GDC 09 Game Design Challenge: “My First Time”

ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHT SESSIONS of GDC every year is the “Game Design Challenge,” conceived and moderated by the gregarious Eric Zimmerman. The concept is simple: Three game designers are asked to come up with a viable game concept on a topic outside normal game conventions. In previous years, challenges ranged from designing a game that could win a Nobel Peace prize to a game based off the works of Emily Dickinson; last year, former Infocom designer Steve Meretzky won for designing an interspecies game (in his case, one that involved bacteria).

This year’s concept married two concepts rarely seen in videogames: autobiographies and sex.  On hand to defend his title was Meretzky, challenged by Sulka Haro (lead designer on HABBO) and the team of Heather Kelley and Erin Robinson. Oddly, Valve’s Kim Swift, one of the main designers on Portal, was originally scheduled to be part of the panel, but – for reasons left vague — was asked by Valve to step down due to the sexual theme of the contest.


First up was the team of Kelley and Robinson, which, as it turned out, was initially supposed to be just Kelley. Robinson explained how she got involved. “Heather was complaining about having to suddenly do this big talk and I said , ‘why don’t you have a game where you have to count ceiling tiles?’ …and suddenly I was a part of this.” 

The team’s concept was a simple one, based around fast-paced WarioWare-like microgames. Each team member designed a level comprised of split-second games that would eventually lead up to the main character’s first sexual encounter. In Kelley’s level, your character (in this case, female) first had to pick the most uncomplicated outfit. Then, “Shave the Leg!” “Remove All Garlic From Your Food!” “Pick the Sexiest LP! and “Don’t Fall Off the Top Bunk!” In Robinson’s level, it started with “Find a Radio Station that isn’t Country!” “Buy a Non-Scary Condom!” “Make the First Move!” “Unbuckle!” and “Call My Best Friend Alice Afterwards!”

Ultimately, the meta-game tying all the minigames together was an embarrassment meter at the bottom of the screen – in keeping with the first time’s motif, you had to keep things as awkward as possible without going over the limit, or else the first time wouldn’t happen. In all, a simple but workable game concept.


Next up was Sulka Haro, who started by describing a few false starts before settling on a concept. To start, he toyed with the concepts of genetics and evolution, and a platform shooter in which a sperm raced to … well, you can fill in the blank. Haro joked that it was a game that could scale to 500,000,000 players, but didn’t quite fit the theme of theme of the challenge.

Eventually, Haro settled on a game involving user-generated content called “Your First Time.” Each round would have four anonymous players sharing experiences on various topics (“movement,” “color”, and then picking an image to go along with their description (which could theoretically use Flickr as both a broad image base and a way to filter out pornographic images).

While the concept might not sound thrilling, Haro actually prototyped the game and the results turned out to be both humorous and touching. One image of a cricket prompted a story where a bug flew into a person’s mouth just before their first kiss, creating an incredibly awkward moment. Another was a picture of a campefire, which led to a story of someone freezing their ass off at camp and the memorable experience of huddling with a girl and the feelings it produced. Of course, the concept could be easily exploited, but it was certainly an interesting take on such a narrow topic.


Finally, it was Meretzky’s turn, starting off with an image of his head happily moving around a baseball diamond. Like Haro, Meretzky offered a look at several false starts, including the problems of naming his game, since almost every game could be construed as sexual if you look hard enough (Pole Position, WoW!, the list went on). He came up with several games that were riffs on modern culture (“Call of Booty,” “Where’s Dildo,” “Hump Hump Revolution”).

Meretzky talked about his past, that he was a huge geek who felt out of place in high school, ultimately accepting it wasn’t some phase that that he’d grow out of, and finding himself a bit more comfortable when arriving at MIT. He finally came up with a concept he was familiar with: an interactive fiction game, with three acts going through various stages of his growth. But then Meretzky realized he could go one step further: instead of a simple text adventure, he could create a visual adventure in the world of Second Life. This offered several advantages: a pre-existing user base; an obvious business model; speed to market; and an audience already comfortable with sexual content.

As for the story, Act I would be a miserable experience, based off Meretzky’s high school days. No matter how perfectly you played, you couldn’t get laid. Act II was set in college, where things improved slightly, and Act III would be a series of vignettes where you finally succeed and even return to your 25th high school reunion as a success.

At this point, Meretzky said that he realized there was a better conclusion than his reunion. He recounted a tale from several GDCs back where his father was ill and passed away, forcing him to juggle several speaking engagements. Even though he’d only told a few people what was going on, it seemed everyone was offering condolences once he’d arrived at GDC. And so he felt as if he’d left one extended family and returned to another one, a group where he felt accepted, miles away from his memories of high school. You could tell this meant a great deal to Meretzky, a touching moment in a session where humor is usually the order of the day. And so he wrapped up by explaining how this held the theme of his game together: hope. No matter how much of an outcast you feel like, your time will come.

And The Winner Is:

Finally, it was time for the crowd to vote, with former competitor Brenda Brathwaite acting as an impartial judge. Personally, I thought Meretzky’s game was the one I was most interested in playing, ultimately a graphical adventure with both emotion and humor, followed by Haro’s and then the team of Kelley and Robinson, which seemed like a workable casual game but one you’d finish in an hour.  

The audience disagreed, staying close across the board, but ultimately it was Kelley and Robinson who were voted the winner, followed by Meretzky and then Haro. As prizes, Zimmerman had picked up some prizes both game- and sexual-themed (a truth or dare game, and sexual-themed dice and cards), and the announcement that the Kelley-Robinson team would be back next year to defend their title. But really, the winner is somewhat irrelevant, as the joy of the session each year is seeing these designers create viable game concepts out of the craziest ideas. If you can make it to GDC next year, get it on your schedule and don’t miss it.