How Jason Rohrer Won The Game Design Challenge

By John Walker on April 4th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.

A real high-point of every GDC is the Game Design Challenge. Well, was. Sadly the tenth year of this annual treat was the last, with organiser Eric Zimmerman bringing proceedings to an end. And wow, did it go out in style. With the apposite topic, “Humanity’s Last Game”, some of the biggest names in the industry put forth their pitches for the last game we’d ever need. And one man entirely stole the show. For a second year, that man was Jason Rohrer.

The calibre of the entrants was impressively high. We’re talking about the likes of Harvey Smith, Steve Meretzky and Will Wright sharing a stage, each having put some considerable work into a concept for their game. But as with last year, only one developer actually went ahead and made their game. And that was Jason Rohrer. Rohrer won in 2011 with Chain World, a Minecraft map that only exists on a single USB key. Only those who have received the key know about the game, and no one knows who has received the key, nor where it might be now. Then last year he was robbed of the prize by a dubious judgment of audience noise, with his money destroying game, Frog Skins. This year there was no doubt who would win even before the votes were cast, because his entry stood shoulders above the rest.

And that was no mean feat. Will Wright pitched a game that would unify all of humanity’s memories into an explorable experience, such that aliens could understand what it is to be human. I know that sounds impossible, but he had incredibly convincing diagrams, and he is Will Wright. He came a distant second.

Harvey Smith began by explaining that he genuinely believed that the best means to pass on information to a future humanity would be a game. That play is crucial, and it’s the ideal medium for expressing the necessary complexity. He then proposed a game called Fleeting, coded in DNA itself. DNA that would live in the form of… meerkats. A game about “the memorable essence of humanity”, passed on through generations of mongeese. It sounded beautiful. It came last!

Steve Meretzky proposed starting a third world war. He seemed pretty intent on this. Inspired by Wargames, but with a very different ending in mind, he suggested hiring teams of hackers to break into the nuclear armouries of the largest nations, and have them fire the missiles at the same time. But in order to add extra tension, and make it more accessible, it was suggested that this be televised, in a documentary series called No Survivor. It’s worth remembering that Meretzky also brought us Spellcasting 101, so it wasn’t his first attempt at world destruction.

Erin Robinson, of Puzzle Bots fame, suggested The Quoggle Invasion. A game using reality-changing glasses that caused you to see strange monsters in the real world, which could be attacked for points. A game that, in her narrative, eventually became so popular that almost everyone was playing it, whereupon the monsters were revealed as evil aliens, um, something something, nuclear war! Message: most games end in nuclear war.

Richard “Uncharted” Lemarchand had the rather unfortunate position of following Rohrer as the last to pitch. His idea, based on the 5% Doctrine, was called Ludosapiens. Look, I’ll be honest – it was very complicated, very clever, and I’ve completely forgotten it. Because I was still thinking about Rohrer’s.

Jason Rohrer’s game, A Game For Someone, began with the idea that it should not be played for at least 2,000 years. That brought about two issues: 1) How to make a game that would last for 2,000 years. 2) How to stop anyone from playing it for 2,000 years. Rohrer addressed both angles adequately.

Showing an image of a mighty cathedral, that took over 300 years to build, Rohrer explained that there was something extraordinary about a project for which those digging the foundations knew they would be dead generations before it was complete. He wanted to recapture something of that timelessness in his concept – a game that he nor anyone else would ever live to see played. So he realised that to do this, it would need to be a board game.

With a game devised, the next obstacle was clearly that it would need to be made of something that would last for millennia. Obviously cardboard and plastic were out. So metal. But which metal? What wouldn’t rust or erode? He realised, titanium. And I think it should be stressed at this point that no one in the room suspected Rohrer’s game might exist any more than the other concepts that had been shown. Then one of the titanium pieces was shown on the screen.

Even seeing it I remember thinking, “I wonder what that really is?” assuming it to be some Googled image. Then he talked about the board itself, and pictures appeared of its being crafted, and then the eventually completed hefty square of metal. He had really made it. He’d really somehow got hold of enough titanium, and the equipment necessary to work it, and built himself a board game.

Next up: instructions. How to pass on the instructions for how to play a game to those thousands of years in the future? Written language would obviously have no certainty of success. Numbers couldn’t be relied upon for a future civilisation. So instead he picked pictograms. Fairly elaborate ones, since they’d need to convey not just the rules, but also the entire concept of playing. And yes, he’d drawn this all out, including a primer to explain the intricacies. We weren’t allowed to see all the details – much was redacted, lest we interpret the information and try to make the game for ourselves.

But those instructions needed to last too. So after printing them on paper, he (and I mean, he really did this, with pictures to prove it) sealed them in vacuum sealed glass tubes. Tubes that were then inserted in titanium cylinders he built for the purpose.

Why weren’t we seeing this stuff in the room? Why only pictures on the screen? Because again, Rohrer didn’t trust that it wouldn’t be played if he ever let anyone else near it. So he buried it. In the middle of the Arizona desert.

No, he really did. Working out all the unpopulated areas of Arizona, he divided the state up into over a million coordinates, picked one at random, drove there, dug a hole, and buried the lot. He drove home, having no idea exactly where he’d gone, and not having memorised the 20 digit coordinate that would let him return.

At this point everyone in the room was asked to open a sealed envelope that had been on their chair, marked “Please do not open yet.” Inside each envelope was a sheet of paper covered in tiny print. Each had 900 unique coordinates printed on it, and with just over a thousand printed, that meant each of the million possible locations was now out there. My sheet contains coordinates 856,801 to 857,701. One person’s sheet has the correct coordinate on it.

Rorher had worked out that if everyone in the room made a concerted effort to locate the buried metal with a metal detector, and indeed instructed future generations to do the same, then there was a 100% chance that the game would be found within 2,700 years. Then there was long applause.

Immediately an effort was made by a few to gather all the codes. There were a few empty chairs, so those were snatched up. I saw one guy going through a cleaner’s trash bag looking to see if any had been cleared away before they could be begged not to. Others were collecting them at the door, to prevent any correct coordinate from being lost. But no – we live in an age of Reddit, a time when nothing stays hidden for 2,700 years. With the concerted efforts of a united internet force, it’d be found by May. No indeed, I’ve kept my sheet, and I can assure you I shan’t be looking in my lifetime. I fully intend for this piece of paper to be discovered in a vault by my great, great great grandchild, carefully moving the fragments with tweezers to identify all the remaining locations that have yet to be searched. I intend to preserve Rohrer’s dream.

He is a mad, brilliant man.

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129 Comments »

  1. Snargelfargen says:

    Rohrer’s game was actually a very cool solution to the problem they were given. It would have been a little underwhelming if he just did a presentation, but then he actually followed through on the damn thing. Awesome and kinda poignant.

    It’s comical how so many commenters are angry at his game being more art statement than game, or criticizing the treasure hunt or even the lack of details as to the rules of the board game. Why? It was a game DESIGN challenge.The end product was just as immaterial as that of every other participant, as the competition was about ideas and not a finished product.

    Y’all need to lighten up.

    Edit: I think I understand what’s bugging me about this now. Being a lifelong pc and tabletop gamer, I’ve had many friends inflict their game designs on me. I’ve done it to them too. It’s always the same thing, some interesting new ideas or a really cool bit of world building and then DETAILS. So. Many. Details. I just don’t care. Nobody cares, that’s the harsh truth, because in the end the core idea of the game is small, and the rest is just figuring out how to make it work (and that can be hard as hell, not trying to underplay that). Those details are what make the finished product complete, give it form and character, but without an idea, it’s nothing.

    Taking a concept and explaining it concisely in a few words so that anybody can understand it (and they REMEMBER it) is an incredible gift. Hard enough to do it with words, Rohrer did it with titanium and powerpoint.

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