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.
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.
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.
If a scene like this breaks out in the middle of your kids’ virtual world, you’re busted.
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)
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.
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.
Make a few smart changes to the way you work, and you’ll be swingin’ pipe in no time
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.
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.