GDC Seminars

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:;=view&id;=9278&Itemid;=2

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.

Pouring Out a Virtual 40 for My Homey

Well, my favorite character on the Wire took a bullet to the dome this week. Knowing that the writers were hearkening back to Greek tragedies with the show, I expected he was going to go out in the final season but hoped to be proven wrong. I imagine David Simon didn’t want to make a hero out of the guy either, preferring to show the harsh realities of the street. It’s been three days since the episode and I still find myself thinking about it and being bummed out. That’s what you call effective drama.

If you haven’t seen the Wire, start with Season 1 and watch the episodes in order. You will not be disappointed.

Post GDC

I am back from GDC and trying to catch up on all the stuff that piled up while I was away. I had hoped for some movement on the Game System License, but still no joy there. When I see things like classes getting fixed hit points at each level, it makes me fear the new edition will be so totally overdesigned that I won’t even need to show up at the table; my character will play itself. Not going to worry about it until I can see the whole ruleset though.

GDC was great. I attended many interesting lectures, made new contacts, reconnected with some old friends from the game industry like Rich Dansky and Josh Mosqueira, ate some excellent food, and saw some of SF to boot. I would definitely go back and I’m already plotting on how that’s going to happen next year. I may have more to say about the lectures later.

Later this week I have another sleep study, this time to fit me out with the CPAP machine that’ll help me breathe better during the night. If things go as they should, I soon will enjoy the first good sleep of my adult life. Wohoo.

So Much for That Then

So when GW announced the closure of Black Industries a few weeks ago, I contacted them about the possibility of licensing WFRP and Dark Heresy. Since Green Ronin had created just about every product in the WFRP 2nd edition line, this was of course a natural move. The licensing lead at GW told me that many other companies had expressed interest, which was no real suprise. He also said that things were a bit chaotic over there and that it would take them several months to sort it out. However, if I wanted to put together a proposal, they’d be happy to consider it.

The following week we had some big internal debates at GR about what to do and how this could impact the company. A German publisher then contacted me to talk about the possibility of a joint venture. Since they were interested in the board games and we were more interested in the RPGs, this seemed like a good fit. However, one does not set up an international business deal in a matter of days. Nicole and I met with a friend who’s an executive at Microsoft to get some advice on the situation and then last Sunday I flew to SF to attend the Game Developers Conference. Since I had been told that this process was going to take months, I thought it would be OK to submit the proposal after I was back from GDC. I e-mailed my licensing contact at GW from SF mid-week and got a message saying that its delivery had failed. That was curious, but I was not unduly concerned.

Today GW announced that they had signed a deal with Fantasy Flight for all the board, card, and RPG rights. No one at GW warned me that a deal was going to happen this fast. I wasn’t give a deadline for the proposal, or a heads up that they were close to signing with FFG. After having had a close business relationship with GW for over three years, I was surprised that the negotiations were handled in this way.

I’m sorry that GR wasn’t able to make this work, and particularly disappointed that we won’t be able to continue what we began with WFRP. That said, if it had to go to another company, I’m glad it was Fantasy Flight. They are good folk and with Jeff Tidball on staff they have the know how to do the RPGs justice. I wish FFG the best of luck but they should be warned: it’s a grim world of perilous adventure!

The Brief Version

I wrote a lengthy post last night about my first two days in SF, only to have LJ eat it. The computer I’m on apparently can’t use the autosave function either. Boo.

In brief then, the trip is going really well. I spent Sunday at Endgame, one of the best game stores in the country. I hung out with Chris Hanrahan and crew and after dinner we recorded a podcast that GR will share with 2d6 Feet in a Random Direction. Yesterday I discovered that you can’t judge walking distances in SF by using a map because it doesn’t indicate where the giant hills are. I took part in the Casual Games Summit and that was very interesting indeed.

After a full day of lectures at GDC I took the bus to Haight St. and visited the Giant Robot store and Amoeba Records. The latter is one of the most awesome record stores I have ever seen. Acres and acres of records, CDs, and yes, even 7′ singles. I had not planned to buy any CDs; I left with 11. My reason for the trip was that local punk legends Flipper were doing an in-store performance to promote a new DVD. Since I happened to be here the right week, well, I just had to go. Their noise-damaged aural assault was still powerful and the new songs sounded good as well. The funny thing about Flipper is that they’ve lost two bass players to heroin overdoses over the years and yet they somehow managed to recruit Krist Novoselic of Nirvana to take on those duties. You’d think that dude of all people would not tempt fate.

Today more casual games seminars and perhaps a trip to the Ferry Building.


I’m heading out to Game Developers Conference in the morning. If I owe you an e-mail, you may not see it until next weekend. If you’ll be at GDC too, I’ll see you there. I probably will have neither time nor capacity to blog while I’m in Callie, so please game companies, don’t go declaring bankruptcy while I’m gone. Now I need to pack and try to get some shut eye before travel day begins.

Focus Group

I participated in a political focus group last night, which was a first for me. I was part of a group of about twelve people. The moderator asked a series of questions about what was important to us politically. Then we were quizzed on the efficacy of different types of advertising, from traditional print ads and mailers to banner and flash ads. Just about everyone said they put mailed brochures directly into the recycling, which was pretty funny and the moderator swore was at odds with their data on the topic. Later we were shown some different ads and asked to comment. At one point we were asked if we had ever been to a candidate’s website. I said no and the moderator asked why. I said, “I’m interested in the truth about the candidates and I think their websites are not the place to find it.” The whole thing took about two hours and they paid me $75 for participating. It was actually interesting to interact with a bunch of Seattleites I didn’t know and talk politics. Something a little different and I’m paid for my trouble? Sign me up for that again.

From January 12, 2005

I found the following on my hard drive. It’s funny looking back now. I do wish the idea of the inquisitor as presented here had been developed, but it was not approved.

In the 40K universe the part of the setting that works best for the purposes of an RPG is the Inquisition. This organization is divided into several sub-groups, some of which root out heresy while others combat the influence of Daemons and aliens. There is also a puritan/radical divide with the Inquisition as a whole, which means there’s quite a bit of politics and backstabbing. As you can see, the Inquisition is rife with adventure possibilities.

Now each Inquisitor has a support group of specialists. A typical retinue might include a savant (sort of like a living computer), a hotshot pilot, an ex-Imperial Guard veteran, a techno-magos, and a black ops snoop. In short, a classic RPG-style party. The problem with doing a traditional RPG on this model is the Inquisitor himself. He’s in charge, he’s a complete badass, and he probably has powerful psychic abilities as well. It’s basically the “Indiana Jones” RPG problem all over again.

I’ve been thinking about this today and I had an interesting idea. Let’s say that all the PCs make up characters that are members of an Inquisitor’s retinue. Before they make their own characters, they get together and create the Inquisitor they’re going to work for. You can think of this sort of like making a covenant in Ars Magica. It’s a hugely important part of the game, but everyone “owns” the Inquisitor. Once the details on the Inquisitor are ironed out, people make their individual characters, but again work together so they can create their own “A-Team”.

When the game starts, the GM plays the Inquisitor and uses him to send the PCs on missions. The basic conceit is that his time is so important that the retinue is sent off on investigations while he works on a higher level. The goal of the PCs is, essentially, to make the case and rouse him from his other concerns to finish the job. An influence mechanic represents this. Throughout each adventure, there are spots where characters can win influence points by figuring things out, finding important clues, besting opponents, and so on. The players compete for these influence points, while working together towards the resolution of the adventure.

When it’s time for the climax, the players compare their influence totals. Whoever has the highest total gets to play the Inquisitor in the final encounter, unleashing all the cool powers. At the conclusion of the adventure, the GM once again takes control of the Inquisitor.

The advantages to this system are:

1) It fits the existing 40K universe like a glove and is totally in line with the backstory.

2) It gives the GM an easy way to start adventures and the PCs the best of reasons to adventure together.

3) It has a fun built-in meta-game with the influence points.

4) It avoids the Indiana Jones problem by letting play of the super character change from adventure to adventure. Hopefully, everyone would get a turn to play the badass from time to time.

5) It provides a solid default adventure model for the newbie GM, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Topic Necromancy for Necromaner

In my essay on the OGL and GSL the other day I said this:

“The thing I’m really interested to find out is whether the GSL will have a clause that forbids its use with the OGL. I think this is entirely possible. It would the mean that you couldn’t take previously released OGC and use it in a book released under the GSL. A book like the already announced Tome of Horrors 4th edition would not be possible under this restriction.”

From comments here and on EN World, it seems I ought to clarify this statement.

I picked Tome of Horrors as an example for several reasons. First, it’s one of the few announced 4E products from third party publishers. More importantly, it’s an example of a book that is really going to require the use of the OGL to do right. This is because of the history of the project. Necromancer made a deal with WotC many years ago to update old AD&D; monsters that hadn’t made it into 3E. Tome of Horrors got those monsters back into the game and opened them up for use by other companies via the OGL.

Many people have asked if companies can take their own copyrighted material and update it to 4E without using the OGL. The answer is that yes, of course, you can do what you like with material you own. The issue with Tome of Horrors is that Necromancer does not own those old D&D; monsters. They licensed them from WotC. Now they did also add some of their own monsters and continued to do so in subsequent volumes of the series. So Necro could do a Tome of Horrors that was 4E updates of only their own original monsters and that’d be fine; it just wouldn’t have the unique selling point of the original. Now personally I can live without an update of the flumph or the adherer, but they do have their place in the D&D; lore.

Should there be a GSL restriction on using the OGL with the new license, the only way those monsters could be done would be for Necro to make a new licensing deal with WotC. I don’t see that happening though. The original deal was made with Anthony Valterra, who is long gone from WotC. He made that agreement without really talking to R&D; about it, and it was not a popular move at the time. I think it likely that was a one time thing.

In any case, there’s no point in freaking out about anything now because we still don’t know the terms of the GSL. Hopefully, we’ll see it soon and then the speculation can end and the real planning can begin.

Sleep Study and Stupid Music

Last week I did a sleep study, which will hopefully lead to a formal diagnosis of sleep apnea and treatment for the condition Getting full nights of restful sleep would sure be nice. The study was pretty wacky. One part of the hospital has these hotel-esque rooms. I checked in at 9 pm and made myself comfortable. I had brought multiple books to read and there was a TV in the room as well. After filling out a questionnaire, a technician came to wire me up (which took a full half hour). This was head to foot, with something like 26 connections. These sensors collect data while during sleep and help them diagnose the problems. In the end I had so many wires coming off me I felt like a cyborg. A bunch of them were pasted to my face and head with wax. The challenge after that was actually to sleep in all that gear. Lying on my stomach was right out, because there was a receiver strapped around my chest that the wires went in to. After Nik left I watched a bit of TV and read Sharpe’s Escape by Bernard Cornwell. I eventually fell asleep but it was fitful. I woke up a fair bit, trying to find a comfortable position. I thought I might be up for the day at 5:30 am but finally managed to fall asleep again until a little after 7. I had planned to go home and shower but the wax on my face compelled me to do it there. Nik and I had breakfast and then I went to work. I’ve got a follow-up this week in which the doctor will present their findings. I may have to do the whole thing again so we’ll see how it goes.

Yesterday Nik and I caught a matinee of Juno, which we’ve been trying to see for awhile. It is a good flick, maybe not Oscar worthy (except perhaps for Ellen Page, who was great) but definitely enjoyable. The one thing that grated on me was the music. A little Kimya Dawson goes a long way in my book and she did the entire soundtrack. Afterwards Nik and I both had one of her frickin’ songs stuck in our heads, to our chagrin. By the end of the night we wer saying, “Screw you, Kimya Dawons!” This morning I was finally free of it. Or so I thought. The bus I take to work passes by Easy St. Records. Their sign today said: Live In-Store, Kimya Dawson, Feb 9. Apparently I cannot escape.