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Q&A: Pinckard Talks Austin GDC Focus, Plans

In the run-up to next month's inaugural Austin GDC, Gamasutra caught up with content director Jane Pinckard to discuss this year's major MMO, online world, writing, and audio elements within the event formerly known as the Austin Game Conference.
The Austin Game Developers Conference will be held September 5-7 at the Austin Convention Center in Texas. A conference “by developers, for developers”, this year’s event, which is operated by the CMP Game Group (also owners of Gamasutra.com) for the first time, features major tracks dedicated to online games, audio for games, and writing for games, alongside a new People’s Choice track. In the run-up to next month's event, Gamasutra caught up with Austin GDC content director Jane Pinckard to discuss the pertinent strands and themes of the line-up for this year's event. How would you describe the Austin GDC’s vision? I think the vision that we’re trying to do for this year is to carry on what was done with the Austin Game Conference before the acquisition [by CMP], because there was a reason that was successful and compelling and interesting for people. We’re trying to focus on three main aspects. One is the emphasis on online games, particularly MMOs, and also online casual games. Increasingly, we’re sort of shining the light on virtual worlds and how those kinds of projects can impact game worlds. We go really in-depth, because there’s so many MMO companies in Austin that it seems a natural fit. The other two are Writing for Games, which used to be a standalone conference and is now a strong track within the AGDC, and the audio conference. The audio board really wants to level up; so the audio track at Austin is meant to be for intermediate and advanced audiences. What’s new in the MMO game space this year at the show? We have a keynote by Hiromichi Tanaka, the producer of Final Fantasy XI. The thing that’s really compelling about that game for our advisory board is that it’s a multiplatform MMO, which is really difficult to do. You have players on PCs and on consoles interacting, and that’s a huge technical challenge that they were able to roll out successfully. Another trend has really been RMTs and microtransactions – as a general category, it would be “alternative revenue streams.” MMOs are traditionally subscription-based, but there’s all these new things going on, particularly in the Asian markets, where there are virtual items sales and different ways of monetizing the consumer, so that’s been a very strong trend. We have several sessions that address that and how it’s being done in Asia and how those models can be applied to US markets. What’s going on specifically for the virtual worlds-specific audience? Well, there’s a little bit of a debate about whether virtual worlds belong with gaming and game development. But World of Warcraft is a virtual world; they’ve built a virtual world that happens to be part of a very structured game experience. So it’s not open-ended like Second Life or other titles that are tied to marketing initiatives and other products. However, there’s a lot of things going on in virtual worlds that I think can be applied to the game market, and I think that the advisory board has selected certain things [to reflect that]. One of the keynotes is Sulka Haro, and he’s the lead designer on Habbo Hotel. That’s not strictly a game, but there are some cool things being done in that world that can impact games, and might be successfully applied to games. Also, the social aspects of virtual worlds have a lot of interesting possibilities for games – combining a virtual world with social networking applications, as Habbo Hotel does. There’s also a panel on making money in virtual worlds that focuses on Second Life, but of course people have been making money off of online games for a long time. So I guess it’s about “what can games learn from virtual worlds?” We go back and forth at the advisory board about this. I don’t see that a distinction is necessarily very helpful [between games and online worlds]. There are a lot of things that virtual worlds are making strong progress that I think games could benefit from, like handling transactions. Though, things like the Station Exchange auction system, where users can trade items officially with Sony Online’s blessing – that’s an interesting step in that direction. Can you explain the conference tracks and how those will work? Online games is the biggest track, but it has a tech and services focus as well as a business and management focus, a community focus and then design. I suspect that more people will move around those different focuses, because you may want to attend a design track talk and then go to a specific biz and management talk that correlates. The online games track has sub-track specialties. Each track has a specialty but we’ve noticed that especially at the GDC, designers will go to design track talks and production talks and all kinds of things. Audio engineers go to audio talks, so we’ve designed it that way so that all those things are in one place, to make it feel like more of a community-building experience, so they’re all in the same sub-conference together. We did the same with the Writing for Games track, and we pulled out a couple sessions that are more workshop in nature. The Writer’s track is looking really good! What differentiates it this year? The keynote for the writing track is Lee Sheldon, who was a writer and producer for TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Charlie’s Angels and Cagney and Lacey, and he’s also a professor at Indiana university. So it sounds like it’ll be a really fun talk, and I think there’s a lot of interesting things going on with TV writing that can be applied to games, because it’s so episodic. I wonder if there’re not some elements of that that can’t be applied to games. That’s followed up immediately by a talk about Star Trek called 'Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Star Trek', and he goes through Star Trek episode plots and talks about what does and doesn’t work and how that’s applicable to gaming. Then there’s an improv workshop that was really popular last year, and it’s basically meant to sort of get you up on your feet and actually do improv as an exercise to improve as a writer. Can you give me some insight into how the program is assembled, and where you get your cues as to what kinds of panels to include? We have an amazing advisory board, and we did do a call for papers, and so some of the talks were chosen out of the call for papers and the board graded the talks and discussed amongst themselves. And then the advisory board sometimes did invites based on topics they were interested in. We maintained basically the same board from last year’s Austin Game Conference because they wanted a sense of continuity with last year, and so we didn’t want to have massive sweeping changes. So it’s really the same board, and the board acts very involved and independent; they come up with a list of things that they want, and our job is to give them that! What are some other elements that you think attendees might particularly appreciate? The keynotes this year are really amazing; Hiromichi Tanaka’s keynote is going to be very interesting, and it’s also great to have an international speaker. Sulka Haro is from Finland, too. And usually it’s Rob Pardo who speaks for Blizzard, so it’s really cool to have Mike Morhaime giving a more business-oriented talk.

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