- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. This time - Mathew Kumar on this year's Game Design Challenge.]

This year, the Game Design Challenge 2008 at Game Developers Conference asked Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry), Steve Meretzky (Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy) to take on reigning 2007 champion Alexey Pajitnov (Tetris) in designing an “inter-species game”.

“The inter-species game is a riff on the idea of opening up new markets,” presenter Eric Zimmerman quipped in his introduction, before showing an Arlo and Janis newspaper strip that Meretzky sent around to his other contestants as a joke about the idea – a cat unable to understand “pressing the button to pounce,” instead choosing to pounce at the TV itself.

“I didn’t want them to develop some kind of hardware that would allow a cat to play, say, Quake,” Zimmerman said, setting out the rules, establishing that the focus had to be on the play, not “some kind of space age hardware.”

Alexey Pajitnov’s Dolphin Ride

“When I got this challenge I thought that this species that I would include in the game could help the player to enjoy a new space which would be hard to get to without the help of the species. Flight was my original concept, but later I decided to go more conservative and return to the water. I’ve always dreamed of having a game set under water.”

“My game takes place in the real word with real dolphins, but in the virtual space at the same time. The team consist of one dolphin and two human players: a navigator and a shooter. It uses a special hardware which I call the dolphin saddle.”

Apparently not breaking the rules as the saddle consists of real-world parts (a simple pair of cameras, wireless transmitters, a pneumatic paint gun plus a headphone/mic for the dolphin) the game design consists of a playfield, generated by a common server: a 3D space with virtual objects with a free real space of the same size in the real sea. The virtual objects are simple balls, of three colors (precious blue, expensive green and cheap red, of varying occurrence.) The goal of the team is to take out as many balls as possible, and “shoot out” the opponents dolphins. Balls could be taken or shot by dolphins, but dolphins can only be “killed” by being shot. The winner is the one that collects 500 points, either through shooting other dolphins or other collecting balls.

Game play occurs by players seeing the real space with the virtual balls superposed, while the dolphin sees only the real space – but is led by the communication from the players.

Steve Meretzky’s TrayStation

“People have been playing games with animals forever: from fetch, to good old fashioned fox-hunting,” Meretzky joked, “which, by the way, featured animals in both a co-operative and competitive way.”

Meretzky asked himself which animals he could think of that had first of all the cognitive capacity to play games (which include parrots and bonobo monkeys) and then those that had “disposable income,”: pets, but unfortunately, while a pampered poodle could understand games, “their owner couldn’t”

He initially settled on strip poker with sheep, but found that well, “they would act like sheep!”

His next failed idea was that players like to collect things, and so did squirrels, so… “Why not use squirrels as Chinese gold farmers?”

Finally it all came down to the possible market -- why make a game for the 20 remaining Yangtze river dolphins when he could make a game for the trillion ants out there? But then, why make a game for a trillion ants, when there were so many bacteria out there?

So Meretzky developed the "TrayStation": a Petri dish containing millions of bacteria battling virtual castles on the player’s screen -- against the players “defence microwaves”. Of course, millions of bacteria would die: but those that didn’t would “level-up,” Meretzky said, reaching to a near fever-pitch: “It’s the game that makes germ warfare available to the whole family, the game that puts the fun back into fungicide,” he finished.

Brenda Braithwaite’s One Hundred Dogs

Braithwaite began by playing with Photoshop, with the crowd responding well to her ideas including Assassin’s Breed and Poop Scoopem but she began her real pitch: “I liked the idea of playing a game with my dog, and my dog being an equal and necessary part of the game, and something that really could be done.”

“So I considered things like strapping four Wii controllers to my dog, or using GPS, and then I thought: wait a minute, I’m already playing with my dog.”

She didn’t want to “strap something to her dog,” but she wanted “a co-op game, not an competitive game,” and came up with an “Interspecies Facebook ARG.”

“It’s called One Hundred Dogs. There are basically 50 players with 50 real dogs and 50 virtual dogs across 50 cities. It starts at the Westminster Dog Show. Players register at onehundreddogs.com, and there are challenges in 50 cities, including owner-based challenges and dog-based challenges. Winners are awarded points, and there’s a leader board. It was designed to build community among local players. That’s phase one.”

She continued with phase two, beginning with “Dog FiftyOne.”

“The 50 leading dog/owner groups get a friend invite from Dog FiftyOne. The social network develops and the quest progresses through a typical RPG design, where people have to do X, Y, and Z to get to Dog FiftyOne. Cities must work together to reach the next dog. The emphasis is on social net play.”

But suddenly disaster: Dog NinetyTwo never shows up after all of Dog NinetyOne’s challenges. “The game turns from competitive to co-op,” Braithwaite explained, “finding Dog NinetyTwo requires total networking: all human skills and and all dog skills from all 50 dogs in all 50 cities, working together,” until the final dog, Dog OneHundred, is found.

And the Winner is…

Judged from the audience’s applause, the winner was incredibly hard to pick between Brenda Braithwaite’s One Hundred Dogs and Steve Meretzky’s TrayStation, with TrayStation just winning out in the end by a sliver.

Over the thunderous final applause, Zimmerman invited the audience to “go out there and “make the craziest, most fucked-up games they could.”