GDC China 2012

I have been teaching the MDA workshop at GDC for over 10 years now, alongside a wonderful group of faculty from all walks of the game industry. The workshop started as a way to promote a culture of concrete analysis of games and a stronger vocabulary for discussing game design. Taught in a series of hands-on exercises, it encourages people to collaborate as they iterate on small paper game designs over the course of 2 days.

Way back in 2004 I wrote a paper that describes the MDA framework, and how it could be applied to designing AI systems for games (which was my area of study in graduate school). But I also wanted to explore how the framework reinforces feeling-first design. Game Mechanics and player inputs interact to create Dynamics, which produce the Aesthetic experience of the system. When you focus on the feelings your game makes within players, you can create new ones!

After a while I began to teach variations of this workshop at academic events and design conferences and then, at EA where I first worked as a designer. Over the years, the framework has become a permanent part of my "design toolbox", and it's vocabulary inseparable from how I perceive, play and design. So you can imagine my pleasure when I was asked to share the MDA workshop at GDC China last year... and to return this year! It was lovely to be back in Shanghai and see developers I met last year and meet some new people.

I have always been fascinated with far-off places. I first traveled to China in 1997 to wander around and see lots of the western part of the country. It's amazing how much it has changed since then, and to notice what things are consistent across my visits - especially flavors and smells. Last year my visit was shorter and more confined, because we were making the final push on Journey and so I spent a lot of time in the French Concession. This year I took a little longer to visit with people, travel around the city and just absorb the ambiance. Also made myself quite familiar with the subway system - which is fantastic, cheap and fast!

There were several moments of marked contrast during my visit: snapping images of suburban visitors in front of Mario Testino's opulent, glossy, gender-bending fashion photos... Waiting patiently in an hour-long line to see a classic Chinese pottery exhibit, later realizing most people were there to gawk at the wonders Fabergé crafted for Russia's ruling class. Craziest in my opinon: the egg created to celebrate the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad: which comes complete with a miniature working locomotive!!

As I wrote in the post on my Melbourne trip, I'm a bit of an aquarium nut. The GDC hotel was actually steps from the Shanghai Aquarium - and due to some pretty intense rain, I had the place mostly to myself. The building has an incredibly long "tunnel view" section at the bottom, where you can ride a little moving walkway through what seems like endless underwater landscapes. Huge fish swim around you, gaping and grazing the plexiglass with their bellies. It's amazing.

I was really taken with this part of the tour and spent a very long time (almost till close) down in the big tunnel. Most of it I spent with an especially graceful, attentive and ancient sea turtle that followed me and nuzzled the tunnel where I stood for about 20 minutes.  It was magnificent to feel as if despite being separated by a thick wall of plexiglass, and having no common species or language - we were able to communicate and connect somehow. Maybe I was a turtle at some time in the distant past? :D

In addition to meeting up with fellow Indies and some of the PopCap folks who were in town, Bryan Ma connected me with several really interesting and creative people who live and work in Shanghai outside the game industry. It was lovely to visit local bars, hear local discussions and generally enjoy the cozier side of Shanghai.

I also realized just how much eating a home-cooked meal in a foreign city can transform your feeling of belonging from outsider to guest. I will now strive to eat at least one home-cooked meal in the next new city I visit.

This trip's gallery is iPhone pix only (didn't want to lug around my Nikon). Thanks to all the wonderful people who participated in the workshop, GDC for the invite and of course, all the devs who let me bend their ears about Funomena. I look forward to seeing you in Shanghai, in 2013!