Game On: Developers Finally Get to Test Pandemic-Built Games at GDC 2022

Video game developers poured into San Francisco to unveil their nearly-finished creations and watch fellow developers play them — and break them — in person, for the first time in three years

NBC Universal, Inc.

The 2022 Game Developers Conference wasn't the 30,000-person affair that was supposed to happen in 2020 — but game developers certainly weren't complaining.

For many attending, this year's small but enthusiastic GDC crowd was a long-overdue chance to test games they've been working on in near-isolation for the past two years — and get feedback from players who speak the language of game development.

"It feels really important if game designers like the game," said Blake Andrews, who's a game designer and programmer himself.

"They give really good feedback," agreed game artist Tomás Jech. "They're very vocal about their reactions."

Jech and his wife Clarissa Bernardo were exhibiting their spooky action game "Begone Beast" in a corner of the Moscone Center's north hall. The two co-designed the game, with Bernardo writing the code and Jech drawing the characters — and say they've spent nearly 100% of their time together since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Tomás Jech (left) and Clarissa Bernardo (far right) watch as three players test their spooky action video game called "Begone Beast."

"Probably one of the hardest things we've ever done — but also the most fulfilling," Jech said.

"It only brought us closer," added Bernardo.

As groups of three and four players lined up for a turn at the cooperative, top-down thriller inspired by Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights, Jech and Bernardo explain how the game works, then stand back and watch — making note of where players get stuck, confused, excited and frustrated — while also recording video of their path through the game.

"It's amazing being able to see what's not working, what's working with the game, live, right in front of them," Jech said.

Bernardo would often hover over players' shoulders as they dodged scary pink monsters, offering hints and hoping to elicit spontaneous feedback.

"Whatever we go through, they've probably been through it themselves," she said of the fellow game designers who stopped by the booth. "And so what they say just means so much."

A few aisles away, Yuan Chiang was conducting a similar test of his retro 2D run-and-gun game "Planet Cube: Edge." GDC, he said, provides a rare mix of potential players to test works in progress.

"You have game developers, you have journalists, you have publishers, and they all give you different input," He said. "To have all of that in one single venue is almost impossible."

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Michael Perce developed "Alghrab," the fortune-telling crow, at home during the pandemic — meaning he and his parents were the only ones to test the game in person until GDC 2022.

In-person playtesting is especially important for makers of "alt-control" games — that is, arcade games that eschew the traditional buttons and joysticks in favor of custom, alternative controllers. Some of those games saw public testing for the first time at GDC 2022.

"This is Alghrab, the world's only animatronic, fortune-telling crow," said Michael Perce, a game developer from San Antonio, Texas.

The haunting robotic bird, originally a Halloween decoration, sits atop a wooden table where players engage it in a card game using a deck of special microchipped cards. With its ominous voice, the crow speaks in riddles and rhymes as players turn over cards to find out if the bird is bluffing.

"This was developed over the course of the pandemic," Perce said. "So the vast majority of the playtesting was me, in my room, and maybe my parents."

The smaller scale of GDC 2022 made room for several alt-control games built by students — including "Plinko Burger," whose creators wore aprons and paper chef's hats to look the part.

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The controllers for "Plinko Burger" include these ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles and a drive-thru headset that players shout into.

"We were super excited for even the opportunity to submit to GDC, let alone actually be here," said the game's co-creator Zayna Sheikh.

Plinko Burger is one of several projects that experiments with using voice control in addition to handheld controllers. Players shout the names of ingredients into a drive-thru headset while controlling an on-screen paddle by squeezing ketchup and mustard bottles with wires coming out of them.

The sounds of "Bun! Burger Patty! Order up!" echo through the halls of the Moscone Center, along with shouts of "Buy! Sell!" from a booth nearby — where another group of developers is testing a game that's literally called "Buy! Sell!"

"We like to say that it's 'The Wolf of Wall Street' meets 'Sesame Street,'" said co-creator Matt Bethancourt. "So, stock trading as imagined by a child."

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The developers of "Buy! Sell!" were inspired to make the game after scoring a truckload of old office phones on eBay.

Bethancourt said he came upon a veritable truckload of old office phones on eBay and was inspired to turn them into game controllers. Players dial the numbers of stocks and commodities and shout the words "buy" and "sell" into the phones, creating a sort of chaos and cacophony that might resemble the New York Stock Exchange at 3:59 p.m.

Playtesting at GDC can often come only after years of hard work. Such is the case with Scrapeboard, an arcade game that resembles Dance Dance Revolution in which players slide a skateboard onto different colored squares.

"Five years ago, I would've had to be fixing it every five minutes, 10 minutes," Blake Andrews said.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
"Scrapeboard" is like "Dance Dance Revolution," except players are maneuvering around the playing surface on a skateboard instead of with their feet.

Now, he and fellow developer Frank DeMarco say they can usually get the board and its giant playing surface to last most of the way through a convention like this one — requiring only infrequent tweaks with a hammer and screwdriver.

Because of its sheer size, it's hard to find places to test Scrapeboard. But after a successful run at GDC, Andrews and DeMarco think they're finally ready for the next step.

"It's taken years to get to this point," Andrews said. "Now, we want to try to find a permanent place — an arcade that can be a home for Scrapeboard, where if people want to play Scrapeboard, they know where to go and play it."

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