The Game Developers Conference 2010 began today in San Francisco, and i’m back in my hotel room to give you a recap of what i saw and learned.
The first two days of the show are Summits days, with clusters of panels and talks in certain narrow or niche segments of the industry. This year, the casual games and virtual worlds summits were combined and enhanced to form the Social & Online Games Summit. There was also an iPhone summit (which last year was called the Mobile Games Summit … telling?), the AI (Artificial Intelligence) Summit, and the Let Me Tell You Summit, which was for British people.
Generally, i was disappointed. This is the fourth year i’ve been at the show, and i almost worry i’m getting too smart for GDC. I don’t want that to sound pompous … i’m just wondering if, having spent an entire year reading and researching, following excellent Twitter posters like @retrogamer4ever, and cramming so much stuff into my brain, that i’ve outpaced the more general-interest tone of the conference?
It’s also … this is kind of weird, but i think it’s valid … the few Indie Games Summit talks i attended are in a cavernous and very dimly-lit room, as opposed to last year’s brighter, cheerier room. The mood in the place is almost ominous or sombre. But i could very well be crazy.
Click on the headers that interest you to read more about the sessions i attended!
Meeting with Push Button Labs
i bet it’s a game about hugging.
But the big thrill for me was getting to meet Jeff Tunnel, an industry veteran from the old Dynamix studio and, more importantly, the creator of The Incredible Machine and its sequels, spin-offs and imitators. TIM remains a very influential game for me. It was one of the first physics-based games i ever played, and the novelty of that gripped me like few games ever had. It may also have been one of the first games i ever played with a level editor. TIM has you building Rube Goldberg machines, like that old Mousetrap game where the marble tips the man into the tub, which rattles the cage which catches the mouse. Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist who drew implausible solutions to simple tasks, like turning on a lightbulb. TIM takes that concept and runs with it, giving the player tasks like “release the mouse from its cage – here’s a bin of spare parts, including a laser, two mirrors, a rubber band, a boot, and two basketballs. Go.”
It reminds me of whenever i attempt home repairs.
One thing that TIM introduced me to was this idea of playing the game while it was paused. You’d put the physics on hold, position all of the elements on the screen, and then unfreeze time and watch the chain reaction unfold. i don’t know if TIM was the first to do this, but i see it all over the place now, and in interesting places, like the pauseable combat system in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I was considering using something similar for a sequel to our TOJam game Bloat.
Anyway, if i thought that meeting Jeff would be my biggest thrill that morning, i was wrong. While we got to know each other, i showed the gentlemen a few screenshots from our real-time multiplayer game Interrupting Cow Trivia, and Jeff said – this is Jeff Tunnel, creator of The Incredible Machine, mind you – Jeff said “Oh, yeah. I’ve played that.”
WHAT? That floored me.
It floored me to think that i played and loved a game when i was a kid, one of the games that would inform my design decisions throughout my career, and that i would grow up to have a wonderful future in the video game industry, and that the creator of one of the games that inspired me would one day play MY game. How awesome is that? (If you answered “so awesome”, you’re darn right.)
The State of Social Gaming: Industry Overview and Update
The speaker here was Justin Smith from Inside Social Games, a great blog that i really recommend. But i wondered if it was because i was on the site so much, or because i was just generally well-informed about the topic, that i found Justin’s talk completely useless. He kept tossing out non-news tidbits like “the majority of users on Facebook are old” and “Facebook has more traffic outside North America than in.” At the end of Justin’s presentation, i leaned over to my colleague and said “in other news: fire hot, water wet”. i just didn’t get much out of this session.
i mentioned that to Raph Koster later in the afternoon. Raph was one of the summit’s organizers, and he said he was worried that the session was too basic as well, but he said that once people came up to the mic asking all sorts of rookie questions, he relaxed a bit. He HAD properly judged the experience level of the audience.
i just kind of hoped that at a specialized conference, in a specialized summit devoted to a single segment of the industry, that we could get beyond openers like “so what is a social game?” Seriously – if you don’t know, don’t drop two grand on a Game Developers Conference pass to find out. Google it. Then leave the rest of us who paid good money to hash out the nuances of a market segment we already understand.
From Big Studio to Small Indie: Guerilla Tactics from Hello Games
Lots of articles have been written on this – here’s one from BusinessWeek:
To sum it up, when you present, you have to make your talk relevant and relatable to your audience. Developer talks usually don’t do this – they just put a successful pretty boy up in front of a mic, and he talks for half an hour on how great he is an how much money he’s made, and everyone leaves the room wanting to hurt the ones they love. The Hello Games talk was so ludicrously navel-gazing that one of the slides contained pictures of the team members as children, and we were regaled with descriptions of the first games the team members built on the VIC20 when they were eight. For serious.
There’s a word for this kind of presentation: a wank. i felt like i should have left the room to let Hello Games touch their nipples for a while. Sure, they had created a great-looking game. But i’m not here to see your great-looking game. i can do that from the comfort of my own home, while touching my own nipples, thank you kindly. i’m here to find out how i can create my own great game. Give me tips, tools, techniques … tell me about the problems you faced and the solutions you devised to solve them. Reveal to me some secret technology that will speed up my pipeline. About the only useful thing these guys mentioned was Procrastitracker, a tool that monitors how much time you’re spending on Twitter, reading all of @retrogamer4ever ‘s G-D posts.
This session was in stark contrast to the one that Tim Fowers from Gabob gave yesterday at the Flash Gaming Summit, and the talk that Amitt Mahajan from Zynga would give later that afternoon (see below).
Postmortem: The Design & Business Behind Fantastic Contraption
If you’re a Flash developer who’s serious about monetizing your games, you have to know about Colin Northway’s breakaway success Fantastic Contraption, which pulled in six figures when Colin did the unthinkable: ask people to pay him money for a Flash game. The rest is Internatz history, but apparently this was news to most of the audience, who seemed to be completely digging Colin’s presentation.
They dug it for damned good reasons, too. In order to keep the audience engaged and entertained, Colin had some buddies build a platform game with him as the star. Digi-Colin would wander through Mario-esque platform levels, past sales charts and traffic graphs, and through visual depictions of his boards being flooded with customers (a pile of people is dumped onto the screen) and hiring a community manager (Colin’s presenter waves the mouse cursor around – a character depicting the community manager is on mouse follow, and he shoos away the glut of people).
Whenever attention waned, Colin’s presenter buddy alt-tabbed over to Fantastic Contraption and played the game. It was a very technically impressive and solidly awesome presentation – all of the on-screen visual aids helped me to retain the information Colin shared. Plus, Colin’s rocking those enormous mutton chops, which go 50% of the way towards making him an engaging speaker.
Fantastic Contraption creator Colin Northway.
i don’t want to re-hash Colin’s story here, because there are tons of articles and blogs about it. But here are a few things i did not know:
- Colin’s wife did all of the artwork for the game.
- Colin’s wife integrates payment systems for a living, and yet Fantastic Contraption only uses PayPal as its payment provider.
- Colin doesn’t code in the Flash IDE – he uses txt files and a command-line compiler. He says he’s recently switched over to Flash Builder (Flex), which is worlds better.
- Colin has sold the game and will not be doing the sequel himself, though he will earn a cut on all derivative works.
- The first offer Colin got on the game was $300 for full source code and all rights.
Standing in Line for a Free Phone
i caught the tail end of John Graham’s talk on using social media tools to drive game hype (Twitter it up, bitches). My conference buddies summarized the talk by saying that everything was pretty much Marketing 101, but the one innovation was that Wolfire produces some pretty engaging video whenever they want to engage fans with newly-produced game content.
i also caught the tail end of Jim Munroe’s talk. Jim is a local Toronto luminary who’s been very active in pulling together the T-dot’s vibrant and sexy video games community. It was neat to see pictures of our Hand Eye Society events at a GDC presentation. i think Jim tried to address the “what’s in it for me?” factor by talking about how YOU can make your own Hand Eye Society chapter, or how YOU can build your own arcade cabinet showcasing games made by your local developers.
Rapidly Developing Farmville: How We Created and Scaled a #1 Facebook Game in 5 Weeks
This was the presentation to beat, and it made the whole day worth it for me. It’s a little scary how tuned-in the Zynga folks are to human psychology – presenter Amitt Mahajan knew exactly what strings to pull to keep me riveted to his slides. He actually had a whole slide devoted to “What’s in it for me?” Smart, smart cookie. It was clear to me early in his presentation that a lot of the phenomenal success Zynga has enjoyed on Facebook owes a lot to Amitt and his smartypants team.
Throughout his talk, Amitt coughed up a surprising amount of detail, in stark contrast to the tight-lipped “look it up on the Internet” showing Zynga had a day earlier at the Flash Gaming Summit. i took extensive notes – here are some highlights:
- Farmville was built with a team of 11 core people (6 devs, 2 artists and 3 producer/designers) over 5 weeks.
- At launch, the game pulled in 18 thousand users a day
- After the first four days, Farmville had 1 million users a day
- Today, the game boasts 31 million players a day
- Farmville is completely configurable through an external xml file. All of the copy is in an external string table. Entire features can be turned on and off through an admin panel, and the change is immediately pushed live to all players.
- All API calls are written in an abstracted communication layer, so that the game can be decoupled from Facebook and deployed on another social media site with ease
- Making calls to the Facebook API is slow, so Zynga caches transactions to speed things up
- The whole game functions on the cloud – the game does not run on a database
- All of the visual assets are streamed.
- Much of the game’s back-end architecture runs on free tools
Amitt’s presentation was so smart and so dense that i could burn a whole blog article regurgitating it. The team made so many clever decisions that it’s hard to begrudge Zynga for pulling in More Money Than Jesus on an hourly basis – the kind of foresight and planning demonstrated by Amitt and his team deserves millions. i gave the man straight-5’s on his evaluation card, and then snail-mailed my toenail clippings to him so that we’d always be together.
i’m hoping there’s more in it for me during tomorrow’s Summit day. Wednesday also culminates in the Canada Games party – your tax dollars hard at work. It’s there that Canadian game devs can get industry folks liquored up and ready to shake on some deals, and/or eat poutine. i, for one, will be there for the poutine.