Archive for August, 2009

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.

Develop 2009

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on August 4th, 2009 by MrCranky

So, since I was just a stones-throw (okay, two and a quarter hours by train) from Brighton, I took advantage of Develop this year. I’ll cover the interesting talks in a subsequent post, but for now some thoughts from the conference itself.

My boss at Microsoft was kind enough to let me go through them for a pass, which allowed somewhat cheaper rates, at the cost of having all of my independent developer peers see my badge and run screaming from the representative of the big-bad-evil corporation. They were mostly tempted back with sweet and soothing words, but I did have to spam business cards as far and wide as possible to reinforce my credentials as a similarly small and indie business.

Sadly the last train back from Brighton was too early to partake in the kind of party networking that goes on after conference hours, but since I’m a total lightweight, that’s probably a good thing. Less potential business partners scared away by Professor Drunk and all of his loud and firmly held opinions on the failings of the industry.

That said, I was pleased to find kindred spirits amongst those I talked to in the early evenings – conferences are always a good way to gauge the general sentiment of the industry, and get a view from your peers untainted by media bias. Of that, the main themes I took away this year were: a) boxed retail games are not a good place to be, b) digital distribution of smaller titles is the only way to go, but is sadly lacking in many respects, and c) the funding gap between the retail behemoths and the self-funded indies is ever-widening, and still a barren wasteland.

Most of those are things I’ve been saying for a while now, but I’m glad to hear that it’s not just us, and these are industry wide issues. There is much optimism, and cause for hope. But the market we operate in is still settling, and no-one has any sure wisdom. What has become clear is that Nintendo’s strategy (or lack thereof) with WiiWare has condemned a promising opportunity for indies into something of a dead end.

While it’s cheaper to develop for the Wii, it’s still not ultra-cheap; the massive install base is very much skewed towards non-traditional customers who are unlikely to hunt out WiiWare and the Wii Shop in the same way that a traditional gamer would; the Wii Shop itself suffers from all of the terrible navigation issues that I’ve complained about before. The simple fact is that it’s an effort to buy things through WiiWare, and the only way we could tempt all those Wii-Fit to part with their cash is if it were suggested to them as part of using the system. Of course, I realise that we could reach them with targetted marketing, but let’s be frank, if we had the money to do targetted marketing we wouldn’t be in this position.

What we’d like, as indies, is a marketplace with customers actively searching for goods; where the quality of our titles is the differentiating factor, and the cost to bring games to market is as close to the cost of producing the titles. When you’re as small as your average independent, cost to get to market is key. Let’s imagine a title that costs £150K to develop. If we pitch it at a platform which requires £500K of advertising or other costs to get it to market, it doesn’t matter that would return £800K. Sure, that’s a decent return, but we don’t have £650K to put in. We’ve probably got the £150K, if not in cash then at least in sweat equity. But there’s not a queue of financiers out there willing to front the additional costs to get to market.

Although on this note I was chatting to Chris Swan of Blitz, without even realising who he was. And I must give much kudos to Blitz for being one of the few players prepared to put their money where their mouth is, and work with small independents.

So I’m both heartened and disheartened by my time at Develop. Heartened by the young and successful independents who I had the pleasure of meeting and drinking with, but disheartened that there are no platforms (or platform holders) with the vision to foster a market where smaller independents can operate

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