An early morning session titled "Scattershot of Play - Potential of Indie Games" saw the creators of flOw (Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany), Everyday Shooter (Jonathan Mak / Queasy Games), and Pekko Koskinen (of Scandinavian outfit LudoCraft) discuss some of the various issues of developing independent games.
First up to the plate is Kellee Santiago who pondered the metrics used to quantify the value of a game: is it length? She points out that reviews of gaming-culture darling Katamari Damacy criticized the game's short length (while simultaneously noting its immense replayability and budget $20 price), while games like God of War seem to bypass such criticisms while charging 2.5x as much. Sandbox games are often considered a better "value" since their replayability is virtually limitless. She says this metric "assumes we have loads of time to get rid of" and asks why we don't more consider "the quality of the time that is spent." Jonathan Mak says he considers the memory of a game when considering replayability, equating the experience to a movie or book whose experiences can last with you for years.
Mak kicked off his component of the presentation by addressing what he calls "input/output theory." In short he says, "gameplay over graphics is a total misconception" and the inverse is also true, that graphics over gameplay is a similar misconception. To illustrate his idea, he says "The gameplay in Guitar Hero sucks. The game is good because the game tells you if you press the red button at the right time, we'll output rock music." He showed off an early tech demo of Everyday Shooter, pre-graphical polish, and then flipped the graphics on, noting the same "sucked" before the graphics were added. Kellee Santiago raised some eyebrows (in a room full of independently-minded persons we presume) saying that "publishers aren't all stupid." Skinning the same mechanics can lead to innovation.
Though they didn't quite say it by name, it's a lesson that isn't by any means exclusive to independent designers; we're reminded of last year's litany of incredible first-person shooters. Are BioShock, Call of Duty IV, Halo 3, Portal just simple first-person shooters utilizing the same basic input mechanic and, therefore, derivative and without value?
Is this a proponent of aesthetics over design? After saying that he didn't care much for Call of Duty 3, Mak said "What if Call of Duty 3 had Rez graphics, I would be totally all over it." He cited Japanese rhythm title Rhythm Tengoku, saying that despite enormously simple gameplay (hit the A button in rhythm) "the game is awesome because it always gives you a different output."
The final speaker's presentation was far less simple to relay (or understand, to be honest). Pekko Koskinen presented an idea to create "reality games" that aren't virtual environments but instead are "lenses" placed between a player and their real environment. His theories see the role of game design in designing player's behavior, calling it "an art of making fictional behavior." Unfortunately, his presentation stopped at the conceptual phase, never giving us any real-world examples to calcify his ideas (though we've heard the Finnish government is financing his project).
All in all, a curious panel which bandied about from one issue to the next, culminating in a project that we're struggling with identifying as a "game" despite its interactive elements.