GDC 2015 Talks on Design in Sunset Overdrive

My blog’s been silent for a little while because I’ve been really busy with preparing for GDC. This was the first year that I’ve spoken at the event and gave not one but two talks on design in Sunset Overdrive.

Since I’ve now given both my talks, I’m going to share my slides and – since there are no notes on the slides – my talking points.  Keep in mind that these notes are rough drafts and since I practice and memorize my talks they eventually fall out of date to the actual presentation. Regardless, my talks should be pretty easy to follow without the video if you consult the slides and notes together, but I expect them both to be on the GDCVault eventually.

Level Design in a Day: The Worlds of Sunset Overdrive

This is a 25 minute talk that covers the first two cities we built before we made our final city, and talks about what happened with those cities that made us decide to throw them out and start over again. I focus on how the changing design of the game – the emphasis on traversal, the open world vs. linear spaces – led to major changes in the geometry.

Transitioning from Linear to Open World Design with Sunset Overdrive

This is an hour long talk that goes into Insomniac’s changes in the design department to adapt to the new needs of an open world game, but also the specific needs of a game like Sunset Overdrive. I talk about the structural differences between a linear and an open world game, how designer roles and responsibilities changed, what our new workflow looked like, and the pros and cons of those changes. Whenever possible, I compare and contrast development on Sunset Overdrive with development on Resistance 3.

Mini Post Mortem

So I mentioned before that this was the first year I had ever given a GDC talk, so maybe some of my experiences might help others thinking about giving their first talk. I made it a goal the year before to pitch a talk, but the day proposals were due I still had no idea what to write about.  So I recruited Lisa Brown (@Wertle) for an emergency lunch session, and somehow dragged Drew Murray (@PlaidKnuckles) into the conversation at one point. By the end I realized that I had a lot to talk about with how things changed at work for designers as we moved into open world development.

(My advice for others who want to give a GDC talk and don’t know what to talk about? Recruit others. It’s hard to know what you know without others pointing it out.)

So I wrote a pitch for my talk on transitioning from linear to open world design, sent it in, and the GDC advisory board approved it. I had some emails back and forth with my advisor, Clint Hocking, who gave me some really excellent feedback and asked if I’d be interested in also participating in the Level Design in a Day summit. If I had to do it over again I might not have agreed to two talks – at least not for my first GDC. It was a bit overwhelming, especially since I went off travelling for a bulk of that preparation time.

There are some things I learned after the fact. Like, did you guys know there’s a “presentation mode” for slideshows that actually displays your current and next slides AND your notes? I didn’t. I never used it. I didn’t have any notes to read off of for my talks – it was entirely a mix of ad-lib and memorization. I also learned to ignore people who say that you’ll talk faster at a podium: as friends pointed out, I am already a fast talker. My practice times and my actual presentation times were the same, so my Level Design in a Day talk ended up cut off short (and I quietly snipped a few bits from my longer talk the next day to get in on time).

Some other things I learned:

  • Most people use something called “Presenter Mode” that shows them their notes and the previews the next slide and… I didn’t know this. I just memorized everything. I did it the hard way, apparently.
  • I was warned the speaker’s party would be terribly lame but instead it was just perfect
  • 25 minutes is too short to go really in depth, and not short enough for a distillation of a single idea. Go 60 minutes or join a 10 minute microtalk.
  • I get more nervous speaking to smaller groups, but the large GDC crowds didn’t intimidate me at all when it came time to speak.
  • There’s a LOT of studios that shall go unnamed that found my presentation on moving from linear to open world incredibly relevant.

That last bit was really important to me – I didn’t want the crowd to feel like I was wasting their time. I’ve been to too many GDC talks that I really didn’t enjoy because I didn’t find them relevant, or they were too basic and didn’t dive deeply enough into a topic.

One side effect of doing a GDC talk is that I learned a ton during the preparation stage. I had to focus deeply on a topic and dredge up everything I knew, research what I didn’t know, and then determine what parts make the ‘cut’ into the presentation and which don’t. I had a lot of doubt about the content of my talks since I was (unfairly) concerned about being wrong and not having the time to get more team members to proofread my talks. But then, Drew Murray, our creative director, may or may not have said, “Look, we’re all just making shit up” and he’s one of the best presenters I know.

Hopefully my evaluations come in positively because I already have a topic in mind that I’d love to speak on next year.

2 Comments on “GDC 2015 Talks on Design in Sunset Overdrive

  1. Hello Liz,

    I was on the talk ‘Transitioning from Linear to Open World Design with Sunset Overdrive’ at GDC and it was awesome.
    Since I never had a chance to design an open world space, I cannot imagine how it can be possible to be a ‘specialist’ for that. But clearly it was just a nice experience to imagine them with your talk. I hope I can learn from you someday. Also, I’m surpried that it was your first talk because you were so fluent and professional. Thanks for the talk!!

  2. Hi Liz,

    These talks are perfect for me, judging from the slides and notes – hoping to dig them up on the GDC Vault when they get there. Open world games are my main interest these days (after almost 30 years of gaming), and Sunset Overdrive is probably the best example of using the open world concept to the fullest – in terms of de-emphasizing the linear story (while keeping the overarching “world narrative” compelling), and really focusing on gameplay and exploration. The examples you give of early semi-linear missions really underline how that’s not a given. My absolute favorite game since around Fallout 3 – no overstatement (I’ll likely babble more on that in all aspects on the IG forums at some point).

    As a mostly one man band, hoping to lure my company into more game development (I’m a programmer with pseudo designer aspirations), actually finishing an open world game may turn out to be a pipe dream. Although I do have an over-ambitious spare time project in the works. But the insights of these talks will be invaluable regardless – if nothing else, then for whenever I equip my interaction-vs.-narrative-philosopher amp. :-)

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