Nordic Game 2006 Conference Coverage

Compared to GDC, London Games Festival or - heaven forbid - the now-defunct E3, Nordic Game in Sweden is barely a dot on the gaming events radar. I suppose I would not even have attended if someone didn't specifically recommend it. With just over 650 delegates and a handful of exhibitors, the Nordic Game conference may not be the biggest industry event, but it still proved surprisingly interesting and productive. In this report I will attempt to give a general summary of some of the keynotes and lectures, which is somewhat difficult given the wide range of topics that were covered (and the fact that eight different sessions ran parallel at any given time), but I will try to give a sampling anyway.

Since the conference focused on Scandinavian countries, it was obviously a good place to chat with people of studios such as DICE, Starbreeze, Funcom or CCP (see my interview with CCP). It also managed to attract a fair amount of international speakers, such as Introversion Software's Thomas Arundel and Q Entertainment's Tetsuya Mizuguchi. There were no major game demos or announcements, apart from the very first live demo of Lumines II, which I will get to later. Again, don't expect any real game previews here, but perhaps you will get an impression of what a development-oriented event such as Nordic Game is like.

Where in the world are game developers?

The opening keynote of Nordic Game 06 was provided by Alain Tascan, the studio boss of EA Montreal since its founding three years ago. (You may recall his dispute with Ubisoft over employment contracts earlier this year.) His talk looked at game development hotspots around the world.

Tascan pointed out that game production, compared to movie production, is much more spread out around the globe, with talent clustering in likely and unlikely places. He showed a world map with current development hotspots, featuring the usual suspects: California, Austin, Montreal, Vancouver, France, UK and finally Japan. According to Tascan, some of these locations are losing relevance, such as Austin, Texas, which he said has "collapsed". The UK has also been weak for over a decade, while he predicts tough times for France as Atari's mother company Infogrames is facing difficult financial problems.

He went on to list a number of factors that attract game studios to certain locations, most of which are obvious (good education, tech infrastructure, and so forth). One bullet that stood out was government support. Game companies in Montreal apparently receive a 40% employment incentive, meaning that for every 100 dollar they spend on game industry employees, they get 40 back from the government. There is also a subsidy of up to 25% salary per day for employee training. I have no details on government support in other regions, but it sounds like an attractive package of incentives to me.

Not surprisingly given the location of the conference, Alain Tascan listed Scandinavia as one of the "new hotspots" for the next decade, as well as Shanghai, Seoul and Bangladore for outsourcing. Apparently Florida is also set to be abuzz with gaming activity, as Jeb Bush is attempting to attract a lot of young industries to rid Florida of its reputation as "a place for old people".

The Bay Area will continue to play a major role, Tascan said, by virtue of the VC money flowing through Silicon Valley and its close proximity to Hollywood. Tascan made much of potential collaboration with the movie industry, claiming "Spielberg is not working with EA for the money" but, presumably, for the creative opportunities offered by games.

Salad Destruction Tycoon (is not a real game)

Speaking of Steven Spielberg (hey, that's what they call a bridge!), one of his partners at EA LA was on hand to give a workshop on game design. Randy Smith worked on the Thief series at Looking Glass Studios and is currently one of the designers creating new IP with Spielberg for EA. He began his workshop by explaining the MDA framework for designing and tuning gameplay, which was formalized a couple of years ago by several other designers.

The framework encourages designers to look at games from three perspectives: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. Simply put, the mechanics are the actual data and code that is executed, the dynamics are the behaviors of those mechanics based on the player input and the aesthetics are the emotional responses that designers want to invoke in the players (e.g. challenge, or fellowship, or discovery).

Using this vocabulary, different attendees were asked to form groups and design a game together. Mind you, not using actual code and graphics, but simply by using index cards, die and various plastic trinkets. Randy Smith emphasized this was not a random exercise in minimalism, or contrived just for the purposes of the workshop, but that actual designers use such prototypes to quickly and cheaply figure things out. Several examples were given, including pictures of a paper prototype made at Blizzard to test out specific combat mechanisms.

Attendees were given a basic game to work with (a six-player schoolyard popularity card game called SiSSYFIGHT) and were then told to adapt it to a completely different theme. For instance, the group I was part of decided on fast food restaurant as the new theme. The original game's schoolyard taunts quickly evolved into burger creation; each player owned different ingredients (buns, salads and meat) that had to be stacked collaboratively. However, players could also be aggressive and "destroy" each other's ingredients. It became evident that we had broken the game's fiction when players started saying "I destroyed your salad!", but we kept it for comedy effect. After some real out-of-the-box thinking it was determined the game would be the most immersive with actual real-life ingredients instead of cards, though sadly no burger ingredients were available.

Using the original SiSSYFIGHT game mechanics as the basic scaffolding many other games emerged from the groups, including an Enron board game where cards represented blame and guilt, and a game in which players gave each other heart-shaped cards of love but could also love each other to death. Not only were these fun creative exercises, but the MDA framework allowed total strangers to come up with a solid game prototype in just half hour.

While these sort of lessons are obviously intended for the game designers in attendance (or aspiring designers), it really should be mandatory for game journalists or in fact anyone dealing with games indirectly. While it is relatively easy to understand what a programmer or modeler does, it is much harder to truly understand how designers have to work around certain problems, balance different gameplay mechanics and test those mechanics out.

The final task of the workshop proved very challenging, which was to convert some aspects of an existing digital game to a paper prototype. My group tried to model the level grind from World of Warcraft using only cards, die and extremely simplified rules. Although the result was inevitably very abstracted, we had some fun trying to model the real-time nature of people fighting monsters concurrently. We came up with the rule that if players die, they have to get up from the table and physically run back and forth to the other side of the room to simulate the time lost when respawning and recovering your ghost.

The point of the workshop was, of course, that it's a safe way for designers to experiment before committing anything to real code and assets. It also gave a good impression at what probably happens in a lot of meeting rooms at game developers on a daily basis.

Music video meets video game

Tetsuya Mizuguchi, famed designer of Rez, Space Channel 5 and Lumines, gave an entertaining keynote called "inspiration-led game design", which told where the ideas for each title he worked on had originated. For instance, Space Channel 5 was inspired by the dancing sequences in musicals, while Rez had several inspiration sources. Mizuguchi described the first time he went to a rave many years ago, seeing all the lights synced with the music and all the people moving in unison. This made him recall the paintings of Kandinsky (and his theories on synesthesia) which he learned about way back during his Media Aesthetics course.

Towards the end of his talk, Mizuguchi pulled out a PSP and gave the first ever public demo of Lumines II. After receiving much applause, he asked the audience to vote on which song to play. The game has over 100 tracks (read: levels) by about ten different artists, including Black Eyed Peas, Beck, Missy Elliot, Chemical Brothers, Stephanie, Junior Senior, Go! Team, Junkie XL and New Order.

While he finally fired up a song by New Order he said, "For Lumines II, the concept is, 'How can we combine the music and music video into a game?'". At first glance the game seems mostly unchanged from the original, except music videos are now shown in the background as you are playing it. This seemed like a typical case of exploiting licensed content, but as I found out later, there is a little bit more behind it.

When I got to talk to Mizuguchi privately it quickly became apparent that music videos are very much on his mind right now. Specifically, he is interested in music and images working together to tell a story. It would not be surprising if his next game (whatever it may be) is somehow rooted in music videos, but in a much less abstract way than Rez, and hopefully in a more profound way than Lumines II. In fact, at the end of the conference (just half an hour before he headed back to Tokyo for TGS), Mizuguchi showed me the near-finished cut of a music video that he'd recently been making for the song Heavenly Star by Genki Rockets, the lyrics of which he co-wrote as well. He said he had wanted to apply his knowledge gained from making games to a whole different medium. The video features a girl drawn in the same style as the video of A-Ha - Take On Me who has come from space looking for love on planet Earth. The video will be making an appearance in Lumines II.

As cool as this video was, I told him I hoped he would not get distracted by music videos, or worse, stop making games. Obviously I could not resist asking if he's working on Rez 2. The answer is that SEGA holds the intellectual property rights to Rez, so he can only make a sequel if they are interested. That doesn't stop him from thinking about it a lot though. It seems he doesn't just want to do a repeat of Rez and is looking for a different angle for when/if a sequel ever happens. Again, it seemed like he would want to move away from the abstract lines and shapes and work with more recognizable images, but who knows, approving it would be entirely up to SEGA. Meanwhile, it doesn't seem like Q Entertainment is short on projects, with games like Every Extend Extra still in the pipeline.

When game designers explain where they get inspiration from you might occasionally wonder if they truly mean it, or if they're just saying those things because people expect them to say visionary things. What I got from getting to know Mizuguchi a little is that there's a real process behind his games. Whenever he gives quasi-philosophical answers in interviews, he isn't just trying to sound clever, he really believes in what he says.

Lumines II will be released next month, though Mizuguchi and Q Entertainment remain tight-lipped about future projects.

How to: make a player feel like he's drunk

Finally, I absolutely have to cover the lecture by Gonzalo Frasca, someone who is actually best known as an academic researcher studying video games. I first saw a lecture by Frasca a couple of years ago at an academic conference, which was interesting but very dry and theoretical. Frasca's talk at Nordic Game was the extreme polar opposite, focusing purely on practical game design issues using real-world examples. Perhaps his experience in designing games for Cartoon Network changed his focus, as judging from his stage presence he could easily have been mistaken for a stand-up comedian. Seeing a game researcher change its tune so much is kind of like seeing Bob Saget make a dirty joke for the first time; it's startling and doesn't really make much sense at first.

Fortunately, Frasca's lecture did make sense. It focused on how games can be modeled after the same source, but can end up being very different simulations, e.g. tennis has been used as a source for games ranging from Pong to the most realistic tennis games out there.

Russian Roulette was used as a strange example of such a "source", with Frasca analyzing different game adaptations of it. The original Russian Roulette is very exciting, has an easy interface ("point and click"), but can have pretty dramatic real-life consequences. So the first adaptation of Russian Roulette that he talked about was an insane-looking colorful toy gun that made loud noises when pulling the trigger. While it made the game non-lethal, it didn't really simulate the anticipation and excitement of the original; you just pull the trigger and not much happens physically. Gonzalo Frasca pointed out that this toy was never a commercial success, even in Japan.

He then described a beer game where you take a six pack and shake one of the beers without anyone looking. Then everyone has to hold the can under their noses and flip them open. Whoever has the exploding can will experience an effect described by Gonzalo as "complete nasal rape". While this version of Russian Roulette includes the physical element, there is no longer a gun involved, so it's still not an ideal adaptation.

Frasca said the ultimate simulation of Russian Roulette was a gun with a balloon coming out of the barrel, which he found in a toy store in Japan. Pull the trigger and a needle will snap the balloon, which has a startling effect and messes up your hearing for a few seconds. According to Gonzalo, this is the most fun simulation of Russian Roulette since it included all the essential elements: the anticipation, the physical hurt and the gun.

The analysis went a bit deeper than what I just described, but the point was that designers can think of a lot of ways to model games after real-world things. Gonzalo saw the Nintendo DS as something that "makes you rethink everything". I wondered if he had any examples of good simulations that didn't rely on unusual interfaces, so he showed clips of the "push the wire in the needle" minigame in the original WarioWare on the GBA (where you move the wire up and down) and then the DS version (where you draw the wire). The version with the traditional button controls mimics the real-world action a lot better.

Frasca also pointed to classic games like Decathlon (1984) where repeated button presses make you feel tired like the athlete would, as well as Travel with Trashman (1984), an obscure ZX Spectrum game I had never heard of before. Apparently the sequel to Trashman, Travel with Trashman sees the now-successful trashman protagonist traveling the globe to pick up trash (yeah...). In one level, trashman is working at the German Oktoberfest festival; if you pick up too much beers by accident you actually experience drunkness due to the controls getting inverted at random intervals. While Frasca jokingly claimed to have never ever been drunk, he heard the real-life experience was pretty similar.

A smörgåsbord of sessions

Of course, this is just a tiny slice (a vertical slice, if you will) of what took place at Nordic Game. There were many other lectures and panels, most of which were too specific to cover here, others I simply had to miss. The main impression I got is that a lot is going on in terms of game development in the Scandinavian countries, perhaps more than we realize, and the region is making a big effort to put itself on the map. Not only did it host a great mini-GDC, but it also provided a huge deal of networking opportunities for the many delegates, who included anything from world-renowned game designers to local representatives of law firms that just happen to deal with game companies.

Finally, I got to learn the true pronunciation of smörgåsbord, which in itself might have been worth the trip. (Okay, perhaps not.)