Experimental Gameplay Project unleashes video design creativity

Among those who live and die on a pure and irrepressible love of video game design, there's a desire to perform the craft in a space free of any of the constraints inherent in business. That's where the Experimental Gameplay Project comes in.

The project plays host to the work of a collective of independent video game coders, designers and programmers, both hobbyists and those who do commercial projects by day. It was founded in 2005 by passionate designer Kyle Gabler and some of his classmates at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. "The goal then was and has always been to discover as many new forms of gameplay as possible," he says.

"New" is the operative word. The video game industry faces an unfortunate paradox: It attracts boundlessly creative individuals, yet demands a regimented, practically scientific skill set. And although it's gained the kind of Wall Street muscle that has accorded it economic legitimacy, recognition of game design as an art form continues to lag.

The net effect? An art form with all of Hollywood's hit-driven, cost-conscious concerns that still lacks the film industry's respect for and understanding of the artist. The products it yields generally adhere to a narrow vortex of tradition -- design forms for existing genres are well established, and reinvention is rare.

But the game industry has hope in its vast contingent of independent designers. Deeply knowledgeable about the art and meticulous, mathematical craft of game design and yet seeking an outlet outside the high-stakes constraints of the profession, a legion of indie studio-holders and solo bedroom coders have a haven in a Web hub that runs monthly challenges aimed at encouraging designers to create out of the box.

The Experimental Gameplay Project has evolved into a formidable collective of some of game design's best-known independent creators, engaged in what Gabler calls a "friendly competition." There's no money involved, but there are rules. Each prototype -- the functioning framework of a game design, not a full-fledged, finished product -- must be made by one individual in seven days or less, and all prototypes must adhere to that month's theme: Think "gravity," "sunshine" or, for Valentine's month, "rejection."

One particularly striking recent entry by Carnegie Mellon professor and designer Paolo Pedercini, Every Day the Same Dream, was made for the "art game" theme, and it's gained the attention of game critics for its poignant Pop Art portrayal of a man aiming to escape his cyclical life as a workaday drone -- "a game about alienation and the refusal of labour," in the creator's own words.

Anti-establishment theme

Commercial video games take millions of dollars and often hundreds of hands on deck, so Every Day the Same Dream is comparatively simple and brief. It requires only a few keyboard keys to guide its "hero" -- a featureless drone living in a grayscale world -- through the dull holding pattern of a life where he daily puts on a suit, greets his wife and drives to an office of Orwellian cubicles against the backdrop of a bleak postmodern soundtrack. The challenge for players is to seek rejections of the American worker's paradigm by discovering which actions, no matter how small, can make each day different from the one prior.

The underlying message is the rejection of commercialism and conformity. Subtle anti-establishment themes are fairly common occurrences among the prototypes, perhaps not surprising in a forum where creative people are seeking an outlet out of the bounds of their commercial industry.

Experimental Gameplay Project co-founder Gabler and his colleague, fellow independent pioneer Ron Carmel, are well acquainted with the limitations of the industry. The pair left mega-publishing house Electronic Arts to build their dream with just $10,000, a ton of bootstrapping persistence and hard work, and a name for their collaboration: 2D Boy. The result was World of Goo, an inventive physics-based puzzler that's earned much praise for its gameplay and its spirit.

The game's themes can be read as a friendly satire of the industry's perils. After winning several awards at the Independent Games Festival, World of Goo gained enough attention to support its commercialization, and it was released on PC and Nintendo's WiiWare service in 2008.

But World of Goo itself began as a brief prototype Gabler developed for the gameplay project -- a game that tasks players with assembling problem-solving structures out of sticky goo balls.

And there are other success stories. Insouciant, cheerful Helsinki, Finland-based designer Petri Purho, another devotee of flash prototyping, was inspired by the project to create seven-day games monthly on his own website. He created a game called Crayon Physics in under a week, and the fully developed version took top honors at 2008's Independent Games Festival. The Experimental Gameplay Project's spirit of friendly competition motivates many of the designers -- at one point, Purho's laptop wallpaper sported a picture of a young, prolific prototyping dynamo known as "Cactus," with a caption reminding Purho that "while you were slacking off I made three more games."

And like fiction writers writing flash pieces from a prompt, the Experimental Gameplay Project's rules and constraints are part of what inspire the participants. "You could compare the Experimental Gameplay Project to the Oulipo, a group of writers of the 1960s who embraced constraint as a primary means of creativity," says Georgia Tech professor and game design scholar Ian Bogost. "In both Oulipo and EGP, you find a strong desire to embrace constraint as inspiration."

As specific as the skill of game design is, these creators have come to the project to tackle the same challenges that any artist faces. "Everyone in the world can identify with that blank-page problem," Gabler says. But while he finds the parallels between the project's role in game design and, say, flash fiction's utility for authors interesting, he doesn't get hung up on the "art" issue. "The key thing about the project is not that it somehow states that games are art but that it is a creative tool -- give yourself a little constraint, time and thematic, and it enables you to be more creative," he says.

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