Check out these games that take 30 years to play

March 19, 2016 by Laura Michet

A soap opera game? A game that's actually a lamp? These designers were challenged to invent games that would last thirty years, and the results are pretty unusual.

For ten years in a row, game designer Eric Zimmerman led an exercise at the Game Developers’ Conference called the Game Design Challenge. He presented hand-selected groups of designers with extremely bizarre prompts for new game ideas and ran a GDC session where they would show off their ideas. In 2013, he held what he thought would be the final one (“Humanity’s Final Game”). But this year, he actually ended up running the Game Design Challenge one more time, in honor of GDC’s “thirty-ish” anniversay.

So, of course, his theme this year reflected that. Zimmerman’s command: design a game that will "last thirty years." Nina Freeman, Zach Gage, Anna Kipnis, and Chris Crawford-- in fact, the man who originally founded GDC thirty-ish years ago-- each took to the stage for a while to describe their thirty-year game and explain how it fit the theme.

A mockup screen Freeman made for the soap opera game. A mockup screen Freeman made for the soap opera game.

Nina Freeman (Cibele, How Do You Do It) took her inspiration from another kind of media that can last for thirty years: soap operas (like All My Children, which ran on ABC in the US for 41 whole years). For some soap opera fans, the experience focuses on discussing story interpretations and trying to predict future plots. Nina wanted to create a game that had a similar effect.

Her challenge submission ended up being “a daily game guided by player interpretation of character relationships.” Players would read daily scenes, similar to those in a visual novel. Although the scenes would not include plot choices, they would include interactive elements, like the ability to read secret conversations between the characters on their phones and laptops. Afterwards, players would react to the story by sending emoji-only messages to the writers. This would allow players to express rage, intrigue, or excitement without actually writing out paragraphs. The writers would then use these player responses to guide the overall path of the game’s plot in such a way that the players could recognize the community’s group influence on the romantic relationships between the characters.

The relationship between the players and the game developers would be collaborative one. “Players guide the emotions,” Freeman said. “Writers guide the story.” I was reminded of the way that tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons and Dragons require dungeon masters to react to player behavior and create the kind of story that will reward their dedication and effort. Nina made a similar comparison through her suggestion that the writers would be like “relationship DMs, or Drama Managers.”

Although Freeman’s game was not the only submission to take inspiration from other things which last thirty years, it was the only game to adapt another kind of entertainment media which can also last for three decades. It made a compelling point early in the presentation: the idea of ‘entertainment that can last for thirty years’ is not actually that bizarre. Perhaps it’s not even unusual! She has already planned how the scenes would work on a day-to-day basis-- you can find a mockup of some scenes on her website.

I'm dueling with all of you, by the way. I'm dueling with all of you, by the way.

The next presenter was Zach Gage (Ridiculous Fishing, Sage Solitaire), who technically presented three small projects, each representing a different stage of thought he went through while working on the prompt.

His first decision was that the game would have to be a real game, for real people. He mentioned that a folk-game maker might take an existing game-- something already proven to be very engaging-- and just add a rule that would make the game last for thirty years-- but this didn’t satisfy his “designer brain”-- he had to come up with something himself, from scratch. He started experimenting, and his first good prototype was Duel.

Duel is available online right now. It’s kind of a jokey idea-- two people with a grudge will each enter the game, and the winner is the one who returns to their game URL first after either fifteen or thirty years have elapsed. It’s an extremely funny idea, but he says “it didn't really feel weighty enough" for him to select for his official submission. But it also alerted him to a new concern. “The more you think about it, the more you think, wait, isn't that time period a little bit arbitrary... why not forty years, fifty years, one hundred years, so your children have to win the duel for you?”

His next idea was called ‘The Password Game.’ You can play it yourself by watching this video:

Still pretty jokey, right? The game also violated one of the challenge’s core rules: it could not rely on future technology which hasn’t been invented yet. “A game for time travelers” breaks that rule, although I suppose it is possible to win by calling every number in the world and reciting every possible password. (That also makes it a game that people can’t really reasonably play.)

Gage’s final idea solved the problems in his first two. He decided that the 30-year time period cannot be arbitrary. He said that ha friend finally said something that made the 30-year timeframe make sense to him: "You get, at best, three 30-year blocks." You can only reasonably expect to live 90 years at maximum; even living a single 30-year block is a kind of accomplishment. “If we get at best three thirty year blocks in our lives... there's not anything more meaningful to a person playing this game than betting that they'll still be here."

His final game, Generation Clock, is kind of a way to celebrate just being around for thirty years without dying or giving up the game. If you take an old smartphone and head to, you can use its screen as a color-changing lamp that runs through every color in the RBG spectrum over the course of about 32 years. It’s hosted on a server, so it can survive moves and other big changes in your life. Gage says, “You can continue living with your lamp until you die, or it dies."

An example of an image from Kipnis's game. (The second player added the laser of doom.) An example of an image from Kipnis's game. (The second player added the laser of doom.)

Anna Kipnis (Double Fine Productions, Dear Leader) presented next. Her game was inspired by a quote by Albert Camus: “At 30 a man should know himself like the palm of his hand, know the exact number of his defects and qualities, know how far he can go, foretell his failures - be what he is. And, above all, accept these things.” She wanted to create a game that people could play over a long period of time in a way that would teach them a lot about themselves and help them learn to accept their strengths and failings.

She also mentioned a game she used to play late at night, eating in a diner or drinking with friends, where the participants would ask one another over and over again to pick between two different prompted people and decide which they would rather have sex with. The key, she said, is to ask both serious combinations and jokey combinations, but to keep asking over and over and over again in interesting ways. At the end of the night, she and her friends would trade lists of whatever the other had selected, and everyone would end up with a list of the kind of people they liked, perhaps learning a little more about themselves.

Her game, Drawing Conclusions, was also influenced by some of Oliver Sacks’ writing. Sacks was a physician and author who wrote about the benefits of story-like patient-case-history writeups-- medical writing where a doctor really tries to express the patient’s situation with compassion and empathy.

Drawing Conclusions asks players to draw a picture that poses a question, then trade it with another person, who answers that question by adding to the picture. Then the first person attempts to write up an explanation of the second player’s changes, treating the situation like an elaborate psychologist case study where they try to deduce something about the second player’s state of mind. The idea, she says, is to do this over and over and over again for a long period of time, saving all the responses so that, in the end, both players get a good idea of how they think and how their friend thinks of them. “As Camus said, the process of gaining insight into oneself is not something that happens in a day, a week, a month, or a year. It happens in a lifetime, or at least a generation.”

You can head to her website about the game to see examples of picture, answer, and analysis pairings and get good ideas of how to play the game yourself.

The final presenter was Chris Crawford, who held the first GDC years ago in his actual living room. He started off by talking about difficulty curves-- how they’re frustrating in the beginning, then fun, then boring after you’ve achieved mastery. He said that a game that lasted 30 years would have to extend the ‘fun’ period as long as possible, constantly adding new imformation for the player to absorb and try to master. Unfortunately, he said, “the amount of information you need to accumulate over 30 years will be STUPENDOUS!” No designer can put that much information into a game.

So he turned to life itself-- which is infinitely complicated-- and started listing activities which could remain complex and provide learning opportunities for thirty whole years. “Sex? Love? Money? Career? Integrity? Family? Loyalty?” Only one kind of game designer could get that much information into a game-- “a game like this requires divine inspiration,” he said.

He then went over how many religions operate like games, with points for players, win and lose conditions, game designers (religious leaders), and even additional lives. “It has attracted a huge array of indies,” he said, referencing televangelists.

But then he asked: what if we focused on just one aspect of life? He then proposed a game called “The Marriage Game.” “The idea of this game is to get married and be happy for at least thirty years,” he said. He then described in general terms a game he’d apparently been playing for 44 years, showing a long slideshow of his entire marriage with his wife. “And I can assure you,” he said, “if you play this game with determination and serious effort, than you are going to win this game no matter what. This is the best game in the world.”