On The Experimental Game Design Methodology

What does “experimental” mean?

I’ve attended the Experimental Gameplay Sessions most years since its inception and the things I’ve seen there over the years have influenced me tremendously, both personally and professionally. Indie Game Jam showed me a new way to design, and is one of the most important currents in modern video game design. Gamelab’s Arcadia turned me on to remix culture and how it applies to games. Katamari Damacy made me realize that most modern game design is creatively timid. I learned what “haptic” meant, and was inspired to write a book. Rag Doll Kung Fu taught me the difference between sizzle and steak in novel mechanic design (sorry Mark – I wanted to love your game so much but it truly does show better than it plays!) I had my mind blown by the original Braid prototype.

Every year, EGS was my favorite session, and I have always left with notebook sagging with awesome ideas and a spirit buoyed with inspiration. Each year felt like a new voyage of discovery, renewing my creative wellspring.

In 2009, I didn’t quite get that. The games continued to be unique and interesting, but it felt like ‘experimental’ was starting to mean something dangerously specific. It meant finding a unique, promising mechanic dealing with spatial perception, imaginary physics, time manipulation, or some combination of the three and trying to squeeze all the possible interesting permutations of interactivity out of that one unique mechanic. Time, space, sound, color, structure. The criteria seems to be innovation as a mind-expanding riff on physics, and the games can almost always be seen as an attempt to answer one or two interesting questions as fully and satisfyingly as possible. And then culling the cruft.

For example, Portal: you can create a portal that goes from one place to another on just about any two surfaces, and momentum is conserved when things go through the portals. Braid asks, and answers, the question “what would happen if you could rewind time as much as you wanted.” Crush wonders what would happen if cardinal 3d views could be translated to 2d. Some novel mechanics are more successful than others, having ‘legs’ or however you want to phrase it. As Johnathan said about Braid, the more he played with it and brainstormed, the more the mechanic seemed to yield worthwhile puzzles and interactions. It was, as he said, the best game he ever worked on.

This year, the trend continued. And this year, I had a game, Shadow Physics, in the EGW. Shadow Physics follows the experimental formula exactly. At least, it will if we continue on the course we’ve set. Comments from the GDC feedback forms was something like:

The EGW used to be one of my favorite session at GD. however in the last several years, i feel it lacks vibron and excitement. I’m surprised they are unbable to find less well known experiemnts to show here. I feel there a narrow vision on the part pof the organizers regarding what experimental gameplay is or could be. I’d liek to see new organizers.

Here’s the thing: that’s fair. Fair and accurate. That deserves another blog post, but it’s worth noting. Is “experimental” becoming a narrow definition? When will we see another wave of something awesome, something new, something that hasn’t been done before?

I’ll be VERY interested to see what is shown at EGW this year.