Thursday, March 25, 2004

ROTKing in the Free World

Game Developer’s Conference: Panel Report

I’m ashamed to admit that today marked the first time I’ve attended this event. Today I checked out a handful of lectures; the first came from a fairly mainstream position.

Neil Young, vice president and executive in charge of production for Electronic Arts (particularly Maxis Studios) shared his development philosophy in the a game design keynote address entitled, “Entertainment Experience First, Videogame Second: The Making of Return of the King.” He positioned Return of the King as a “mass appeal entertainment experience.” To highlight the difference between a game and an entertainment experience, he screened a game play clip of Super Mario Brothers 3. He contrasted it with a flash animation set to the soundtrack of Return of the King that depicts Bowser (like Saruman) planning an attack on the world of man. The clip garnered some chuckles and cheers. Only afterwards did one audience member point out that the clip had inherent entertainment power not because of it’s form (basically a cut scene) but because it merged two popular and well-known properties in a novel way.

Young defined the central organizing concept of his philosophy to be the service of the user fantasy. As such, he readily admitted that user fantasy of The Return of the King was to experience the vision of Peter Jackson,
and Howard Shore, the vision of Neil Young.

Most interesting was Young’s insistence that developers should be obsessive about the first 30 minutes of game play. “You only have once opportunity to impress a player,” he stated. He then showed the first thing a player saw when he powered up The Return of the King – The THX logo. He explained that this set the tone for the game, informing the player that they were going to experience game with cinema quality sound.

Regarding levels, Young made the assertion that levels of a game are like paragraphs. Long sentences with periods feel slow he said. Shorter sentences ending with explanation points (though a bit too Tales From the Crypt for good prose) makes for a more rewarding gaming experience. He spoke of dividing the gaming experience into milliseconds, moments and missions. “Developers,” he said should focus disproportionately on the milliseconds” (the meat and potatoes of the basic game mechanic).

There’s a good chance that Neil Young’s expression of his philosophies in this keynote will serve as further fuel in the growing bonfire of disdain against Electronic Art’s and it’s wildly successful efforts to mainstream and further commercialize the video game. I respected his honesty and the clarity of his game (or mass market entertainment experience) making goals.

For the haters, though, I'll include this interesting exchange during the Q&A regarding game difficulty. During the lecture, Young underlined the importance of making sure that the his studio's Lord of the Rings games weren't too difficult. An audience member took him to task, asking why EA's The Return of the King was much harder than their game adaptation of The Two Towers.

Neil Young's Mea Culpa? "My bad."

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about a fantastic lecture that countered Young’s lessons on audience service with the idea of the game developer as the auteur.