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Monday, 07 December 2009 07:23

GCAP09: Tim Stellmach and the Momentus Decision

Tim Stellmach design director Vicarious Visions opened Game Connect Asia Pacific in Melbourne with a discussion about the momentous choices designed into modern games.  Stellmach talks about the decisions that went into the design of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 and the past sources of inspiration that helped.

Tim Stellmach’s biography in the video game industry stretches as far back as testing on the 1992 game Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.

From that start Stellmach moved into game design, having the impressive stable of games such as Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock on his resume, with a “special thanks” credit for the seminal Deus Ex along the way.

As the opening keynote presenter at Game Connect Asia Pacific 2009 Stellmach chose the topic highlighting the progress of decisions processes in game design to give to the mostly game developer audience.

Entitled Which Side Are You On?  The Design of Momentous Choices, Stellmach chose his recent work on Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 to highlight thought processes that go into branching storyline and mission progress in video game design.

Stellmach presented an engrossing hour of description with the tight focus on one particular scene in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2.  The game is about an emerging civil war within the super hero ranks.  The government wants to register the heroes, effectively drafting them into its service.  This issue plays out in act two of the game where players guide their squad of heroes into a well guarded room.  

In the scene, players must make a choice, to either register their super heroes with the government or rebel against the directive.  The story-line of the game centres on this choice, with Stellmach putting up the list of missions, showing that the scenes outcome dictating the middle third of the games missions.

Taking the audience through the scene twice, Stellmach showed the audience how players that opt to rebel against government registration must battle the guards of the room they have found themselves in.  Likewise players that opt to sign up must deal with the wrath of the rebel faction before escaping the room.

Ultimately both choices result in a similar game play mechanism, but the ramifications for the rest of the game are paramount.  Stellmach showed how this choice can lock out certain playable characters for a significant amount of the game, and how this was necessary to retain the story arc.

Because of the significance of the choice in the game, Stellmach gave examples of how, through game design, this message must be transported to the player before and during the scene.

Part of the thinking was to ensure that players could not accidently make a decision they did not intend.  For example, to rebel against the government registration players must grapple with and ultimately battle the in room guards, but a simple punch will not start the fight; it needs to be a conscious directive on the part of the player.

Stellmach drew on his legacy of experience from games such as Deus Ex and Thief: The Dark Project to show the audience how branching decisions are presented to players, giving options to cater for a wide variety of playing styles whilst maintaining the inherit structure of the original game design vision.

For the budding game designers in the audience the hour spent on this relatively short sequence of in game structure was both daunting and enthralling.  Stallmach was concentrating on Momentous Decisions only.  Games with branching storylines are the hallmark of the Momentous Decision style, but with the public demanding increasing depth from story driven games, it is likely this will be a style that becomes more prevalent   

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Mike Bantick

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Having failed to grow up Bantick continues to pursue his childish passions for creative writing, interactive entertainment and showing-off through adulthood. In 1994 Bantick began doing radio at Melbourne’s 102.7 3RRRFM, in 1997 transferring to become a core member of the technology show Byte Into It. In 2003 he wrote briefly for the The Age newspaper’s Green Guide, providing video game reviews. In 2004 Bantick wrote the news section of PC GameZone magazine. Since 2006 Bantick has provided gaming and tech lifestyle stories for, including interviews and opinion in the RadioactivIT section.

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