Tag Archives: GDC

Holding the Bag: How I Gamed GDC’s Top Social Game Developers

When i circled the Social Game Developers Rant in my GDC schedule as a must-see session, i had no idea that i’d wind up improvising my own rant in front of the thousands of attendees. The story of how that happened is an interesting study in the attitudes of the game industry’s top iconic figures, and how their influence flavours the way the rest of us see the social games space.

Game Developers Rant

Image from last year’s rant unceremoniously ganked from Jason Della Rocca’s blog and used here without permission.

Respect is Earned

“No F@%$ucking Respect! Social Game Developers Rant Back” was held in one of the largest spaces at the Game Developers Conference: room 3014 in the West Hall, which seats roughly a billion people. The lunch time session promised informed, thought-provoking and entertaining rants from a line-up of the usual suspects:

  • Ian Bogost, wry academic and creator of the Cow Clicker parody of social games
  • Brenda Brathwaite, opinionated champion of (sometimes manipulatively) emotional games
  • Trip Hawkins, a cool and collective business maven who happened to found Electronic Arts
  • Chris Hecker, game graphics guru and indie advocate
  • Steve Meretsky, best known to me for his work in interactive fiction back in the day
  • Brian Reynolds, comparitively mild-mannered designer of some pioneering 4x games (and token Zynga panelist)
  • Scott Jon Siegel, a Playdom designer who was billed as the panel’s youngster, but who actually had more experience in social games than anyone else on the panel (a point he made abundantly clear in a loud, fast-paced, and HILARIOUS “bonus rant”, my favourite moment in the whole session)

Floating in the background was Jason Della Rocca, former IGDA chief who, i should point out, knows me. Moderating the panel was the equal-parts energetic and abrasive Eric Zimmerman.

Pay to Play

As i entered the room, a CA (volunteer “conference associate” who checks badges and collects session feedback forms) was handing everyone a plastic coin from an orange bag. i was intrigued, and rubbed the ersatz booty between my fingers while the first delegates slowly trickled in. A slide on the A/V screen explained the point of the coins: the person who collected the most coins from the other players in the room by the halfway point of the session would be invited to the front to do a “guest rant” on social games.


i didn’t really want to rant, dear readers … but i DID want to win the game. i looked around the room at the hundred-or-so delegates and quickly calculated the amount of glad-handing and baby-kissing i’d have to do to amass enough coins to win. i knew i was up against the likes of Jane McGonigal, who despite being featured in two or three other GDC panels and talks that week AND a recent Colbert Report episode was nonetheless salivating over the chance to grab the mic yet again. i knew i was no match for Jane’s celebrity, eagerness, and feminine wiles. What chance did a chubby nobody with lunch stuck in his teeth have against a Colbert alum?

Clearly, my only recourse was to use social engineering to win the social game.

The Game Was Afoot

i strode back to the entrance, to where the deliciously young and impressionable CA was handing out the coins. In an urgent voice, i said “Excuse me! Chris Hecker, one of the panelists, said he only really wants about half the room to get these coins. He sent me to get the bag and run it up to him at the front of the room.”

Then, with no skepticism or suspicion, the CA pleasantly purred “sure,” and handed me the bag.


He HANDED me the bag. The bag with all the coins. i had all the coins.

My heart racing, i rushed back to my seat at the other end of the cavernous room. i have never shoplifted before. i’ve never possessed an illicit substance. i’m known to my small segment of the industry as being unfailingly honest, often to my detriment. And here, through the uncharacteristic use of cunning and deceit, i had snatched the entire bag of plastic coins that GDC’s social games industry powerhouses needed to run their social game. i tried to judge how best to cram the coins into my body cavity to hide them, and decided instead to furtively stuff the bag into my backpack before giddily awaiting the coming storm.

A Vote for Jane

Meanwhile, my impromptu nemesis Jane McGonigal had started campaigning for coins. At that time, she apparently didn’t have a rant idea either – she, like me, just wanted the coins. She came closer to my row, and appealed to the crowd to give her their coins. i, mad with secret power, tried to look casual as i turned to face her in my seat and said “you’re not gonna win.”

“Why not?” she said, annoyed. This was Jane McGonigal, after all. Why wouldn’t she win?

“Because i’m gonna win.” It was a bold claim from a guy casually kicking back in his seat, surrounded by delegates who still had their coins. Deciding not to waste any more time on my cryptic claims (which were just my misguided attempt at good-natured smacktalk), she spun around to bring her coin campaign to the delegates in other rows.

The Jig Was Up

Meanwhile, at the front of the room, i heard either Jason or Eric snap “what do you mean someone stole the bag??” Oh crap. The doe-eyed CA, realizing he’d been duped, started scanning the rows of seats for me, patrolling them like a prison warden. i kept my head low and stared at my backpack on the floor – the very backpack that burned with ill-gotten gold. Soon, my pretties … soon, it would all be mine.


i exhaled heavily when the rants finally started. Only about an eighth of the attendees had actually received coins (thanks to me), but Eric never let on. He cheerily explained the rules a few more times, never letting on what had happened, and then the ranting began. Panelists after panelist took to the mic to plead their cases on the validity of social games. At the halfway point, Eric announced that it was time to learn the results of the game: who in the room had collected the most coins from the other players?

A few murmurs of “i have five coins” and “i’ve got a couple” kicked things off. Jane McGonigal jumped up and proudly presented her handful. Eric seemed pleased that the winner was someone he knew and could trust not to be an ass on the mic.

And then i stood up.

On the chair.

And, holding the orange plastic bag aloft like Perseus presenting the head of Medusa, defiantly proclaimed “I HAVE THE ENTIRE BAG.”


It was exactly like this, except that i had pants on. …. and i have a much bigger cock.

The room erupted. Some people laughed. Some jeered. Some guffawed. i was beaming, incredibly pleased with myself, like a toddler who’s just learned to take off his own diaper. i fully expected Eric and the other panelists to smile along with me. Aha! We are social gamers, this was a social game, and somehow this delegate had managed to convince, through social contrivance, the impressionable CA to hand him the bag of coins.

It recalled the massive coup in the MMO Eve Online, in which social maneuvering led to a devastating take-over of one of the game’s most powerful cabals.

Taking Crayons, Going Home

Through my squinty smile, i scanned the faces of Jason, Eric, and the panelists. It was not a pretty sight. They were scowling. Actually scowling. “You took the whole bag?” they said, disgusted.

“Well … yeah!”

“That was against the rules, though.” This last came soberly. “It was against the RULES.” Zimmerman petulantly wagged a finger at the slide.

“No it wasn’t. It was a social game, and i gamed it socially. The CA handed me the bag.”

“B… but you have to get the coins from other players.”

A hurried debate broke out about whether or not the CA was a player, and whether or not i had taken the coins “legally”. My interpretation of the rules was that the player with the most coins wins, and i had the most coins. Someone else spoke up and said “We don’t even know he has any coins, though. He’s just holding a plastic bag. He might not have ANY coins.”

The weight of the coin bag pressed heavily against my palm. i was irked. Not only did the bag contain coins, but it contained nearly ALL the coins – enough for the hundreds in attendance and then some. And they were MY coins. Not only was i denied my hero’s welcome and a pomp-filled invite to the front of the room … now i was being accused of CHEATING, and worse … of not even having all the coins.

Someone in the audience shouted out “Who do you think you are – Zynga??” The crowd laughed.

“Show us,” said someone on the panel. “Show us the coins you supposedly collected.”

My fist tightened on the orange plastic bag. Through knitted eyebrows, i raised the bag over my head and showered myself in a cascade of gleaming, glittering plastic coins. It was like that scene from Flashdance, except with a chubby fully-dressed nerd instead of half-naked Jennifer Beals. When the torrent of winnings finally dripped dry, i casually tossed the empty bag on the coin-littered floor and held my hands out plaintively to appease the room.

Eric spun to address the panelists. “What do you think? Should we let this CHEATER do a guest rant?” To a man, every single one of the panelists gave me a thumbs down.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til It’s McGonigal

i had been robbed. And Jane McGonigal, flaxen-haired upholder of the game creators’ true intent, was named the winner.

Stephen Colbert vs. Jane McGongical


Jason J Kee Twitter

During the session, a few Twitter friends rushed to my defense.

Two twists in this story came one after the other: Jane was invited up to speak, and brought two friends with her. i later learned that the organizers considered this a cheat as well. In another unexpected turn, Eric came up to me during the rants and mouthed “Do you still wanna say something?” i mouthed “Sure.” Then he mouthed “Okay, but keep it to ten words or less. TEN WORDS. Ten.” He held up ten fingers. “Ten.”

“Sure – okay.” i nodded. Had he actually said what i thought he’d said? He was going to let me do a rant? And he wanted me to keep it to ten words? What could i possibly say in ten words??

10 Things i Hate About You

In Ten Words

Eric stayed true to his promise. Just before the final ranter, Ian Bogost, took to the stage, Eric announced that “in the spirit of mischief”, he was going to let me do a SPECIAL MINI-RANT. The key word, of course, was “mini”. i jogged up to the front and grabbed the mic, then turned around to face the enormous crowd.

Woodstock crowd

i looked at Eric’s eager face, at his pleading eyes, and remembered his rule: ten words or less. i felt the metal of the microphone that had been burned up, spat in, and blessed by the panelists before me. And as Eric made the hand-over-hand “hurry up” motion frantically from the front of the room, i decided to break another rule. i gripped the mic and said to myself “from my cold dead hand, Zimmerman.” And then i proceeded to rant for as long as i damn well pleased.

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison

Sing it, Jim.

Given the same opportunity, what would you say? What kind of rant could you improvise in front of a room stuffed with some of the most talented and well-known game developers in the business, and at GDC, the Mecca of your industry? The scheduled panelists had months to write and practice their rants. i had moments. Predictably, nothing i said was particularly Earth-shattering, but the point i tried to get across was this:

We like to brag about how the games industry brings in more money than the film industry, but as soon as someone like Zynga makes enough money to trigger our envy, we invent interpretations of the game rules to say it’s not okay. Zynga is standing on a chair in the middle of a crowded room showering itself with coins, and instead of applauding them for their ingenuity, we’re crying foul and pointing to the ways in which they’ve broken the “rules”.

Meanwhile, we are breaking the very same rules: the addictive qualities of Facebook social games can be found throughout all our games. i talked about how i had skipped three real-world Hallowe’en parties to stay home and collect the spooky furniture set in Animal Crossing, and how i had spent an ungodly number of hours chasing after the legendary dogs in Pokemon Silver. In both cases, i had to decide on my own that these games had become a chore rather than a source of fun and entertainment, and i stopped playing them.

Animal Crossing

In the amount of time i spent playing Animal Crossing, i could have MADE Animal Crossing.

But this is a case of the pot calling the kettle addictive. Zynga is no more culpable for introducing addictive hooks in games than any other developer. At GDC, years before Zynga’s triumph, the Casual Games Summit speakers all talked about how they needed to make their games more addictive. One of the most popular and profitable game portals for tweens, AddictingGames.com, makes absolutely no bones about it.

Jane McGonigal bent the rules to bring her buddies up to share her rant time, but her shenanigans were sanctioned by the industry guard. i, a relative newcomer, bent the rules by taking all the coins, was accused of cheating, and was barred entry into the club. Tellingly, for all the complaining we do about Zynga, their GDC session on developing games for 43-year-old women was standing room only.

For all the spectacle, for all the drama, and for making an enormous ass of myself, i don’t regret a single moment of it. If anything, bucking convention and winning the coin game reminded me that the greatest gains are made by subversion, disruption, and going against the grain.

In short: break the rules, get the coins.

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.


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:


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.


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


… 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.)


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.


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.

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.

Chainsaw bayonet

New from Oral B! Removes plaque, and your face.

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

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:

  1. “Do not bother buying servers in this day and age.” Use a solution like Amazon web services.
  2. Read Eric Ries – www.startuplessonslearned.com – for info on creating a MVP (minimum viable product)
  3. 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

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

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.

Three-Headed Monkey

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:

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.

GDC 2010 – Friday

The second-to-last day of GDC ends in party night. If you’re going to get drunk, make that last deal, or murder a hooker, tonight was the night to do it. i’m staying up super-late to post my thoughts on Day Four of the Game Developers Conference. The free notepad that i picked up at the Flash Gaming Summit on Monday is crammed to its last page. Tomorrow, i’m going to have to start scribbling things on my arm, like that arm-scribbling guy in that movie about the guy who scribbles on his arm.

GDC MicroTalks 2010: Ten Speakers, 200 Slides, Limitless Ideas!

This is my fourth year at the GDC, and i’ve learned by now that there are certain talks you should never miss. The Indie Game Developers Rant, the Game Design Challenge (see below) and the Microtalks are all sessions that people talk about afterward, and if you miss them, it’s hard to be in the conversation. i made sure to catch the Microtalks this morning, along with a few thousand other attendees.

As i learned last year, the Microtalks are hit-and-miss. i won’t mention everyone, but here are a few hits and misses:

Thumbs up!

Kellie Santiago – That Game Company (Flower) – Hit!

Kellie hates playing games online, because of the rude, caustic, sexual harass-tastic talk she’s made to suffer. (i can understand why, her being such a hot foxy bitch and all.) She blames this not on the players, but on the game designers, for not cooking up ways to encourage more constructive, co-operative, touchy-feely, i’m-ok-you’re-ok communication in their games. She cited the New Games Book from the 1970’s, which eschewed traditional organized sports with the new motto “Play Hard, Play Fair, Nobody Hurt.” Earth Ball and Everybody-Sits-Inside-A-Parachute-Together came out of the New Games Movement. Having grown up as a pudgy, unathletic kid, i owe a lot to this book for helping me survive gym class, and i didn’t even realize it. Also, i was AWESOME at parachute.

i found Kellie’s last slide memorable:

ESRB warningI

Thumbs down!

Gary Penn – Miss!

Words! Lots of them! From the dictionary! Coming at you! Fast! Furious! … passion, love, motivation, game, design, source, structure, feel, drama, alive, consistent, twist … obnoxious!

Thumbs up!

Jane Pinckard – Foundation 9 – Hit!

Jane’s talk was on love, and it was a very easily-received message coming from a woman with (as i’ve said in another post) a lovely smile, and a redder-than-Valentine’s-Day dress. (i think that bit was intentional.)

Jane identified three ways she’s seen love expressed or explored in games:

  1. Love as narrative – Final Fantasy VIII. The game was in the service of the love story between the two characters. Jane: “i mean, sure you have to save the world or whatever … ”

    Final Fantasy VIII

    Voulez-vouz roleplay avec moi ce soir?

  2. Love as nurture – Nintendogs.


    The “L” also stands for “love”.

  3. Love as Discovery – Star Wars: Nights of the Old Republic. Jane said that KOTOR has you uncovering the love story. i didn’t make it far enough into the game to experience that, but i hope it didn’t involve any wookies.


Let’s blow this thing and go home!

Jane offered a few tips to foster the exploration/expression of love in games:

  • Make use of adrenaline-filled moments, as in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
  • Let the player express herself, as in World of Warcraft.
  • Allow for vulnerability, as in Ico.
  • Make the object of the player’s affection unique – Jane found that the love interests in Fable II were too samey.

Jane ended on a great note:

I really don’t care about the Citizen Kane of games – I want the Pride and Prejudice of games.

My wife and i each wanted to share an artistic work that held deep personal meaning. She wanted me to read Pride and Prejudice, and i wanted her to play The Secret of Monkey Island. After months of toughing it out on the can with Elizabeth Bennett, having finally finished the book, i checked in to see how my wife was making out: stuck talking to the shopkeeper on Melee Island, near the opening of the game. Sssssuper.

Thumbs down!

Ian Bogost – Miss!

Ian’s point was that once the game leaves the hands of its creator, interpretation is up to the player. His talk was about as challenging and relevant as a footrace with a fish.

Thumbs up!

Margaret Robertson – Hit!

Margaret opened ostensibly with a plug for her new game, the details of which were on a flyer that was placed on every seat in the room. After the audience checked it out, Margarat asked by a show of hands what people were willing to pay for the game. She asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d pay $2.99, $3.99 and $4.99. More people on the right side of the room kept their hands up for $4.99. That’s because Margaret had booby-trapped the fliers … on the left (more frugal) side of the room, the flier listed the release date as April 3rd. On the right side of the room, the release date on the flier was April 28th. 28 is a bigger number, and it subconciously made more people in the right side of the room tolerate a larger price point.

Margaret discussed a few other weird headcases. You’re given a game with three doors. The goal is to open each door until you find which one has the biggest point value behind it, and then you click that door as much as possible to rack up a high score. Researchers found that when they made the other two normal-point doors slowly shrink from the player’s view, the player would click on them to prevent them from disappearing, even though they had nothing to do with the goal of earning a high score. Margaret: “people hurt themselves to keep their options open.”

Here are a few other weird behaviours she shared:

  • People work harder for nothing than they do for pay.
  • People lie more often in response to things written in horrible fonts.

Margaret’s talk tied into one of the most prevalent themes of the conference – player psychology.

Bad Font


Sam Roberts – Meh!

i didn’t take many notes during Sam’s talk, so i must not have found it that interesting. i did prick up my ears at one point when he talked about how subtle changes in messaging can radically change the theme of the game or the motivation of the player. He gave the example of Grand Theft Auto, a game series where you hijack cars and other vehicles. Player intent and motives change radically when the player is comandeering the vehicle, rather than hijacking it.

i don’t play very many mature-rated games, but this is why i did play and enjoy Crackdown. It was sort of GTA lite, but you were taking many similar actions – taking other people’s cars, running down pedestrians, and blowing stuff up. The key difference is that in Crackdown, you play a police officer. You’re scolded by the narrator for harming citizens, and everything you do is in the service of ridding the city of three diabolical crime lords. i’d much rather crack a few eggs to make an omelet in Crackdown, than to crack a few eggs and murder some hookers and kill innocent civilians to boost my rampage score in Grand Theft Auto, with no omelet to show for it.

Grand Theft Auto

Take THAT, moms and dogs!

Thumbs up!

Jesse Schell – Hit!

One of the most talked-about conference sessions i’ve ever heard of is Jesse’s DICE 2010 talk, where he predicted a future where everything we do, from brushing our teeth to educating our kids to doing our jobs, is tied to some kind of game or points system. Chris Hecker criticized Jesse in his Thursday talk on the potentially negative effect of game achievements and rewards. i’ll admit that i haven’t watched Jesse’s DICE talk yet, but i gleaned that the original spirit of it was exuberance. Unless Jesse’s being a revisionist, i’m likely wrong about that; he took to the stage this time to warn of the coming war between we the people, and the evil corporations and governments who want to co-opt game design to control our behaviour. He calls it “Gameageddon.”

Schell put up a slide with a few alarmist examples:

  1. Achievement Unlocked – You drank 1000 Cokes!
  2. Join the American Army, and get a free fortress in World of Warcraft
  3. Smoke 10 packs of Camel cigarettes, and unlock the Bentley in Grand Theft Auto

Jesse’s argument is fun food for thought, but it’s not bulletproof. He claims that unless we’re conscious of the coming Gamepocalypse, we’ll be powerless to stop it. Said Schell, “Did you complain when teevee ads jumped from taking up 16% of programming to 36%? No! You just sat there and let it happen.” Sorry, Jesse … i actually DIDN’T sit there and let it happen. i bought a PVR, fast-forwarded through the commercials, and swiped my favourite HBO shows from a torrent site. Fight the power!

Schell identified four types of soldiers in the Gamepocalypse. There are, in reality, so many more, but whatever. We like lists.

  1. Persuaders: sharky, amoral business types who are only out to make money from games. Zynga/Farmville weren’t mentioned by name, but the reference was strongly implied.
  2. Fulfillers: game designers who live only to fulfill the wishes and dreams of the audience.
  3. Artists: audience be damned! Let’s make a game about what it is to be human, while the audience scratches their collective heads.
  4. Humanitarians: Game designers

Jesse ended his talk by saying “the war is already here. Figure out which side you’re on.”

Thumbs down!

Suzanne Segerman – Miss!

i’ve seen Suzanne’s talk given by many different presenters at many different conference. Thank God she was confined to five minutes – i’ve had to endure this kind of presentation for much longer. Here’s how it goes:

Hey – Bob Dylan’s cool. So is Vonnegut. i like Vonnegut. And uh … M*A*S*H. That was a really good show. And Kubrick. Kubrick is awesome. The Wire, All in the Family, The West Wing – great. Great, great shows.


Oh – and M*A*S*H! Did i mention M*A*S*H? i did? Ok. Still awesome.

Ugh … times like these, i lack the requisite number of faces to palm. Fun fact: i didn’t cough up three thousand dollars to come to a conference to hear about your teevee viewing habits. i’m not particularly concerned about who you think is awesome. The supposed take-away from talks like these is always the same: Dylan was awesome. Go be like Dylan!

Sure thing. That’s what i’ll do. i’ll go home, and i’ll be like Bob Dylan. Because he’s awesome. That was the solution all along – so simple! i was spending all of my time NOT being awesome. i should try to be awesome intead.

In one of the head-shakingest moments during her talk, Suzanne mentioned Al Gore on her list of unassuming but ultimately awesome people, because of An Inconvenient Truth. Suzanne: “he’s now a multi-millionaire.”

Oh – NOW he is? NOW Al Gore, who served as the 45th vice president of the United States of America, is a multi-millionaire? Well, golly. i’m glad that documentary gave him his big break.

Al Gore

Looks like things are gonna turn out alright for this lovable scamp.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Sid Meier, creator of Civilization, packed an enormous room with MOST of the conference attendees to give what was essentially a bush-league talk on the psychology of game design, which featured no actual psychology … just a few anecdotes from Sid. The talk was disappointingly skippable. Anyway, here are a few things i found somewhat interersting (but mostly harmless):

Fudge the math. Sid talked about Civ testers who were upset that they sometimes lost in a battle with 3:1 odds. They were semi-okay with losing in a 2:1 battle, but they didn’t tolerate losing twice in a row. And they felt that in a 20:10 battle, they should win far more often than in a 2:1 battle. The point is that the cold, hard facts of math don’t always jive with what feels right for the player.

Math is hard!

Dur dur etre Barbie

Sid also discussed shortcuts in AAA game development to save money. Two examples he gave were:

  1. Put a black curly moustache on a bad pirate. No need to fill out the guy’s backstory – he’s got a curly black moustache, so he must be evil. (This brought stereotyping and racism to my mind.)
  2. Describe things through text. If those things mesh with what the player wants to believe, you can save yourself some work. In his example from Civilization Revolution, a text prompt says that to show his respect for you, the Sultan of Zanzibar has delivered a caravn of dancing bears. There are no dancing bears in the game – building, texturing and animating them would be too expensive. But since the player, as a world leader, accepts that foreign leaders should be sending him gifts, they don’t have to explicitly depict that through art and animation. The places where they DO have to spend more time on that stuff are where they have a harder time convincing the player of a certain concept or outcome.

Black Guy

Save money on game development! No need for a backstory – this guy’s clearly a crack dealer.

Game Writers’ Roundtable

Daniel James’s virtual goods session was packed, so i ducked into the writers’ roundtable to workshop a few ideas i had for Spellirium. There were a few heavy-hitters in the room who had worked on some very big games, but the vocal minority were a few students, who would have been wiser to sit back and listen rather than chiming in. But as someone with a huge mouth who was once young (and still is, in many ways), i am careful to extend grace to young upstarts. It’s been extended to me more often than i deserve it.

The conversation was off to a very slow and painful start, with writers bitching about how managers wouldn’t proof-read their work (boo hoo! where’s the door?) Finally, i asked a specific writing question about my specific game, and it sparked a lot of great conversation about player expectation, determinism vs. free will, moral decision-making in games, and a number of other topics.

There was an old-school Disney guy in the room who had worked on The Curse of Monkey Island (NOT a canonical Ron Gilbert Monkey Island game, but not a terrible game either). He said something interesting about conversation trees: in those adventure games, the main character’s personality is pretty fleshed out in cut-scenes, but they tried to pack the in-game conversation options with many different off-model options. They’d empower the player to sound suave, stupid, snide, urbane, etc.

i had asked specifically about adding a big twist to the narrative that takes the player completely off-guard, and whether that had ever been done, and if it had been done succesfully or ham-fistedly. The room cooked up a lot of great examples from games past and present. One guy talked about a companion technique to the “aha” moment: the “oh shit” moment, where instead of the player discovering that everything he knows is wrong, he instead discovers that everything he knows is on fire. Battlestar Galactica pulled out a number of great “oh shit” moments in its run.

One word of advice from Disney guy, which is SO LucasArts: “never punish a player for doing something fun”.

Space Quest

Sierra: clearly not designing from the same playbook.

Game Developer Challenge: Real-World Permadeath

This was my fourth GDC, and i’ve come to learn that there are certain unmissable sessions that everyone talks about. The Challenge is one of them: a panel of famous game developers presents a game concept based on a difficult, alternative or downright WEIRD concept. In previous years, the challenge had contestants designing a game with a needle and thread interface, and a game around the theme “my first time.” This year’s theme was “real-world permadeath,” a game that involved someone’s actual death.

i have SO MUCH to say about this session that i’m going to save my commentary for a completely separate post. Here’s a sneak preview: game developers are comically insecure about death.

There Will Be Blood

Oh, yes.


Since we were recipients of the OMDC (Optimally Miniaturized Dinky Cars) Export Fund, which pays for half of our trip, we were invited to a special networking dinner on Friday night. A number of well-positioned industry folks were bribed, coereced or blindfolded and thrown into the back of a van before joining us at the event. Not every guest was a good fit for every Ontario company, but i’m sure some good contacts were made.

For my part, i was seated at a table with the head of a triple-A game studio, his bizdev guy, a Hollywood agent representing the games industry, and the head of EA Partners. Apparently Bon Jovi, Stephen Hawking and Jesus couldn’t make it. Just as i suffered the students at the writers’ workshop, my tablemates were very gracious to answer my questions about hiring name voice-over talent, and licensing music for games. Thanks so much!

After Dinner

i headed over to the nearby Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates, Whirled) offices expecting something like the insane bacchanal of three years ago, when the company set up a slip n’ slide slicked with whiskey, and a guy got beheaded in the elevator. (Party hearsay always beats the real thing.) This year’s party (at the behest of their landlord) was far more subdued, but i’ll never miss a chance to visit the fabulously-designed nautical steampunk Three Rings office.

Three Rings Office

20 000 leagues under the deadline.

i got back to my hotel room at two in the morning and immediately started blogging the day in service of you, dear reader … but my hotel Internet connection was knocked out, and after a half an hour, so was i.

GDC 2010 – Thursday

GDC plods on! i have moments when i can’t stomach meeting a single new person, and others where i get nervous about not making the most of my days here. i’m back in the hotel room chilling and blogging, so that i can be up at 7:30 tomorrow morning for a breakfast with fellow kids’ game developers.


Om nom nom nom nom. Breffist!

Here’s what i saw today:

The 4 Most Important Emotions for Social Games

* view the slides here! *

Nicole Lazzaro (@nicolelazzaro) is a psychologist and games industry consultant who’s been around for quite a while. She has studied emotion in games, and based on her findings, has split fun into four categories:

  1. Easy fun – exploration and discovery
  2. Hard fun – overcoming really tough challenges
  3. Serious Fun – high scores, collections, competition
  4. Social Fun – trading, chatting, suprPoking

She found that most of the emotions that players experienced while playing games fall into the “Social Fun” category. She further elaborated on the four emotions that make players share (this lady has a thing for fours, i guess):

  1. Amusement – dancing, teasing, chatting and jokes
  2. Amici (chumminess) – neighbourliness, visiting, people, plants & pets
  3. Amidar (admiration) – ranking, status
  4. Amigro (reciprocity) – mechanisms for players to respond to each other socially

She also has a thing for words that start with “a”, and – apparently – using Italian words when English words will do. A few times during her talk, she’d say something like “the concept i’m trying to describe doesn’t have an equivalent in English, so i’ll use the Italian word, ‘casa’.” (um … lady, i think you mean “house.”)


There’s just no possible way i can describe it – i’ll just have to be pretentious.

It all came off as sort of elitist and obnoxious, and got under my skin. i really got annoyed when Nicole wondered aloud what we have to do to make a game so socially viable and connected that all 6 billion of us on the planet will play it.

It just … does she realize that a significant portion of the world doesn’t have food, let alone electricity, to play her theoretical Facebook game? Here are some facts from WorldVision: 840 million people in the world are hungry. 2.1 billion live on less than $2 a day, and 880 million live on less than $1 a day. 26 000 children die every day from preventable disease – that 9 million kids a year. Games are great and all, but damn, Nicole … the world has different priorities.

Sudanese child

Finishing New Super Mario Bros. Wii: not a priority.

One of the concepts Nicole brought up in her talk played into another talk later in the day. She called it “fiero”, which may very well be an Italian sportscar or gelato flavour, but also describes the burning passion that fills your gut when you finally conquer a difficult challenge, after repeated failed attempts. Remember fiero – it’ll come up later in this article.

Creating Successful Social Games: Understanding Player Behaviour / Developing a Metric Mindset

Speaker Mark Skaggs from Zynga redeemed himself a tiny bit from his very tight-lipped panel at the Flash Gaming Summit on Monday. It’s almost as if GDC was important, and FGS was not, so he weighted most of his efforts to today’s talk. He came off snippy and a bit pompous, but it’s easy to think you’re awesome when you’re wearing underpants woven from the fibers of shredded hundred dollar bills.

dollar bill boxers

i think these are called “munderpants”.

The thrust of Mark’s talk compelled listeners to move toward a “metric mindset”. That means that instead of championing design decisions by making statements like “on my last game, we did it this way” or “i worked hard on this feature and i think players will love it,” or “i’m the boss, so we’ll do it my way,” you move toward a place where you say things like “what do the numbers tell us?” and “thank God we have these numbers!” His point was that numbers would essentially design your game for you.

Mark gave the example of a text link above the game cross-promoting their latest game MafiaFishTown, or whatever. The team thought that red was absolutely the right colour for the link, but they tested a bunch of colours, and found that pink was the best choice. That bit came up again in another talk, so remember that too! Keep reading to find out how this all comes together.

The biggest and most straight-forward take-away from this talk was Mark’s list of what to measure in your games:

  1. How many people install?
  2. How many people make it through the first 5 minutes/past the tutorial?
  3. How many people are playing today?
  4. Do players tell their friends?
  5. Who’s coming back?
  6. Who isn’t?
  7. How much money do players spend in the game?
  8. What do players enjoy doing?

Mark said that instead of trying to answer “what is fun?”, try answering “what do players enjoy doing?”

On the last point, Mark offered the example of Super Berries. The team already knew that players loved planting fast-growing strawberries, so they created a virtual item called SuperBerries. SuperBerries cost more than strawberries, but they gave a 3x return in half the time. The important point is that they chose a strawberry-like skin for the item instead of watermelons or blackberries, because the players liked strawberries. SuperBerries were incredibly successful.

Farmville SuperBerries

“SuperBerries” was also my nickname in high school.


Lunch was sponsored by PlayHaven. Unfortunately, the best thing about this panel was the food. PlayHaven assembled a room and a panel filled with iPhone developers, lawyers, and assorted hangers-on. The panel questions and responses were far too basic for my taste … stuff about how to register your business, the 99 cent race to the bottom in the App Store, and the difference between copyright and trademark.

The one bit i think that was worth mentioning came from someone i noted as “bald guy” – i was too far in the back of the room to hear everybody’s names. (Bald Guy! If you’re reading this, please identify yourself!)

Bald Guy said that the only way you can make money in the App Store is to crack the top 100, and without smart marketing, the only way to do THAT is to spend $50k on AdMob inventory. So if it’s down to marketing, Bald Guy listed the following tools for getting the word out about your iPhone game outside the App Store:

  1. Create a landing page (www.myAwesumiPhoneGame.com). You have a lot more control over it than you do over your game’s App Store page.
  2. Use video (trailers, etc) to promote your game. 53% of visitors click on a video. Bald Guy claimed that having video doubles your conversion rate. (conversion to paid, not to Judaism)
  3. Use PR firms. Lots of firms will do cheap grassroots campaigns for you. (Ryan’s counterpoint: don’t waste your money! The quality of the campaign you get out of these guys for chump change is just as easy to pull off yourself for free)
  4. Involve bloggers, ScoreLoop, OpenFeint, etc.

Crushing the Overhead: Case Study of a Microstudio Start-up

Randy Smith from Tiger Style, creators of Spider, gave this talk. i’m not going to say too much about it, because it made no sense. He might as well have been up there saying “here’s how we made our game: first, i hit myself in the face with a hammer. Then, we made gumdrop shoes and drove a tank into four lighthouses. Finally, dishwasher passion fruit boomerang moustache.”

Rabid seal


i was just mystified during the whole talk. Randy told us about how he got laid off from his job at EA and decided to make a game. He emailed a bunch of people to ask if they wanted to work on a game with him for free, and they said “yes”. He didn’t draw up any legal contracts, but wrote all the contracts himself. He gave everyone royalty points based on how many hours a week they pulled on the project. Some people did 2.5 hours a week. Everyone telecommuted. If something didn’t get done because people flaked out on him, he or his partner did it themselves. When the game turned a $300k+ profit, everyone got paid at the same rate – artists and programmers alike. Dishwasher passion fruit boomerang moustache. i left with my head spinning.

As long as i’m being contentious, i may as well take exception to something Randy said:

“We’re good business people, not evil try-to-get-rich business people.”

i hope Randy’s distinguishing here between trying to get rich, and trying to earn a living. i have a wife, two children, a mortgage, and a diabolical cocaine habit. i make no apologies for trying to be profitable in my bidness.

Little Hands, Foul Moods, and Runny Noses 3: Research for Developing Kid-Friendly Social Gaming Experiences

i saw Carla’s talk last year, and actually preferred it to this one. There was a bit of repeat here, like the term “prosocial”, which means “not being a dick.” It’s the concept of doing something for someone else even when you don’t profit. Carla offered a few interesting points about prosocial behaviour and gaming:

  • Young people who play aggressive games (Face-Stabber 4: The Stabbening, etc) donate less than prosocial game players
  • When presented with a story starter like “An old lady came to a crosswalk, and …” young adults who play prosocial games finish the story in prosocial ways, like “An old lady came to a crosswalk, and a kindly young gentleman helped her across the street”, instead of “An old lady came to a crosswalk, and bitch got FACE-STABBED, yo!!”

i admit i drifted off with most of Carla’s presentation … a lot of heavy slides came up with stuff like “kids between the ages of whatever and whatever like co-play in groups of like-gendered individuals, while kids of gendered play-co prosocial prefer harmonizing trade agreements passive repsonse play dishwasher passion fruit boomerang moustache.” There’s only so much GDC i can take.

Still, i hope to make it to Carla’s breakfast tomorrow morning, if only to brag about my four-year-old daughter, who can do a lot of the things that Carla said 4-year-olds can’t do during the session question period. Yes, there IS a great game that a parent and child can play together: Super Mario Galaxy. (Daddy does all the running and jumping while his little girl collects star bits with the second controller) Yes, 4-year-olds CAN understand asynchronous play – my daughter gets Fishville gifts from her Facebook friends all the time, and seems to grasp the concept.

Achievements Considered Harmful?

The most provocative and best talk of the day, and the one that the Nicole and Mark talks led up to, was this session by Chris Hecker. Chris C’d his A at the beginning of the talk by defensively pointing out that psychological studies are fallible, and went on to talk about research that suggests that rewarding people to do stuff is a bad idea.

To put it simply, if i give you a tchotchke for doing something – a gold star, an achievement, a paycheque – you’re less likely to be motivated to do that thing again. If you pay people to wear their seat belts, they’re less likely to wear their seat belts when they’re not being paid. If you reward people for trying new foods, they’re less likely to eat those foods again. If you praise or reward someone for doing a puzzle, he’s more likely to seek out a different activity than to continue doing the puzzle.

The researchers tested out all kinds of different types of rewards. Here are a few:

  • tangible/symbolic (achievements, candy, money) vs. verbal
  • expected vs. unexpected
  • informational (“you killed 5 orcs”) vs controlling (“you killed 5 orcs, just as you ought to”)
  • dull tasks vs. interesting tasks
  • contingent (do this to get this) vs. non-contingent (do this, or not – you’ll be rewarded anyway)
  • endogenous (read a book, get a book as a reward) vs. exogenous (read a book, get a dollar as a reward)

A meta-analysis of over 100-such tests on reward systems found that when you had an interesting (vs. dull) task that was rewarded with something tangible, expected, and contingent (like XBox Achievements, or many other reward systems we use in gaming), you reduced intrinsic meaning (giving a f*ck).

However, for an interesting task where the reward was verbal, informational, and unexpected (Hey! You killed 5 orcs!) free choice increased, and subjects self-reported higher instances of giving a f*ck.

He also mentioned that this not giving a f*ck effect has a larger impact on females than it does males.

Hecker took on Jesse Schell’s oft-blogged talk from DICE 2010, where he imagined a world where everything around you gave you points – your toothbrush gave you points for brushing, the government gave you points or money for raising your kids well, etc. Hecker suggested that Schell and two other respected colleagues were talking out of their collective asses, because they haven’t looked at the research, which says (among other things) that when you pay a kid for getting good grades, the kid’s grades subsequently drop. Fascinating stuff!

And in the climax of his presentation, Hecker took a juicy bite out of Zynga. i paraphrase:

If you’re intentionally making dull games with extrinsically motivating factors (rewards) to separate people from their money, i pity you.

i really enjoyed this talk because it was thought-provoking and controversial. Hecker didn’t declare himself right, but he made a compelling case based on the evidence. i got into a conversation during the question period with another small studio head, who lined up to ask the same question i did: if rewards demotivate women more than men, why does Farmville seem to be doing so well with such a large female audience? (i found his answer unsatisfying, to the point where i honestly can’t even remember it!)

The other dev and i went over a pile of cases where the research didn’t bear out: he remembers going to the arcade and practicing Dance Dance Revolution until he could get a Perfect rating on most of the songs on a high difficulty level. Remembering that earlier session, i told him that he was experiencing fiero when he overcame those challenges, which is part of Nicole’s “Serious Fun” quadrant.

The session provided a lot of food for thought, but there were too many DDR anecdotes and exceptions to take the research results as gospel. Still, it helped me cook up a never-before-seen style of reward that i’m excited to pioneer in Spellirium! i’ll leave it on that mysterious note.

The Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Choice Awards

Lots of great games, lots of worthy award-winners … a big sweep by Naughty Dog for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. i left mid-way through Gabe Newell’s speech (he heads Valve), because i had to pee and i was kinda bored.

Let me just mention that Farmville won the award in the new Social Gaming category, and that absolutely had to happen. Farmville will go down in gaming history as the first social game to make people stand up and take notice of these new social play mechanics. The guy who accepted the award (didn’t recognize him – anyone know?) gave a very defensive, almost hostile speech, goading the largely triple-A console audience to come fill the over 200 job postings at Zynga. He drew at least one “boo” from where i was sitting. The speech was a bit tense. There was only polite applause when Zynga was announced the winner.

People will say bad things about you when they feel you’ve been very successful (financially or otherwise) and they feel you don’t deserve it. i can’t tell if the many, many Zynga opponents take issue with the exploitative, addictive and manipulative nature of the company’s games, or whether they’re simply jealous? Before Zynga came along and struck gold, we were all talking about how to make games more sticky and addictive. When Zynga finally pulled it off and made a game that was ACTUALLY ADDICTIVE, everyone started shaking their fists. For years, developers have been making games that make players fat, that make them aggressive, and that make them anti-social. Let’s face it, folks: the track record for the games indudstry has not been jam-packed with redeeming qualities. It’s just in the past few years that i’ve seen people really start talking about games for the Greater Good. i feel it’s untoward for the industry to shake torches and pitchforks at the monster they themselves helped to create.


Grr! Why can’t Zynga produce redeeming games like the rest of us – games like Face-Stabber 4?