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MMOs Go Indie: The Indie MMO Game Developers Conference 2007 Report

Gamasutra's in-depth write-up of the recent Indie MMO Conference analyzes keynotes by MUD pioneer Richard Bartle and GarageGames' Josh Williams, also talking to Celia Pearce about university-funded MMO experiment Mermaids.

  Some would consider the idea of creating a massive virtual world beyond the reach of the independent game designer. The attendees of the first annual Indie MMO Game Developers Conference held on April 14th and 15th at the Minneapolis Convention center didn't get that memo.

Speakers and attendees took part in a two-day dialogue that explored history, philosophies and techniques of massively multiplayer game makers working outside the commercial realm. Keynotes from Dr. Richard Bartle, co-creator of MUD, and Josh Williams, CEO of GarageGames set the tone each day.

The event, though modestly attended, was marked by the notable enthusiasm of participants. Each day offered two tracks worth of panels and round table discussions. The game design track focused on the creative side of world making. The free-for-all debate in “Class Systems Versus Skills Systems” found many designers seeking ways to sidestep MMO orthodoxy.

On the business track, the discussion entitled “The Real Life of Indie Executive Producers,” led by Rhea Studios' Eric Rhea, helped clarify the roles of the producer – details that proved informative to designers who wore nearly all the hats in their development team.

Most speakers attended many of the talks, making the dialogue day-long. Dr. Bartle piped in a horror story when the subject of bad player behavior came up during Kelly Heckman's “Community Management” talk. One of the more well-attended round tables was the “Sex in MMOs” discussion hosted by Black Love Interactive's Kelly Rued.

While most game makers conceded that sex would occur in their games whether they liked it or not, few could muster the courage to make it a key game play element. Many cited public perception as the main deterrent, claiming that they had a hard enough time explaining to family and friends that they spent their time making a video game, let alone one that could be considered pornographic.

Bartle too moderated a well-attended round table entitled “Slaughtering Sacred Cows,” in which the influential designer invited the audience to examine the idea of persistent worlds, understand why certain game mechanics have become gospel and try to find new ways to achieve similar goals.

The two day event was organized and hosted by Minneapolis game developer Last Straw – best known for Simian Escape, one of XNA Challenge games from GDC 2007. Sponsors and attending vendors included Dream Games, Multiverse, 3spadeFX, Brown College and GarageGames.

Read on for more in-depth coverage of IMGDC panels and keynotes as well as an interview with designer Celia Pearce from Georgia Tech's Emergent Game Group.


Keynote: The Outlook For Indies, Today and Tomorrow

The inaugural keynote of the IMGDC came from Josh Williams of GarageGames. The CEO of the indie game publisher and Torque Game Engine creator used his talk as an opportunity spell out what it means to be an indie game designer. Williams posited that “having creative control” is one of the defining factors of being independent. Funding, he said, “is where the rubber meets the road.”

Bad decisions at the money stage are the key point at which creators begin to lose control of a game. Financial independence, he said, is the game maker's way of “throwing the birdie to the mainline industry and saying 'You know what? It doesn't have to be this way!'”

Williams outlined key ways to fund a game: bootstrapping, investment and project based funding. A show of hands showed that most teams in attendance were using the challenging bootstrapping technique to finance their titles. One exception in the audience proved to be Celia Pearce's game Mermaids, which uses university funding.

New tools, such as Multiverse and the Torque developer kit, help level the playing field for small teams. Out-of-the-box solutions offer more opportunity, he said, since developers don't have to create all their own technology. Another hurdle, the creation of a team, is becoming less of an issue as communities of like-minded game designers form.

Artists who make assets specifically for indie game makers are reducing the need for all visuals to be crafted in house – a problem that would be expressed frequently during the course of the IMGDC's two days.

“The hard part, the one that stumbles most developers,” Williams added, “is getting your game out to market.” Getting people to play and making a game a success is becoming easier now that there are more channels for indie games. Williams cited the existence of Steam, Xbox Live Arcade and other download services as great new opportunities. Still, developers aren't treated well, he said.

In many cases, “the royalty rates suck.” On consoles, “if you funded your own game you have creative control, but it's a lock and key sort of system. You have to go through a lot of hurdles to get approved.”


Josh Ritter's Minions of Mirth

More and more developers, Williams said, are having success by creating their own channels of distribution. He cited Josh Ritter's Minions of Mirth as an example. Low hosting costs and online marketing opportunities are making this option more and more viable, he said.

With workarounds for the roadblocks between an independent developer and success now known, the biggest hurdle to overcome, Williams said, is “ourselves.” He ended the session with advice to the game makers in attendance. Scope, he suggested, was a vital consideration. “Think small,” he implored. “Be willing to scrap ideas.”

Williams suggested tackling a job suited to a team of two or three people working for six months. “If you think you can do it in six months, then you have a good chance of getting it done in a year.”

“Dream tight. Dream small. And dream niche too,” he told the audience. He closed his pep talk with the call to action, “Let's get some shit done!”


Keynote: Independence Day: Imagination Will Triumph Over Orthodoxy

Dr. Richard A. Bartle spoke to attendees of the Indie MMO Game Developer's Conference on the second day of the two-day event. The co-creator of MUD, an influential predecessor to massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and Everquest, he delivered his early-morning keynote to a full, attentive room.

His talk drew comparisons between the first annual IMGDC and Adventure '89 -- a meet up held in the UK where creators of 20 early, mostly text-based virtual worlds, met to demo their creations for other game designers. Games played at the 1989 event included Void, Dark City and the sex game The Zone.

Bartle's message to attendees was one of encouragement and warning. He suggested that the chances for big cash windfalls were unlikely for indie game designers, pointing to the fact that most attendees of Adventure '89 only broke even with their undertakings. Financial considerations, while important, Bartle said weren't the real reason most attendees had chosen to make their games.

Today's “flowering” of creativity in the independent MMO scene is occurring because “designing virtual worlds is fun.” Dr. Bartle had high hopes for the field's current creative output. “New media only get one window of exuberant creative expression,” he said. “We're in it.”

Citing the advantages that indie creators have over those who rely on investors, such as having less to lose and being risk averse, he called for indies to “assert their independence.” He told the creators not to worry about duplicate premises in small games. To illustrate this he pointed out similarities between the Draenai race in World of Warcraft and a hand-drawn illustration from a flyer for the MUD Prophecy. These coincidences are inevitable, Bartle said.


Richard A. Bartle co-wrote the first virtual world, a MUD, in 1978

The premises may be identical, but “the details will be different. Dark Age of Camelot is not the same as Avalon, even though they're both set in Arthurian Britain.” But he did warn against blatant genre cliché such as “magic returning to a world destroyed by a cataclysm.” As an example, he cited the many “dire clones” that were created in the MUD days and suggested that Everquest was an extension of that movement.

Tech worries shouldn't deter creators either, Bartle said. “Don't worry about not having state-of-art graphics,” he insisted. “So long as what you've got is professional, it doesn't have to be amazing. And even if it is amazing it won't be for long, because other people's will be better than yours.”

Bartle closed by calling himself a “a dinosaur in virtual world history,” and requested that the current crop of independent creators become influential and respected enough to make him extinct.


Celia Pearce Swims With Mermaids

Celia Pearce, assistant professor from the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech, leads her university's Emergent Game Group. She helped kick off the IMGDC early Saturday morning with the panel “Designing Non-Standard MMOs with Standard Tools.”

During the talk she demoed her team's game, Mermaids -- an experimental online multiplayer adventure that breaks many conventions. Near the end of the conference we caught up with Celia to discuss her philosophy for teaching game design, attendee response to her game and the lessons she learned from meeting other indie MMO makers.

Gamasutra: Tell us about what you do at Georgia Tech.

Celia Pearce: I'm part of a digital media graduate program. We want to train a practitioner/theorist. We're not really a trade school. A lot of game programs are really focused on creating producers for the mainstream game industry, but we're trying to create more of a critical thinking game designer – somebody who's well-schooled historically and theoretically in the games studies field, but who is also a good practitioner, creative and technically skilled.

GS: How does Mermaids embody that program?

CP: One of the great things about our program is that we have this project studio format which enables a faculty member to essentially lead a research project that students work on for credit. With Mermaids I wanted to make a game project that I jokingly describe as “unfundable.”

It doesn't really have any educational content and it's not really something that people would consider a marketable product. The idea was to really unpack some of the foregone assumptions and conventions about multiplayer games, and make something that was really new and different. It has a few features that are pretty innovative, especially after being here, although there was a lot of innovative work discussed.

The two main ones are the swimming navigation – the player actually swims around in an underwater world. The other was the gesture based interface that allows you to cast spells by drawing. Two others really resonated at the conference.

We were really trying to do away with leveling and point systems, which, from what I can tell, is one of the sacred cows of multiplayer game design. The other one that really blew me away in the last session was right now was we don't have any player death in our game. Apparently we're the only people in the universe attempting to do this other than the Myst Online people.


The virtual world of Myst Online

GS: Or Second Life.

CP: But in a game it seems like its not in anybody's imagination spectrum to think about a game where a player doesn't die.

GS: What are you taking away from this conference?

CP: I have to say this has been incredibly valuable, these two days. Part of it has been the talks that I've seen. Particularly Brian Green and Richard Bartle's talks which were just chock full of historical information, as well as really incisive perspective. Both of them are coming from a historical point of view. They've been here since the beginning, so they can talk about how things have developed. Richard Bartle talked about this being a moment of flowering for virtual worlds, which I think is true, especially now that I've heard him say it.

In general, just seeing what other people are doing and what they're thinking about. Also, it's been really useful for me to get feedback from this community about my project and see what the response is. I was frankly expecting to have people throw tomatoes at me.

I really thought they'd say, “Oh she's making this silly Care Bear game with no killing and nobody's going to play that.” I was actually surprised at how many people here had positive feedback about the game. People have referred to it in the past couple of days when discussing the breaking of conventions. It's been very rewarding to see that its become part of the discourse here.

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