The Best and Worst of GDC 2010

All week, i’ve been blogging about the 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Here’s the coverage:

  • Bonus! Flash Gaming Summit
  • Tuesday – Scaling Farmville, Fantastic Contraption, and Push Button Labs
  • Wednesday – Quality of life, tips from Ninjabee, virtual goods, Agile/Scrum, social games, indie rants
  • Thursday – Kids’ talk breakfast, Zynga/Farmville, game studio start-ups, the danger (?) of achievements, IGF/Game Developers Choice Awards
  • Friday – Sid Meier, love in gaming, Gameageddon, and party night
  • Saturday – Tim Schafer, Will Wright, Walt Disney and American Civil War porn

And now, my awards for the best and worst stuff that i saw at the conferences.

Best Bidness Card

Last year, my Best Bidness Card award went to to Mark Morris from Introversion Software, creators of Darwinia and Multiwinia, who had the deets stamped on a metal card. This year, my hat’s off to Greg Wohlwend from MikeNGreg.com, whose company logo and email are etched onto a wooden chip:

MikenGreg's Wooden Bidness Card

It’s true: Greg Wohlwend ACTUALLY gave me wood.

i’m glad i took a picture of this thing as soon as i got it, because i discovered it makes a great slug for the Feed Big Bertha game at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Feed Big Bertha

Meet Greg, and play the greatest game in the whole wide world for FREE.

i’m not necessarily endorsing the work of these companies, but i figure the money spent on a pricey bidness card should at least be worth a mention on some dude’s blog.

Best Panhandler

Last year, dog cat rat took the prize. This year, i have to give it to this horny, chain-smoking golden retriever, who just wanted money for a lapdance.

horny dog

i have to admit now, before man and God, that “rank roo” converted me to a paying customer.

Once again, to quote Chris Rock: “If a homeless guy has a funny sign, he hasn’t been homeless very long.”

Best Session

i’ve seen a lot of conference talks in my life. The best ones are those which:

  • tell me something i don’t know
  • are well-presented, with slides that make sense after the session
  • provide me with information that i can immediately put to use on my projects

Amitt Mahajan nailed all of these points with Rapidly Developing FARMVILLE: How We Created and Scaled a #1 FaceBook Game in 5 Weeks. He showed slides of the game’s server architecture, introduced me to new concepts (the game doesn’t run on databases? that’s crazytalk!), and provided tips and techniques (like caching FaceBook API calls, and outright turning them on and off via an external config file) that i could put into effect TOMORROW. Amitt’s talk and a few others made the educational portion of the trip worth the time and effort.

Farmville

The secret to Farmville is the whatever-that-guy-called-it.

i know some of you will say that you can sniff out talks like these online, but i lack the discipline, motivation and attention span to actually hunt down the best talks, and then WATCH them in a grainy, badly-lit camcorder video. It doesn’t beat being there.

Worst Session

i’m amazed that the “this is my company and here’s what we built” style of session is alive and well, because i HATE being trapped in a conference room hearing about how awesome some other company is, with no actionable items that will enable me to be just as awesome.

This year, Sean Murray delivered From Big Studio to Small Startup: Guerilla Tactics from Hello Games. i’ll concede that their game, Joe Danger, looks great, and is well-deserving of its IGF nomination. The big revelation was that all of the games artwork was produced by one guy . So the only discernable take-away was “our artist is is a super-human freak, so go be like him”. That’s a lousy take-away. “Go home and build yourself a time machine and become immortal so that you can develop a horrifying amount of art assets in the span of a few months.” Roger that, Hello Games. i’ll get right on it.

Joe Danger

i wish Joe Danger had warned me how risky this session would be. Isn’t that his job?

Best (Worst?) Photo of Me Being an Idiot

This one:

sausage

Best Conversation

A knife fight nearly broke out at lunch, as some of the Toronto posse and i grabbed some grub at a high-end mall foodcourt. Jimmy McGinley, one of the co-organizers of TOJam, the Toronto indie game jam (where we created Two by Two, Here be Dragons and Bloat.! Shameless plug!), was all fired up about something.

During the conference, Michelle Obama’s handlers announced a game development challenge called Games to Make Fat Kids Not Be So Fat No More (i’m guessing at the title, but i think i’m pretty close). Forty members of the game industry were flown down to Washington to give their opinion (and perhaps blessing?) on the initiative. A few days later, the conference ran a video during the Game Developers Choice award urging the game developers present to get involved and enter the contest, the entries of which must utilize the government’s new caloric content database. Many of the people i spoke to thought that this had been an extremely dry Mega64 parody video, and didn’t get the punchline.

Mega64

Michelle Obama and that fat guy from Mega64: separated at birth?

It weren’t no joke, friends. American kids are actually that fat. Jimmy, seething with nerdrage, facetiously suggested that TOJam’s theme this year should be Games to Make Fat Kids Not Be So Fat No More. He resented the government’s interference, and the tacit implication that video games actually caused kids to be fat. He suggested that we all earnestly build games for the America-only contest, to prove once and for all that no video game can make fat kids skinny.

i took the opposing position. Having made my fair share of advergames at a kids’ teevee broadcaster, shilling everything from high-fructose corn syrup lunch buddies to cereal-coated sugar, i actually agree that video games are part of the childhood obesity problem. i don’t think they’re at the root of it, but to be fair, you can surely pin a few pounds on the industry. i also believed that the industry SHOULD earnestly try to rise to the challenge. Year after year, i hear game developers at various conferences spout off about how revolutionary the game industry is, how it can be a force for good and positively influence behaviour. But make fat kids skinny? No way, Obama! You ask too much.

fat kid

i’m not sure if Project Natal’s field of view goes that wide.

Dear game industry: it’s time to put up, or shut up. Either games can influence behaviour, or they can’t. They either are effective for education and corporate training, or they’re not. They either do cause violence and aggressive behaviour, or they don’t. They either can make fat kids skinny, or they cannot.

What video games can definitely NOT do is be all things to all people. If they influence behaviour, they can’t influence ONLY desirable behaviour, and call in an alibi in the event of unwanted behaviour. Can video games be an incredible force for social change, or not? A challenge like this, whatever the intent, will definitely bear out the truth. So either make a game that is clinically proven to make fat kids skinny, or stop your yapping and climb of your social change high horse.

High Horse

Games can do ANYTHING! Until you ask them to!

It’s like the Farmville debate. i’ve been hearing the casual games pundits jabber for YEARS about how much they want to create an addictive game experience. Then Zynga comes along and builds a game so addictive that it’s essentially a crack-coated slot machine that you inject into your neck veins, and the industry cries foul. My hunch is it’s because the critics aren’t vacuuming in those millions of dollars.

The debate was friendly, spirited, and waged over the most delicious bowl of wonton noodle soup i’ve ever had. A number of the other Toronto game developers joined in the fray, and i think one of them limped home with a pair of chopsticks jammed into his eyeball, but it was all in good fun. Except for that guy.

Total caloric content of my wonton noodle soup: 850 calories. (Now where the f*ck is Wii Fit … ?)

Best Chance Encounter

Me: Who are you and what do you do?

Him: i’m a game developer. We worked on this. (Pulling a large, outdated PC game box out of his bag and handing it to me)

Me: (in spite of myself) Shudder.

Him: Yeah, i know. It’s a little old, but we’re trying to drive a few more sales for it.

Me: (taking a closer look at the large, outdated graphics on the large, outdated box, and thinking that i’ve caught him in a blatant rip-off) Hmmm … these levels look a lot like the ones in that old Atari game, Crystal Castles.

Him: (chuckling) That’s because i made Crystal Castles.

Crystal Castles

Bentley Bear: a criminally under-used video game mascot, from one of my favourite arcade-era games.

The magic of GDC! Try having THAT happen to you while you surf for free conference slides in your gotch.

Best Publicity Stunt

This one goes to Capcom for its Zombrex campaign. If you stopped off at their booth, a nurse would inoculate you against the impending zombie plague. When you were done, she’d tape a Zombrex bandage to your arm, and send you on your way with a zombie plague prevention poster, and a second dose of Zombrez, which was a ball-point pen disguised as a syringe.



My “nurse” had her schtick down cold. When i asked if, like all vaccines, Zombrex contained a tiny element of the zombie plague, she said “Of course… that’s what a vaccine is.” i assume this is the impetus for the outbreak in Capcom’s upcoming Dead Rising 2.

This is my industry pal Adam Clare getting his shot:

Adam Clare

(he cried like a little bitch after i turned off the camera)

When i left the booth with my poster, my pen, and a subtle but nagging urge to feast on the flesh of the living as one of the reanimated souls wrenched from the clutches of damnation. But the feeling wore off after a while.

Best Food

BRAAAAAAAAAAAAINS!

… just kidding. There was this great-looking Mexican restaurant that i had been avoiding the whole trip, because it was really close to the convention center, which is a red flag for me meaning “terrible value”. But on the last night of the show, the Toronto crew and i wound up there, after the cable car was cancelled and we couldn’t find a ridiculously cliché way to get to In n’ Out Burger.

cable car

Little-known fact: NO San Francisco native grabs on to the back of this thing when he’s rushing to get to his glamorous job at the newspaper, and he’s in love with “one heck of a dame”.

It was at the Mexican restaurant that i had the most delicious spicy meatball soup, and ate my weight in thin, crisp tortilla chips with two kinds of salsa and a bowl of guacamole, which i’m led to understand is made from iguanas thrown through a wood chipper. It was the first time in a long time that i’d been to a Mexican restaurant staffed with actual Mexicans instead of Chinese, and i think that made all the difference. They lost points for not having any piña coladas, but lemmie tell you, my piña was plenty colada’d by the time i finished that amazing meal. (“piña” means “cock”, right?)

Worst Game Idea

i have to hand it to Kim Swift, who had the entire room enthralled because she was the game designer behind a game called Portal, which i believe is about holes. She had the room further entranced, if only by abject depression, with her game concept for You’ve Just Been Given Two Months to Live, so Start Crying, Adam Clare. (i’m guessing at the name, but i think i’m pretty close.)

death

Q: How do you control your character? A: You don’t.

Kudos to Kim for being the only panelist during the Game Design Challenge to make an honest attempt at tackling the subject matter, “real-world permadeath”, head-on. But MAN, what a rotten game. i feel so passionately about it that i’ve earmarked an entire article to discuss her panel. Set your watches.

Best Schwag

Free Google Nexus One Android phone. Close runner-up: light-up bouncy ball from Hi-5.

Nexus One

Sure it’s great, but does it bounce around the room when you throw it? (“No”, as i discovered.)

Worst Flight Time

7:15 AM on a Sunday morning, the day after the conference, after i begged a 2:30 AM wake-up call from my hotel, and the $15 airport shuttle wouldn’t pick me up that early, so i had to hire a $45 town car and tip the guy another $10 (i could build, like, three games on a $45 budget). All this in the middle of DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME, which i narrowly missed hearing about. And the Air Canada check-in booth didn’t open until 5:30, even though i got there an hour earlier, and the flight crew punched everyone in the sack on their way into the airplane. And they’re STILL not giving out free baggies of salted nuts.

nuts

Salted nuts have been nixed in an effort to reduce costs, and customer satisfaction.

But somewhere in the world, a malnourished toddler just died from a mosquito bite, so i’ll probably be alright.

14 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of GDC 2010

  1. Ryan

    Can you link the Crystal Castles guy’s site or game? I play that game everytime I goto Barcade, and LOVE it.

    Reply
  2. Mark

    I’m starting to think Zynga won the 2009 “game-making” game and all the flack they’re getting is from people who lost that same game, or at least didn’t win as much as Zynga did.

    Reply
  3. n0wak

    Or, you know, the on-record admission of shady and nefarious behaviour, at the expense of its ‘users’, as admitted to by the company’s founder

    “I knew that i wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed revenues, right, fucking, now. Like I needed revenues now. So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I dont know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it. *laughs* We did anything possible just to just get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business…So control your destiny. So that was a big lesson, controlling your business. So by the time we raised money we were profitable.”



    Reply
  4. Iain

    Thanks for all your great posts! It was like being there, only funny. By the way, when are we going to be invited back on Joseph’s podcast? I can tell you’ve got a lot more ammo up there.

    Reply
  5. Jimmy McRegular

    Great entry (as always). I think video games can and do influence people just like movies, tv, books, music and visual art. I also think that video games are part of the obesity problem just like movies, tv, books, music and visual art.

    Kids already know they shouldn’t eat bad food. Kids already know they should exercise more. A game doesn’t need to teach them that.

    A video game needs to teach kids not to play it so much (so kids go outside and exercise more). The better the anti-obesity game, the more time the kid spends playing it, thereby defeating the purpose. This initiative (especially considering the restrictions) appears to be more about legitimizing the games industry (we’re not just making kids fat) rather than address the real problem. Kids need to play less games, eat better food, watch less TV, watch less movies, read less books, and draw less art

    This initiative is like Coke sponsoring the Olympics. It makes Coke seem like a healthy product that helps society, rather than an awesome sugary drink that must be taken in moderation.


    Other Thoughts

    They couldn’t send the IT guy in person? They couldn’t get Michelle to record a 5 minute video? Would the Oscars play a 5 minute video from a cinematographer saying “Make a film that teaches kids healthy eating habits”. How seriously are they really taking games as a force for good/change?

    Are there TV / Book / Movie / Music and Art initiatives? They have a better chance of targeting PARENTS, who really have the power to fix their kids lifestyles. i.e. One commercial saying “If your kid is fat, it’s your fault” will probably do more than any game targeted at children could. A game that targets parents won’t work since many parents don’t play games yet (sad but true).

    Why handcuff game designers to a crappy XML database featuring steak and cappacino entries? ARGs don’t qualify? That’s the best chance for exercise. Is hardware allowed? I’d be hooking up real bikes and treadmills to games, but requirements only specify software which is odd. There appears to more concern about justifying the money spent on the XML database, rather than creating a game that truly helps solve obesity.

    Why does the database contain only 1000 entries, and no information on the bad foods kids eat daily? Where is Kraft dinner? Doritos? Kit Kat? i.e. Anything being heavily advertised to kids daily. The entries are designed for adults, not kids. i.e. Can a kid distinguish between a steak and lean steak? Are kids doing the grocery shopping?


    My Game: “Your parents are nice but they’re killing you.”

    Player is sitting at the supper table and busy Mom & Dad keep bringing player fatty food (pulled from the XML database). Player can either eat the food (making parents happy) or reject the food (making parents very angry).

    If player keeps eating, he eventually has a heart attack. High score is your weight at death.

    If player keeps rejecting, player is eventually kicked out of the house while screaming “Mom & Dad, you’re KILLING ME!”. Screen goes black. Not eligible for high score.

    Reply
  6. Bwakathaboom

    The problem is that once it’s a political issue, lazy thinking becomes the rule of the day.

    I’m reminded of an Ontario anti-drug program where the rocket scientists in charge decided the three most pressing issues were heroin, ecstasy and WEED! I chewed the corner off my desk after I read that! By their own numbers the twin plagues in Ontario are meth and prescription drugs (vast majority Oxycontin) and they were completely left out of the literature in favour of the standard EASY targets, even when one of those targets is in the process of being decriminalized.

    As long as video games are new and scary they’ll be blamed for all of society’s ills. Better to just say games make you fat than to, I dunno, regulate the amount of fat, salt and bizarre chemicals allowed in lunchables advertised to kids on YTV every 15 minutes. Or why the new movie theaters offer deep fried chicken fingers, rum smoothies and double-wide reclining seats.

    Reply
  7. Mike Vargas

    I know exactly what you mean about the type of talk that Hello Games gave, but I have to say, if that’s the worst you saw, you’re doing pretty well. There were some ABYSMAL talks in the Independent Games Summit this year. I was left wondering what the hell they even thought they were doing; they had an extraordinary opportunity handed to them, and they didn’t just blow it, they took a giant dump on it.

    My favorite talk was probably by David Whatley of GeoDefense fame in the iPhone Summit. It was exactly what I’d like out of a GDC talk of his sort. Helpful, concrete information, advice and statistics combined with a healthy dose of inspiration and humor.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Mike – thanks for the recommendation! i’ll definitely check that one out when (if?) it shows up in the vault.

      Reply
    2. Ryan

      Mike – (i heard that a certain talk by a certain Indie involving a certain director of Blue Velvet was utter junk, and had certain people i know hopping mad about the enormous waste of time it was to listen to him.)

      Reply
  8. Adam Clare

    I swear, those zombie needles hurt! I just hope that I don’t have to play Kim’s game, but if I do at least I can die comfortably knowing I’ll never become a zombie.

    Reply
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