After several years of hard work on The Agency, my designs on that game will probably never see the light of day. I was one of the many SOE employees at Seattle who now finds myself working a new job. I feel fortunate to have landed at Gas Powered Games, where I am now working on Age of Empires Online. I started in June, but it seems prudent to wait a couple of months to post thoughts and impressions. Gas Powered Games represents a new experience for me as it is one of the few independently owned AAA game studios left. I've been a fan of Gas Powered ever since the original Dungeon Siege came out and the stars aligned in such a way that an opening was available just as I was looking. While I once looked at independent studios as risky from an employment perspective, Gas Powered has been in business longer than the branches of THQ and Sony that I used to work at. Staying at Nintendo would have probably been the most stable, but I've definitely had more opportunities as a result of exploring other companies. I've also learned the harsh lesson that working at a first or third party publisher can put unrealistic goals on the development of games developed there, and investors on Wall Street can play a significant role in what type of resources (or lack thereof) projects might get. I think that downside has more to do with the machinations of corporate America than 1st and 3rd party publishing, but it plays a serious role in how games are developed at those companies.
As previously mentioned, I've been waiting to post my impressions of Gas Powered Games for a couple of months, mostly because I'm still in awe of how efficient the company is run with barely a lick of overtime. My colleagues are passionate, professional, experienced, mature, and fun to work with. Age of Empires Online is an awesome game to work on and I'm excited about the areas I am working on. I'm also enjoying a break from games with guns. Now that I'm not hidden behind a corporate veil, I'm hoping I can speak about my work more openly, both my professional projects at Gas Powered Games and my personal part time projects. My family has grown by one in the past month which has kept me both super busy and sleep deprived, but it has also given me time to reflect on life goals and reignited some of my lost passion. Getting back to writing is one of those passions I want to get back to on a more regular basis. On that note, I finally put together a comprehensive portfolio of my work here. I expect my updates to be a bit irregular as I adjust to my new home and work life, but they will be coming.
Monday, March 07, 2011
By this point, there will be many summaries of the content of the Game Developers Conference on the internet. As a result, I'm going to do something a little different. I'm going to highlight 3 takeaways I personally found important from each talk. This year I mixed things up and only attended talks for the first 2 days of GDC - specifically, the Independent Games Summit. While each of these talks featured more than 3 interesting takeaways, presenting my notes in this format allows readers to efficiently combine my top talking points with the ones they find at other sites, hopefully reducing the total number of summaries that need to be read without having direct access to the speaker. For each talk, the 3 points are not presented in any specific order. I apologize to speakers that I may have omitted in sessions that featured more than 3 presenters as I wanted to keep the "3 highlights per talk" rule consistent across all summaries.
The Humble Indie Bundle - John Graham and Jeffrey Rosen (Wolfire Games)
The Humble Indie Bundle - John Graham and Jeffrey Rosen (Wolfire Games)
- Mac and Linux sales of Humble Bundle made up 50 percent of sales.
- Open sourcing the games led to higher developer revenues.
- After Steam keys were issued for the bundle, one person bought 1500 bundles at 0.01 cents a piece.
- Within the casual portal distribution space, costs have tripled, revenue shares have gone down by 2-3x, and it takes 5x as many sales to become profitable.
- Get your games everywhere and see what sticks, then move to other platforms.
- Plant Tycoon is their 2nd highest revenue generator, and it's an iPhone freemium game.
- Working in an environment where you can iterate as rapidly as possible leads to interesting new game ideas.
- With expressive tools, even non-programmers can make intriguing games.
- Scripting languages such as Lua provide a quick iteration environment conducive to generating ideas.
- Tommy spent the first 2 months of XBLA development working primarily on nailing the controls.
- Game Feast promotion fell apart by the time Meat Boy was released, which meant it got pushed down to the 4th slot on the dash ads (behind car ads) and was released the same week as Costume Quest.
- Steam release has generated more sales and revenue than XBLA, even though it is a platformer.
- The problem with leaderboards is that they leave little room for player choice and expression. Specific words in Scrabble are worth way more points than more interesting words and players tend to optimize Mario Kart races for the 2-3 characters that dominate all tracks.
- One way to allow player expression is to create agnostic units - things that inhabit the world can either be friends or enemies depending on what the player does.
- The key to creating more player expression is allowing the player to generate lots of data that you listen and respond to.
- Work on highly rewarding projects and get to the gameplay as soon as possible.
- Build progressive gameplay - VVVVVV had the gravity mechanic in early and Terry made a bunch of level variants to take the gameplay further.
- Get other people to play your game. It reminds you what is fun.
- Haunted Temple Studios founder Jake Kazdal worked on Rez and Space Channel 5. He learned a lot about the value of art style guides, references, and why you shouldn't design games in a vacuum.
- Spry Fox founder Daniel Cook believes a portfolio approach is important and games should be iterated on daily based on a feedback loop.
- Dejobaan founder Ichiro Lambe believes in looking for opportunities to stand out and to create loyal customers - his game included the largest number of A's possible, he responded to support emails in goofy ways to create a lasting impression, and he created a YouTube video to respond to forum posts.
- Don't sign bad deals because they might make it harder for all developers to get good deals in the future.
- Developers need more ways to promote games other than king-making specials such as Summer of XBLA.
- Publishers for digital download titles can have a number of advantages including true support, multi-platform release assistance, marketing, reduced risk, and less platform requirements.
- The idea for Spelunky came out of a mix of ideas from different prototypes, which Derek treats as doodles.
- Creating a game with a robust procedural level generation system allows small teams to create lots of content.
- Derek prefers a development cycle that allows him to test out ideas, refresh himself, work on something big...and then starts the cycle over.
- Indie fund has received over 200 applications so far. Of those, it has funded 3.
- Part of the purpose of Indie Fund is to demonstrate to publishers what fair terms are and how funding for games should work.
- One of the main challenges for the fund is determining how much feedback to offer sponsored games and what their place is. The fund consists of developers who are not the creators of the games they fund, which makes things complicated sometimes.
- Radian Games founder says his most productive days have zero internet usage all day.
- Retro City Rampage creator built an incredible amount of tools meant to automate content creation which allowed him to build a GTA style game with a minimal number of people. Tools and techniques used include a voxel editor and exporter, automatic building generator, animation reuse, tile generators, and tile snap tools.
- Copenhagen Games Collective, creators of B.U.T.T.O.N, are trying to explore what an open-ended physical party game is. They have succeeded in creating a game where the players' body expressions and social context become the center of attention, rather than the screen.
- Monaco was developed after a failed project (Venture Dinosauria) was mostly abandoned due to lack of funding. It was meant to be a quick project to refresh Andy.
- Andy never left the game broken on any day and he made sure to work on 1 cool feature per day.
- If you are making a game for fun rather than money, at least if it fails you can win awards and leverage your awareness. The other method can only lead to disaster if it fails.
- Game jams are an amazing way to create new projects, work out game development muscles, build a framework, and to build up skills in new technologies. Creativity + constraints = awesome.
- Good gameplay arises when a player has to manipulate and understand systems that are already interesting in new ways. Use technology in ways it wasn't made to be used.
- Building awareness of an indie game is a long and slow process, but it's important and there are many ways to build it including style, aesthetic goals, controversy, community, and fans.