Archive for the 'Conferences' Category

Develop 2009 (part 2)

Posted in Conferences on August 27th, 2009 by MrCranky

So, interesting talks at Develop. As usual, there were some slots where none of the talks were particularly compelling, and others with 2 or more talks all equally appealing. Thankfully this time I had meetings which could be scheduled in the boring slots, which takes the edge off somewhat.

Day 1 (Evolve)

10 Things Nobody Tells You About Digital Distribution and Self-Publishing That You Must Understand to Succeed

A forthright talk from Martyn Brown, one of the founders at Team 17. They’re wading into self-publishing with a vengeance, ostensibly due to their inability to sign Alien Breed through normal publishing channels. And that’s fair enough, if they believe strongly enough in the product to publish it, they shouldn’t have to satisfy a close-minded publisher’s idea of what the market wants. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier when you’re sitting on the big pot of cash that is the proceeds from Worms XBLA, but fair play to them. They did stress the point that self-publishing brings with it many of the same challenges that regular publishing does (e.g. marketing, QA, platform certification), so if you don’t have the capability in-house to tackle that like they do, then you’d better be prepared to deal with others who can provide those services.

Evolve: A Game is a Game is a Game

A reassuring talk from Dave Thomson at Denki, that can be summed up quite succinctly: make the games that you’re interested in. While it’s not a guarantee that others will like the same things that you do, it’s a safe bet that if you don’t believe in the games you’re making, no-one else will either. While I have reservations about this – there still has to be a business case to support making a game. So maybe I’d paraphrase slightly and say “if you’re relatively normal, then the games you love to make and play will appeal to lots of other people too”.

Evolve: Panel: After the iPhone Honeymoon:Where Next for Apple’s Mobile?

This one was of interest because I’ve been thinking about the merits of developing for the iPhone. While I’m definitely a convert to the use of one (I bought a 3GS recently), I’m still not convinced about the merits of the app-store as a distribution platform. And sure enough, the panel were quick to agree on the difficulties of reaching your market. The driving down of price to the 99c point, while bemoaned by some small developers, is indicative of what the market wants. Too many consumers have been burned by poor apps (even ones with good reviews), so they’re not prepared to risk higher prices to be burned. Lite versions are key, but care must be taken not to give away too much. Marketing is key, although it’s very much about advertising through social networks and similar mechanisms. Allowing people to share knowledge of your app through the phone itself is a good thing. There is a market for niche titles, but it is substantially smaller, clearly the cheap/small titles which make high volumes is an easier strategy. If you’re happy with a niche and higher price point, the quality has to be high enough to justify that higher price point. That needs to include update support. Getting the first few positive reviews up there is key, so giving away the first few hundred units to friends for positive reviews is a useful tactic. Above all though, the platform is still the limiting factor in getting true volumes – you need to crack the top X lists to get any sort of decent volumes. Which says to me that the search functionality is still too weak to truly support a quality based market.

Evolve: Panel: Crossing Over: How Working With Other Industries Can Improve Your Games and Your Bottom Line

I’ve talked on this blog in the past about the overlap (or lack thereof) between television media and games. Ofcom’s Public Service Publishing talks in particular have been frustrating to me, because there is clearly money, concepts and talent there, but what is essentially a language barrier prevents us from collaborating. Games developers can’t relate to the funding models, and the glacial pace of motion getting projects going. TV people get the idea of ‘games’, but are unable to grasp what goes into making them, their limitations or the practicalities of producing a title. So this talk about organised brainstorming workshops which aim to get people from all industries together, piqued my interest. Basically locking people away in a hotel together for a week, forming teams with a spread of talents, making them brainstorm ideas for interactive entertainment. Everyone on the panel was overwhelmingly positive about their experience doing it, and it sounded like it did exactly what was needed – breaking down the communication barriers between those in the different industries, and allowing them to collaborate to deliver something interesting. Schedules willing, I’m definitely enthused about the idea of attending one of these workshops, and see what I can get out of it in terms of a better perspective on the wider media industry.

Evolve: KEYNOTE: The Long Tail and Games: How Digital Distribution Changes Everything. Maybe.

The long tail. A lot of this felt like Eberly marketing his own services, but there were some good points, backed with stats. Basically the gist of the talk is that digital is great, it’s the future, but it’s not perfect. There was a lot of puncturing of the idea that digital is without drawbacks, which I think is something that is needed. It’s way too easy to pin all your hopes on the next platform. I think he draws an erroneous conclusion from the current platforms that digital distribution isn’t valid; because he’s basing it on platforms which are severely lacking in the fundamentals needed to make for a healthy digital distribution platform: search, navigation, rating and cross-linking. Amazon has those, but the current games platforms don’t. I don’t believe that we can write off digital distribution as a viable market for the small studio until we see a platform which has all of those things and still fails.

Day 2

CONFERENCE KEYNOTE: Online functionality for your next game? Why not go 100% online

“Hey folks – look, isn’t APB shiny?” Okay, maybe I’m just bitter I got there a little late and couldn’t even get in the room, but it didn’t strike me that the talk had a lot of content. APB did look very shiny though.

Designer mash-up: David Braben and Dave Jones play Elite and GTA

Basically two old school devs playing each others games. And I’m a sucker for an Elite talk. The actual playing of the games, lots of faffing around and not much shown. I think had they prepped a bit more and showed a bit more of the strengths of the respective games. But it was still interesting to hear stories from the old days. Clearly the majority of the people in the room were Elite fans though; although there were a decent amount of questions for Dave Jones, most of them were about Elite and all of the various things. And of course every time I see Elite again it makes me want to make that sort of game again. Someone on The Chaos Engine made a good point – the fact that Elite 4 hasn’t been made has probably been the best thing this industry could hope for, because it’s made everyone else want to step into the gap and has resulted in a bunch of good games. Had Elite kept churning out sequels, I think there might have been that little bit less enthusiasm in general in the industry.

Business: Panel: Why Grey Matters – How to Grow Your Business

This was an interesting and frank panel talk, with some of my colleagues from the Scottish industry – notably Brian MacNicoll and Paul Farley. They talked about the merits of the scheme, which pairs up experienced business people with directors of newer start-ups, giving them an opportunity to benefit from the others’ experience and an independent point of view. It sounded like a fantastically useful programme, I can’t count the number of times when I could have used an outside opinion as to whether I’m doing the right thing with the business or not. I can only hope that TIGA or another UK body will be continuing the scheme once the pilot is complete, and encouragingly the TIGA contingent was present at the talk.

Design: The Life Cycle of The Bonsai Barber for WiiWare

Fun looking little game this, and I can respect the deliberate choice of design principles to keep the gameplay simple and clean. Interesting choice to limit the amount of time the player can play each day, which is a risky tactic, but good if it pays off. Similar to Car Jack Street’s tactic of using real world deadlines to encourage you to come back at least once a week, Bonsai Barber has the opportunity to to make the game more attractive by rationing out the gameplay. While you might easily glut yourself on the game in the first day and never return, by restricting what can be done, you leave the player that little bit hungry for more. Of course, it only works if the game leaves you with a good feeling at the end of each play session, but I think I shall pick it up to see.

Develop Awards

Thanks to my benefactors at Microsoft, I managed to get a seat at a table at the Develop awards, which was nice. Lots of hob-nobbing with industry legends, and a nice meal to go along with it. Sadly I had to leave after the main course to head back to Reading, so I missed the awards themselves. I gather that Media Molecule cleaned up some, but then that’s probably not much of a surprise; these things rarely are. I couldn’t help feeling like something of a small fish in a big pond though, and I’d probably have made more useful business contacts drinking out in the bar with the other indie devs. Still, I got to chat some with David Braben, and avoided gushing over the original Elite, so that’s something.

Day 3

Coding: The Wizards of OS: I Don’t Think We’re in C++ Anymore

I was somewhat hung over for this one, so thankfully it’s on a topic I know well. Looks like the Eutechnyx guys are going through pretty much the same learning curve we did with Brave – the initial excitement of wanting to write all of your game logic in script form, discovering the performance and practical problems with maintaining things in scripts, and shifting some part of the way back to logic in C++. They’ve come to many of the same conclusions I did, which is pretty much that you should use scripts for what they’re good for: broad, high level glue logic, fast iteration without recompiling, and expressive forms for structured data. Scripting is no silver bullet, and its pros always need to be balanced quite carefully against the cons. I think this is an interesting topic, and I’ve some thoughts written up on it that I’ll put into blog form at some point soon.

BUSINESS KEYNOTE: Ship Your Game On Time, On Budget: Seven Highly Effective Practices

Not really much for me here – very much a talk from one of the old school development houses; how to manage large teams, business relationships with large publishers. Nothing too surprising either – knowing when to cut features, knowing how important it is to hit your dates (the developers don’t see this as nearly as much of an issue as the publisher does), and how to manage communication and planning with your publishing partner.

Coding: CODING KEYNOTE: Playstation PS3: Cutting Edge Techniques

Someone here at MGS pointed out to me that Kish Hirani is the same Kish that used to be mentioned a lot at VIS; for some reason I never connected the two names. Now that I’ve seen one of his talks in person, that makes a lot more sense. Some interesting displays of the new motion tech which we weren’t allowed to photograph. It has its own pros and cons when compared to Microsoft’s Natal, but to be honest I think both platforms will stand or fall on the quality of the games made for them, and the PS3 is still fighting its price and install base handicap.

More interesting was the definite sense of sharing, that Sony have a lot of library and middleware code, all of which they’re throwing at developers for free. They don’t want developers suffering on their tech, they know its hard. While the libraries approach might be a little disjointed, it’s good to see that they’ve thrown themselves into developer support so wholeheartedly, and it certainly makes their platform a lot more attractive to us as a small developer now. I can’t quite see us pitching a PS3-only title, but I’m a lot less downbeat about the platform than I was 6 months ago.

Design: DESIGN KEYNOTE: Building LEGO Worlds – online, offline, and everything in between

This talk was mostly only interesting to listen to some of the challenges involved in taking an underlying core concept (LEGO’s concept of play) and applying it to a variety of games, and trying to maintain that concept through-out everything they do. I’ll be interested to see LEGO Universe when it comes out, but mostly only because it will need to do well if NetDevil are ever to put the money into Jumpgate Evolution that they need to. Especially now they’ve saddled themselves with the ailing Codemasters as a publisher.

Design: Rethinking Challenges in Games and Stories

I know a lot of people at TCE are dismissive of Ernest Adams’s credentials, but to be honest I’ve always found his articles to be interesting and well written. His talk at Develop was similarly interesting, covering a lot of topics relating to play mechanics, and exhortations to designers to break out of the traditional stifling models of play. But to be honest by this point I was exhausting from a gruelling week, and was happy to just listen to a fun talk before heading back to Reading.

Off to Brighton

Posted in Conferences, Tales from the grind-stone on July 13th, 2009 by MrCranky

Just a quick note, mostly to push the sunshine post off the top because it’s cooled down a bit (and I’ve correspondingly gotten less grumpy). Off to Develop Brighton tomorrow, which should be good. I’m not too eager to take the days out of my MGS work, but I have to think about longer term business as well. It’s all too easy to get focused on a nice tangible problem that we can solve, and neglect the other important things. But there are games to be made, partners to develop with, and lots more interesting stuff besides.

Definitely looking forward to meeting up with my contemporaries who I have been sorely neglecting, and finding out about new opportunities, and just generally being nosey about other people’s business (and in certain cases, other business’s people).

Event Round-up

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Another rewarding experience this year, some interesting talks. A couple of turkeys on the first day, but on average certainly worthwhile. The most obvious emerging theme was, again, convergence of games with television, films, books and the Web. However while I think there is some evidence to back it up, I don’t think it is nearly as important as is being implied here. It feels like there is a need amongst the high level executives in the games industry to be seen to be thinking about something, and that convergence of the different media types is a convenient topic. Not so vague that it can’t be talked about, but not as embarassing as “we’re committed to making games so expensive that they rarely make their cost back”.

It seems like in all of the conferences, there is a lot of back-slapping and self-congratulation, but little self-examination. Yes, there has been massive growth in the last couple of years, and the transition to the new generation of consoles has gone pretty well (as long as you’re not Sony). But it has done well on the back of innovative titles, which push away from the hard-core gamers, and the ridiculously over-specced hardware, and back to what it should be: making fun games, that people like to play.

I’d like to see a conference where we look at the issues that are important to the average game developer, not just the EAs and Ubisofts (and companies who wish they were that size) – about what we can do about the recruitment crisis, about what we can do to make better games, more polished games. I’d like a conference that addresses issues like why we keep re-inventing the wheel every time we make a game, and why we don’t collaborate on technology and sharing of knowledge to benefit the industry as a whole.

Above all, I’d like to see a conference that dwells on the success stories, and how we can learn from those developers/publishers and emulate that success. With that in mind, I’d rate Hilmar Petursson’s talk on EVE as the talk of the show for me, not because I learned a whole lot from it, but because it was good to see a developer that stuck to their guns and made a game they were proud of, and have been proved right by the game-playing public.

Developing for Second-Life

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Several developers who work in Second Life, and more generally in virtual worlds to create content for the virtual world users. Many topics covered, and some interesting videos, but I can’t help but feel that Second Life is a poor example of how this could develop. It seems that there are lots of ways to experiment in Second Life, and lots of experimentation, but woefully short on convincing examples of how to make it work. Certainly apart from advertising and improving brand recognition, the examples given are gimmicky, and lack polish.

One of the interviewees who works for Linden Labs brought up the point that I thought was most relevant was that Linden Labs is forming a bottleneck to the continued development of the possibilities involved – the space and the users are growing at a faster rate than LL can grow to support. So by opening the API and allowing content developers to extend the world in unusual ways there is the possibility of refining the virtual experience, and perhaps polishing it in a useful fashion.

Of course, I’m a little bitter right now, as Second Life are unable to charge either my credit card or my Paypal account, due to some internal uselessness in their systems, and so have disabled my account, so you should take all this with a pinch of salt.

Dare to be Digital – Protoplay

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

I nipped across town at this point rather than seeing the next couple of talks, as I wanted to see the end results of the Dare to be Digital competition. As promised on Sunday night, there was an impressive range of games on display, and all showed promise in one form or another. Titles to note were the Cupid game from the guys from Guildford, where you fly around encouraging people to falling in love by causing accidental meetings that might lead to a whirlwind romance; also a fun and polished puzzle title in the vein of Loco Roco, where the player has to guide a pool of water through the level, tilting the world and freezing and boiling the water to change its form; and a stealth-based third person ninja title with an interesting audible/visual mechanic. My vote eventually went to a local (Edinburgh) team though, who made a nice two player physics based game, with some neat gameplay mechanics and a real co-operative feel to the gameplay. It was very nicely polished, and looked visually impressive.

If I was to have any criticism of some of the titles on display it would be the lack of polish, but really that would be unfair of developers new to the work of making games to a fixed time-scale! Certainly the results are very impressive for the 10-week project, and the students involved all seem to have enjoyed the game and coped well with the pressure they were under.

How to get into the games industry, various

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Interesting stuff from what I caught – some frank admissions from the panellists (a couple from Realtime Worlds, and a few independents) that recruitment and training into the industry has been sadly neglected these last few years. Certainly I’d agree – the pool of talented developers is diminishing as people naturally leave (or get pressured out by the bad working conditions that permeate the industry). We need to take some more risks on entry-level people, but that will largely be dependant on the successfulness of the industry – we need more spare money swilling around to be able to afford to train developers. Or perhaps we should just accept that it is a necessary cost (if you take the long term view) and build it into the amounts we charge the publishers/consumers.

Beyond Social Gaming, Jamie McDonald

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

I skipped out on this one half way through to check out the “How to get into games” panel, but it was a fairly straightforward message. Singstar’s producer Pauline Bozek did a bit on how they’ve updated it for the PS3 – basically integrating the social aspects which have naturally surrounded the game in the past into the game. For example, right now many people video themselves having Singstar parties and upload them to share – this is now integrated into the game. Secondly, they’ve integrated an iTunes-like music purchasing interface into the game, to allow people to customise their gameplay experience. Up until now, they have been milking Singstar by releasing a variety of track listings – almost like albums. Now they’ve killed that, but replaced it with a practically unlimited money making opportunity by allowing users to buy individual tracks.

I caught a brief glimpse of the PS3 home interface as well – again it looks like Sony are trying to push the integration aspect. They want users to use their virtual interface to be the social community/lobby aspect to all of their multiplayer games. A laudable goal, but I can’t help but think that it will take a while to smooth out the rough edges of the new style of play. XBox-Live took years to mature into the capable interface it has now, I don’t see that being any different for Sony. However, if they do it right, and the poor uptake of the PS3 doesn’t kill it first, I think it’s got real potential. Certainly Sony seem to be in it for the long haul, rather than the short term success.

Games with Character, Ian Livingstone

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Admittedly, by this point in the proceedings, my last coffee had worn off and I was running on fumes and about to nod off. Luckily Ian presenting an easy going and light hearted presentation, dwelling on existing examples of good characterisation. Oh, and a hearty helping of plugs for IO’s new game – Kane and Lynch.

Basically I can sum up the whole talk in a few bullet points:

  • Develop the character first, give them background, identifiability, and depth.
  • Build the character first, and the story second.
  • Decide on visual style, make it fit the game, make it a unique selling point if possible.
  • Decide on audio style – give them a voice, make it an emotive one. Use professional voice actors!
  • Choose the right name. Make it memorable

Games Actually, various

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Certainly not the strongest talk of the day, with weak moderation meaning that little of worth was said. Some interesting market research was shown though, and in summary:

19% of females game, and make up 41% of all gamers in Europe. Similarly in the UK, 24% of females game, making up 43% of gamers. In the 6-15 age range, more than 79% of people play games regularly, dropping to 50% in the 15-19 age range. Beyond that, it tapers off to below 30% and diminishes roughly proportionally to age.

More interestingly, in the last 3 years, although boys still play for longer and spend more on games, girls are catching up somewhat. So although there is still an issue, perhaps we’re addressing it. Certainly Nintendo’s work is reaching more female gamers than I would have expected, and there is a realisation in the industry in general that non-traditional games more popular with women are not only possible but profitable.

Key points from Pauline Jacquey (Ubisoft producer, heading up their accessible games drive) about improving accessibility in games:

  • Shorten gaming sessions (10min)
  • Invest heavily in UI development and polish
  • Allow players to track their progress

In addition, although it’s easier to create ‘shrink and pink’ versions of games, in reality those types of games are rarely big hits, and in the long term it is better to create products with real value (such as The Sims, Brain Training, or Nintendogz).

EVE Online, Hilmar Petursson

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Much more interesting was the talk from EVE Online’s Hilmar Petursson. Admittedly the content was very close to my heart – massively multi-player virtual online worlds, but as I mentioned to some other delegates, sometimes it’s good to hear from a developer that made a good game, made it well, and has done well out of it. There are too many ‘fluff’ talks here, about things which might be, or projections, or spin on developers/markets that aren’t quite as good as they are made out to be. And given the current disenchantment with MMOG developers in the games industry, it’s good to hear that if done well it can be profitable.

Anyway, Hilmar told a story of a rocky start, with a long pre-production time for EVE, including a period of a good 6 months where they ran out of start-up capital and relied on the goodwill of their staff to keep working for free essentially, entirely based on their faith in the product. After their rocky start, and some publishing woes (they sold the rights to a book publisher which then decided to neglect it entirely in favour of their book business), they eventually started to self-publish EVE, based on an entirely digital download model (no boxed game = no distributors). With a solid core of 30,000 players, they’ve grown their player base continually (and sometimes exponentially) since then. The amazing growth of the player base is matched only by their loyalty and immersion in the game, to the point at which they now have over one hundred thousand subscribers, and are on track to hit 200,000 before the end of this year. Soon, it seems, they will be the first developer to have more subscribers than the population of their home country (Iceland only has 300,000 residents)!

It’s this massive player-base, all sharing a single virtual universe, which leads to the parts of the game-play which captivate the players. Simple but solid core mechanics, closely modelled on their real-world equivalents (markets with bid/buy/sell systems, corporations with management structure, etc.) provide a framework on top of which the players operate rich social structures. It is these social structures which provide the real interesting play in the game; very much an example of emergent game-play.

Hilmar differentiates between two different styles of MMOG – the ‘theme-park’ games (EverQuest, World of Warcraft, etc.) where play is rich, but tightly scripted and given to the player in neat, measured doses; and sand-box games (EVE, Ultima Online), where a virtual world with some basic rules and mechanics is presented to the player, and they are free to create whatever interesting systems within that world that they like.

My favourite part was some video and concepts of the upcoming revisions to the game, which extend it to allow users to walk around inside space stations as a 3D character avatar – a vast improvement over the user-is-a-ship mechanic currently employed. CCP feel that it is this limiting factor which is skewing the player-base massively in favour of men (95% of the players), and hope that the new focus on personalisation in the game will redress that balance. Certainly this means that they are one step closer to my own vision of a virtual universe which scales from the personal scale to the universe scale, although I can see the technological challenges remain massive. It seems like they are feeling their way gently towards that system, with the personal avatars initially being limited to wandering around some lovely interior environments and chatting. They hope to eventually move to allowing indoor combat, but I think it is wise to work out the teething problems with the system first! They are also re-visiting the graphics of EVE – always one of its strongest points, to scale it up to current hardware levels.

Regardless, I think it may be time to re-visit EVE once again – the last time I played was a couple of years ago, with a much smaller player-base, and fewer features. Certainly the growth of the player-base makes me think that it is worth another try.

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