Category Archives: Blog

GDC 09: In Summary

For those of you too afeared to pore over my dense daily play-by-play of GDC 09, i thought i’d write this overview post. i want to capture the overall spirit of the conference, and to provide a sense of the heartbeat of the industry; GDC is a great place to get your finger on the pulse, but you still have to interpret the rhythm.

Heart

i was never one for interpreting Heart

Here, then, are the ideas and buzz words that jumped out at me and grabbed me by the throat while i wandered innocently through the conference floor forest.

iPhone, iPhone, iPhone

No big suprise here. i’ve briefly attended – and ran screaming from – the Mobile Games Summit in previous years. Mobile has always struck me as a terrible business model and a very unattractive space to be in. The whole reason i jumped into Flash over web design was because i couldn’t stand the lack of standards: you had to test for different browsers at different screen resolutions, and (back then) different colour modes and different operating systems. It would have made me old before my time. Ditto mobile: one game might be built for and tested on sixty different handsets, and there was no guarantee the carrier would even pick up the title.

But here comes iPhone, and finally something is standardized. The iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPod Touch and iPod Touch Second Generation all have the same screen specs. The earlier devices may struggle to keep up with a framerate that the 3G and Generation 2 handhelds enjoy, but at least it’s all the same code base and we’re all on the same page.

As with IN09, people could not shaddup about the iPhone at GDC. There came the frequent warning that “it’s a very crowded marketplace” and “it’s hard for your app to get noticed in a sea of software”, but those tired cautions were a lot like “you’ll shoot your eye out” to a crowd of rabid and salivating fans of the Red Ryder 3G Carbine Action iPhone BB Gun 200 GB Range Model Portable with a compass in the stock and thing which tells time.

Ralphie

If i just do enough marketing …

Outsourcing Gameplay to India

i didn’t attend the Worlds in Motion summit this year, but i imagine the sessions were either a deserted ghost town, or they played host to a room packed full of angry people wondering how to get their million dollar investments back ever since their Club Webpenguiz clones crashed and burned. i can’t verify if the idea came out of a WIM session because i heard it second-hand, but here it is:

What do you do if you build a virtual world and no one comes? People who jump in are going to bounce right back out once they see that the place is empty. You need an established player base to give you traction so that people who join the game will see a lively community and stick around.

So, you pay India to play your game. That’s right: hire Indians for a month to populate your game so that new people see a thriving community and decide to hang out. i thought this was a brilliant idea. Just make sure to filter “paneer” and “aloo gobi” out of the chat window – otherwise, your legitimate players may suspect a ruse.

Bollywood Dance Number

If a scene like this breaks out in the middle of your kids’ virtual world, you’re busted.

Digital Distribution

It could have been due to the fact that i spent my first few conference days at the Indie Games Summit, but i heard the term “digital distribution” bandied about a LOT. Digital distribution, where players download their entertainment from services like Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, NetFlix, the Playstation Network, and PopCap, instead of buying it in a brick-and-mortar store, has been an enormous boon to indie developers. Now, for perhaps the first time since the heyday of the Atari 2600, developers can assemble a team of as few as one dude in a rat-infested basement with a limp who is paralyzed from the neck down and makes video games with his mouth, instead of signing a contract with an evil video game publisher, who eats babies and performs ritualistic sacrifices involving game developers’ hearts and very sharp and scary knify things.

i heard digital distribution being attributed to everything from the death of phyiscal disc media (to wit, “Blu Ray will be the last physical disc medium”) to the real Second Coming, where digital distribution pushes Jesus off a cloud and plays professional wrestling-style entrance music instead of trumpet-song. HOO YEAH!! Digital Distribution, bitches!! Can you HANDLE IT?? RrrrrAAAAAAwwwwRRR guitar guitar guitar noodly noodly fooOOOM zhONGGGGG!!! Cymbal crash!!

i even heard that someone was spouting crazytalk nonsense about how the console manufacturers would be dethroned because they were developing a cloud-computing solution where players wouldn’t even use digital distribution – they’d just play their games on the video game company’s server, no console required. (post-blog note: the product is called “OnLive”. God bless you, Raph Koster)

cloud computing

The computers are in there somewhere …

Not to be outdone, some other dude said that he was working on a solution where people would just have to think about playing a game and it would happen right inside their heads. He called it “imagination.”

OK – yes. Yes, i did make that last part up. But the first two bits are accurate. Except for the Jesus thing. Hell – i dunno. Buy your own damned conference ticket next year if you don’t believe me.

Pipeline

For the longest time, i’ve ignored the term “pipeline” because i always thought it applied to larger studios with seventeen guys all working on a single graphic asset, who need some complex asset management software and productivity charting so that they could draw a single enemy’s dragon claw by committee and no one would overwrite everything. i was wrong. “Pipeline” is just a trumped up term for “the way you get stuff done”. A “good pipeline” is one where you use tools to get stuff done quickly, and you don’t waste any money if you can help it. A “bad pipeline” – the kind i’ve most often experienced – is one where all of your developers work in complete isolation, and they re-invent the wheel on every project because you’re working them too hard to stop and take a breath and review inefficiencies.

So here’s an example of how a scary word like “pipeline” breaks down for your game project: Nathan Vella of Capybara games told me about how his shop writes a bunch of JSFL (Javascript) routines in Photoshop to speed up mundane chores like sizing, cropping, and downsampling images. See? Not so scary. Just pick something that you’re not doing optimally, find a method or a tool to fix it, and implement the fix. Now you’re improving your pipeline, and you can sound all awesome too.

pipeline

Make a few smart changes to the way you work, and you’ll be swingin’ pipe in no time

Unity

A few months ago, i met with some folks from Argentina’s QB9 and Three Melons game companies. Three Melons raved on an on about Unity, a game engine that allowed for 3D games in the browser with a reasonably-sized plugin. i had heard about Unity at least a year earlier, when it was in its infancy along with other 3D browser programs like Virtools. Unity’s been picking up major buzz the whole time, and i think this GDC is where it’s completely exploded. The Unity folks have created an add-on that enables publishing to the iPhone, on top of its web publishing capabilities. Some well-known games have been made with Unity, including indie hit Off-Road Velociraptor Safari, current iPhone champ Zombieville USA, and the company’s biggest coup: Cartoon Network’s multi-hundreds of dollars kids’ MMO FusionFall, which now has over 3 million reigstered users.

Here’s what my gut says: thanks to its bad reputation for crummy content and the audience expectation that anything created with it should be free, Flash is on the wane. And i’m saying that as a Flash developer who has never, ever built a game in any other program ever. But hear me: Flash out, Unity in. We’ll be buying our licenses at Untold Entertainment within the week.



Long Tail

The term “long tail” describes the practice of selling little things over a long period of time, rather than “plummeting cascade” (note: not a real term), which is where you have one big hit-based expensive thing, and the sales chart looks like a doodle of Niagara falls – item sales peak in the first chunk of time, and drop precipitously ever after. i mention “long tail” much the same way i’ll walk up to strangers and hum “Muskrat Love” until they get it stuck in their heads: i am sick to death of hearing it, and i hope some analyst coins another BS Bingo term so that folks can latch onto it and beat it to death.


(You’re welcome.)

GDC 09: New Business Opportunities for Homeless People

If there’s one thing that always strikes me about visiting San Francisco, it’s the homeless and professional panhandler population. It may have just been my imagination, but it seemed as though the downtown core was packed with these folks – more than usual. Cities in California naturally attract the homeless, i suppose, because the climate is warmer. i’ve never understood why Toronto has homeless between October and June … i know if i were down and out (and of sound mind, which is assuming a lot) i’d head to Vancouver at the very least.

As i mentioned in my GDC prep post, the homeless and professional panhandling community in San Francisco is vibrant, prolific, and creative. While most Toronto panhandlers will sit all day with a Tim Horton’s coffee cup in front of them, the San Fran people (mostly men, interestingly) really work for every penny they get. Here are a few of the gimmicks i noticed walking around downtown. Toronto folks, take note!

Funny Sign

The funny sign is nothing new, and it’s been in Toronto for a while. i notice it started with younger panhandlers using messages like “need money for weed” and “let’s face it: i just want a beer”. Slowly but surely, the more senior guys started using humour in their signs. But as Chris Rock says, “if a homeless guy has a funny sign, he hasn’t been homeless very long.”

funny sign

Walking the fine line between humour and pathos

Tour Guide

Any city with a strong tourist industry can benefit from panhandlers pointing people to where they need to go. i actually think this is a great relationship: the panhandler provides the customer with a needed service, and earns money for that service. Kinda the way a real business works. (Imagine!) It didn’t work out so well for one guy i saw in San Francisco who, after many attempts so sell himself as a tour guide with a free hotel map in his hand, eventually charged off yelling “eff this city! EFF this place! Nobody wants directions! i can’t BELIEVE this place!” i think his heart was in the right place, but he could have worked harder on his image to appear more approachable.

Dog, Cat, Rat

This one is my new favourite. i saw a man with three animals: a dog, a cat, and a rat. The dog was curled up on the sidewalk. The cat was curled up on top of the dog. And the rat was draped over the cat, like the cherry on a domestic animal sundae. The guy drew quite a crowd of people taking pictures, pointing and giggling, as tourists do. i thought it was a BRILLIANT schtick, and one i think some enterprising Torontonian can co-opt to make a decent wad.



Trunk, Pillow, Sickly Plant

i told a colleague of mine about the dog cat rat gimmick, and he countered with the act he saw that involved a ratty steamer trunk, an inflatable pillow, and a diseased-looking plant. i asked him what the practitioner did with each ingredient, and he said he didn’t know – either he missed the show, or the guy was just hanging out with those three objects in front of him. Apparently, the pillow was inside the trunk, while the plant was placed on the sidewalk next to it. If anyone’s seen this guy, or cares to posit a theory about what might have been going on, please let me know by leaving a comment.

sickly little plant

Feed me?

Rock Balancing

This is one that actually has made it to Toronto, but i’m sure it got its start with the brighter minds on the West coast. The panhandler collects a bunch of rocks – usually rather large and heavy ones – and spends the day stacking and balancing them. i saw one such act down on Queen street a few weekends ago. i overheard two girls marvelling over the act. One asked “how do you discover you have that talent?” i thought that was interesting – “talent”. The act does give the impression that there’s some knack to it, but i maintain that any amazing thing can be achieved with ambition + time. And if there’s one thing a pro panhandler has on his side, it’s time. It’s a good schtick, and it makes believers of people, but i really wonder how many rock-stackers a single city can bear?



My Personal Panhandling Plan

So with the economy in the dumper, i like to sketch out my contingency plan to extreme degrees. i’d like to think that if i ever took up panhandling, i could blow the dog cat rat guy out of the water. i do realize there’s a natural disposition towards mental illness when you’re on the streets (likely a chicken/egg issue to boot), so the creativity and ingenuity of the panhandler’s schtick is likely to be stifled. But i’ll be interested to watch whether the bleeding edge panhandling techniques that i see pioneered in San Francisco every year make their way across the continent to our little burg.

GDC 09: Friday

GDC 09 is now behind me. i write this entry from the San Francsicso airport in relative comfort. The week was packed with stats, ideas, names and a growing list of todo’s flying at me from all directions, and i hope i have the chance to process it all when i return to Toronto.

The return trip from conferences like GDC are always deceptive. You think you’re going to arrive at the office fresh-faced and equipped to take on the world. But before long, reality sets in and you wind up putting out the same fires and tending to the same issues in the same fashion as before. The mundanity is made all the more unbearable by the fact that your brain is buzzing with schemes and plans to rule the world. After a few weeks or months, you return to the same snail’s pace as before, rotely executing the same old schemes that come most naturally, and shortly thereafter you die. One or two people attend your funeral, mostly out of obligation, and your flimsy grave marker is knocked over in a wind-storm, leaving your mortal remains and memory to languish in obscurity for the remainder of human existence, however long that lasts.

grim

Conferences help you to see the future

So before that inevitable charade plays out, i’ll choose to remain in the moment, excited by the buzz of possibility. Let’s take a look at the session i hit on the final day of GDC 09:

Session: Negotiation 101
Speaker: Vincent Scheurer

To be fair to Vincent, i came very late to his session. To be unfair to Vincent, the parts of his presentation i did see appeared to be cribbed directly from a popular book on negotiation called “Getting to Yes”. i recommend the book. There’s not much a speaker can do to top it in a twenty minute talk. But if you’re an avid Coles/Cliff Notes reader, or are just outrageously lazy, you might have enjoyed this session.

Getting to Yes

My first GDC presentation will be called “Chicken Soup for the Soul”

Session: Beyond Balancing: Using Five Elements of Failure Design to Enhance Player Experience (AKA: A Video Game Does Not Stop at the Edge of the Screen)
Speaker: Jesper Juul, lecturer at the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab

Jesper wins the award for “Most Needlessly Verbose Session Title That Goes on Forever With a Lot of Words in it and Also Has an Unnecessary Secondary Subtitle”, which is not a real award.

Jesper (pronounced “yes-purr”, which is how my cat responds when i scratch his ears) insisted that designers work towards Failure Cost instead of Failure Count. Failure Count, simply put, is when the player has three lives, and loses one each time he fails. Failure Cost pays closer attention to what the player loses for failing – time, money, dignity, progress, etc. All in all, the session didn’t really gel for me, so i can’t really say much more. i think Jesper wanted people to pay closer attention to ways of letting the player fail that don’t boil down to a simple “you suck! lose another life!”

fail

Session: Paper Prototypes of Spore
Speaker: Stone Librande – Lead Designer, Spore Galactic Adventures (an upcoming expansion pack)

i didn’t expect much from this talk, because after three years i’m frankly rather tired of hearing about Spore – particularly because it didn’t live up to the hype. Stone was an interesting fellow because he was brought on to the team to address the gameplay of Spore long after the technology and the assets were developed. One of the major criticisms of Spore is that as a creation tool, it was great, but as a game, it just wasn’t very much fun. i suppose that’s what happens when you leave gameplay to the 11th hour (or, in this case, two years before launch, which Stone tells us is pretty late in the development cycle).

So Stone’s session absolutely ruled. When faced with a challenge, be it how to make the Cell level of Spore enjoyable, or how to decide what to cook for dinner, Stone apparently runs to his craft drawer and starts cutting out paper pieces to solve the problem. Stone’s slides had the very best visuals i’ve ever seen in a GDC presentation. He included paper games that he created in middle school, all the way up to the complex fridge magnet game that his family helped him to test, which later evolved into Spore‘s Space level. Here are a few things that struck a chord:

  1. it’s hard to get people to play your game if it’s ugly (SO true)
  2. when creating a paper prototype, focus on one idea at a time (instead of modelling the entire system)
  3. be as abstract as possible. You’re essentially moving around ideas on the table, not units and rules
  4. don’t worry if your paper prototype is not fun. That’s exactly the point of going through this process: iterating on the concept until it becomes fun
  5. creating a paper prototype can help to keep the team’s imagination in sync. Once it’s there on the table for everyone to touch and poke and play with, you’re basically pulling everything out of everyone’s heads and laying bare on a slab for the whole team to discuss.

Stone Librande's Fridge

Stone Librande’s “Fridge”

Stone Librande's Weapons of Zombie Destruction

Stone Librande’s “Weapons of Zombie Destruction”

Session: Flash SIG (Sturgeon Impregnation Goalsetting)

This was the inaugural meeting of game industry folks using Flash to get the job done. i was surprised to hear about all the so-called triple-A console titles using Flash for their interface design, with the help of an app by Scaleform. Scaleform formed the ad hoc committee to form the group’s actual steering committee. They were very grateful to have Dave Rohrl from Zynga in the room, as Dave chairs the Casual Games SIG and had a lot of fatherly advice to offer.

i hope that Flash’s role in console titles will help to lend legitimacy to the Flash scene, which is (perhaps fairly) characterized as a baby program absued by under-20 wanna-be developers producing poor quality games from their moms’ basements. The room today was filled with mostly Flash web devs, with a small console contingency, who want to see that perception changed. Next steps are to assemble the committee (i let my name stand … am VERY interested in this initiative), and to start building out the Flash SIG Wiki on the IGDA website. This is a group to watch, folks. If you’re a Flash developer committed to producing quality game products, keep your eye on this blog and i’ll let you know how to get involved.

Session: Lunch
Speaker: Howard Tomlinson, Director of Game Development for Handmark

Howard and i struck up a conversation over sammies. He’s a … i hesitate to say stereotypical – maybe archetypal … bearded and bepsectacled brit in a brown cuorduroy jacket. i suggested that all he was missing was a pair of elbow patches and a pipe to complete the picture. He’s working on that.

Howard was a physics teacher and is a fellow fan of old-school kids’ programs like the stop-motion Chorlton and the Wheelies and Will O’ the Wisp. i know these shows because the province’s publicly-funded station, TVO (TVOntario) habitually buys UK import shows for kids, and inflicts them on the unsuspecting children of the commonwealth – programs like Dr. Snuggles, Jamie and the Magic Torch, That’s My Gran, the original Paddington Bear, and the like. TVO currently airs Little Princess which, to coin a Britishism, i find quite beastly. i’ve never wanted to discipline a cartoon character so badly in all my life.

Little Princess

And why does the narrator sound like a child predator? Help me out with this.

Howard’s company Handmark creates mobile games. In his off-time, Howard plays World of Warcraft with his wife “Kirk”, who won an online Star Trek trivia competition, cementing her nerd supremacy for all time. Howard and i found a common bond because we’re both piano players defecting to guitar for its portability (i’m taking a brief banjo detour en route, after the accordion proved too heavy and universally despised around campfires). We both have daughters … his is old enough to play a mean boogie woogie. i’ve lost hope for my eldest, who can’t be arsed, but my youngest stays still enough on my knee to tolerate my playing, so i may make a musician of her yet.

Howard has boxes and boxes of teevee series still in the shrink wrap on his shelf. i asked why he doesn’t crack into them more often. His feeling is that a good show will always be a good show, but the bizdev side of his business requires him to find creative outlets to let out steam. He wonders how many years he has left in the industry if he doesn’t open that pressure valve often enough. He said he’d rather be creating – actually participating in art and entertainment – than idly watching television. i took this lesson to heart, and plan to use my scant spare time mroe productively.

Incidentally, Howard bestowed his British blessing on Kahoots™, our upcoming iPhone game set in fake Britain. i ask Brits about the game every chance i get, to find out whether it provokes a positive or negative reaction. Howard called it a “reasonable pisstake”, assuring me that the right type of people would appreciate it. And for our enriching conversation, i appreciated Howard.

It wasn’t an official GDC session, but my chat with Howard is just an illustration of the kind of conversation you can have when you put thousands of like-minded people together in a convention center.

Session: Fresh Demographics on Teen and Adult Gameplay and How Games Can Teach Kids to be Good Citizens
Speaker: Amanda Lenhart

A Canadian colleague of mine teamed up with me to call “bullshit” on this session, the title of which was about as misleading as they come. The “fresh” demographics the speaker presented were twelve months old, a dog’s age in the gaming world. And the bit about games teaching teens to be good citizens was hung on a flimsy premise. The stats for the back half of the presentation were all about players’ experience in “civic” or “pro-social gaming”. i asked what constituted a pro-social game, because the only title bandied around was Civilization, which i sincerely doubt was mentioned much by the thousand-odd teenaged sample group. As it turns out, this info was based on respondents saying that they had witnessed “pro-social” behaviour in games – things like helping each other out or exchanging kind words. Flimsy. i appreciate what the researchers were trying to do by linking teenaged player data with their parents’ responses about video games, but the back half of the report smelled phony like baloney.

At any rate, you can judge for yourself by pulling the report down from their site:

http://www.pewinternet.org (“pew” is right)

i wrote down a mountain of stats from the presentation, but i’m not sure how useful any of them were. i am wary of this random-dialed survey research method, and of any data based on sample size. This is the computer age. i think we can do better.

For what it’s worth, here are a few stats that jumped out at me:

  1. “racing” topped the list of preferred game genres as boys’ number three choice and girls’ number two choice. i wonder if it’s because of their pick-up-and-play quality, or if it’s because the respondents were all playing Mario Kart?
  2. 55% of parents polled say they always check a game’s rating
  3. 31% of parents play games with their kids (i’ll believe it when i see it)
  4. despite these last two points, 90% of the parents say they always or sometimes know what their kids play (IMO the gap between “always” and “sometimes” is immense … consider: i always pay my taxes vs. i sometimes pay my taxes. Is the government willing to group “always” and “sometimes” together? i think not.)

toilet

i sometimes wash my hands after pooping. Excuse me while i go prepare dinner for you.

Where the report really spiralled into phony-land, particularly for one ESA (Elephant and Sloth Aggregators) employee, was where the speaker said that 32% of teens say their 3 favourite games are Mature or Adults-Only rated, while 12-14 year olds were just as likely to play Mature or Adults-Only titles.

Friends, i’ve been playing games for a long-ass time. If the final quiz question on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire: Video Game Geek Edition was “name a game that has been rated AO by the ESRB”, i’d be heading home without a million dollars stuffed in my pockets. i can’t name a single AO title, and i doubt you can either. In fact, the ESA employee later told me that there were something like sixteen AO titles rated by the ESRB – ever – and that most were interactive DVDs from the 90′s. No mainstream console will even allow AO titles on the box, leading me to two possible conclusions:

  1. The respondents mistook a game that had adult content in it (ie Grand Theft Auto IV or Halo) with an AO-rated Adults Only title, much like many of us use the term “stomach flu” when influenza is actually a respiratory disease
  2. The respondents were talking about actual adults-only games that were not actually rated AO by the ESRB, but certainly have some hawt weiner-in-bun action, like the “dating” sims on Flash game portals like Newgrounds

Either way, the slip-up illustrates my point that survey polling is of questionable accuracy, and that we can get much better data in a technological age 100 years removed from the invention of the telephone. The ESA employee accused the speaker and her cohorts of being needlessly inflammatory by including the AO stuff in the report. Due to their year-old data and fallible methods, i like to think they’re too old-school to be considered highly valuable. But as i mentioned, the report is free and the link is all yours. Do with it what you will.

singles

A search of the ESRB site turned up the AO-rated game “Singles”, by Eidos. Now you’ll be ready for whatever a quiz show throws at you. You’re welcome.

GDC 09: Thursday

The penultimate day at GDC 09 finds me weary, delirious, and sporting a pronounced limp. My right eye is wandering lazily off-center and, like a broken compass, seems to always point Southeast regardless of which way i’m facing. i’m starting to confuse people’s names with colours, and i’m blurring session titles with childhood memories, like all those times i would go down to the old swimmin’ hole in my John Frederickson-coloured shorts and talk for hours about recent trends in emergent gameplay. i’ve also developed a rather uncomfortable case of testicular Zoroastrianism, which is exactly what you think it is.

Fisherman's molt

Early warning signs of testicular Zoroastrianism include liver itch, and fisherman’s molt (pictured here)

Tonight’s the night when everyone overdoes it at parties. i’m heading out soon to drink spiced non-alcoholic Fun Rum™ from a pineapple at the tiki-themed Tonga Lounge with some other Canadian folks in the industry, and i’ll likely wind up at the W Hotel to see what Suite Night (a series of hotel room parties) has to offer. Meanwhile, let’s take a look at the lessons of the day.

Session: GDC Microtalks
Speakers: Assorted

This pecha kucha-inspired series of talks from ten speakers was fun, fast, and inspirational. It got off to a very slow and pretentious start with John Sharp discussing the Primacy of Play (snore), and Tracy Fullerton throwing out needlessly decorated terminology in a show of exactly why i steer clear of academic speakers as a general rule. Here’s a sampling of Tracy’s linguistic self-love:

  • liturgical
  • transcendence
  • sympathetic magic
  • educated spectatorship
  • spiritual exhileration
  • ritual power

i mean, i know what all of those words mean on their own, and i’ve definitely been guilty of churching up a sentence or two. But you have to pace yourself. i like to surround one wealthy word with a bunch of mono-syllabic beggar words, like a crowd of Indian kids swarming a well-off German tourist. It’s my trickle-down theory of sentence composition: you have to give readers time to let the big words to sink in, but the million dollar words help to raise the rent for the rest of the sentence.

N’Gai Croal

N’Gai talked about sliding difficulty scales in games and how great they are. Not easy/medium/hard stuff, but more like games that make enemies stronger the better you do, or games where two players can play co-operatively at different difficulty levels. For this last example he held up Gears of War, saying that it’s a great example of a game where a parent can play with a child. i thought it was irresponsible of N’Gai to suggest that children should go anywhere near a game like Gears of War. It’s kind of like saying that the broad physical humour in Kill Bill is great because it will keep the kids entertained while you watch as a family. Check your head, N’Gai.

N’Gai’s take-away was that players who criticized Prince of Persia‘s forgiving “death” rewind should re-consider what they value in games, because a punishing “fail” screen isn’t necessarily key to a game’s fun factor.

fail

Robin Hunicke

Robin is pretty, so she commanded my attention. i’m afraid that’s just how the world works. Her talk was a tad bubbly and less inspiring than the others. She spoke about how she was disappointed with Sony’s Home virtual world, and listed a few features that would make it a great place to be. These included:

  1. graffiti@home – walk around tagging the joint
  2. jam@home – give everyone drumsticks to tap on the environment and make music together
  3. climb@home – jack climbing pegs into the world’s surfaces to turn Home into a massive virtual rock-climbing club

Robin admitted that these were not quick features to implement, but lamented the fact that Home‘s only purpose was apparently to sell virtual Jordache jeans. She looked at these features through the lens of the four C’s, which i’m ashamed to say i’d never heard of:

  1. Creativity
  2. Collection
  3. Competition
  4. Community

These four C’s were the most crucial and applicable piece of learning for me in any of the talks, but i don’t think Robin is credited with them. Does anyone know who came up with these? They sound like something Bartle cooked up. (note to self: Google works wonders)

(additional note to self: notes to self need not be published publicly on a blog, as they cease to be notes to self and become, instead, notes to everyone)

Eric Zimmerman

Eric wrote books like The Power of Play and others that i haven’t read because heady game theory annoys me somewhat. But he may have broken my will with his “talk”. He passed out coloured cards and engaged the entire room in a game of card-passing, where the goal was to end up clumped with the largest number of people holding the same colour card as yours. The room erupted. Strangers became allies, smiles became frowns, and a number of people took of their clothes and spontaneously started having sex with each other in the middle of the conference hall. After it was all over and cigarettes were lit, Eric joyously proclaimed the power that games and playing had to transform the way we think, socialize, communicate, blink … it was definitely an energy booster, and the perfect thing to wake me up during a very draining conference. i may read the speaker’s book after all.

Bob Dylan

Robert Zimmerman. i don’t think he’s related to Eric – i just like the Bob Dylan.

Clint Hocking

Clint’s famous potty mouth starred in his talk about the “cult of 90″ in the wine review circuit, where much is made of the difference between an 89% wine score and a 90% wine score. Clint’s talk was essentially a rant against MetaCritic, but his proposed solution was a five-star system, which wouldn’t solve his problem at all – the cult of 90 would just suffer some division and become the cult of four or five. Clint’s talk turned me into a whine critic.

Jenova Chen

Jenova’s talk was dense, clever, and FANTASTIC – probably my favourite of the bunch. He talked about emotions in games, and compared the emotional “hue” of games in this, video gaming’s infancy, to the emotional hue of movies in their infancy. Both games and movies offered experiences that were empowering and stimulating. (He mentioned two other emotional qualities, but i wasn’t writing fast enough.) He called these emotions “primal”, and suggested that games in the future would take advantage of a larger range in the emotional spectrum. We’ve already seen this with many 99 cent iPhone games, which go beyond empowerment and stimulation, and instead evoke more nuanced feelings of betrayal. i want my dollar back.

Frank Lantz

Frank’s sound bite was “games are not media”. The one concept that stuck with me was the idea that currently, we think of games as things we put into computers: computers contain games. His point was that games are so big and important and all-encompassing and unique that in the future, we’ll put computers into games. Games will contain, or include, computers. That was food for thought.

Jane McGonigal

Jane’s idea of fun includes Chinese philosophy, the zombie apocalypse, and humiliation. She encompassed these in the acronym CZADOF:

  • C – Confucius/Chinese philosophy Confucius spoke of the “jen ratio” (not sure how to spell that – Jane used a Chinese character for the word). A high ratio is inversely proportionate to the degree of dickishness going on.
  • ZA – zombie apocalypse A game like Left 4 Dead has a high ratio because no one has the luxury of being a dick. Everyone has to pitch in and help his fellow man. (Jane’s obviously never played the tabletop Zombies!!! game, where dickishness is crucial to victory)
  • Dance-off This was one of the very best things i’ve seen in the whole show. Jane’s Top Secret Dance-Off is a socially networked RPG game where you level up by completing dance-off missions: dance in a disguise, dance at a cross-walk, etc. You get your friends to videotape you, and then upload the vid to earn points and levels. i nearly spat my food out laughing so hard, and i wasn’t even eating any food. Jane contends that humiliation is a key ingredient to having fun, and Top Secret Dance-Off made me a believer.

Top Secret Dance-Off

Pure, undiluted fun.

Session: Making the Impossible Possible
Speaker: Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid developer)

i won’t waste time talking about this one too much, because it’s probably being covered ad nauseum by fans across the Internatz. Hideo’s thesis was that things that seem impossible now will be made possible through technology and human ingenuity. His definition of impossible was a little loose, and his presentation was tedious and repetetive. i appreciated his point that game hardware only brought him part of the way towards achieving his goals, and that clever game design was needed to bring him the rest of the way. i recommend finding a video stream of the presentation, but you should probably watch it in fast-forward once it starts feeling familiar (that wasaround the 20 minute mark for me).

Session:Multiple
Speakers: i couldn’t decide

i really agonized over this particular slot, because there were about five great-sounding sessions i wanted to attend, and there were only three clones of me. i finally landed in the iPhone talk, which was spuriously labelled a “programming track” session. i must have missed all the programming chatter at the beginning, because the session was a repeat of every non-programming-related thing i already knew about iPhone development – really basic stuff like how to get into the developer program. i did appreciate the speaker’s advice to price your iPhone app at what it’s worth, instead of joining the race to the bottom of the heap with the ubiquitous (and damaging) 99 cent price point.

i skipped the Q+A session and ducked into a session called “Failure is Not an Option”, a talk targeted at lead designers and producers. i had hoped from the title that this would be an entrepreneurial session around how your company’s failure is not an option, but unfortunately it was more project-focussed. Here are the points that resonated with me:

  1. hire on demand
  2. don’t hire until you get your core game mechanic working in a prototype
  3. always have something to demo (this is a great point)
  4. re: the good/fast/cheap pyramid, make the right trade-offs during production by actually playing your game extensively

Kitten

A picture of a kitten and a chick, just to break this thing up a little

Session: Some long session title about metrics that i can’t be arsed to re-type
Speakers: Trevor Fencott from Bedlam Games, Simon Carless from Gamasutra, Marc Doyle from Metacritic, Michael Klotz from the NPD Group, and Michael Pachter from Wedbush Morgan Securities

It was a tiny thrill to recognize Michael Pachter, as i’m an avid Joystiq reader (he gets covered there a lot). Pachter is very vocal about his predictions for gaming’s future. i think he’s full of nonsense most of the time, but the guy blew my mind with his encyclopedic memory. i stood up at the end of the session and gave the Metacritic guy the business for ignoring sites like YTV’s Gamepad, whose reviews he rejected because they gave Piglet’s Big Game a 9 out of 10 (imagine that? A quality kids’ game getting a high score on a kids’ gaming site.)

Marc dismissed my criticism, saying (somewhat dickishly) “i’ve never heard of Piglet’s Big Game“. Pachter rushed to my defense and rattled off the game’s release date and sales numbers (over 100k copies) like some freaky human ticker tape. Marc tried to deride me by questioning what a 30-year-old man was doing reviewing Piglet’s Big Game in the first place. i didn’t review it, actually – a 24-year-old woman wrote the piece – but his crummy attitude just reinforced the flaws inherent in Metacritic. It’s a site that tries too hard to maintain its street cred with game industry insiders, and it couldn’t care a fig about the gamer population at large: namely, moms and dogs.

In the end, the creators of Jillian Michaels’ Fitness Ultimatum got the last laugh. Who needs Metacritic when your Wii Balance Board game sells over a million copies? Lesson learned: ignore moms and dogs at your own peril.

Mom and dog

The future of gaming.

GDC 09: Wednesday

It was day three at GDC 09, and my armour has started to crack. i simply lacked the energy to slump out to the 9AM keynote by Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. i missed out on a free DS game, but as i mentioned earlier, i have a new handheld lover these days.

One highlight that i heard repeated from Iwata’s talk was the chart that he showed depicting the penetration of the three major consoles, with the Wii naturally dominating. Then he overlayed the sales data for his Wii Balance Board, which appeared to nip at the total sales for the Playstation 3. Iwata’s point (other than the damning depiction of Sony’s staggering failure) is that developers should consider developing more software for the Wii Balance board. My worry is that the same crowd who picked up Wii Fit with the Balance Board are the same folks who are perfectly happy with the copy of Wii Sports that shipped with the system. These people may not even want more software. Who knows?

Wii Boxing

i could stare at this game for HOURS.

Here are the highlights from my day:

Session: From Bungie to Bootstrapping: Starting an Independent Game Studio
Speaker: Max Hoberman, President and Founder of Certain Affinity Inc.

Max is a former Bungie employee who headed up multiplayer development for the Halo games, which you may have heard of. He set off to found Certain Affinity Inc. with nothing but the shirt on his back, a strong relationship with a world-reknowned studio responsible for one of the best-selling game series of all time, and eighty thousand dollars of his own money for an initial investment. Clearly, the odds were stacked against him.

Despite such a strong starting position, Max outlined the mistakes he made and the lessons he learned, and they turned out to be many of the things i’ve faced with Untold Entertainment in the past year. Max’s talk was very densely packed and very timely and very crucial for me to hear; i filled four pages in my notebook with content from his presentation. i’m not going to regurgitate it all here, but allow me to pull out a few highlights:

  1. Not everyone you hire is fit for a startup. (i can attest to this.)
  2. Don’t take shortcuts when hiring, lowering your standards when the need for staff is pressing
  3. the smaller your team, the more critical their group dynamics
  4. maintain high quality standards. This is very important for Untold Entertainment, as it is for other studios. You may not always be able to compete on price, because other developers and studios could undercut you (even foolishly, to their companies’ detrement.) The best way to remain competetive is to consistently do good work, and to consistently deliver an excellent experience with the services you provide.
  5. Expect high standards regardless of role. i liked this point. Effem Foods (Mars) is a good example of this. While it’s a bit culty, they’re structured so that every person in the organization effects every other person. The guy on the low rung of the ladder in shipping is directly linked to the top-earning sales manager. Neither of them can succeed if one is not performing optimally.
  6. Hire experienced people, especially when you’re just starting out. i see a lot of game development companies, especially here in Toronto, building their business with students and other inexpensive sources of labour. i was concerned i was doing the wrong thing by hiring very skilled and experienced talent. i was vindicated with this point in Max’s presentation.

Experience

The face of experience.

Max also spoke about what he called the “myth of long-term relationships”, which says that your best and steadiest clients will always be there to give you work. They won’t. i’ve had a number of clients disappear on me – not necessarily because we under-performed, but because they’re subject to their own pressures and forces. As Max put it, “publisher interest waxes and wanes based on their own circumstances and priorities.” So it’s important that if you have a steady client who feeds you lots of work, you don’t get too comfortable or complacent in thinking that the relationship will always be that way. The client may leave for a very long period of time before finally returning.

Session: The Inspiration Behind Nintendo DSi Development
Speaker: Masato Kuwahara from Nintendo (he has a gigantic title that i won’t bother to type)

This session was in Japanese, and many of us wore headsets to listen to the translation. The engagement with the speaker was therefore broken, and due in large part to my exhaustion, i fell asleep during this session. i had hoped that the speaker would get into the nitty gritty of development for Nintendo’s newest handheld, the DSi. i wanted him to lift the veil and give us a peek behind who you have to talk to, what you have to buy, and how you have to program to address the new unique aspects of the hardware (two cameras?? That’s crazytalkin’.)

Unforunately, Kuwahara’s talk was essentially another product demo and a rundown of the features on the device. He showed one chart of sales data for the digitally distributed DSiWare games vs. their physically distributed counter-parts. i won’t even relay the data, because i think it’s way too early to refer to a chart like that. Let the chips settle first, to ensure that the data are reliable.

Nintendo DSi Interface

The Nintendo DSi: Welcome to ten years ago.

It was interesting to note how all of the gimmicky add-ons that Nintendo has toyed around with over the years (the Game Boy Camera, Printer and Wireless Adapter) have more or less ended up fused into one device. My overall impression of the DSi is that it looks very childish, and the UI and graphics seem to date back to ten or fifteen years ago. i was quite disappointed with nearly everything i saw on the screen. It’s the opposite of slick.

i do have a really bad-ass concept for a DSiWare game, though. :)

Session: Little Hands, Foul Moods and Runny Noses 2.0: The Research You Should Know When Making Games for Kids
Speaker: Carla Englebrecht Fisher

Carla is a very watchable self-professed geek girl who ran a great presentation. She threw out a ton of information, mostly about about kids’ physical development, that impacts the way they interface with software. Here are some nuggets:

  1. 20% of nine-year-olds can’t kick or throw a ball. (of note: 100% of me at age nine couldn’t kick or throw either)
  2. girls are faster to develop fine motor control, while boys are faster to develop gross motor control
  3. abnormal or delayed motor development can lead to a kid getting teased, having a lower IQ, and experiencing learning disabilities. We often think of mental and physical prowess as sitting in two separate camps, so it was interesting to hear how they’re linked.
  4. Stylus and touch-screen control beat out mouse and keyboard control in the kids’s space
  5. when targeting kids, you should program onPress/mouseDown button events instead of onRelease/onLift/mouseUp events. Carla said that if something doesn’t happen immediately on press, a kid will keep his finger on the button, and will actually push harder on the screen to make something happen, instead of releasing his finger.
  6. children maintain their balance better with their eyes open

Floored

i skipped the last session of the day to help the Canadian feds out with a video interview, but our wires got crossed and it didn’t happen. So i spent the back half of the afternoon on the expo floor, listening to demo jockeys from Unity3D and Garage Games (Torque) extol the virtues of their iPhone game development engines. It sounds like both programs have their problems. If you’ve used one or the other or both, i’d LOVE to hear your perspective.

i also skipped the IGF (Iguana Gold-Farming) awards show tonight, which i now realize would have been my chance to meet the Squashy Software developers of Platypus/Cletus Clay fame. i’m not sure they’d receive me with open arms, because it might not be so hot to be one of two developers building a game in clay. But Platypus was an inspiration to me, and we were both turned on by The Neverhood long ago. Hating me for creating a clay game is like one pixel artist hating another pixel artist for working in that style. It doesn’t make sense for there to be bad blood, so i hope there isn’t any. i just want to get that handshake in before i head back to Toronto.

The TunaSnax/Squashy guys mentioned in a Twitter post today that they had people playing with plasticine at the IGF booth. i was going to bring some along for promotional reasons as well, but i can’t IMAGINE what the folks at the airport would make of me transporting bricks of clay in my carry-on. That’s a great way to get your nads rigged up to a car battery, i dare say.

C-4 Plastique

You mean i can’t bring a tube of toothpaste OR this on the plane??? Sheesh.