GDC Day 4: Lessons Learned and New Announcements

Obsidian Entertainment opens Armored Warfare to closed beta, the Tearaway team shatters the fourth wall, and audio director Justin Bell works out the kinks for South Park: The Stick of Truth.

AAA and social games have an enormous presence at GDC, but the indies are all the buzz after the winners at the Independent Games Festival were announced on Wednesday. In addition to garnering attention for the year’s most kickass indie titles, Xbox One also revealed the first 25 indie games supported through the ID@Xbox program—a full list is available here—and Ouya is currently showcasing 12 more independent games, including a first peek at Neverending Nightmares, a game we covered earlier that’s inspired by developer Matt Gilgenbach’s real life struggles with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Among the 15 games that won coveted slots in this year’s Indie MEGABOOTH, the sci-fi shooter Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime and the upcoming iPad game Robots Love Ice Cream have emerged as fan favorites.

But for as much as GDC promotes and supports independent game development, the conference also serves as a sharp reminder of the challenges small teams face in funding, project managing, and publicizing experimental games, particularly when forced to fight for limelight against larger names in the market. In an Indie Soapbox panel held earlier this week, Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra’s editor-at-large stated, “The barrier for game development is much lower than it used to be. There’s no longer the need for so much privilege to have access to hardware, but a sustainable full-time living in games is increasingly tough. The economy forces us to decide who we are and what we are doing here.”

And it is difficult to focus on smaller games with major announcements from bigger companies, such as Google Play’s reveal that they will soon support iOS, Sony’s debut of the Project Morpheus virtual reality simulator, and Obsidian Entertainment’s announcement that they’re working in collaboration with to create a free-to-play tactical tank MMO titled Armored Warfare. You can sign up for the beta version right over hereOne way to help support developers both large and small is by posting information about your game, from user data down to financial stats, on the web and using #OGDY, short for Open Game Data Yes, to promote it on social media channels said Justin Hall, former director of culture and communications for ngmoco.

GDC also provided the standard fare of retrospectives and case studies of successful games on the market. In a session on the PlayStation Vita title Tearaway, designer Rex Crowle discussed the challenges of creating a game that breaks down the barriers between the real and virtual worlds experienced by the player. Instead of adopting the role of a game character and piloting an avatar accordingly, Tearaway literally puts players into the game by inserting actual photos of the player into the virtual world and requesting them to complete simple real-world activities to further the plot line. At certain points in the game, players can even watch pixelated versions of their own fingers enter Tearaway’s world when they tap on the back of the PlayStation Vita.

It makes you look at your fingers again. … Placing them in this new world makes them look alien and reassuring,” Crowle said. “It was important that the [Tearaway] world didn’t just look different, that it would feel different.”

Achieving that wasn’t easy and early iterations of the game tried unsuccessfully to adopt a 3D RPG structure, which Crowle admitted “wasn’t really involving the player” and to include technologies like facial recognition. One reason Tearaway has been successful is the team’s commitment to making the player feel some ownership of the game. To do that, Crowle’s crew insisted that players be able to easily customize both their avatars and the landscape using extremely simple tools.

You can make something look cool in the time it takes to press a button, essentially. You can’t fail at that,” Crowle said.

In a separate panel, Justin Bell, audio director for Obsidian Entertainment, walked audiences through the process of getting the perfect sounds for South Park: The Stick of Truth, an RPG that’s been heralded as the single best game spin-off. Bell said that one of Obsidian’s main challenges, audio-wise, was creating combat sequences that fit with the tone of the show. After making a few samples that styled fight sequences after Persona 4: Arena, Final Fantasy 13, Street Fighter 4, and Soul Caliber 4, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker felt that the audio “didn’t really have that trademark understated crappiness” pervasive in the show, Bell said. Requesting that the fight scenes “sound like a kid took their mom’s spatula from the kitchen drawer and whacked someone on the head with it,” Bell’s team opted for super simple sound effects to achieve South Park’s lo-fi tone combined with more demure action music to give those sequences suspense.

Bell also hit obstacles when trying to find appropriate music to soundtrack the central hub where players return time and time again. Wanting to avoid the droning repetition that often comes with short loops, Bell’s team used a lengthier seven-minute song that syncs to a random bar every time the player returns to that spot. 

I find [seven minutes] to be the sweet looping spot. … Every time you hear that piece of music, you’ll discover something new,” Bell said.

GDC 2014 winds down later today and we’ll be there to document every bit of it. Stay tuned.

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