GDC 2010 – Saturday
The final day of the 2010 Game Developers Conference brought more thrills and excitement than brushing your teeth with a chainsaw. Here’s a run-down of what was on my radar.
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A Mysterious Adventure in Social Games
If there’s one person i try to emulate in the games industry, it’s Daniel James. The foppish head of Three Rings blew my mind at my first GDC four years ago when he stood at the front of the room and showed slides of his company’s financials. i had never seen that before. Most other companies were enslaved by their publishers, their investors or their shareholders. To give more than a vague notion on the actual financial health of a company or its products was a distinct no-no. When it comes to numbers, Daniel James is free-wheeling and danger-loving. He (almost recklessly) displays his company’s financials on his presentation slides – numbers both good (Puzzle Pirates) and bad (Whirled). He does it scandalously – rebelliously – because it’s simply not done.
Daniel James can often be seen wearing a wine-coloured suit and a tricorn hat. He has a very dry wit, and gets away with saying a lot of audacious stuff with a boyish grin. If you catch him at the right moment, and peer behind this cartoonish public persona, you’ll catch a wild, crazy look in his eye: there’s a fierce passion and imagination lurking behind his social mask, and i love hitting his sessions to find out more about what makes him tick.
Daniel James, enjoying another dress-down Friday at Three Rings.
Apparently, one of those things is booze. A few years ago, Daniel and his fellow Ringers passed around plastic glasses and bottles of whiskey during the session. This year, there was a free Bloody Mary bar at the back of the room. It was the morning after Three Rings threw a big party at their San Francisco offices … nine o’clock in the morning, to be exact. Cheers!
In Daniel’s session, he mentioned again the failure that was Whirled, discussing the five million dollars they’d spent building it (up from three million dollars just a few days before when Daniel spoke at the Flash Games Summit), versus the three hundred thousand dollars the game had generated. Clearly, they’d done something wrong.
The rest of the talk was basically how NOT to burn five (three?) million dollars on an unproven concept:
- create a hypothesis
- verify as early as possible with minimum investment
- “get out of the building” and into the hands of players
- do not proceed to development or marketing scaling until the concept is proven
- use metrics-based verification and iteration, as opposed to gut instinct
He shared a few tips during the talk, most of which i’d picked up in other sessions:
- “Do not bother buying servers in this day and age.” Use a solution like Amazon web services.
- Read Eric Ries – www.startuplessonslearned.com – for info on creating a MVP (minimum viable product)
- Once you’ve built a small audience around a small piece of your idea, ask them “how would you feel if this went away?” If half of those people say they’d be upset, you might have a hit on your hands.
A lot of companies doing Facebook games have riffed on Zynga’s famous “little lost cow” concept, where a lost cow wanders onto your farm in Farmville, and you have the option to tell your friends about it so that they can adopt this orphaned cow and start their own game. Three Rings wins for the zaniest take on the little lost cow gimmick with its vampire game Bite Me: the little lost hottie. You have the option to spam your friends with a sexy teenaged vixen that the player can bring to his apartment, where he plies the demanding hottie with presents, and drinks her blood. Demented!
Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in Games
This panel starred Tim Schafer, one of the minds behind The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel (which just so happens to be my most favouritest game ever in the whole wide world). He also design Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Psychonauts and Brütal Legend. Joining Tim on the panel were two other people.
Tim Schafer, legendary game designer, standing next to Who Cares and Doesn’t Matter.
The panel moderator, who was also not Tim Schafer, opened up with a great question: why is there no “comedy” game genre? Tim said that back in the old days, management put bets on people instead of ideas. Instead of flying by the dials with sales charts and review scores, management would trust people to build games. i think Tim’s view is tainted by the perfect storm happening at LucasArts at the time; all around him, there was still plenty of developer steam-rolling and publisher/management interference with the product.
The moderator asked “If comedy is timing, and the player controls timing, how do you control that?” (This starts with a bad assumption – “comedy is timing” is a very vaudevillian concept, and not all comedy follows that mold.) Said Tim: “it’s kind of like you’re writing a play, where the main character has come up from the audience, and the rest of the actors are improvising around him. Designers have to think of everything the crazy drunk actor is going to do.”
Said the guy to Tim’s right who was not Tim Schafer: when the writers succeeded, you played Tales of Monkey Island and felt like you (as the lead character Guybrush Threepwood) were the funniest guy in the room.
Tim stressed the importance of creating an environment where people can be funny. He said that at LucasArts, they committed him to writing two puzzles a day. He just sat around eating candy and coming up with puzzles. He also thought that the dialogue he was writing was just temporary, so he felt free to goof around with it. Then Ron Gilbert told him “no – that’s the dialogue we’re using for the game,” and Tim was suddenly terrified, and thought “Is it really going out in front of people like that?”
Said not-Tim-Schafer: “i’d be frozen at the keyboard if i was working ona $30M game.” (but then he later said “”Fear is a giant motivator.” Hmm.)
It reminds me of an anecdote i once read about Walt Disney, possibly from The Illusion of Life (it’s a thick book, and i can’t be bothered to pull the reference). Walt walked into his animators’ bullpen one day. The animators had been kicking back, talking and joking about stuff, and as soon as they saw Walt, they snapped to attention and hunched over their drawing boards, working feverishly. Walt had a fit. He told them that he needed them to be relaxed and inspired to produce their best work, and urged them to go for walks in the parkette outside the studio whenever they felt like it. Walt Disney recognized that he’d get the best work out of people by removing their barriers to creativity.
That man went on to become Walt Disney.
Walt Disney would later be known as Walt Disney, which is kind of a big deal.
Another gem from Tim: “if everyone’s wearing clown suits, they’ll be funny all the time.”
The guy-who-wasn’t-Tim-Schafer talked about how important it was to work in teams to funny-check your humour. If you come up with a joke, you need to use other people as a sounding board to figure out whether it’s actually funny or not. He suggested that you can’t be funny in a vaccuum.
Tim: “The fear of ‘that’s too silly’ is the enemy of fun.” He gave the example of the three-headed monkey, one of the running gags that has survived throughout the whole Monkey Island franchise. He was a little embarrassed because he thought the joke was stupid – throughout the game, Guybrush tries to distract people by saying “look behind you – a three-headed monkey!” Ron apparently came up with the saving grace for the joke. Late in the game, when you’re trying to escape from some cannibals, it turns into a crying wolf scenario – an actual three-headed monkey creeps up behind the cannibals, who refuse to turn around. It’s one of the funniest moments in the game.
Not-Tim recommended table reads of the script and scratch tracks (where you record temporary voice-over before doing final commits with your talent in the studio).
This panel was a very, very good idea, and it packed the room. i hope to see more like these at future shows.
Play for Free, Pay for Stuff: Virtual Goods go BOOM!
Another Daniel James session, this time with a noticeably absent Matt Mihaly. Daniel asked everyone to refrain from tweeting/blogging during the session, so that the room would feel more comfortable sharing and dishing juicy stuff. There weren’t too many revelations, regardless, unless you count the fact that a certain popular Facebook game cashes out its players with cocaine, and that one famous game company accepts the blood of Christian babies as payment for virtual goods. Otherwise, nothing too terribly exciting.
Here are some tools and services recommended during the session:
- the Electronic Frontier Foundation has some lawyers who may take your case for free if you’re caught in a DMCA take-down. He recommended becoming a member.
- KissMetrics, Kontagent, MixPanel and RJ Metrics were all mentioned as metrics solutions.
Metaphysics of Game Design
Industry pal Jimothy McGinley tipped me off that this session was mysteriously named, there was no write-up about it in the conference calendar, and that buzz was going around the conference floor that it was some sort of announcement or surprise superstar appearance. The buzz was right: out popped Will Wright, designer of the smash hit title SimCopter (among others).
The game that launched a thousand imitators.
Will’s talk was a little unfocused and scattershot. He made some interesting points along the way, but nothing really gelled for me into a concrete “do this, and be awesome” takeaway. i’ve gone through my notes and pulled a few interesting things out of them, but nothing really stabbed me in the brain.
Will predicts that Facebook games will soon account for a quarter of the market.
He’s had a number of people come up to him and ask if he can help them make x more game-like. He said that people are starting to see game techniques and theory as if they’re MSG – they can just sprinkle a dash on anything they’re doing to make it more fun. Will’s revised acronym: May Seem Game-like.
In one of his more interesting batch of slides, he talked about the digital footprint that people leave behind. A few hundred years ago, a person’s data footprint might have been a few entries in census records, accounting for about 1k.
A hundred years after that, someone might have left behind journals or memoirs consisting of about 100k worth of data.
The persistent record from someone a hundred years after that, in the 19th Century, might comprise a box of letters – maybe 1MB.
In the 20th Century, Will’s folks kept a box of photos, which accounted for maybe 100MB worth of data.
Today, we have maybe 10GB of data on about ourselves on the Internatz, and going forward, that might balloon to 1TB. It’s funny to think that your great-great-grandkids may one day be able to look up vids of you flashing your titties on March Break in Ft. Lauderdale. Personally, i think the Zombie Apocalypse will wipe everything out before it ever comes to that. But could you IMAGINE having a searchable record where you could see great-great-grandma Flora with her funbags out during a wild party in an American Civil War barracks?
All-teen upskirt Confederate hotties $9.95/mo
They say history is written by the winners. i think that now, history is being written by whoever has the most blog entries.
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