7 March 2011

GDC Saves the World - Impressions: Day 4 - by Robert Boyd

      Posted 03/07/11 02:36:00 pm  

This is day 4 of my ongoing blog of my experiences at GDC. If you haven't already, be sure to read Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. Sorry about the delay – thanks to my inexperience with using my daughter's laptop (which I had borrowed for the trip – I'm strictly a desktop man), I accidentally deleted this report. I was so annoyed that I decided to just wait until I got back home from GDC to redo day 4 and write day 5.

Day 4 began in a truly legendary way – the classic post-mortem for the game Out of this World (or Another World depending on your location). This was yet another landmark game in my childhood so I had been looking forward to the talk all week. It did not disappoint. This was the most technical of all of the post-mortems I had attended so far with a lot of nitty-gritty details about just how exactly he built the engine & code. One thing I thought was very impressive was how the entire game was able to look so good using a mere 16-colors at a time. Oh and thanks to the power of polygons, he was able to get very cinematic looking scenes using a minimal of space. The opening cinematic, for example, was done with only 84kb. As for design tips, his talk about varying the pacing was very interesting and useful. Oh and for the iPad owners out there, he announced that to commemorate the game's 20th anniversary, he's making an iPad version.

The Bejewelled post-mortem that immediately followed was a bit of a disappointment. It wasn't bad, but it was easily the least interesting and least useful of the classic post-mortems I had attended. Some of the stories about the early days of PopCap were interesting, but the actual Bejewelled message seemed to be mostly "We made a fun game and got lucky." After the panel, there was a lack of questions so I got up and asked why the sequels took so much longer to develop, hoping both to spark a discussion on Popcap's design philosophy (which is very Nintendo-esque) and give other people time to ask questions.

After the Bejewelled post-mortem, I had a brief meeting with someone from Gamersgate. We talked a bit about the service and how they would like us to put our upcoming PC version of Cthulhu Saves the World on their service. He mentioned some of the ideas that they have for improving sales for indie titles like bundles and an indie-focused section of the site. I was rather surprised to learn that Gamersgate is run by a very small team of only 7 people and that they're located in Sweden. Between Gamersgate, Minecraft, and Amnesia, Sweden is really emerging as a country to watch in the indie gaming scene. I agreed that we'd be happy to put our games up on Gamersgate  – ideally, we'd like to have our games available on all of the major digital distribution services.

After lunch, I sat down for Cliffy B's panel. It originally had a rather generic title, but he decided to change the topic to talk about the Rise of the Power Creative in Gaming. He defined the power creative as someone who is visible, calls the shots, unique, and valuable. As someone who designs games and runs a small indie studio, I found this talk incredibly fascinating. I have found as an indie developer that you almost need to market yourself as much as your actual games – one of the reasons that people like indie games is because they feel closer to the individual developers. I've tried to make our development process as open and personal as possible with frequent interviews, updates on our site, and constant twitter updates, but there was much to be learned at this panel. If you're a designer or would-be-designer, I highly recommend that you get a copy of the transcript for this talk and read it carefully. Don't settle for a mere summary – this talk was DENSE and a summary would not do it credit.

And now, it's time for a change of pace. The vast majority of the talks I have attended this year at GDC have been design focused, but the next panel I went to was all about the business aspects of games. Specifically, it discussed the realities of working with a publisher. As someone who had looked into becoming a writer before deciding on game development, some of this stuff was familiar to me, but a lot was new. One thing I thought was especially interesting was how they said that if you're presenting a demo, it should either have highly polished visuals or it should consist of a bunch of single color boxes (proof of concept). If you do something in between (placeholder art, for example), publisher will feel like you can't really do good art, but boxes makes it obvious that this isn't the finished product. Other points that I thought were especially good were researching the publisher, be concise with your pitch, sell your group not just the game, build a relationship, don't be defensive against criticism, and get an actual industry lawyer when it comes time to start signing things.

The Q&A for the publisher panel was quite amusing – naivety after naivety.

Q: What about publishers stealing your great idea? A: That doesn't happen. Well, outside of Zynga. Me: Of course, it doesn't happen. A great game isn't a great idea. A great game is a host of great ideas, combined with hard work, talent, and passion. Publishers don't pay for great ideas – they pay for great studios who can deliver on great ideas.

Q: Can I get a publisher to fund my AAA game and still get to keep the IP rights? A: No. The only way a publisher might possible agree to something along these lines is if you self-funded the game and they were just covering marketing and distribution. However, you can negotiate other things involving the IP – for example, having some say in the IP or having the IP revert back to you if the publisher doesn't do anything with it after X years have passed. Me: Well, duh. You're basically asking the publisher to give you free money here, instead of asking them to invest money.

On another note, am I the only developer who doesn't care that much about IP ownership? I mean, it's nice to be able to do cameos from my older games in my more recent stuff and I'm glad that nobody is out there making Breath of Death porn games, but as a designer, I have FAR more ideas for games than I have time to actually make games. Even if there was a big financial reason to do so, I'd rather be working on new ideas and not just sequels and remakes.

After the panel, I talked briefly to one of the speakers – Chris Charla, the portfolio manager of XBLA. I introduced myself as a speaker at the XBLIG Success Stories and he seemed pleased to meet me. He talked about how they're going to try to make it easier for the cream of the XBLIG crop to progress to doing full blown XBLA titles in the future. I mentioned briefly the possibility that we might collaborate with Microsoft Game Studios after we finish our next game and then let him go since I'm sure he was extremely busy.

My last panel for the day was the SWERY panel (creator of Deadly Premonition). Very entertaining and lots of interesting ideas for making stories more involving. One thing he mentioned was that they tried to stick a lot of everyday situations in the game so that the player would remember the game during their daily life. The use of mind-mapping for character creation is something I plan on using in my own games. Oh and the talk about cliffhangers was great. I think that's one of the reasons why I haven't finished Mass Effect 2 yet – the individual episodes are a little too self-contained so it's easy to get distracted by other games between play sessions.

After the SWERY panel, I grabbed a quick dinner and headed over to the Microsoft bar for the XBLIG meet-and-greet. I didn't see anyone at first and was about to head off and do something else, but then I saw Ian (Soulcaster series) and a group of other people. I met Brandon Vaughan and Christin Evans (they both helped a ton with spreading the word on our Indie Games Winter Uprising promotion), the ZMan (one of the big MVPs on the XNA forums), and a bunch of Microsoft staff members and XBLIG developers. I didn't stay long, but it was quite fun meeting so many people that I had previously only known through email, forums, and twitter. And I'm pretty sure that I'm the only one who used a drink ticket for a bottled water (I don't drink).

There was a Speaker-only party later that night, but I was feeling tired and I was having trouble contacting my wife so I decided to skip the party and head back to my motel room. Turns out that when my wife tried to transfer over our phone number to her new phone, there had been an error and now she had no phone at all. I talked to her via IM and used my own phone to try to talk to customer support and get the problem fixed, but unfortunately, the customer support line hours closed soon after I started talking and we didn't get her phone up and running until after my panel the next day.

And that's it for day 4! Since I was late posting this day's events, you can expect the grand finale filled with my own panel in a couple hours!

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