GDC09: Day 3, Review

With the Summits over after Tuesday it was now time for the regular conference. The noteable differences were: More people, no unified theme for the sessions and just plain less time for lectures.

Indies SIG
My first stop of the day was attending the Indies SIG roundtable. To elaborate: the Indies SIG (Special Interest Group) is a small, informal group of people within the IGDA (International Game Developers Association – gotta love dem Acronyms). This was basically a meeting trying to figure out what the IGDA in general and the SIG in particular can do to be of more benefit to it’s members. Since membership in the IGDA costs (~50 USD a year) the association has gotten some flak lately from it’s members that it does not really do anything substantial.

The roundtable was very poorly attended though. We were maybe a dozen people but there were some good ideas. Best (IMHO) among those some were sort of event calendar (Indie awards, Game jams) and a mentor program. Let’s see what comes of this.

Building Your Airplane While Flying: Production at Bungie
Because I forgot my SD card I couldn’t really make any pictures but for Wednesday I borrowed Kevin’s (the friend I’m staying with) SD card and made a few photographs.

Here’s one from this lecture:
Bungie Lecture 4

The talk itself was about the improvements Bungie made in it’s production organization after the mess that was Halo 2 without losing the studio culture. Allen Murray outlined the methods used to get there: One was increasing the number production staff (11+ Producers for 150+ Developers). Of course this alone is not a solution so there are a few other things in place, for example: There is a non-negotiable polish phase planned. This can not be removed under any circumstances and is (IIRC) 2 weeks per person. Also the producers at Bungie do not design, that is they do not take design decisions. They also worked to make their scheduling more transparent by providing a HTML output to everyone. Team members are constantly updated on their own schedule but can also look into everyone elses planning.

The talk was very informative and I did like that Allen mentioned the importance of physical architecture on the design team. The Bungie offices have been redesigned into a more open space where teams can be easily formed by moving people around.

Balancing Multiplayer Competitive Games
David Sirlin held this lecture on the design of MP competetive games. Being a professional Street Fighter player for many years the talk was undoubtedly colored by David’s experiences with the game.

Nevertheless David made a few very nice arguments and he does get big bonus points for his nice handout. What I liked was the point that local imbalance (RTS example: not all same-tier units are the same) and global imbalance (RTS example: one race is better than the other one) are different and that local imbalance is a good thing, while global imbalance is not. He also mentioned a tier system he uses for development which sounded quite like a handy tool.

The most important thing though was what he called self-balancing forces. These are mechanics that are so designed as to make exploits harder or impossible. The example he gave from Guilty Gear (fighting game) was a mechanic to avoid juggling the opponent in the air with a constant flurry of punches. All the game does is increase gravity after every punch, eventually making it so high that the attacker does not have time for a further attack. That’s just god damn clever and yet so simple!

Germans unite
And that was the last session. I spent the rest of the day at the Expo, talking to the Germans I met. That is the Games Academy Booth and the boys and girl from Brightside Games who were at the GDC for the IGF nomination of their student game Zeit². I was also briefly at the German evening, organized by the Messe Koeln but left early.

GDC German Evening

GDC09: Day 2, Review

The second day was the last day of the Summits and Tutorials. Since one of my objectives was to broaden my horizon I decided to join one of the workshops today.

(201) Intense Screenwriting Techniques
I chose a writing workshop, held by David Freeman, of The Freeman Group and author of the Creating Emotion in Games
book. David has a background in actual screenwriting for movies and TV and he wasn’t too humble to share it with us.

The workshop mainly consisted in him explaining his method: He uses distinct techniques to make his characters/scenes/plots seem either deeper or more interesting. He presented us 26 techniques to deepen scenes from the hundreds he teaches at his famous classes.

Two examples are putting a character into a “No-Win” situation or having a scene where “Character A’s actions unwittingly cause Character B pain”. It was actually quite interesting but I was somehow itching to go back to the Indie Games Summit so I skipped the rest of the workshop after lunch.

(309) IGDA Education Summit Working Lunch
Lunch was actually another event, as there was an education focused lunch held by the IGDA and moderated by Oren Ross and Noah Falstein (The Inspiracy), the latter whom I met at the Filmakademie in Ludwigsburg.

There’s not much to say here. I sat down with a couple people and we had some discussion on the topic. One of the guys at the table was an iPhone game developer from Denver who represented the “What companies want from graduates” view.

(304) How Do You Manage Small Indie Teams?
As mentioned, I raced over to Moscone North Hall after lunch to join in the Indie fun again, and thank god I did! Kellee Santiago, Producer of the thatgamecompany was holding a lecture on how to manage a small indie team. Her presentation was exceptional and very helpful. Granted many of the things she mentioned should be common sense, but as is so often the case: it helps when someone spells them out.

I also had the chance to talk to Kellee after the lecture which was very insightful. Also she invited me to the Indie Party (sponsored by 2D Boy, thatgamecompany and someone else) later that evening. While the party was free for all I didn’t know about it until then and it was a blast!

(304) Indies: Beyond Single-Player
This talk by Jason Rohrer, creator of many very concept focused games (like Gravitation and Passage) was focused on the fact that many Indie games seem to focus solely on singleplayer. He made a few good points but all in all I have to admit that the lecture just didn’t stick. Maybe I was not paying attention or maybe there was not enough rough substance for my memory to hold on to. Either way, I have little to say about the actual content.

(304) Hothead Games: Episodic Content and The Evolving Indie Landscape
Vlad Ceraldi and Joel DeYoung of Hothead Games were holding this polished presentation to share their experiences with digital distribution and episodic content gathered from the creation of Penny Arcade Adventures.

I found especially interesting in how their percieved benefits for Episodic content came true (faster revenue, ability to tweak game based on feedback, smaller cost creates lower buy-in hurdle for new gamers). One thing that they did not expect though was the amount of negative feedback they got for their episodic strategy. A lot of players seemed to assume that they are simply breaking apart a game to sell in smaller chunks for more money. This actually lead to them abandoning the Episodic method for their next game Deathspank.

(309) A Guided Tour of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses
In this lecture the author of the abovementioned book gives an overview. And since I’m currently reading and recommending the book (borrowed from the esteemed Dr. Helbig) I though I’d sit in on that lecture. Unfortunately I had to cover quite a distance from one lecture to the next so I missed the first half. Not much to say about the lecture though. It was good and entertaining but I felt that he reiterated much of the book. I regret not having bought the cards to the book. Otherwise I could have done like the one guy from Crytek who had 3 sets and got them all signed. I will get them though…

(304) Making LOVE in Your Bedroom
Hurrying back to the Indie Summit I came in to see the last 15 minutes of this presentation. Eskil Steenberg was showing off his completely self-made MMORPG LOVE. The project is really beautiful and great to watch but the complexity of backend and editors he showed were just scary. He’s built his own modelling and uv-mapping tool for chrissake!

Funny was how he wouldn’t stop talking. The next speakers were already setting up and standing there. To continue with the program the room had to practically applaud Eskil off the stage. Even then he got some extra time at the end of the summit to show more of his stuff.

(304) How to Finish a Game Project You… Hate?
Contrary to the title, Alec Holowka (Aquaria) and Tommy Refenes (Goo!) did not talk about actual techniques to reinvigorate your love for your game. The lecture was more like a short postmortem for each game, focusing on the problems and troubles. Goo! for example was suffering from a lot of reworking and eventually of one person of a two man team leaving the group only later (after an IGF award) wanting to get back in. Beyond that I have little more to say on the talk but I guess the lecture was alright and Aquaria looks really nice.

IGDA and Indie Party
Tueday evening I went to the IGDA party, which was free since I was a member. Unfortunately the event just didn’t do it for me so I decided to skip after not even a full hour and I headed to the Indie Party, where I got drunk with a lot of other people I didn’t know. I had a lot of fun though, and there’s this picture here:

GDC09: Day 1, Review

My first day of the GDC 2009 is over and I decided to write up a short rundown of my day and review the different lectures. If you’ve got any questions I’ll be more than happy to share more information.

2D Boy: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going Indie But Were Afraid to Ask
The first lecture of the day was held by Ron Carmel, one half of 2D Boy, the creators of the charming World of Goo. Ron was providing some interesting insight into the development process. What I found especially valuable was the look at the distribution: Things like percentages for the different platforms (WiiWare, Steam, 2D Boy Website…) and the develpoment of sales over time. Also the slides to the presentation are available here.

2008 IGF Finalist Overview
This lecture was basically just a quick rundown of all IGF Finalists presented by Steve Swink. It was nice to see the wide variety of the games. I’m just glad I’m not one of he judges because the games were so different that I’d find it really hard to compare them. Also I have to say that I do have a fondness for The Unfinished Swan.

Independent Games & Sales: Stats 101
This 30 minute lecture had the goal to present a closer look at the numbers behind indie games. This sounded really interesting to me since having some hard numbers would be helpful to judge going indie. Unfortunately Simon Carless‘ lecture consisted of too many slides with too much text presented in too little time.

And worst of all, the many many numbers were presented without context to one another. A few graphs would have been wonderful here. Regardless the lecture provided a few interesting numbers and I did like the fact that Simon was clearly marking which numbers were officially released and which ones were guesswork.

Indie Games: From Buzz To Business
Moderated by Game Attorney Tom Buscaglia, this lecture focused on using the Buzz generated from an adward or big press mention to create or boost a business. Present to share their experience were Dylan Fitterer, creator of Audiosurf, Michael Wilford from the Maw team and Zach Aikman, founder of Fishbeat.

The session was basically a moderated panel and there were a few gems but in general I did not find it too helpful. After fifteen minutes the most important things had already been said and the session seemed to lull. One nice funny point though: Dylan Fitterer simply put ads in the paper to get random people to test his game for a few bucks.

The Four-Hour Game Design by Cactus
Jonatan Söderström (aka Cactus) documented his reasons and methods for creating games in four hours. The presentation was very entertaining and diverse. I especially enjoyed the different methods for “quick and dirty” graphics. Even though the lecture was very funny I felt that it was only scratching the surface. Talking about sound, music and graphics is leaving out the topic of code, which (at least to me) is a higher hurdle: Everyone can do cheap graphics in paint or steal sounds and music from the interweb but coding a game is a lot more difficult. A small gem though: He mentioned SFXR, a tool to create sounds that looked really interesting.

Petri Purho of Kloonigames, the creator of the famous Crayon Physics shed some humorously tinted light on the project. It initally begun as a simple prototype in a 1 game a week project, he uploaded a YouTube video and the many many views it got showed that there was more to the concept than a throwaway prototype.

So the idea for Crayon Physics Deluxe was born and independent production began. And took much longer than expected. Demotivated by a wealth of clones Petri still completed the project and the game is now available for PC and iPhone, though the iPhone version was developed by Hudson.

Interesting to me was the initial idea of Petri that the game should encourage playful solutions to the given problems. And while there are players who come up with extremely complex, rube goldberg machines, most players simply blazed through the level in the simplest way possible.

A video of the lecture is available at YouTube.

Embracing Constraints
Dylan Fitterer, creator of Audiosurf was holding this talk on the importance of constraints for design as opposed to designing from an clean slate.

This is something I absolutely agree with and have been saying for a while now. I think that this is applicable to all createive endeavos and I’ve even adapted/developed a few techniques to create random constraints for myself to fuel my imagination. A good example is when I am the storyteller for a Pen and Paper Roleplaying game. I often tend to ask my players for random input – words, locations, settings, characters, scenes. I then use this input to come up with an interesting scenario much faster than if I was working from scratch.

What happens there is that this (not quite) random input forces my brain to think in ways it would otherwise not. It creates connections between the data from the different players that would have otherwise not happened.

Design Today
This lecture was a series of presentations from a wide variety of Casual Game Designers. (Jason Kapalka, Miguel Tartaj, Michael Wyman, Jane Jensen, Nick Fortugno, Kenny Shea Dinkin and Todd Kerpelman). Each one was talking about a certain “genre” of Casual Game, going into detail about the Design dos and don’ts.

While it was interesting to get an overview over the “genres” of Casual games, the lecture itself was quite boring after a short while since much information seemed to repeat itself. It went so far that I decided to bail early. However what I took from that is that there’s a series of genres – or rather templates of Casual Games. That is that a popular game has established itself and a lot of clones are created. Templates are things such as the hidden object game, the tower defense, the time management game…

No Publisher? No Problem! iPhone for Indies
After a long day, this presentation was the last. Held by Sergei Gourski (Fieldrunners) and Adam Saltsman (Wurdle) the two were discussing their path and experiences with Indie development for the iPhone. Unforunately I have missed a large part of it since I joined after leaving the Design Today lecture. What I found interesting though was that quality seems to be no deciding factor when it comes to the success of a iPhone game, it seems to be more about a short and simple concept. The “mood ring” game – or popping zits.