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MUD-Dev Convention Report

Crammed into a small room the weekend after GDC, the second-annual MMOG-focused conference provided a chance for developers to explore the future of online gaming.

When a game developer's fancy turns towards San Jose at the end of March each year, they are naturally thinking of Game Developers Conference, hosted by CMP. However, the day after the world-renowned GDC is over and most of the regular "professional developers" have returned to their hometowns is when the truly hardcore hang out across the road in the Hyatt Sainte Claire hotel. Cramped into a room not much bigger than those hosting some of the smaller sessions at GDC, giving up their weekend, they swap stories of success and failure, academic research papers and interesting history lessons.

Welcome to MUD-Dev Conference 2004, the second-annual official developer's gathering of the MUD-Dev Mailing List that took place March 27-28, 2004. Inaccurately named, the conference covers all forms of Massively Multiplayer Online Games rather than just Multi-User Domains (a.k.a. Multi-User Dungeons). Considering how hot a topic these games are in the games industry right now, there were probably many people at the GDC who would have benefited from the MUD-Dev conference had they realized that it was taking place and the topics it was to cover.

Easy going and relatively quiet-spoken J. C. Lawrence is the MUD-Dev mailing list moderator. With his jarhead buzz cut and bone-crushing, no-nonsense handshake he's the sort of person you'd expect to find on a parade ground barking orders at raw recruits, not MC-ing a gathering of weedy, pasty-faced game developers. J. C. ran the show with all the stress-free aplomb of a seasoned conference organizer. He had time for everyone and more energy than the entire room combined as he squeezed his 6' 7" frame between crowded aisles bearing the radio microphone that conference attendees would use to bombard the current speaker with questions, comments, and occasionally lengthy rebuttals. It was a testament to J. C.'s professionalism and easy-going nature that even though the conference began 25 minutes later than planned and ran those 25 minutes late throughout the day--not one person kvetched. Everybody was there to have fun and learn what they could. If the conference had been any more laid-back, a few chairs would have tipped over--that made for a pleasant change from the almost constant frenetic pace of the previous five days at the Game Developers Conference.

The MUD-Dev Conference officially kicked off at 10AM on Saturday, but almost the entire conference attendee list gathered the evening before to walk the few blocks to Teske's Germania, a Beer Keller situated in downtown San Jose, for what is quickly becoming a traditional dinner gathering. It was here that the first inkling of just how diverse a group of people would be attending, and how far they had traveled, became apparent. Each person in the room stood up, one by one, and briefly introduced themselves to the assembly--no rambling introductory speeches allowed. The ratio of men to women was noticeably more even than at other game developer gatherings, echoing the wider demographic appeal of online games. One more MUD-Dev dinnertime tradition happens when desert is served--everyone stands up and exchanges their current seat for another, forcing everybody to start a new conversation with a new group of attendees.

Walking around on the Saturday and talking to the attendees felt very much like the early days of the Game Developers Conference, back when Chris Crawford was a big part of the event. Everybody knew everyone else, and people were not just faces in the crowd. The person you spoke with earlier or had a lively discussion with about game design over a crowded lunch table was later presenting a panel discussion on the history of Habitat, or an academic paper on "Continent Scale Persistent Online Worlds."

The conference had a strong academic and professional presence with luminaries from universities and companies around the globe. Attendees from large developer studios (such as Sony Online Entertainment) were here to listen to what others had to say about persistent multi-player worlds, and offer their own advice and experiences.

The speakers, consummate professionals who presented their topics with the same zeal they practice their craft with, covered a head-spinning range of topics. These ranged from specific programming issues related to automatically generating interesting content for online persistent worlds to more academic discussions on the future of cyberspace economies and sociological issues.

Alistair Riddoch, a lecturer at the University of Southampton, England and one of the co-Lead Programmers on the Open Source Software (OSS) project "WorldForge", opened the conference with an academic paper detailing how to stream large, continuous terrain data sets using pseudo-random predictive interpolation for compression of the height field. Programming continued with John Arras presenting his academic work on hierarchical world generation that is used to automatically spawn content for a persistent world.

A panel presented by a number of professional award-winning developers, which included Daniel James, one of the developers of this year's Independent Games Festival multiple award winning game Puzzle Pirates, spoke about developing independent online games, the hurdles they faced, and the financing models available.

Shortly after lunch, Constance Steinkuehler, a psychologist studying online games for her PhD, gave her experiences as an online guild leader for Lineage: The Blood Pledge, also the subject of her thesis. She advocated that companies be more open and give greater control to the players, who contribute enormous resources to the game world both online and offline. She presented possible ways in which companies could leverage those players who make the games a large part of their life. Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar, winners of the first IGDA Penguin Award--given to trail-blazing pioneers in game development--and the founders of Habitat for the Commodore 64, on the other hand, gave a more sobering look at what really works in the commercial world with a case study of their experiences at Habitat and in later online communities they developed. Their long experience in the field gave some very valuable insight that creators of any online community or game could really learn from. For anyone who missed the conference and is interested in digging deeper, Chip maintains a lot of this information in the article "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat" on his website.

At the end of the Saturday programming conference, attendees began the pre-organized trek out to Dave & Busters (Chuck E. Cheese for adults) to consume vast quantities of bar food, alcohol, video games, and further lively conversations concerning online worlds.

Sunday saw the conference take a slightly different approach. Willing people were divided in to small Kaffeklatsche (round-table discussion groups for those who don't speak Dutch) too tackle the various laws of online gaming and then come together at the end of the conference to present a summary of their deliberations. The conference wrapped up quietly around the middle of Sunday afternoon, with the majority of attendees heading to an open-invite BBQ benevolently hosted by Jon and Beth Leonard.

For more information on the MUD-Dev Conference, to purchase the audio recording of the single presentation track (well worth the money I should add) or to discover more about the group, check out the MUD-Dev mailing list website.

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