So I felt it would be churlish of me to miss out on this conference, seeing as its all of about 20 minutes from our front door, and provides some opportunity for networking with other people. Not as much variety of talks as Develop, but at least there are no worries that I might choose the wrong track to attend and miss out on valuable talks.
So aside from a fire alarm that left us outside of the Royal College of Physicians for the better part of an hour, this day was most enjoyable.
Keynote – View From The Top by David Gardner of Electronic Arts. Some predictions of the future – nothing particularly surprising or radical there. In-game advertising is a fact of life – we should deal with it. The rise of girls in gaming is coming [but then people have been saying that forever]. User generated content is key – multi-tasking users like to play games and use other content; as a demonstration he showed in-game ESPN footage and live radio – they want people to be getting that content through the console rather than having a TV (or PC) running in the background serving that content.
The Wall Street View by Edward Williams: echoed thoughts from “Money for non-suits” at Develop. Investors like predictability, stability, and profits (pretty much in that order). Basically they like large companies who gain stability through diversification, so that even big flops don’t significantly hurt earnings [that would be Take Two out then]. They like companies with muscle who push to expand the market. On that basis, they like mobile lots, based on massive ‘install base’ figures and perception of growth. I don’t agree with this one, but that’s based on my (probably biased) view of the mobile sector.
Games That Heal, chaired by Ben Sawyer from Serious Games: Serious games guru, pushing use of games in medicine, teaching and e-learning. Talking about the massive budgets available (far beyond the average game development budget) and corporate/government’s increasing desire to make use of games development existing technology and skills. Interesting example was the re-purposing of Full Spectrum Warrior to help combat post traumatic stress disorder in Gulf War victims.
So You Think You Know Games, presented by Nick Parker, Analyst: Talking about development past, present and future. No real surprises here, but interesting nonetheless. There was talk about Nintendo DS and Wii having sales pushed by a few innovative titles, compared to PS3 and 360 more likely to publish more traditional titles. No predictions as to the winner, rather voicing the expectation that households will buy multiple platforms: PS3/360 and another, as the different consoles target different markets, especially with the PS3/360 focus on multi-media. Personally I think the multi-media focus is a mistake – the majority of people aren’t tech-savvy, I don’t believe they’re interested in figuring out how the box under the TV works – they want to push in a disc and have it work. They know if they put a music disc in a hi-fi it plays, a DVD into a DVD player and it plays, a game into a console and it plays. Whether HDTV and Blu-ray/HD-DVD will change that dynamic I don’t know, but my gut feeling is that the multi-media support will remain chronically under-used, as it was with the PS2 generation.
Ofcom’s PSP And The Era Of Public Service Games, chaired by Peter Phillips of Ofcom: This talk was very interesting, although I have a bit of a vested interest in this sector. Basically it was to highlight the existence (or potential existance) of a public service publisher – essentially a vessel for routing public money to content developers, in the same manner that the BBC receives money to make quality content. There is an acceptance that the BBC is not in the best position to produce interactive content for the public benefit – as its a little stuck in its ways. There is also acceptance that interactive media is on the up, just as linear television is on the way down.
Games to make you cry: best presentation of the day in my opinion. Its patently not true to say games can’t make you cry and that because of that they’re not serious art. I can think of three times without breaking a sweat where games have made me feel something intense while playing. Knights of the Old Republic – while trying to turn Bastila back from the dark side, I had almost managed it but then failed and had to kill her – a real sense of loss; Homeworld, when the pilot of the ship is crippled late on in the game – sorrow and anger; and Call of Duty, in the night assault on Carentan I was cowering behind a wall with a sergeant shouting at me to flank a nasty looking machine gun nest that had already torn lumps out of me – fear. The presenter came up with examples from her game history, but the point was clear – games can tug on heart strings, but game developers need to understand why, and how to do it properly; only then can we make games with real emotional impact. The presentation was also made more fun by me slyly watching Ken Perlin who was sitting next to me, working on some animation things on his laptop, very distracting!
Convergence: Hollywood take
Rosanna Sun – Matrix game producer. Pushed by Wachowski brothers into game development from a film role. They were keen to have the game development tightly integrated into the development of the films. She noted difficulty in managing inter-medium dependencies (e.g. VFX are usually done late in film, but she needed them early for the game). Assets were done and re-done to work better with games, Film costumes/sets for example were developed far beyond what was necessary for normal film production because the game needed far more content than the film. She also noted a general push from Hollywood to get better creative integration between films and their licence games. No-one likes to see a great licence used badly in a cheap and cheerful game, which bears little resemblance to the tone and quality of the original.
Convergence: Literary take
The developers/writers of Interactive Alice presented here. Developed essentially as back story for film, they use various techniques flesh out the main character of the film through interactive media. The story of the childhood of the main character in the film is told, and gives depth and reason behind her actions in the film. They premiered the third episode of the story at the presentation; I must admit to liking the story, but not really the presentation. It seemed interactive only in the loosest sense of the term; supposedly this is consistent with the character development, but I was unconvinced. Apparently they plan to improve the interactive aspects in the future, and plan much more complex episodes of the content for the future.
Convergence: my take
Its vital to make good game, regardless of whether it’s well integrated with the film/book/television. Technology and medium of delivery is irrelevant, what matters is that the content is fun, engaging, and develop the story and characters.
A fairly unconvincing talk from various mobile developers, touting the death of desktop/fixed devices, and the rise of portable devices over the next half dozen years. I find this hard to believe. They raised the point of mobility of data, and the rise of online storage systems for holding user content (see YouTube, etc.) They glossed over some fairly serious flaws in the model however, and came up with no convincing arguments to support the ‘death of PCs’ argument. Degenerated into a demonstration of some new phone the presenter had purchased the week before. However, the theme of content rather than technology was revisited here, and I’ll cover that in a more general evaluation of the themes in the conference.
This was a fun presentation, if not very illuminating, and was given by the guys from Red vs Blue (who I’ve been a fan of for a long while). Basically they revelled in the wonderful worlds that games developers create as a background for their stories, and loved the fact that those complex and impressive worlds can be adapted by amateur film-makers to tell their own stories, at minimal cost. Great for the artistic medium certainly – especially with the rise of video sharing sites making it easy for good content to be widely and cheaply published. A good question from the audience concerned how we as game developers make it easier for machinimists to work with our games – the RvB guys asked for user-controllable mouth animation on a button, free camera control (within reason) and the ability to have characters all look at the same point (I’m sure its very useful for them, even though there’s no call for it in game). All very easy for developers to do, its just that machinima is the only reason to have such features, so they don’t tend to make it into actual games.
Probably the best talk of the conference for me – Ken is an engaging and interesting speaker, and a genius at animating emotion. He makes simple code to procedurally generate animations which I’ve seen animators take days to do by hand. If anything, I think this work is the kind of thing which can make content generation for next-generation consoles achievable in some kind of sensible budget. I’m not advocating getting rid of animators, but getting them to use procedural tools to make their content rather than hand animating the position of every single joint, every single frame would massively increase their productivity, and I think open up a world of new possibilities. I’d heartily recommend visiting Ken’s website, there are a wealth of little Java applets to demonstrate the sort of things which are possible.
BBFC/PEGI Rating talk
I skipped half of this while trying to see the Lord of the Rings Online screening (which I still missed as it was delayed), but the gist of it was covering the reasoning behind the ratings the BBFC/VSC give. I’ve always thought that we had a sensible ratings system in this country, and I don’t understand the US reluctance to go with a legislated approach. We do need to regulate what titles go to what age groups, and if a regulated system avoids some of the royal screw-ups that have gone on recently, then it should be the solution. A voluntary system is nice when it works, but provides little defence against trouble makers who want to see games banned, rather than regulated. As always though, the body regulating the ratings will never be able to make an exact science out of the system, the best they can hope for is to build a reputation for sensible, predictable decisions; and then when an unusual situation comes up, the public can rely on them to make a reasonable decision.
Basically this talk covered the large use of interactive entertainment as a means for teachers to improve their children’s learning. Figures quoted: 11% of teachers actively using games already, with another 40% actively learning and trying to use games. Teachers will use off the shelf titles, custom built software, free software, whatever it takes and whatever suits their needs at the time. A custom version of Myst is being developed which the teachers like, but even Zoo Tycoon is a valuable resource for primary children. Teachers want anything they can to help get the message across, and there is a lot of resources beginning to be pushed into making games specifically to fit their needs. In addition, there is software available which allows the teachers themselves to author content which they can then use and share.
Reservoir Dogs screening
Exactly what you’d expect. Lots of gun-play, references to the film. The lack of voice actors from the film jarred a little, but not terribly so. They made a big deal over the choice the user has to play professionally or like a psychopath (based on body count basically) – didn’t seem like a huge deal to me but it’s nice to have a choice in your play style, and have it affect the game’s outcome (even only in a limited manner). Some basic driving gameplay in there as well. All in all a solid looking title, but didn’t make me think – “wow I want to buy that”.
Out of the whole conference, I picked up on two main themes (both from the presentations and from talking to people).
Don’t mention the MMOs. Seems the development community is no longer favouring MMO games as ‘the way of the future’. Most likely due a combination of the difficulty of competing with World of Warcraft and the doubtful financial feasability of building a decent MMOG. It costs a lot to make a massively multiplayer game, and unless you get it right, it will suck cash faster than it generates it.
Content is king. No-body really cares which box wins, nor is anyone sure who to bet on. What matters is making the right games, and delivering them to the consumer. The means of delivery is evolving, and is no longer as simple as a box on a shelf in a shop; X-Box Live Arcade, downloadable content, episodic delivery, all change the classic model. That big up-front cost and then forget about the title is no longer going to cut it – the massively rising costs mean that even a single title has to be milked for all its worth to try and break even (so handheld/online tie-ins, ports, additional content). To me this smacks of desperation in an attempt to save dwindling profit margins, but in the absence of anything better to recommend, heck why not?