful people [is] only half the story.” For every person who’s on top, even more are at the bottom struggling to get a slice of recognition. Pay attention to what they’re doing too.
  • Timing counts. Bruce was set to launch Antichamber several months before the game was actually released, but took the advice of IndieFund mentors to hold off in order to build anticipation for the game. It paid off.
  • Being different can be very polarizing.” It may take time for audiences and judges to understand a game that’s not a cookie-cutter of a more popular title. That’s OK. Give it time.

Time was another theme at the Q&A for new game writers panel. Focused on helping newbies break into the business, the panel delved into tools of the trade (Twine is your friend as are game engines) and how game writing is different than writing for other mediums.

You need to think about the environment and what the player is interacting with,” said Toiya Kristen Finley, a member of International Game Developers Association’s Game Writing executive board.

Unlike traditional book writing, “environmental narrative,” the story elements players get from a game’s surroundings, plays an enormous part in how narrative is delivered. Game writers also have to be prepared to work on teams and be able to converse with both developers and artists to construct a storyline that serves both sides. Also, don’t get too attached to your work.

You have to be flexible,” said Chris Avellone, who’s worked on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2. “The worst writers I’ve worked with are the ones who won’t change.”

Navid Khonsari rounded out the day with a panel on 1979 Revolution, a game designed to showcase the human element in the Iranian revolution.

Making a game about history is possibly the worst idea,” said Khonsari, a veteran developer who’s worked on the Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne series. “It was all over the map on why this shouldn’t happen.”

The process of capturing the emotional experiences of those who lived in Tehran begins with research, both passive and first-person interviews, and is furthered by a commitment to preserving the truth, even if it means ditching the idea that games are supposed to exclusively be fun. Gameplay in 1979, for example, requires players to learn to make a Molotov cocktail, navigate through a protest crowd, and try desperately to save a wounded man who dies anyway.

If you’re replicating the real world, success is not always a part of the real world,” Khonsari said.

More groundbreaking games and tech innovations are ahead. Stick with us for all the updates from GDC 2014.

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