Letter From San Francisco
At this year’s Game Developers Conference, a WGAW videogame writer discovers “Humanity’s Final Game.” Want a peek into the wild, weird world of gamers? Read on.  

By Steven-Elliot Altman, WGAW Videogame Caucus Vice Chairman

(April 5, 2013) 

Steven-Elliot Altman, narrative designer of Wooga’s Pearl’s Peril  

Most writers have come to recognize that video gaming is now a multi-billion-dollar industry, primed to surpass the movie and television industries by light years. Mindful of this, the Writer’s Guild Videogame Caucus has been keeping a watchful eye on gaming trends, and each year sends representatives to the Game Developers Conference (GDC), one of the largest videogame expos in the world, heavily attended by game publishers and developers from around the globe.

As to be expected, there was lots to see at GDC this year, several not-to-be missed parties and plenty of hob-knobbing. But despite the glitz, the overall atmosphere was one of quiet humility. Gaming is clearly the place to be employed these days, and everyone I met who is lucky enough to be working in this field seemed blissfully thankful.

For those who didn’t make it to GDC, I want to share my favorite part of the conference - an audience participation event called the “Game Design Challenge,” which will give you a real idea of the state of the videogame industry and insight into the creative minds of videogame writers.

For the Challenge, six industry veterans are pre-selected, then asked to create a theoretical game that the audience can play. Then the audience gets to vote on the best game. This year's topic: "Humanity's Final Game.”

As we sat down, a mysterious envelope had been placed on each of our seats with the words "Please do not open yet" written on the top.

The only instruction given to the six contestants: “This is the last game humanity ever plays.”

SimCity designer Will Wright went first. Inspired by the Star Trek episode "Inner Light," the game Wright created was about a time capsule. How would humans give an alien race a true picture of who we were? The game asked the question, “Could you describe your own life in pictures?” Wright surmised we each have a personal memory deck (think card games). You and your friends could compare memories, and many would differ by perception. Several iterations included the global ping-ponging of events to create a selection process. Was Star Trek more important than Star Wars in your deck?

Designer Harvey Smith (Dishonored) posed the question, “Would I choose a game to pass on (to the aliens) rather than a book or a film or a piece of music?” Yes, he answered, passionate that the way we humans “play” speaks volumes about who we are. Then he asked, Should we be able to win this game? And if we can't win, is it a game? He wondered what the medium might be. He decided we should code the game into the DNA of a creature we created called a "Fleeting," which was his game's title. Players would live on an island and attempt to safeguard the survivors of a radiation storm who have emerged as "primitives,” offering them tools, hope and reason to live-on and rebuild our world beyond our own extinction.  

Computer game developer Steve Meretzky (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) used SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) as his inspiration. He also considered Agent Smith’s line from The Matrix: “A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.” His game called for the rise of the world's surviving hackers to collect all the nuclear codes on earth to purposefully launch World War III. He proposed funding the project with a reality TV show called No Survivors.

Erin Robinson's (Puzzle Bots) entry to the Challenge was titled "The Quoggle Invasion," with Erin riffing to us about a fictitious company - QuoggleSoft - that launches a social network game in which monsters materialize as children played it. The gameplay was an homage to games past and present, from farming your monsters in gardens like Zynga's Farmville to geo-location distress signals mirroring Google games like WGA game writer Flint Dille's Ingress. When Aliens arrive to war with our monsters, an accidental retaliatory nuclear strike destroys us all.

Richard LeMarchand (Uncharted) presented "Ludo Sapiens," inspired by the idea that everything we do in life from childhood through courtship and beyond is based on learning experiences derived from play. Play principles are based on judging Humanity’s actions, illustrated by the Dalai Lama’s maxim, “We are all selfish. Let us be wise in how we are selfish.” Gameplay revolves around different teams competing to judge each of mankind’s major decisions, to distill the human experience down to an end result. If Team Selfish wins, we end up with nuclear devastation. If Team Wise wins, we get to live and play in space forever.

Developer Jason Rohrer (Inside a Star-Filled Sky) began his challenge by illustrating the idea that a magnificent cathedral can take 300 years to build. The builders knew abstractly that those who built it would never use it. Therefore, Rohrer’s game was designed for players 2000 years in the future. In his game, Rohrer figured the game board would have to be earthquake, flood and act-of-God-proof. So he designed the board out of titanium steel (think chessboard) and then crafted a series of diagrams to explain the gameplay. Three pages of game instructions were illustrated in pictograms, hermetically sealed then inserted in another titanium tube. Yes, he actually built this, and we saw the photos! To keep his game safe, he showed pictures of it being buried in the Nevada desert. He took a GPS location of the burial site and walked away. "I could never find it again,” he told the audience. “However, one of you has an envelope on your seat, that has the actual coordinates."

When all the contestants had presented their games, we were instructed to open our envelopes. Each contained a sheet of 900 possible coordinates. If we were each to attempt to track down one of those coordinates, Rohrer was hopeful that in 1,000 years one of us would find his board game and play.

These were the six games we voted on. This year, voting was carried out via audience text (a la American Idol). First-place winner? Jason Rorher, whose prize was a copy of the game, Cards Against Humanity.

But I think the most notable prize went to this year’s Game Design Challenge third-place winner: a one-acre plot of land in the winner's name ... Located on The Moon.

The Game Developer’s Choice Award this year for best game went to Journey, a PlayStation 3 title that takes you on an intuitive, primal alien adventure that I honestly can’t stop thinking about. It was developed by thatgamecompany and funded by Sony. The Independent Games Festival Award for Best Independent Game, as well as Best Narrative, went to Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life, a gritty simulation game about street vendors and their hopes and dreams.

To learn more about the WGAW’s Videogame Writers Caucus, click here 


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