Back to the Future

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Google’s Chief Game Designer Noah Falstein (above, right) and Australian game designer Ken Wong (above, left) presented earlier this month at NZGDC16, looking backwards at how far videogames have come in a relatively short period of time, and forward to the places they might go next.

Falstein was the less keen of the two about being specific on the future, saying his employer Google was “very firm about me not making definitive predictions.”

A consultant, columnist and former chair of the International Game Developers Association, Falstein’s visit to NZ for NZGDC16 wasn’t his first. Several years ago, he was here for a X-Media Lab that ran in Auckland. One of the other presenters at that event made the point that despite the pace at which tech was developing, there wasn’t much in the way of new things, just new ways of doing things.

Much of Falstein’s presentation to NZGDC16 reinforced that belief, covering some of the same ground that Australian game designer Ken Wong had traversed in his session on game graphics.

The early days
“Play is one of the tools we’ve used to communicate with others, to share information and knowledge, to build and maintain communities,” Falstein asserted. It’s been around for aeons as a way for youngsters – animal and human – to learn essential life and survival skills.

Falstein hasn’t been around for aeons, although he pretty much has in terms of the history of computer game design. A professional game developer since 1980 (his early games include Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis), Falstein was one of the first 10 employees at LucasArts Entertainment. One of the questions he encountered regularly in those early days was, “This game thing might turn out to be a fad. Have you got something to fall back on?”

The Secret of Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island

Thirtysomething years on, Falstein’s not so concerned about developing a Plan B and his experience of being in at the ground floor offers some wisdom for those navigating and trying to map the new landscapes of VR, AR, MR and 360.

“We’re now in a period similar to what I experienced at the start of my career,” he said. “A lot of the techniques we know how to use don’t work so well with VR, so we get to experiment all over again. We used to show off our failures so we could explain what did and didn’t work – and that’s critical if we’re to advance.”

While Falstein’s opportunity to be in at the beginning of videogames was more a matter of good luck than judgement, it wasn’t necessarily all good.

“There were few established rules. We tried all sorts of things,” he said. “There was a lot of pleasure in not being told ‘that won’t work’, but there was also no guidance. We went down a lot of blind alleys and reinvented the wheel a lot. It was the Wild West.”

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