Here’s a brief overview of the seminars I attended at GDC. Good stuff overall.
Casual Games Summit: The first two days of the show were taken up with summits. It was a toss up for me between the Independent Games Summit and the Casual Games Summit, but I ended up choosing the latter. The first part of the summit was a general overview of the casual game space and then there was a series of more focused lectures about content, business models, future developments, and so forth. I heard some attendees complaining that they weren’t learning anything new, but as someone who didn’t know a lot about the business end of casual games I found it quite useful.
Rules of Engagement: Blizzard’s Approach to Multiplayer Game Design: In this lecture Rob Pardo talked about multiplayer design in WoW and Starcraft II. It was interesting enough, but not particularly illuminating.
Game Writer’s Roundtable: Tricks, Techniques, and Concerns: This was basically a bull session for writers, moderated by ex-White Wolf developer and current Red Storm Manager of Design Rich Dansky. I really enjoyed this, as it was a chance to talk shop with a bunch of other writers. That’s a lot rarer than you’d think. It was interesting to note how practically every company handled writing differently. Some of the people there had more or less been thrust into the role when there was a need for writing and no one on staff to do it. There was a woman from Harmonix, for example, who ended up writing descriptive text for clothing and other accessories for Guitar Hero, though she was hired to do something else entirely.
Collaborative Writing and Vast Narratives: Principles, Processes, and Genteel Truculence: The shtick here was a mock argument between Ken Rolston and his partner Mark Nelson. The two worked on Morrowind and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Ken, who came out of the tabletop game industry, argued that best way to handle vast narratives was to concentrate on setting and theme. He talked about the big vision stuff he did when creating the worlds for his previous games. Mark countered that all that was useless without character and story. He stopped short of calling Ken an ignorant slut, which was too bad. Anyway, this lecture was pretty entertaining and of course the conclusion was that the two approaches worked best in concert.
Proper Use of Episodic Content in a MMO: Despite its title, this was really more of a City of Heroes/Villains post mortem by Jack Emmert. With CoH bought out by NCSoft, Jack was quite willing to be forthright about the history and challenges of the game. He then talked some about Cryptic’s just-announced Champions Online, and how it would benefit from the lessons of CoH. He was talking about that when I got up to ask a question. Jack, misinterpreting my move, said to the audience, “Chris Pramas is walking out because I didn’t license Mutants & Masterminds!” I laughed and then asked my question. Then I gave Jack some good natured shit after the seminar was over.
The Future of MMOs: Probably the most packed session I attended, this was a roundtable with Jack Emmert (Cryptic), Ray Muzyka (Bioware), Mark Jacobs (EA Mythic), Rob Pardo (Blizzard), and Min Kim (Nexon) discussed what was coming down the pike for MMOs. Moderator Jon Wood of MMORPG asked the panel some questions and then opened it up to the audience. The funniest moment was when Jon asked if microtransactions were the wave of the future for MMOs. Jack went off, ranting about how microtransactions were seen as a silver bullet and how he just didn’t see it. Jack, he loves the subscriptions. Then the Nexon guys pipes up, quoting player numbers for games like Maplestory and noting how much money the company has made using microtransactions. Later many people tried to get Ray Muzyka to spill on what Bioware’s upcoming MMO is, but he did not take the bait.
You can read some quotes from this panel here:
Let Me Win: Kate Stone-Perez, a Microsoft producer responsible for dozens of Arcade titles, gave an interesting presentation about customer retention through more forgiving gameplay. Her basic argument was that video game design often uses techniques that date back to the arcade game era. Those games were designed to get you to spend more quarters. Today, she says, games don’t need to do that because people pay up front. You’ve got their money, so make sure they have fun. She had some interesting stats, showing how few people bought sequels to games they never finished. It’s thus really in the publisher’s interest to ensure that people can finish the game without undue frustration.
Teaching Players: Tutorial and Opening Mission Design in Company of Heroes: Despite some technical problems with the Powerpoint presentation, this was a really interesting seminar. Two guys from Relic, Neil Jones-Rodway and Aldric Sun, talked about their design choices in the teaching content of Company of Heroes. This included both the tutorial proper and the opening suite of missions. What I liked about this presentation was that they showed clips of the missions from different stages of development and talked about how playtest feedback contributed to making this opening content better. One thing I found curious is that the opening mission is D-Day, but the second mission goes back in time to cover the paradrop the night before. I asked if any of the playtesters had conceptual problems with moving back in time and they said no. One of the Relic folks told me afterwards that the issue I brought up vexed him for months. In the end they really wanted the first mission to have the drama of D-Day. I certainly saw the point, but I argued that 20,000 paratroopers dropping into Normandy was also pretty damn dramatic.