In April, I had the opportunity to attend Quo Vadis Game Developers Conference as part of International Games Week Berlin 2016 – the central networking and educational hub for game industry professionals and students in Germany. Feel free to catch up with my coverage for Day One and Day Two – in case you’ve missed them.
April 20th, 2016
STATION Berlin, Berlin, Germany
The third and final day of Quo Vadis (sad face) was just as exciting as the previous two. I have managed to attend 6 worthwhile talks during the lecture-crammed day, which I will recap for you below…
Game Design Post-Mortem – Cities: Skylines – Karoliina Korppoo (Colossal Order Ltd.)
Self-taught game designer Karoliina Korppoo introduced her studio’s simulation hit Cities: Skylines to the audience – over a year old, with paid expansions and add-on content that are well received by its players. Originally, Colossal Order used to develop mobile games until they decided switching to PC game development using Unity game engine. Karoliina reassured future game developers and designers in the audience that a small team can compete with well-known titles, and that Cities: Skylines is living proof. Korppoo warned the audience to anticipate difficulties within the development team – for example, not everyone within the team may have the same understanding of the game, and maybe some members may not be certain of gameplay features that are in the works. Planning well and early is also key, where sufficient research on the state of the art, as well as similar genre titles, in the industry is crucial. Having a wishlist of “Best Ideas Ever” that result from the team members’ brainstorming sessions and occasional epiphanies can build up towards the team’s dream game (be it directly or via transition games).
Karoliina advised current and future industry professionals to work towards streamlined and clear goals, and to focus on creating a fun experience before in-game realism. For example, in Cities: Skylines there is no game over state so as to avoid “punishing” the players. They also focused on embedding gentle reminders rather than lecture-y tutorials for the gameplay experience to be as fun as possible. She then closed her talk by advocating Unity, as it is a closed system that prevents modding and extends the life of any game developed using it. She also advised the audience to stay determined whenever a potential publisher decides to turn their future projects down – defending and thoroughly explaining what the game is about to the publisher may help get things on the right track, for “publishers are a tool for creativity, not a limitation.”
Life is Strange: Dialog – Luc Baghadoust & Raoul Barbet (DONTNOD Entertainment)
This was a discussion and Q&A session surrounding DONTNOD Entertainment and their projects Remember Me and Life Is Strange. Producer Luc Baghadoust and co-game director Raoul Barbet spoke of how their ambitious project Remember Me inspired the gameplay mechanics for Life Is Strange, and that its release one week before The Last of Us may have been one of the reasons behind low sales. At Gamescom 2014, when Life Is Strange was revealed, it gave off a sense of familiarity due to its similarity to Telltale Games’ choice-based storytelling experiences. What made it differ was that time was not a limitation – you could use the rewind game mechanic to change short-term consequences. Life Is Strange is about “the process of thinking about the choice (you make), not the choice itself.”
Baghadoust and Barbet then spoke of the difficulties faced during making Life Is Strange. They could not efficiently work on more than two episodes at a time – it was like producing 5 games in a row, rather than 5 episodes. Not sticking to a planed timeline leads to delays, which cause a lot of complications from a technical perspective. They also spoke of how complicated it was to accumulate player choices and consequences – it was a “nightmare” for level design to keep track of approximately 40 important in-game choices, as well as 100 not-so-important ones. But it was all to make the game as realistic and immersive as possible for the players, which paid off really well. The story for the game was originally written by French writer Jean-Luc Cano, who happened to work on Remember Me. DONTNOD Entertainment then hired American writer Christian Divine to tailor the story for an interactive game and make it more relevant to the United States. They also made sure to cast All-American voice actors.
Q: Life Is Strange has a very solid and passionate fan base, which makes me think of community management and how its importance is increasing everyday, especially in the era of social media. When did you know you needed to manage your community? And did you ever let the community guide you towards the creation of specific in-game content?
Publisher Square Enix took the initiative for community management, not DONTNOD. But two months after the release of Episode One, we at DONTNOD discovered we needed a community manager as well, and gratefully we had Anne (Chantreau) at the time. The plot for all 5 episodes was already written and pitched to Square Enix before development, so the players only guided us when it came to little details, such as additional character information to explore, that would not affect the overall story and outcome of the game.
Regarding the in-game music, DONTNOD chose to have a selection of both licensed tracks and original score ones. The presence of licensed songs by artists such as Alt-J and Syd Matters helped with character development, where each character would listen to different genres of music. Moreover, players can choose which songs to listen to in certain game sequences, allowing for a more immersive in-game exploration experience.
The artistic style of the game was ensured to be non-realistic and impressionistic, allowing the player to add imaginative details to the characters’ looks. Baghadoust and Barbet also spoke about their community and the importance of strengthening it, as they were the ones who gave honest feedback that would let the team know if they were on the right track. Square Enix would allow episode delays just to receive sufficient feedback from the community so as to ensure an enhanced experience for the players.
The DONTNOD duo then closed the session with a few production tips for the audience:
- Do not announce release dates too early until the game (or episode or episodic) is ready.
- Prevent game content and plot leaks by checking game file names – which is how Life Is Strange details were leaked.
- Whenever you outsource any development process, plan well, as the domino effect of delays will be likely.
- Creating a very vast game environment will not make the game as character-driven as when the environment is restricted, which was their approach in Life Is Strange.
- Smaller team = better and more transparent communication.
Thomas Bedenk (bedenk.de/sign), Prof. Odile Limpach (Limpach Consulting / Cologne Game Lab, TH Köln), Michael Liebe (International Games Week Berlin), Avni Yerli (Crytek), Lukasz Hacura (Anshar Studios)
The business and design of Virtual Reality as of today
The panel’s focus was on the current state of virtual reality and its future. “VR is gonna be awesome, but it’s gonna take way more time to perfect in gaming and the industry,” said Hacura. He stated how VR gaming is a niche within niches of the videogame market. Yerli highlighted the “magic difference in interface design, hardware (design), and software (design)” between the pre-VR era and now. He also introduced the audience to the brand new Crytek academic partnership for students, namely “VR First Program” at Vancouver Film School, which aims to teach game development and design students the craft of making VR games – increasing VR’s potential in the future of gaming. Limpach, on the other hand, believes that other industries can also make great use of VR, not just videogames. Yerli however responded to her by stating that the videogame industry usually is the first and most flexible to test and adopt brand new hardware and software technologies.
Bedenk emphasized the importance of VR for increasing the potential for indie developers, since almost all handheld devices have appstores that facilitate publishing for them – making it much easier and intuitive to use than consoles or PCs. Hacura, however, believes that PlayStation 4 will be the dark horse of the VR era -“Sony’s PlayStation has way more resources (than others in the market) to create better VR content,” he said. Even Oculus didn’t cause the buzz everyone expected post launch earlier this year – it was a bit too quiet due to complications like shipping issues, for instance. As a final note, Limpach said “by going out of the game industry, VR will be a bridge for developers to work on projects other than games.”
Designing around constraints in SUPERHOT – Piotr Iwanicki (SUPERHOT)
This talk focused on the design aspect of videogames, where Iwanicki spoke of constraints and possible corresponding hacks when it comes to design. During his team’s work on Superhot, they focused on designing a simple and not-too-detailed environment. They also tried to make the game as authentic as possible. For instance, game menus are usually boring and gamers don’t usually pay too much attention to a menu’s design, so they uniquely designed the menu to look like an ASCII command prompt. Moreover, rather than using the menu for its expected purpose, they also used it as part of the game.
Piotr then spoke of how players don’t normally expect a story in FPS titles, where it’s mainly about gameplay mechanics (a.k.a. shooting, which is rather obvious). To remain original, the Superhot team decided to “tell a story about the lack of story.” And for that story to be told, it required brief dialogues represented in an ASCII interface. As a relaxation technique for the dev team mid-development, they worked on mini-game side projects to have within Superhot. Iwanicki ended his talk by telling the audience how “design does not come from creative spirit (alone), it comes from solving problems as well” – where the best hack around constraints is to see them as opportunities for creating something innovative.
Art Directing in the Horror Game Genre – Mateusz Lenart (Bloober Team)
In this talk, Lenart addressed the Bloober Team title, Layers of Fear. He advised the artists and designers in the audience to avoid clichés in the horror game genre: creepy old houses, hospitals, asylums…etc. Putting the player in an unexpected or unpredictable situation is what provides the proper horror experience. Ensuring good game value is also crucial to focus upon – having an intelligent mix by finding an inspiration in things that are not related to the core issue of the game in the first place. For example, in Outlast part of the horror experience was induced by the camcorder night vision sequences. Among The Sleep had the player play as a toddler within the horror experience. In Layers of Fear, the game fused a haunted house with concepts of art.
Lenart closed his talk by highlighting good design value that could be achieved through several art direction factors:
- Convincing light and colors: in Layers of Fear, the lighting and colors used were inspired by the work of artists like Goya and Caravaggio, which was then applied within the Victorian setting of the game.
- Level design: artistically, it should not just focus on walls, halls and corridors – it should also focus on environmental storytelling and unpredictability of unsafe zones.
- Amplitude of fear: having fake scares that distract from actual jump scares, without going too far, is a plus.
- Problems with linearity within level design: giving the player more control over the game’s content reduces linearity and repetitiveness, resulting in a more rewarding horror experience. Adding gore is not always a bad idea, as long as it is reasonable. “Even clichés can be good when used creatively,” said Mateusz.
Matt Firor (ZeniMax Online Studios), Greg Essig (Mobcrush), Karoliina Korppoo (Colossal Order Ltd.), Teut Weidemann (Online Entertainment), Gunnar Lott (Visibility Communications)
Closing Panel: Quo Vadis games industry?
In this conference wrap-up panel, the future of the industry was debated – covering a few gaming platforms.
Firstly, the panel addressed the future of Mobile gaming. Weidemann highlighted how the app stores allow for easy publishing nowadays – especially for small scale developers who’d prefer self-publishing. Lott, the panel moderator, then rose the question of whether or not the current times are the end for self-publishing. Essig replied by saying that the midway publishing option is already taking place – where indie developers are much more ambitious and are keen on working with big publishers rather than self-publish.
Afterwards, the panel spoke about the future of gaming on Steam. Korppoo emphasized the fact that even though Steam is becoming much more crowded nowadays, the number of mobile gamers exceeds those on Steam. Firor, however, believes that Steam users are much more focused than those of the mobile platform – “they’re looking for specific games and are less flexible than mobile users,” he said. “Trends are harder to discover on mobile,” noted the moderator. Essig then intervened saying that F2P (Free-to-Play) Steam or mobile titles will always be the preference over premium mobile gaming. Moreover, Weidemann predicts that more competitors will eventually rise against Steam, since a lot of publishers and developers (including Microsoft) are starting to oppose them. Firor also believes that even though Steam is secure and respected, there’s still an opportunity for others to penetrate the market.
Finally, the panel discussed the future of console gaming, which Firor believes is more defined than Steam and Mobile combined. The entire panel unanimously agreed on the longevity of consoles, and that the upcoming generation of consoles will be even better than the current one. Regardless, Essig had to mention a concern that gamers have, which is the pricing problem of emerging consoles.
Closing debate: What about the future of game genres?
To conclude their discussion, the panel members gave their opinions on what future game genres look like. Weidemann predicts that survival games have huge potential, however he remained somewhat impartial saying, “now there’s a place for all genres, even if you bring back older genres.” Firor agreed with him – “what’s old is new again,” he stated. Ms. Korppoo then spoke of how players prefer familiar things, so genres will repeat themselves and still maintain their audience – even with the emergence of new genres. The moderator then closed the discussion by mentioning that Virtual Reality will be the future focus of all those genres – and how VR can be used in other mass media like film, TV, and even music.