GDC 2010 – Wednesday

Day Two of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco was a little more beneficial than Day One. Here’s a rundown of who said what, and what i said when that person said that.

How to Manage an Exploratory Development Process

Robin Hunicke and Kellie Santiago from That Game Company (Flower)

This talk had the potential for greatness, but the speakers fell down when it came to providing concrete examples to illustrate what they were saying. The whole talk was given from a very vague, 50 000-foot-level, and i wanted some more blood n’ guts to make the material more relatable.

Robin and Kellie were talking about how the video game industry is a very stressful place, and how team members can end up hating each other, hating the project, and suffering anxiety and nightmares needlessly. The talk was part scrum advocacy, part therapy advocacy. (Don’t know what scrum is? Neither did i, until i had lunch with an expert! See below for more.)

Here are a few points of interest i jotted down:

  • Robin – “We don’t have to burn ourselves out, starve, or suffer to create fantastic works of interactive art.”
  • When team conflicts arise, the impulse is to say “i’ll just do it” or “i can’t seem weak”
  • It’s easy to dismiss someone else’s ideas when you have to build them. That’s why it’s important for your whole team to have ownership of the whole project (another scrum/agile concept)
  • If you iterate, you will chuck stuff. And that’s not a bad thing.
  • Robin – “Not everyone who gives you money is stupid.” Me – “HAHAHAHA!” She was talking about how keeping constant, open and honest communication with your funder or publisher makes for a better relationship and less anxiety
  • Estimates are fake
  • When something takes longer than you thought it would, the conversation you have with the publisher/funder doesn’t have to be plagued by shame and guilt. “You don’t have to wear a hairshirt during that conversation.”

Here were the (relatively few) takeaways the speakers provided:

  • Put up a big board for your team with a calendar on it. Add blobs to the calendar across different game dev disciplines and buckets (development, infrastructure, marketing). Massage frequently.
  • Keep a task board between sprints (2-week development periods), listing team members’ names across the top, and the tasks they need to complete under their names
  • Write a private game dev diary. The more you do these, the more you’ll realize that the problems you have on one project are the problems you have on ALL projects – use this knowledge to help you anticipate and navigate problem situations in the future

Robin is formerly of EA, and you could tell from the talk that she’s been through monstrously stressful projects, and game teams with huge egos on them. The thing i found really interesting is that i couldn’t ignore the fact that the speakers were both women, and that the talk itself was very chicky. i started writing down the most repeated words in the presentation: stuff, concerns, thing, worries, communication, anxiety, guilt, conversation, open. Very touchy-feely Dr Phil stuff. That’s not a bad thing necessarily … it just struck me that i would probably never, EVER hear the same talk coming from male presenters.

When people repeat, to my dismay, that there need to be more women/black people/Down syndrome people (or whatever) in the game industry, so that other voices can be heard, this must be what they mean. i’m fine with having more women in the industry as long as they’re smart, with-it and (dare i say?) worthy women like the two presenters. i get my back up when people try to stack teams based on some minority bingo card, as i’ve said before. The talent and ability has to be there. More on that later, when Robin takes to the stage during the indie rant.

Also, i’ve said it before but i’ll say it again: Robin has the best hair in the industry. Sleek, red, and awesomazing.

Ninjabee’s Top 10 Development Lessons

Next up was Brent Fox, who does NOT have the best hair in the industry (sorry, Brent). Brent was a decent speaker, and kudos to him for breaking his talk down into a nice bite-sized list of ten items. Seems to be the only way to get people to read your blog – bullet points and countdowns. Perhaps it’s also becoming the only way to keep people awake during your PowerPoint question.

i won’t list all of Brent’s ten points, because many of them were pedestrian and uninteresting (again – sorry, Brent!) These are the ones that held my interest:

#10. DLC Doesn’t make any money. Brent bemoaned the fact that Ninjabee’s downloadable content for games like Outpost Kaloki X and Band of Bugs didn’t sell well. He later added the exception to the rule: A Kingdom for Keflings had add-ons that sold very well. His conclusion: DLC is worth it if the game is very popular.

i asked him at the end of the talk whether he’d measured the sales of DLC against how many people had finished the game. i didn’t buy Outpost DLC because i didn’t come anywhere near to finishing the main game. i did, however, finish Keflings, and would be far more likely to buy an expansion for it. To my sheer amazement, after hearing Zynga and the other Facebook devs drone on about how important it was to collect and measure player data, Brent admitted that he had no idea what the correlation between finishing players and sold DLC was. Shocking!

#6. A picture is worth a million dollars. If someone says “You can show me a demo with no graphics and i can look past it”, he’s lying. (i wholeheartedly agree here – pretty pictures are CRUCIAL.) He gave an example where his team had mocked up an example of avatar placement in Keflings, and the feeling from the publisher was sort of like “oh – of course they can do it. They’ve got a picture to prove it!”

#5. XBLA is hit-driven (no surprises there). He did say, though, that on the list of the top games for XML, the gap between the sales figures for the games on page 2 and the games on page 8 isn’t significant … but the gap between the games on page 1 and the games on page 2 is immense.

Brent ended his talk by quoting EA’s CEO, who claimed that in the next year (ONE year!), sales from digital downloads would overtake console numbers. Sacre le crap!

Why Do People Buy Virtual Goods? Ten Attributes to Influence Desirability

Speaker Vili Lehdonvirta from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology is an unnervingly calm, almost robotic speaker. i found him very listenable … if only because i was worried that if i didn’t listen, he’d melt my face with his laser eyes. i didn’t get a single thing out of Vili’s talk, because i knew it all already. Drag.

If you don’t know it all, here are ten factors affecting the desirability of virtual goods as they relate primarily to virtual worlds and MMOs:

  1. Performance (+2 sword, +4 sword)
  2. Functionality (items that save the player time, like warp gates or loot pets)
  3. Visuals and sounds
  4. Background fiction (he gave the example of a ring you could get that belonged to a very popular NPC in the game – it’s the same as when people buy Elvis’s underwear)
  5. Provenance – the item might have history attached to it (eg a famous player owned it in the past, or a certain item was only given out during an exclusive promotion)
  6. customizability
  7. Cultural References (ie holiday-themed items)
  8. Licensed Items (Nestle Chocobot Power Hour hats)
  9. Rarity (he gave the example of an Ultima Online item, horse dung, that did not propagate in the game world. Players realized the stuff was precious and rare, so they started hanging it on their walls as an elite status symbol. Horse dung.
  10. Prince. The super-expensive item that you sell to a player as a status symbol.

Getting a Free Phone

After those sessions, and just before lunch, i picked up my free Nexus One phone courtesy of Google. Thanks, Google! That’s super.


i had lunch with three great guys – Joe, who you may know on Twitter as @retrogamer4ever, Shane and Vince. It was then that i brought up Robin’s talk, and Shane exploded with a passionate hour-long diatribe about the wonders of scrum development, with Vince chiming in every so often with a “what what!” and “daaaamn!”

i hadn’t paid much attention to scrum, and only kind of knew what it was. Or so i thought. i learned so much more from Shane during lunch. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Traditionally, when you make video games, you use the waterfall method. You write a game design document describing the entire game, you break it up into tasks, and you build the game. The final game MUST keep referring back to this increasingly ancient GDD, and there is very little room for iteration (changing the game little by little on the fly in response to playtesting, new ideas, etc)

Agile development philosophy aims to solve a number of problems that waterfall causes. Scrum is one way to implement Agile concepts. Here’s how you develop a game using scrum:

  1. Cook up the KINDS of things you need to build. The whole team meets and decides how much effort something will take to complete. Not how much TIME … how much effort. You assign effort points to tasks. So if you’re talking about a programming system, the programmer talks about what’s involved in implementing it, and the TEAM decides how much effort it’ll take. Not the programmer – the whole team. The aim here is to get everyone owning the project. As Robin said earlier in the day, it’s easier to disregard someone else’s input if you don’t own it, but are just building it.
  2. The whole team works towards a sprint. At the end of a 2-week run, the game will be finished. The whole team works towards a common goal: a build of the game. It’s not feature-complete or necessarily awesome, but it’s a working (if stunted) version of the game. The benefit here is that you always have a working, playable version of the game. Vince and Shane told us about the different public humiliation tactics they’ve employed to shame a team member if he let everyone down by breaking the build.
  3. Within a sprint, the team members review their assumptions every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
  4. Repeat this process every two weeks until the game is done, or the money runs out and the Earth crashes into the sun.

There’s way more to it than that, but that’s a primer. It’s the primer i would have wanted when i was trying to casually understand what scrum was.

The Convergence of Flash Portals and Social Games

* view the slides here! *

It’s no secret: i have a total man-crush on Dan Cook. It was a thrill to meet him in person, and his talk was typical Dan Cook – whip-smart, on the money, relevant and kickass.

Dan’s talk was on the Flash game industry – the devs, the portals, the middle-men, and the incredible opportunity for developers in that space. i have a hunch that most of you reading this blog know most of what Dan was saying, but the way he said it and the slides he’d put together had me riveted to his talk, even though i knew most of what he was saying beforehand.

At the end of his talk, Dan painted a very bleak picture of the Flash games industry, one where ongoing consolidation leads to big, unstoppable companies, and Flash developers serve at the behest of their new overlords. He’s totally right – that’s already happening. But then he started channeling Karl Marx and Sun Tzu, preaching that workers (Flash devs) must own the mode of production, or build their castles on less crowded hills. His advice: be platform-agnostic. Don’t be a Flash developer or an iPhone developer or an Android developer. Be an octopus. Constantly dip your tentacles into many different buckets, pulling out new players and audience members on a variety of platforms, so that you don’t become beholden to the powers that will eventually control any particular platform, given enough time.

(And if you’re gonna be an octopus, be on that’s this adorable)

My thoughts, of course, immediately went to Untold Entertainment’s site masthead: “We make Flash games.” i hate that credo, but it’s true. i am dying to develop something on a different platform so that i can finally change it, but for now i gotta call a spade a spade.

i love you, Dan Cook. Please have my man-babies.

From Casual to Social: What to Pack

Unfortunately, this talk was at the bottom of the heap for me. Presenter Jeferson Valaderes from Playfish spoke too quickly, in a rapid-fire South American (?) accent. Everything he said sounded like a throw-away. His slides were almost incomprehensible. Ugh. It was just a really, really bad session. The conference volunteer kept bringing him cup after cup of water during his presentation, as if hoping that if he took a sip, he’d magically start being interesting and relevant. Alas, water only keeps you alive. It does not keep you alive and bearable.

Indie Gamemaker Rant!

This series of 5-minute talks from various indies in the increasingly upsetting indie Old Boys Club was hit and miss. Here are a few things that jumped out at me:

Tommy Refenes pulled kind a dick move in his rant about the app store by implying that Adam Saltsman “got lucky” with Canabalt. If i were Adam, i can’t imagine i’d feel good about that. And if i were Adam, i imagine i’d have enough money from Wurdle by now to buy myself a Tommy Refenes-skin rug.

Anyway, Tommy ran a really interesting experiment. He put a game called Zits n’ Giggles in the App Store and didn’t make any money from it. So he jacked the price up to $15, and three people bought it. Then he jacked the price up to $50, and four people bought it. So he decided to keep jacking up the price as long as it kept selling. Fourteen people bought it on Valentine’s Day for $199 a pop. The game currently sells for $350.

He did this to illustrate why he thinks the App Store is a joke, filled with uneducated consumers. It’s hard to argue with him, but his elitist attitude and opening complaint that it’s too hard to beat Mega Man 2 on the iPhone betrays a very close-minded, old-school mentality that implies that games and systems are only valid or valuable if they have traditional controls, and if their games are called Mega Man 2.

Robin Hunicke will be happy to know that her rant tipped me from being a staunch opponent of affirmative action, to someone who now sees the benefit of having a sexually and racially diverse game development team. It’s hard to say what did it: it was either her mesmerizing red hair, or the science she provided that showed that teams are more productive, creative, and effective when they are diversified.

i have a big chip on my shoulder about affirmative action and women in the games industry, because i come from an office where the management layer was suspiciously stacked with women, and the worker bees were almost all men, and a certain degree of nepotism and unfair hiring kept it that way. Many of the women in the management layer weren’t worthy of the jobs they held, in my opinion, and it was hard to get excited about women in the workplace when i was surrounded by so many women who shouldn’t have been there.

Since then, i’ve met many more women who don’t get it, and who have their jobs because they’re women, and that really gets my back up. But i have met a few women who are savvy and smart and really knowledgeable, and i’m very happy they’re here.

Robin talked about a concept called signaling threat, which is where you’re surrounded by people who are all cut from the same cloth (white men … or heck, even black women with green hats), and the imbalance makes you want to run like hell, or stay with all your defenses cranked way up. i think that i actually experienced signaling threat at that old job by being surrounded by those women, so i totally buy the case for diversity now. i’m about to put together a team for Spellirium, so i’ll definitely keep Robin’s rant in mind.

Journalist Brendan Boyer’s claim was that “Seanbaby has ruined video game journalism for an entire generation.” Seanbaby is an initially funny, but ultimately caustic commenter who had a stint on IGN, and who Brendan blames for poisoning game journalism by making every game insight flippant and rude. He called for 2010 to be “the year we sunk snark.” The point would be hard to argue, if Brendan wasn’t such an ass-grabbing tard-monkey.

Anna Anthropy called for video games to have more personal stories. “i’m tired of male fantasy wish fulfillment and saving the world.” i was later informed that Anna was a pre-op transgender – another case of a different viewpoint enriching the dialogue. Spellirium actually aims to do what Anna is talking about – the story will completely deconstruct the same tired save-the-world, you-are-the-most-imporant-person-on-the-planet arc that so many video games follow relentlessly.

In Anna’s stack of rants, she also made the bold claim that the term “Indie” is no good, and that it is increasingly exclusionary. i completely know where she’s coming from, and will give specifics of indie snobbery in my GDC wrap-up later this week.

6 thoughts on “GDC 2010 – Wednesday

  1. Facebook Indie Games

    Another great write up. Let me spam your blog with a few links:

    1. Platform Diversity. Yes, absolutely. If you focus on one platform you’re a slave to that platform. Read this:

    2. App Store pricing. I have a growing library on this: — I’ll be adding something from here, too.

    3. The “Ten Attributes” post is useful to me even if it wasn’t to you. Thanks for posting.

  2. Pingback: Be an Octopus! « paulmignard

  3. Scarybug

    I don’t understand the apparent confusion of what “indie” means. It doesn’t mean the project doesn’t have a lot of money, it just means there’s no traditional publisher/developer relationship. Sure we can do without snobbery, but why should we throw out a perfectly serviceable term like “independent” when it means something concrete?

  4. Danc

    Love these write ups! I didn’t get a chance to go to many talks so it is very cool to hear the summaries, especially from your perspective.

    take care,


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