Pajitnov, with needle and thread, wins Game Design Challenge

Ross Miller
R. Miller|03.09.07

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Pajitnov, with needle and thread, wins Game Design Challenge

The game design challenge is an honored tradition four years in the running at the Game Developers Conference, pushing creativity in a competitive, humorous environment. This year's winner was Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov who managed to create a viable action-puzzler using needle, thread and cloth. He bested both David Jaffe (Calling All Cars, God of War) and last year's winner Harvey Smith.

The following is a pseudo-live blog of the event from earlier this afternoon. Read on for a full description of each game proposed.

GDC Program Director Jamil Moledina is in attendance. The chairs in the room fill quickly. Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov is the last to show up, wearing a dress shirt and vest and holding a bookmark. He serves as a stark foil to the other designers, who dress and act much younger. Game Lab's Eric Zimmerman sports the skin-tight grey collard shirt, thick-rim glasses, and the hipster-obligatory thick leather watch strap.

Jaffe and Smith prepare notes while a GDC techie preps the microphones. Music best described as rejected They Might Be Giants material is playing through the speakers, marking the time when the session was to start. Our guess is that it's a torture device intended to speed up preparations so the session can start as close to on time as possible.

The lights dim slightly. Zimmerman beckons that those with adjacent empty seats reveal themselves. Zimmerman explains his reasons for conceiving the game design challenge. "There are certain kind of games, game themes, subjects, styles that have yet to be explored and need to be explored," he explains, and the Challenge is for developers to push themselves in the theme. Previous year themes include:
  1. When story felt integral. Challenge: Game that tells love story (Will Wright was crowned victorious)
  2. When licensing were all the rage. Challenge: Emily Dickenson poetry (Will Wright wins again)
  3. Rise of serious games with social agenda: A game that would win Nobel Prize (Harvey Smith wins for a DS title about peaceful flash mobs).
This year, there was a rise in interaction and hardware. The Wii is referenced. This year marks the first technological challenge, the needle and thread interface. The participants were let known the challenge in January. Each has 10 minutes to present their game, followed by Q&A session, then the winner is selected by informal vote of the audience.

The basic elements of the challenge: the cloth, some thread, and needles. A thin but sturdy cloth 2 x 2 square, any color or visual pattern. Plastic needles of varying colors and sizes, and threads of different colors and sizes as well. The cloth sensor knows which needle and thread you chose, and there are some other small details that are and are not part of the sensor (folding the cloth is not detected). "Eight cloths connected to a television" is shown to the bemusement of the crowd.

Paper Airplane

Jaffe goes first, giving the challenge the new title of "are you fucking shitting me?" as it was known at the Jaffe household. He then went on to describe Pajitnov as Russell Crowe's character in Cinderella Man, Smith as the film's antagonist, and Jaffe gives himself the relation to Paul Giamatti's character.

The Atari 2600 Adventure and Pac-Man are cited. A remake of the Journey arcade game was considered. "It was going to be like cel animation; as you layer the fabric on top of each other ... the fabrics would be staircase, bridge etc. and you would make the path needed and sew weapons that would drop in the environment to help Steve Perry's character ... For me, everything has to be fun. So I sat there and pretended I was doing these things ... it just wasn't fun to me."

Jaffe found a fabric that has paper-like qualities on the internet. "So I thought, wouldn't it be cool if -- and I call this playper -- and it's cool in the sense that it's paper you hook it up to the TV." So derives the Paper Airplane toy game.

The goal of Paper Airplane is to design and create the best paper airplane to launch through and master various obstacles and scenarios. For purpose of focusing on the design aspect, Jaffe decided to make the actual launch of the airplane easy, with all external conditions equal for every throw.

The sewing mechanism comes from the creation of artwork and weaponry on the craft, depending upon which needle you use and how you sew the items. AI will decide to use the gadgetry based on what it is and where you put it. The better the stitch you make, the better the gadget's functionality. Again, the focus is on design.

Ending his presentation, Jaffe shows a picture of Pajitnov Photoshopped onto a victorious boxer, with a Photoshopped picture of himself below.

"I totally expect to lose," Jaffe notes and concludes his presentation.

Stitch & Cross

Pajitnov is next, showing his e-mail address to the entire room. Technical errors plague the first few minute (Silly PowerPoint). The game consists of a common screen. Each player has one cloth for input.

The move consist of two stitches, the visible and hidden, as with the simplest of stitching when you go over and under the cloth. Your goal is to stitch your away across the map first -- Pajitnov estimates this would be done in five visible and five hidden stitches. You can fight and destroy your opening by crossing his visible stitch. To combat the notion that one could make a long hidden stitch and reach the end unscathed, Pajitnov decided to make a rule so that the visible stitch would be greater in length to the hidden stitch.

As Pajitnov explains, "Basically I feel that approximately five steps in this field sounds to be good. I'd like to leave it five steps, one goes 20% per ... I want to keep it simple, but we want it to be more visual, so visible parts should be longer. The cross killing should happen on the visible part."

More problems were discussed:
  1. The tail is very vulnerable. Pajitnov decided to have the tail melt at approximately one stitch every five seconds.
  2. The steps are predictable, no room for strategy. Each player therefore gets two needles, though all needles are identical. We're not sure what he means here.
  3. The play field looks boring. Pajitnov envisioned obstacles spanned out over about 100 stages.
Other rules Pajitnov decreed:
  • A new move is not allowed before the current is done.
  • No cross of opponents' spots (needle will return to start), obstacles, field design.
  • The loser of a fight will return to the start.
  • Each game lasts up to five points with the difference of two (we think he means like the Tennis scoring rules)
  • If there is no activity for 40 seconds, the needle returns to start.
Zimmerman quips that even mathematicians can make mistakes, noting the two number eight list topic in the last slide. He then goes on to talk about the designer's different foci, referencing Pajitnov's focus on the detailed rules in explaining the game. Pajitnov's attention to detail and fleshed out proposal is intriguing, and once we grasped the full picture we found ourselves wishing this game was real.

The Tailor's Daughter

Harvey Smith takes the stage to discuss "a highly , physically simulated 3D adventure game." Smith laments that not enough Myth-style games are made. In his introduction, he quotes Miyamoto as saying to "start by thinking about the controller."

"It has never been more true than with this interface," he said. He thought about controller shape, form aesthetics, body position during play, connection to electricity, and mapping controller surface to game mechanics. "My initial reaction was this was going to be really difficult," whilst "batshit crazy" is listed on board. Smith decided to take the user interface seriously, imagining how to play some of his game with needle and thread and make it feasible.

The needle was easy, he said. Smith imagined it contained an RFID tag read by a transponder in the cloth, to be sold in various colors like guitar picks of DS styluses. In thinking about a cloth, he thought of a loom that looks like a computer desk but doesn't seem very practical. He then thought of a lap loom and he decided it was comfortable, the right size / shape, and more importantly it maps to a living room.

"Which lead me to consider Native American snowshoes, naturally." (Pictured; our apologies for the bad quality.)

The cloth is stretched over a wooden frame. Imagine this with modern branding, plastics, etc.

A swivel connector would be on the right, allowing cloth frame to flip. The other side has UI and map settings.

Putting the shoe and needle together. "I wanted to talk about another step that I went through. I try to envision playing actual games that I like with this controller. So minesweeper to start seemed super simple. But then I thought about it, the needle would be tripping squares and you might accidentally sew the wrong square. So I came up with the notion of partial insertion ("just the tip"). Full insertion registers a click. The crowd laughs and moans at all the innuendo.

Smith talks about Guitar Hero. It's fun but you lose left-hand to button pressing. The right-hand strumming becomes more complex: picking out notes. the needles system would be like playing a fretless bass. and you know, where you pluck the screen. "Guitar Hero, in my opinion, would be a lot of fun.

Smith talks about his upcoming game, Blacksite. A first-person shooter would be different with controls -- it becomes slower, more 2D. "But then I thought about it and if the pace of the game was slower, I could envision using the right hand side to move forward. I think Nintendo solved this with Metroid DS, but I wouldn't want to do Blacksite with a controller like this."

The Tailor's Daughter is a 3-dimensional physical adventure game with a quilted art style. "I imagine a watercolor through a rendering filter that makes it look like cloth," he said. The game itself is allegorical fiction pertaining to current U.S. political issues that drew considerable enthusiasm from the crowd. We'll abstain from the political themes for this post, but essentially the game revolves around Noa and her stuffed animal companion as she uses her father's magical needle to save his kingdom and regrow the Life Tree. Battles would be fought in a Final Fantasy style.

The stitching element would come in with stitching and tearing portals in the fabric of time, and stitching pieces on your stuffed companion. While the game was fleshed out, we felt it was unclear what creativity was being brought via the cloth input.

Smith thanks the audience and the Q&A session opens up.

The first question is posed for for host and creator Zimmerman, who wonders why no female game designers were invited to a design challenge about a predominantly-female hobby of stitching. The crowd cheers at her pointed question and Zimmerman responds that when the designers were selected in a process with him and CMP, gender was not a primary inspiration. "But excellent question," he said.

Pajitnov had some pointed responses about letting players make their own maps in his game. "I hate to trust level design to customers, I feel it''s just up to the designer himself. I would rather design a couple hundred levels," he said. All developers and level designer, not unexpectedly, cheer at his remark.

One point that was made is the controller's intent was to do something that could only be executed effectively with the needlework. A questioner asked what about Smith's game could be done with only his controller. We found Smith's response a tad confusing and not reassuring.

When asked if the three designers attempted needlecraft during their research, Smith admits that he "almost set some stuffed animals on fire, that's the closest [he] got." Pajitnov explained that "once I made pants for myself." Jaffe just shrugged, laughed and said nothing, motioning to move on. "I think his answer is no," interpreted Zimmerman.

Following the Q&A session, Zimmerman called out former contestant Clint Hocking to come on stage and help hand out the awards, which are bronze, silver and gold sewing needles of varying sizes.

The vote is gauged by audience decibel level:
  • Jaffe: Pretty loud clapping and mild hoot / hollering
  • Pajitnov: Universal screams, explosion in room. whistles abound
  • Smith: More hoots and hollers, clapping; Almost ties with Pajitnov, but dies more quickly.
Zimmerman and Hocking, after minor deliberation, decide that Alex Pajitnov earns the gold needles, while Smith takes second and Jaffe places third. Hey, he did predict it.

"You know people that talk about creative crisis in games industry," concludes Zimmerman. "Maybe that's true top-down, finding commercial concepts we can make [successful], but there's nothing stopping us from conceiving of games and having activities and exercises like this and even making games inspired by the Game Design Challenge. There's nothing to stop us from making game inspired by what we've seen today." The design challenge proves yet again to be one of the show's best hours.
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