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Postcards from the 2005 Austin Game Conference

Following the completion of the 2005 Austin Game Conference, we present an extended compilation of "postcard" features from the conference, including looks at the MMO rant, Marvel vs. NCSoft, the Game Writers Conference, and a new session write-up on casual games.

[Following the completion of the 2005 Austin Game Conference, which was held from October 27 to October 28 at the Austin Convention Center, Gamasutra is pleased to present an extended multi-author compilation of its 'postcards' from the largely MMO, mobile gaming, and game writing-focused summit.

Many of these articles previously appeared as news stories on the site, but feature here in extended versions with new photographs and information. In addition, we present the 'Casual Game Evolution Summit' write-up from Austin, displayed below, for the first time on Gamasutra.]

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Postcard From Austin:
Casual Game Evolution Summit

The session "Casual Game Evolution Summit," held at the 2005 Austin Game Conference, which was, oddly enough, categorized into the Next Generation Game Development track, covered the technical aspects of building an online casual game. Led in boisterous game show host fashion by moderator Adeo Rossi, CEO of Game Trust Inc., and with senior representatives from Sun and Macromedia on the panel, the panel discussed how their companies, applications, and programming languages fit into the grand scheme of the casual games business. However, the more interesting half of the hour focused on how Sun's Java and Macromedia's Flash web browser-based technology fit into the market space differently.

Casually Important?

Rossi began by asking the panelists to rate the importance of casual games in their business.


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Tom Higgins, Macromedia

Macromedia's Tom Higgins answered seven and a half or eight for his company's business, while Chris Melissinos of Sun Microsystems rated the importance of casual games to the Java creator at a firm eight. “Most people's exposure to Java has been through casual games,” Melissinos said. “On sites like java.com, 90 percent of the content is game-related. The casual games space is vitally important to continually rolling our the Java technology,” he added.

Melissinos also affirmed that casual games were likely to drive adoption of new technologies too, and said there were two top reasons people download Java. One is for various communication tools, namely chat applications, and the other is for games. However, casual games drive the technology not directly, but indirectly via the users, who aren't necessarily the users we expect them to be.

Melissinos pointed to Runescape - a game that was mentioned repeatedly during the two-day MMOG conference - as one game that drives technology indirectly, saying the link is the player base, or the children in our homes. The youngest generation is in essence what's pushing Java and other game-playing applications, he said. “The entry to technology that kids are most receiving today is through casual games,” he said.

Higgins agreed, saying that for Macromedia's Director and Shockwave in particular, games cause the most growth of those product lines. “Shockwave is getting put on people's machines because they want to play and be entertained.”

Future Innovation?

Rossi, forever asking questions that are difficult to skirt around, bluntly asked, “What's your sales pitch?” He refined the question slightly to ask what innovations are coming down the line to give customers comfort that they're making the right decision when they purchase the product.

Higgins' answer consisted of “high-performance, interactive media” and “richness,” citing improvements to the Flash player in terms of playback media support and upcoming advances on the 3D engine. He said looking at 3D and real-time capabilities were most important, singing the old “author once, deploy anywhere” metaphor. Melissinos' answer was so forward it shocked a few audience members and the moderator: “There is no game being written today that cannot be written in Java,” teasing, “You want to do Doom 3 shaders in Java?”

“I don't think Sun knew what the hell they had. It was supposed to be used to make TV controls... Today's current Java - because it is not interpreted - is compiled at the time you actually run it and can be compiled more efficiently. Sixty-seven percent of all new PCs shipping in the market today are shipping with current Java,” said Melissinos.


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Chris Melissinos, Sun Microsystems

The mention of pre-installed software tipped moved the panelists to further investigate the user experience for their respective technologies and for casual games in general. “One of the key issues in making a game is to know how many people can use it without downloading any new app,” Rossi summarized.

“I think the market has already proved that if the application is good enough, people are willing to go through a whole load of garbage to get it,” said Melissinos. “Consumers have proven this over and over again.” Still, the 67 percent pre-installed rate spoke best for him. “Ask any console manufacturer if they want 67 percent of the market,” he added with cocky assurance. Shockwave doesn't quite measure up to Melissino's number, but is slightly below “at about the 54 or 55 percent mark” according to Higgins.

Conclusion

The panel further discussed issues such as debug time, the pervasiveness of C++ as a programming language (mentioning though that the best casual games are generally not written in that language), VM overhead, and writing for cross-platform capabilities without constant re-authoring. Rossi then finished with a comparison of the technologies from his point of view, completing an interesting panel which showcased some of the minds behind the most pervasive game-capable plug-ins available on all computer desktops.

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Postcard From Austin:
East vs. West: Differences in MMOs

The Austin Games Conference's Games in Asia track on Friday opened with the roundtable discussion “East vs. West: Differences in MMOs”, to help establish an understanding of the unique Eastern game environment in terms of the players, the development, and the politics.

After introductions from the speakers, the panel, all of whom were experts in both MMOs and the Asian market, immediately opened up to questions from the audience.


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Asian Expectations, Standards

First, the panel summarized the differences in key expectations and standards for Asian customers. Sony Online Entertainment's CFO John Needham jumped in with a story about EverQuest 2 . When development was underway and Needham planned to integrate ugly ogres, the design team came back insisting that the ogres needed to be handsome. Yes, in Asian markets, even dwarves and ogres need to look attractive. Next, Chief Professor of the Shanghai Theatre Academy and former Zona/Shanda senior exec Montgomery Singman elaborated on the design styles preferred in Asia. Anime and realist art are the most popular, but realistic art has difficulty in the United States, because the technology is not up to par.

Not to be outdone in humor, Singman told a story about a debate he had over the size of character heads, because in the process of head inflation, characters lost elbows and gameplay mobility. The terminology used in China is related to ratios, as in a 1 to 2 body to head ratio. The most popular design is the 1 to 3 ratio, known as “cute style.”

However, for Taewon Yun, former Blizzard Korea online director and co-founder of Red 5 Studios, Inc., art style is more about how people can relate to the environment. He feels that metaphors used in the East and West need to use a common denominator. Joshua Hong, CEO of K2 Network, Inc., moved on to discuss the homogenous nature of people. “In Asia,” he stated, “the goal for people in gameplay is to do a little better than everyone else, but in the United States, the goal is to be individual.”

With localization studies as a framework to his perspectives, Yun tied in community and interaction with other characters as key elements in gameplay. Factors such as trading, text information, graphical embraces, and other community-related interactions in gameplay are more important in the Asian market than individualism. Hong identified a trend in individualism from Generation Y, but at the same time discovered globalization in guilds and clans that communicate across countries. He also believes that Player vs. Player (PvP) combat in MMOs is community interaction instead of individual action, because in PvP, community intertwines with competitiveness.

Asian Gameplay Design

Panelists took the opportunity to address gameplay design for the differing needs of the Asian market. SOE's Needham suggested that the Internet café-dominant MMO play setting in Asia must be solo friendly. Simple “point & click” design is also essential in the café environment, because players often hold a drink or cigarette in one hand. Keyboards are also rarely used. Singman observed that Chinese players are often detached and performing other tasks during gameplay. He recommended that developers simplify resource collection to a one-click design, or players will make cheats.

In fact, cheat programs in China are often so complex that they can charge the player in-game revenue to run the program. Players will sit in awe watching the program do its work. In addition, and regarding MMOs in Asia as much as in the West, it is obviously important to know the demographics of players. According to panelists, one Asian company apparently found that 60% of their customers were unemployed, which implies that most of their money comes from government unemployment checks. Singman brightened when he described letters from housewives thanking his company at the time for providing their husbands with enjoyable entertainment that is cheaper than gambling.

In terms of designing game story content for Asia, Needham recommended adding Asian themed expansion packs to MMOs in both Western and Eastern markets, in a similar way to what EverQuest 2 did through a local studio in Asia. However, the most emphatic comment came from Singman, who warned developers away from using futuristic storylines, due to a cultural disconnect with the concept of a “future” world.

Following this, panelists briefly touched on whether licensed games were appropriate for Asia. Needham suggested that the Star Wars franchise was not as successful in China as the United States, because China did not have theater when the first movie was first released, but that the advent of DVDs is encouraging for filling gaps in IP development. Singman advised finding Chinese-friendly IP to turn into MMOs, such as Transformers or Hello Kitty. The panel agreed that making games based on notable licensed IP is a good direction to go in, because the Asian market is usually saturated with 200 to 300 games at a time.

MMO Marketing In Asia

With so many games available and actively advertising, marketing is essential in Asia, EverQuest 2 used an Asian pop star as an EverQuest character model and made a music video. In-game visuals and character models were at the forefront of their advertisements. Moderator Jessica Mulligan told a story about her trips up the river in Shanghai during Chinese game trade show ChinaJoy. She remembered a World of Warcraft Coke commercial that ran almost every 15 minutes on trip and had to wonder how much money was spent on Asian marketing campaigns.

Hong suggested that sponsors often put in their capital for advertisements, because cases have shown that product sales went up by 60% when games were used in ads. Singman had a different perspective. On the plus side, three million dollars was spent to make the Coke commercial featuring WoW , but those involved spent an entire year working on it. Coke successfully integrated free WoW play time into cans in China.

In fact, some customers bought Coke purely for the additional gameplay boost to extend the government-enforced three hour limit. However, Pepsi tried the same strategy with another game and failed. In fact, Singman was concerned about the unstable market in China. According to him, companies are required to pay fees to put up posters to advertise their games in Internet cafes. In a twist that could seem very unethical, other companies can pay to have a competitor's posters removed! He has seen one million dollar marketing budgets thrown away in a single week, and although sales go up during the campaign, they are temporary. Singman recommended working on catch phrase URLs for LCD ads in elevators, because game ads are not allowed on TV, and Internet ads are expensive.

Conclusion

Overall, in order to make a successful step into the East from the West, companies will have to carefully consider all of the issues and select the promising avenues discussed during this intriguing panel, it's clear. And, as Mulligan quipped to end the session: “You'll need a bodyguard for your posters.”

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Postcard From Austin:
Infringe This! Why the EFF is Helping in Marvel v. NCsoft

This Austin Games Conference session dealt with the previously Gamasutra-covered Marvel v. NCSoft legal case, partly resolved but still sending shockwaves through the games industry.The controversy, which occurred after Marvel sued NCSoft and Cryptic Studios in November of last year, claiming that the City of Heroes PC MMO allows players to imitate comic book characters owned by Marvel, has implications that stretch out beyond gaming, across the whole of the Internet and even into the offline world. It's got a lot of people very nervous.


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NCSoft's City of Heroes

What's The Big Idea?

But why? As I went into EFF's presentation at the Austin Games Conference, I wondered what the big deal was? How could this case have so much of an effect? Why should anyone care about this case? While I was thinking this, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) have pulled on their tights, donned a cape and jumped in, not only to defend truth, justice and freedom of speech, but also to inform the industry and people like me why we should care about Marvel v. NCSoft. Founded in 1990 to help Steve Jackson fight the government when the secret service wanted to take files from his company, EFF sued the Secret Service and worked to ensure the enforcing of a specific search warrant for electronic information.

This first case demonstrated EFF's central tenet – they try to ensure that rights people exercise in the real world aren't removed from them online in the digital world. As Wendy Seltzer, the EFF's speaker at the Austin Games Conference, stated, “We want to ensure the Bill of Rights isn't ignored just because [that right] is online”.


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Wendy Seltzer, EFF

In a world full of fast-click EULAs, where a shower of small print legal paper falls out of our game boxes and Terms of Agreement must be consented to to utilize something we've already paid for, it's very easy to see why the EFF is worried. People often don't seem to fully understand what they are agreeing to, while the companies that supply them are becoming increasingly aggressive in limiting their customer's rights in order to protect their own property and profits.

Protecting property and profits is where Marvel's action arises. When NCSoft released City of Heroes – an MMO title that allows you to create your own superhero and defend Paragon City – Marvel took fright. They claimed that people were going online and creating their own versions of Marvel's famous characters, thus infringing Marvel's copyright. However, tracking down and prosecuting individual players would not only be costly, but a PR disaster. It would mean the company suing the very people who bought their comic books. Rather than infuriate their customers, Marvel decided to claim secondary liability and sue NC Soft for allowing people to use these copyrighted images.

Identikit Heroes

Straightforward so far? As Marvel sees it, NCSoft could be seen to be stealing Marvel's property and damaging Marvel's business. Why should a player buy any future game Marvel releases, when they can already play their favorite characters in a rival game now? And what happens to the massive licensing market if anyone can use images and produce games using other peoples' property? NCSoft must be the supervillain here, right?

The twist in this tale comes when looking at the rules that govern the Internet. A safeharbor agreement protects companies that supply services online.Aware that anyone supplying online activities could unwittingly become party to someone else infringing copyright, blaspheming, or posting generally unsavory material, the government granted that an online provider wouldn't be liable as long as they took reasonable action to remedy any such legal infringement as soon as they were notified about it.

Marvel didn't notify NCSoft. They simply slapped a lawsuit on them, ignoring the safeharbor agreement, according to the EFF. Undermining this principal protection measure for online service providers could have huge implications for anyone wanting to use Internet services in the future. It could lead to companies clamping down on any behavior they fear might leave them open to a lawsuit. Such a narrowing of public rights is at the heart of EFF's worries about this case. Possible future changes aside, this case already looks to limit a right in the online world that people have in the real world. At home someone can draw a picture of a superhero. They can grab a pair of pants and a sheet and run down the street dressed like a Marvel superhero. As this article is being written, the streets of Austin are teeming with Halloween costumed partygoers, who are having fun safe in the knowledge that Marvel won't track them down and sue them.

Conclusion

So, if people are allowed to behave like this in the real world, why should the online world be different? Shouldn't the public have a right to express themselves? Remember, this isn't a case where NCSoft is being sued for naughtily producing a game full of Marvel's characters. The company is being sued for what the public has chosen to do with the game. So, why should we care about Marvel v. NCSoft? Well, because, as Seltzer pointed out in her talk, we don't know where this will end. Companies should have a right to defend their property, but the public should also have a right to enjoy themselves and to actively explore their own creative urges. The more limits that are placed upon these rights, the less freedom the public has.

While this is about capes and superpowers, many people might think it doesn't concern them. But this nibbling away at rights will stretch beyond this single case and could even begin to change the way that our real day-to-day rights are governed. Legally, the Internet is a place as real as the offline world, and laws that are passed to govern the virtual world can spill over into the real world. This case is important, because the fight for justice in the City of Heroes could be the fight for justice across the whole world… virtual or not.

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Postcards From Austin: MMO Rant

After a full two days of earnest panels, lectures, and keynote speeches about massively multiplayer online games at this week's Austin Game Conference, after two days of alert and focused MMOG makers sharing what they know and have learned about their genre with the development community, and after a few days of game parties and the serious carousing that goes with them, after all this, the seams finally burst open. And the “MMO Rant” was the result.


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Rant On!

A medium-sized room at the Austin Convention Center was brimming with standing attendees who awaited the rant, moderated by former Sony Online VP Gordon Walton. In the spirit of the rant, I'd like to note that although an entire wall was lined with standing attendees, about one-third of the room's chairs were actually empty.

The panelists were Jessica Mulligan, whose style never gets in the way of her brain or her crass language (Mulligan is currently a consultant working on Nevrax's Saga Of Ryzom, and also worked on Ultima Online and Asheron's Call); Meridian 58's Brian Green from Near Death Studios, who proclaimed he's also known as “Psychochild”; and the slightly more reserved Jeff Hickman (executive producer and vice president at Dark Age of Camelot developer Mythic).

Starting off, Hickman put his rant in a nutshell: "My rant is basically about, as game developers, the fact that we often make changes to our games, core pieces to our games, after we launch.” “As a player, it's affecting me right now in the game that I'm playing,” Hickman said, but admitted his guilt at having done the same thing when in the developer role. Changes, he said, prevented his development team in the end from achieving the goals they had wanted to achieve. "Players come to our game because of what we put in there. We come out, we make a system change to our games--and what does it do? It alienates our players,” he said. “Instead of sticking to the thing we love, we start changing it. The 3.5 million people who are already playing our game, they're happy! Why are we changing it?”

King Love

Unlike Hickman's nutshell, Green's rant snowballed into an unclear and, some believed, tedious metaphor; he read aloud a phony letter written to pop novelist Stephen King on the loose topic of user-created content. The audience roared with laughter at parts, but Green's message was distinctly mixed. The fake letter, written from the point of view of a reader who belittles King's latest book and offers inane suggestions for revision, seemed a metaphor in parody. It seemed as if Green's point was that developers need not listen to the ridiculous criticisms of every single player, that players are not game design experts simply because they are voracious players (likewise, that readers of pop novels are not expert writers). But Green ended by saying that we need to take down the line between pros and amateurs. The audience, still laughing at Green's antics, was not shaken by his rant's notable shortcomings.

Mulligan's rant boiled down to a repeated “you suck,” aimed at nearly everyone in the room: Carnegie Mellon students, developers of MMOGs, developers of the games' content and themes, and even Gordon Walton. “I am so frustrated after the last 20 years of making the same mistakes over and over and over,” Mulligan said, citing examples such as coding before designing, changing a game after launch, ignoring the community of players, launching before the game and team is ready, and shoddily established billing systems. “Don't start coding before the design is fleshed out,” she said. “Before the ship sails out from the dock, you've got to know where you destination is.”


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Mulligan, not concerned about naming names, added: “ World of WarCraft has some of the worst community relations situations I've ever seen,” stressing the importance of not only supporting your community, but listening to them to find out what will satisfy them as players and as paying customers. To the World of WarCraft developers, Mulligan added, “Why dont you just tell [your players], ‘You're all a bunch of f---ing nerds and we want your money.'” About launching before you're ready, Mulligan turned momentarily serious. “I understand the considerations. Sometimes the money runs out. Sometimes you work for a public company. This can be helped by designing better, learning from history and also putting in customer services in place.”

And on bad billing programs: “I thought that we were over this as an industry. I actually worked on a game where the billing program was written three days before launch. It was tested exactly once with only one credit card.” And there were presales for that game. “That's one of the first interactions your players have with you,” said Mulligan about billing. “Don't keep making the same mistakes.” Walton, taking hold of the room then announced, “We've managed to put ourselves in the spiral of mediocrity.” Mulligan, with impeccable timing, called out the action of the audience: “And all the guys from Sony start clapping!”

Walton's Own

But Walton lulled the room into momentary submission with a PowerPoint slideshow of notable quotes about risk taking, to the effect of drilling into the audience's head the importance of risks. “Mostly I'm mad at myself because I'm in the same place. I'm a master of risk mitigiation. I'm not the risk-taker I once was,” he said. Walton contends that MMOG makers' inability to be inventive stems from our biology. “We are herd animals. We are employing herd strategies in a creative business,” he said, adding that everyone jumps on a successful idea, and makes a copy, but makes it worse. “Why do we do this? We do this because we're freaking mammals.”

Risk-mitigation, he claims, is a cause of our being mammals and more importantly, primarily herbivores who stick to the inside of the herd, for protection. “We're just a bunch of freaking mammals doing stupid stuff without thinking. And the thing that we're up to here is creativity. ... We're doing the same s--t over and over again. We're not taking risk with gamplay. We're not taking risks with genre. We're not taking risks with audience,” he said, adding that these are “very dumb herd behaviors.” Walton touted negative player feedback as a tool for developers. Still, a bigger problem is a static audience of gamers. “Particuarly in MMOs, we're blowing it because we're not going after anyone new in our audience. You're trying to risk-mitigate, but you're not going to grow our industry. You are part of our problem. You are not part of the solution.”

Harshly, Walton demanded that all the MMOG makers in the audience stop contributing to all the problems, including audience stagnancy, repeatedly rehashed game design, and risk-free game making. “Just don't do it. We're not going to get unconventional games if we do stuff that's conventional,” Walton said. “We need to stop running down other people doing crazy s--t. We need to celebrate somebody who is nutty enough to try something new and fall flat on their face. If we can get a hundred people to do that, two of them won't fall flat on their face. Our dev cycles are too long, which means we're not interating fast enough,” he said. “Our strength is innovation and we're blowing our strength in this particular market.”

Audience Hatred

After Walton finished his lecture-style rant, audience members contributed to the hate. Scott Jennings arose to say he's “really sick of playing D&D online.” He asked, “If I want to make the game that's not D&D online, how do I convince someone to give me $50M if I'm not Will Wright?” Walton's reply was serious. “There's bound to be someone crazy enough to give us tens of millions of dollars to do something really insane.” He suggested MMO game makers in particular try building their games at home on a very small scale to try them out first. Some ranting audience members criticized this approach until someone shouted, “How well did it work for Doom though?” “We're all PC game nuts. We're pretty much morons about this,” said Walton. “We're self-reinforcing a hobby market.”

“You can trade sweat equity for money,” said Mulligan, taking the conversation in a positive direction again. “It only goes so far, but you can. Look at the great stuff that's been done: Sim City, Doom. There are some huge examples of it. It can be done.” Walton, not quite rhetorically asked, “Why have we never made Deer Hunter Online? Because we're freaking snobs.” Hickman agreed with Walton's assessment that MMOG makers in particular are PC players who don't branch outside their own areas of taste in games and playstyle, reciting the few themes that repeat themselves in nearly all MMOGs, such as space exploration. “As long as we learn from our mistakes and learn a little bit, there's lot of opportunity out there.” “Everybody always thinks that bigger is better,” said Green, mentioning how game developers are becoming convinced that they need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of one game. “You know what you can do instead? Make a hundred games for a thousand players,” he said, calling the method boutique-ish. “You can go for niche content, and it's viable.”

Some audience members chimed in that not only do developers need to find new genres, themes, styles of play, and customers, but new sources of funding too. Steve Jackson arose from his audience chair and began pacing in front of the panelists' table. With the exception of Pong , he said, “Why is your documentation so bad? You push it off on the people who write 'Dummies' books. You push it off on the other players. You push it off on the poor guys in customer support. Those of you who have MMOs, you have the opportunity to update your documentation every day.” “Put in writing the way your game actually plays and not the way you wanted it to play three months before launch,” Jackson ranted.

Conclusion

On another tangent later in the session, Walton boldly announced, “This whole balance thing is a retarded idea. Balance is a theory. There's fun in the imbalance quite often. There's gameplay and fun in the inbalance.” Green, on balance and making changes in an online game to reach balance said, “Even if you do a good change, players hate it.” “I tell all my teams, if you take with one hand, you must give with the other,” added Mulligan. Meanwhile, audience rants continued to address topics such as poor documentation (again), entry level barriers, reuse of gameplay, and AI. “There's no such thing as AI. We have varying levels of artificial stupidity, though,” said Mulligan. And on unoriginal gameplay, Mulligan took her shot at the biggest publisher in the industry, in a fittingly ranty end to the most frantic session at AGC: “This is what you get when you don't take risks. You get Electronic Arts.”

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Postcard From Austin:
Game Writers Conference Wrap-Up

At 8.00am on Wednesday October 26 2005, registration opened for the world's first Game Writers Conference. As self-conscious scribes shuffled into a darkish conference room in Austin, Texas, big questions hung in the air - Was there the appetite for a conference on writing for games? Would the planned events cover what people wanted to hear? Susan O'Connor, the conference chair, relived her nightmares: "I didn't know if anyone would turn up! Or if the promised speakers would arrive!"


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Marc Laidlaw, Valve

With five minutes to go, Susan's first worry was over. The two hundred allocated seats were filled, people lined the walls and camped out on the carpet. The people had come…but would the speakers? As the audience composed of everyone from game design students to seriously heavyweight Hollywood writers waited, the conference's first speaker, Mr Half-Life himself – Valve's Marc Laidlaw – arrived… and he brought his muse.

Gaming, Language, Concept

Opening the conference with this 'Gaming The Narrative' talk, Marc Laidlaw set the style for the next two days. This was a conference that was going to grasp the nettle and tackle all the hot topics that exist in writing for games, the big three being – do games need stories? What is a games writer? And can Hollywood writers do it better? Throwing the cat amongst the pigeons, Marc declared "Games don't need a story - writers in the games industry are essentially unnecessary". Taken out of context, this could have been dynamite, but his point was that games must answer the question ‘is it fun to play?', before they turn to the story, or even the art. This statement went to the heart of what many speakers were to discuss, the need for games writers to understand that they serve the player. Storytelling for games only works if it is immersive and interactive. Forget this and you're not writing a game.


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Hal Barwood, Finite Arts

Next up was Hal Barwood's 'The Language of Games' talk, and the conference's second session explored writing from the early days of film to the latest game models. Barwood, now a freelance writer/designer whose credits include much work for LucasArts, and who has also worked as a writer, producer and director in Hollywood, emphasized Marc Laidlaw's point that games writing is a new evolution of writing. To master it you must understand "how to align the player with the story", so that you can "retain player involvement". In other words, Barwood cautioned that you should learn from Hollywood, but also learn to move on beyond it into the new world of games writing.

Creative Director at Ubisoft, Clint Hocking stands behind the Splinter Cell titles, and discussed 'From Concept to Localization – A Case Study For Writers' in his lecture. Stepping outside writing philosophy, this was a nuts and bolts examination of how a writer fits into the development team, and a nod to the conference's strength in tackling writing from all sides. In a nutshell, writing a script for a game is part of a process and writers must understand their place within that process if they are to succeed.

Next up was Maureen McHugh, a freelancer working for the shadowy 4orty 2wo Entertainment, producing ARGs. ARGs (alternate reality games) are an odd type of game that subvert the normal world. Normally hinging on websites, the games extend out into the players' lives. They receive emails and other communication, and end up map chasing payphones in order to communicate with characters within the game. For many this was their first introduction to the concept, a demonstration of the breadth of different games that exist, and it left everyone in the hall wanting to sign up for the next ARG experience.

Roundtables, Panels, Shenanigans

Changing the format, the next part of the day saw the delegates split into different rooms for round table discussions. Topics such as 'Distributed Storytelling', 'Emotion in Games' and 'Next Generation Storytelling' were cathartic therapy sessions where writers and designers aired their grievances with the games industry and writing. These round tables were also a chance to network. Easily overlooked, this is an important part of conferences, as Wendy Despain was to add from the floor: "Most of us arrived here knowing there were other games writers…now we can see them, we know we are not alone!"


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Susan O'Connor, Game Writers Conference Chair

Moving on, Thursday took an entirely different form with panels replacing single speakers and debate (either intra-panel, or extended to the floor) being the style of the day. Designed to place writing within the production process, 'Shared Storytelling: The Writer and the Team' was a panel of a Vocal Director, Voice Artist, Sound Designer, Animator and Producer, and painted a picture of how stories are developed and what is needed from a writer, while reinforcing the fact that a writer is part of a team.

If the writer doesn't understand games, or the role of co-workers in the game development process, then their script will fail. Mixing designers and writers, 'Writing for MMOs' was closer to a roundtable than a panel discussion. Sparks flew as panel members grappled with the question – do MMOs need stories? Plot fanatics and sandbox fans clashed, demonstrating the problems with this whole area. Are stories needed? Put simply… it depends on what sort of game you enjoy.

Giving a voice to publishers, managers and executives, the 'Publishers Panel' spoke about the importance of finding good, reliable writers. How do you find a good writer for games? Can Hollywood writers cut it in games? "The jury's still out, but it's not looking good", said Germaine Gioia, vice president of licensing at THQ. The panelists agreed that it's not that Hollywood writers aren't good writers; it's their willingness to put time into learning this new form of writing and to finishing a game. Without those two commitments, big name writers from other mediums won't make it in games. On the other hand, finding good established games writers who are high quality and know their games is difficult. It's not a lack of talent, the problem is visibility, and this is something that organizations such as the Writers Guilds and IGDA (all present in large numbers at this conference) are doing something to address.

Other highlights of the second day included 'Convergence or Collision' from a hugely amusing and informative speaker, Flint Dille, and examining how the world of games and the world of Hollywood are growing ever more intertwined. An excellent way to summarise the key themes of the conference, Flint's session exposed many writer's fears and how they must challenge them. When writing for games, a writer must write a story that can be broken. In Hollywood you won't get a call eliminating the leading lady, but in games you can get calls eliminating all six major characters and moving the key scenes from a battlefield into a submarine. This is the industry - if you choose to work in it, then accept this and get on with it. Not all games writers can handle this. Similarly, some Hollywood writers can write games and others can't. An evolving medium, games require new skills not just in writing but in teamwork and communication. This is a brave new world - learn its rules.

Conclusion

So, with people flying in from all over the world; representatives from various Writers' Guilds; a large contingent from the IGDA and a cavalcade of big names, this first Game Writers' conference carried a lot of weight. The question of whether there was a need for such a conference had been answered.


shared_storytelling_team.JPG

The Shared Storytelling Team

It's not just that there is a need for such a conference, but that it is amazing there hadn't been one before this. With keynote after keynote over the last few years screaming that games need stories and that the stories need to be better told, it seems incredible that it has taken until now for it to arrive. However, with the success of the 2005 Austin Conference and with a Writers' Guild of America session appearing as part of the next GDC, it looks like writing for games has finally appeared on the map, and that full-blown game writers are here to stay.

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Postcards From Austin:
Mobile Carriers Talk Gaming

The Austin Game Conference's Mobile and Wireless Design track featured an end-of-day panel on Thursday related to carriers in the wireless space. Two representatives each from Sprint and Amp'd Mobile discussed the role of carriers, publishers, and developers, from their perspective. The audience, struggling at times to hear the speakers, directing them several times to speak closer to their mics, only filled the room about half way.

Moderated by Eric Goldberg, managing director of Crossover Technologies, the panel consisted of Jason Ford, general manager of Wireless Games and Entertainment at Sprint; Nancy Beaton, general manager of music & personalization for Sprint; Dave Sypniewski, senior director of content, and Paul Nakayama, producer, both of Amp'd Mobile, a new carrier.

Unfortunately, Tammy Robinson of Sprint's main rival Verizon Wireless was not able to make the panel as billed, leaving it a little more lopsided. Nonetheless, Goldberg opened by giving a general overview of where games fit into the mobile environment. The responsibility of marketing titles, he said, is placed squarely on the publiers. And in that respect, “It looks like a lot of other areas of entertainment media,” he said.


sprint.jpg

 

Nascent Strategies

Sypniewski, when asked about Amp'd Mobile's strategy, said the company wants to focus on marketing content, later elaborating that the specific strategy of Amp'd will be to offer more advanced content and not specifically target amateur phone-game players or casual but uninitiated players. “Games are relevant in our lives,” said Sypniewski. He added that Amp'd's target market is 15-35 year olds. “Amp'd will focus heavily on 3D games” in order to better reach that youthful audience. “Essentially our mindset on the games... is that we will do classic arcade games; we'll also do 3D multiplayer games” as well as licensed console titles, new titles not recognized to date, and other games.

“We look at best of breed as our approach,” he said, saying his company identifies the genres the wish to carry, then find the best games for the young market that fit within those genres. Though “just because we have a relationship with a large publisher doens't mean we will take all their games,” he said. Amp'd plans to make more information public December 12, and Sypniewski said the only way right now to measure the strength of the budding company is to know that investors are putting their money into it--which he finished with a knowing and confident laugh.

The Game Sprint

Jason Ford, Sypniewski's alleged rival on this particular panel, could be more specific about practical concerns, since he is heading up the video game effort at one of the 'big two' North American carriers, and cautioned carriers against picking games based on name (or IP) alone, titles that don't necessarily deliver on assumed promises. “Brands come with expectations,” said Ford to the approving nods of other speakers.

When asked by the moderator whether Sprint's top titles tended to be from licensed or original IP, and if the company's plans include concentrating on broad or niche licenses, Ford answered like a politician, dancing around the question without directly (or indirectly) addressing it.

Mobile Developer Relations

Next, speaking on developer relations, Paul Nakayama said that he's seen Amp'd (in his short few days of working for the company) take “more of a cooperative approach.” He said Amp'd aims to keep open discussions with game developers and directly addressed attendees saying, “we're willing to be with you. What can we do? What 3D engine do you prefer?” illustrating the company's willingness to enable developers to make solid choices about the development of a title. “Three things become clear to me,” Sprint's Nancy Beaton said, finally jumping into the conversation, “[regarding] developers working with carriers. One is two different areas. We're looking at different things to try and do, different opinions, different things to be excited about.”

Second, “quality is the key. Customers need to purchase and stay on that game,” she said, annunciating and repeating the last few words for greater emphasis. “Stay on that game.” Customer satisfaction is key, she said, because it influences the customer's propensity to purchase again and again. Beaton's third point was to acknowledge and “applaud the fact that you're going to focus on data.”

“Clearly, our proposition is users and usage,” Beaton said. “If you are at all interested in playing a game, we want you to use it ... No matter whom you're going to work with, quality is key. Nobody is going to take it if it's not a quality game,” she said. Goldberg followed up by asking how one measures this quality to which Nancy responded that Sprint uses an “informal panel” of people at the company who play and review games from a “customer-like” perspective.

She said too that you can judge the success of a game by looking at some rankings of popularity, specifically mentioning Game Lobby. Goldberg again: “How do you act on quality indicators?” Beaton suggests: “If no one is buying the gameor if they buy and uninstall right away,” you know the game has not met its promise of quality. “If people purchase but never re-up, that's a sign it's not working." When asked if Sprint exposes that feedback to the publishers and developers directly, Beaton spoke clearly in the affirmative. “We do.”

Conclusion

At times, the panel didn't seem to address issues of game development so much as they addressed the phone carrier's struggles to make sense of games. For example, panelists often couldn't articulate some of the more universally accepted concepts that game developers--particularly designers--intuit, such as what makes a game fun, addictive, and sellable. But Nakayama finally hit the nail on the head, suggesting that carriers and publishers of mobile games need to leave those questions up to developers; and at the same time, developers need to understand how, why, and when phone-owners play games. “Innovation isn't really innovation unless it's intuitive and that's what we want from developers.”

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Postcards From Austin:
The Economics of MMOs

Online gaming is, as usual, a huge theme at the Austin Game Conference this year. The show has four distinct tracks this year dedicated to online games: Online Business & Production, Online Multiplayer Design, Online Multiplayer Tech and Online Multiplayer Services and Support, all taking place over two days. Even the keynote that began Thursday's conference was given by John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment, who spoke at length about the challenges online game makers face.

Introductions

In the panel session titled "ROI: The Economics of MMOs" four panelists, moderated by Gordon Walton (currently unaffiliated, though formerly of Sony Online Entertainment and EA) discussed the various methods of billing online game players and in which markets those methods work. The panelists were major figures in the MMO industry - Jon Grande, vice president of business and legal affairs of Sigil Games Online (Vanguard); Robert Garriott, CEO of NCsoft (City Of Heroes, Guild Wars publisher); John Needham, CFO and senior vice president of finance for Sony Online Entertainment (EverQuest series, Star Wars Galaxies); and Jeff Anderson, president and CEO of Turbine Games (Dark Age Of Camelot, Middle Earth Online).


austin1.jpg

 

With a nearly full house of attendees, the session began with comments about various opinions on what makes a massively multiplayer online game successful, both in terms of popularity and dollars and cents. John Needham joked regarding “SOEbay,” remarking on how players buy and sell between themselves on many of Sony's MMOGs. The panelists agreed that greatest difficulties in making money off MMOGs is player retention. But drawing the players in initially is nearly as important, especially when game creators begin to assess the intended audience's cultural makeup. “Our job is to provide entertainment to customers in a way they want to pay for it,” said NCSoft's Garriott. “Lots and lots of varieties and different games will find different ways of delivering games and making money. People will be paying in lots of different ways.” Though both the Asian and European markets were addressed, the panelists focused more on the unique Korean market, occasionally drawing comparisons and similarities between it and the Taiwanese market.

Korea, Pricing Structures

In Asia, the panelists agreed, there is practically no retail market, because one never developed. In Korea, player might pay $26 per month for their game's subscription fee, but the client is free. Many Korean games also allow players to participate for free, but pay for items in the game. Garriott showed how this model wouldn't work in the U.S. The value of something for Americans is determined by what they pay for it. If you give them a product for free, they think it's worthless, he suggested. The panelists tried to make sense of Korea's ability to sell games without a retail channel, selling virtually all its game content over the web. “In Korea, we [at NCSoft] don't use retail because there is no retail channel. One of the things that drives the U.S. retail market is consoles. Until a year ago, consoles were illegal in Korea,” Garriott said. “In Korea, a retail channel will have to develop. In the U.S., just the way the markets have developed, retail is critical. Retail will continue to be critical,” Garriott said.

The conversation also heavily covered pricing structures of MMOGs. Turbine's Anderson described what he called “the Ultima Online hangover,” and suggested that it did not result in good examples of how to price MMOs. “In retail, what are you really paying for?” he asked. His conclusion: “What we'll see over time is the market drifting away from retail” - the U.S. markets will rely less on retail sales driving the game market. “What is the potential appeal of your title?” asked Sigil's Grande rhetorically. “Can you rely on digital distribution” based on the content of your title and the players it speaks to? Asian players, he contends, are more “technological savvy” compared to U.S. consumers. In fact, young people in Asia grow up believing in digital distribution, that they should be able to purchase and play almost instantly via online channels, he suggested.

Trends For Strong MMOGs

Gordon, addressing all panelists, asked them to expand their earlier comments on trends in pricing. “I think there's a good chance prices will go up. $15 [per month] is not a price point. I don't think our player base if affected by the price. If it's a good game, they will pay $20. If it's a good game, they'll pay $25,” said Garriott. Unfortunately, making a game is becoming so expensive that developers need to think of new ways to up their returns. “It can cost $30 million to develop, $10 million to market,” said Garriott. “What do we make? The idea that we're going to do this and charge less money is a joke. We have to drive more revenue in order to fund these sort of things. It's not a price issue, it's a business model issue.”

Grande agreed that the ballpark budget to bring a really strong MMOG to market might cost $30 million or even $50 million. “Somewhere on the order of half of that will be invested in creating new content,” he said. “How to take that base of content and expose it to people in different ways, coming up with smart ways to utilize and reuse that content” will help increase the ROI. “How many game companies do you know that make a profit in North America? 50? The companies in this business are teetering on the cost structure,” said Anderson. He compared these rough statistics with the film industry, which is capable of recovering multimillion dollar budgets with a handful of blockbuster movies. “I hope subscription rates do go up soon,” quipped Needham. “I assure you we're not decreasing our rate for [upcoming MMO] Tabula Rasa,” added Garriott.

Barriers, Conclusions

On a serious note, Sony Online's Needham explained, “The big barrier is subscription itself. We offer 40 to 80 hours of entertainment for $20 a month. You can't find a better rate for entertainment. What's driving cost for us is next-gen platforms and timing of when we're going to be on those platforms.” Those factors “will up the development budget,” said Needham. Walton asked what was the highest run cost for MMOGs, and not all the panelists agreed. Anderson cited customer service, though Needham said maintenance because customer service can be outsourced. Managing the development team, he added, was an equally weighty cost. “Costs are going down except content. There is no end in sight,” said Garriott. “The one big X-factor is in casual and that's opportunity costs,” claimed Grande. “Do you perpetuate existing franchise, create new ones, or iterate existing ones?”

Overall, the panelists and audience in this well-received talk seemed most interested in puzzling over the Asian markets, particularly Korea's, and pondering almost in wonderment, hoping a similar phenomenon might crop up in North America, once barriers such as broadband are surmounted.

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