SAN FRANCISCO--Get ready for toxic microbes to come packaged in a video game SKU.
Longtime and much-revered designer Steve Meretzsky's Bac Attack, a game that pits man's strategic ingenuity against the march of armies of bacteria, was the winner of Thursday's Game Design Challenge at the Game Developers Conference here.
The challenge, an annual GDC event hosted by GameLab CEO Eric Zimmerman, and a session that always plays to an energized, standing-room-only audience, traditionally pits three well-known designers against each other to come up with a concept for a game that meets some unusual criteria.
In past years, themes have been games about love; games based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson; and games that could win the Nobel Peace Prize. This year's challenge, "The inter-species game," was to create a fleshed-out idea for a game that could be played cooperatively by both humans and members of another species.
"It's a riff on the idea of opening up new markets," joked Zimmerman, well-aware that he was speaking to a room packed with game developers keen on making titles that have commercial appeal. "People are looking for any kind of market for games they can find. So I thought, why stop at homo sapiens?"
The challenge featured the previous year's winner, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov; Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Leather Goddesses of Phobos designer Meretzky; and Brenda Brathwaite, designer of games like Playboy: The Mansion and the Wizardry series.
And while Brathwaite's concept for an alternate-reality game called OneHundredDogs.com nearly carried the day, it was Meretzky's marching bacteria that was judged the audience's favorite.
Never fear, though. You won't have to worry that going into a GameStop might expose you to life-threatening creatures: the challenge is just to come up with the game's concept, not to build an actual title.
Meretzky began his presentation--each contestant takes 10 minutes or so to showcase his or her design--by discussing other possibilities for a game for both humans and animals. He said he considered something based on a classic English fox hunt--which comes with the possibility for in-game advertising.
He also considered doing something with squirrels, since "they like to collect things, and we like to collect things. So I thought I could train them to be Chinese gold farmers."
But what led him to microbes was the idea that he could reach a potential market of "5 million million trillion bacteria...Now there's a target demographic worth shooting for."
So, he explained, Bac Attack is centered around a new input/output device called the "Tray Station," which projects microwaves onto a Petri dish.
The Petri dish becomes the field of play, he explained, and the idea is that light projected onto it is intended to stimulate the bacteria.
"The Tray Station reads those moving bacteria colonies as armies on the march," he said. "After an hour, either your defenses have held, or (the bacteria) have emerged victorious and you lose."
He added that there's a secondary game design benefit from working with bacteria.
"Because of the beauty of natural selection," Meretzsky said, "the bacteria that survive next time level up."
The real benefit of the game, though, he added, is that as the bacteria multiply, there's room for monetizing the bacteria beyond just selling the game itself.
And that's because, he joked, you could sell the bacteria to the biotech industry.
"That's one fat pile of loot just waiting for the right publisher to tap into it," he said of Bac Attack. "The game that makes germ warfare available to the whole family. The game that puts the fun back in fungicide. The first massively micro-player game."
For her part, Brathwaite's second-place game design, OneHundredDogs.com, was what she described as "an interspecies Facebook (alternate-reality game)."
The game would feature dog and human challenges in 50 cities around the world. She wasn't entirely clear on what those challenges would be, but the idea is that in each of the 50 cities, contestants would vie to represent that locale as one of the "50 dogs."
So the goal, she said, was to build a player base in each city that would then require cooperation amongst all the players in that town.
The second phase would be "dog fifty-one," she said.
Here, more tasks would be presented, and players would have to work together with those in other cities, all in the hopes of getting invites from a mysterious "Dog 52."
As each new task is completed, players would move up the chain, getting invites from each succeeding numbered dog, all the while building a massive social network amongst the players.
This would continue until players get to dog 92, which would start the third phase of the game, a "massively cooperative" phase.
I loved this concept, but to be honest, I was a little confused by the end game. And I think others might have been too. That may ultimately have been why Brathwaite's concept wasn't the winner. Or, possibly, I was the only one confused, which wouldn't be entirely surprising since most of the people in the room were game designers.
Unfortunately for last year's winner Pajitnov, his concept for Dolphin Ride, a game that would have people riding dolphins in a complex paintball battle, didn't fare so well with the crowd.
But that's not because the crowd didn't express its affection for the Tetris creator. He may have gotten the warmest welcome from the room. But his game was probably the least well-conceived and there was no favoritism.
All in all, the Game Design Challenge was a huge hit, as always. Afterward, I spoke with someone I know who had attended a session in an adjacent room. He said he was disappointed not to have been able to be in the Game Design Challenge room.
With a somewhat sad face, he said that while listening to his own session, he kept hearing the raucous cheers from the design challenge, and that only made him more frustrated not to have been able to be there.