Cititel Mid Valley
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I learn from mistakes. This time, I am at the hallway/lounge area by 9:30 AM with an extremely empty stomach. Nice pastries and some kind of noodles (fried). The crowd seemed smaller too. What I heard was that many of the participants were still in bed. Late nights would do that to you.
As it reached 10 AM though, a whole throng of people started trickling into the main conference room (which could hold a maximum of 70 seated and 20 standing). It was packed. The reason? Simply one name: Chris Avellone.
Talk 1: How to Find a Good Designer
Chris Avellone, Chief Creative Officer of Obsidian Entertainment
Chris was THE main person everyone seemed to be waiting for. The session started with an impressive resume of his previous involvement, mainly as a lead designer from Interplay's Black Isle and the current success launch of Star Wars KOTOR II: The Sith Lords. He is currently the senior designer on Neverwinter Nights 2. Obsidian Entertainment started out with only 5 people, and out of those 5, there was only one designer: Chris. That was a suicide situation as RPGs need lots of designers. Thus the need for them to hire more designers.
General Things on Game Designers
The main things that Chris wanted us to remember about Game Designers were:
- They had the role making things fun.
- They set the vision and tone of the project.
- In other words, they have lots of power in their hands.
- Good designers are hard to find.
- Even with training programs and education courses, it is not easy to get them.
- However, there are certain common traits that are shared with all designers.
- The session is to enable developers and managers to understand those traits and be able to identify them in their recruitment process.
The common things in game designers are easily seen in the general designers. Chief of all is that they are the odd ones. Chris prefers to use the word "odd" and NOT "weird." But the main thing is not to be sidetracked by the external appearances of the person but to be able to see the internal parts. The "oddness" must not only be physical/external in nature.
According to Chris, game designers must be well experienced in every facet of gaming. This should not be confined to only a specific game, or console, or even genre. They must have an all encompassing passion for gaming that would be reflected in the way things are done. This involves spending hours and hours on gaming, initiative in creating mods, a like for designing games regardless of the output quality and much more.
Creativity in these designers is shown in their ability to combine ideas that may not necessarily be unique, and they must have the right attitude (not only focused but is selfless). They should be proactive in thoroughly understanding the subject matter through research, and by involving themselves in discussions with a myriad of gaming stakeholders.
Finally, Chris emphasized the importance for the designer to know when enough is enough. He should know how to let go of a particular project even though ideas are still flooding in. Production must eventually start, and designers often are the ones who would hold it back. It is also important that the designer should not be "married" (the slide showed a vivid picture of a character talking over dinner with his idea about not seeing each other!) to any one idea and thereby doom the project with a myopic viewpoint.
Game Designers in the Industry
The points in the previous session are the common traits of any general designers in any industry. However, the traits that companies would like to see for their industry would also cover the following two main characteristics:
- Professionalism - know how to communicate with others and to convey their thinking through a variety of means (paper, phone & face to face)
- Team player - how well the designer interacts, bounces off ideas and even plays games with his/her other team members.
Finally, Chris covered practical things that a company may implement in their recruitment processes. Obsidian Entertainment relies heavily on their recruitment methodology and each process is created in such a way to address every point that was explained in the earlier part of the session.
Chris' advice is to find game designers who love their jobs no matter what and are willing to work hard, efficiently, able to critique comprehensively, professional, team players and who play myriad of games for fun.
There were about 80+ attendees for the first talk. The question and answers were fairly short as Chris Avellone covered the whole topic comprehensively. One thing for sure, he knows nothing about Fallout 3's fate!
Talk 2 - Breakout Session: Outsourcing Game Development to Southeast Asia
Gabby Dizon, President of Flipside Games
Gabby's session was interesting, not so much in terms of its contents but more for the lively aftermath discussion that ensued. He started by putting forth the notion that Southeast Asian (SEA) companies should look at outsourcing as a viable long-term career. Although the outsourcing concept is not new, we seem to forget that SEA companies are able to do as well as what the First World countries are capable of and that they are definitely cheaper in most production areas.
However, the main outsourcing leaders in Asia are China and India. They pretty much dominate every part of this industry. Besides these two heavyweights are the game developers from Eastern Europe (particularly from Russia and the former Soviet states) and Australia.
The main benefits of outsourcing are clearly cost savings and also better overhead management as operations are the usual functions that are outsourced, freeing up management time in this area. It is also a viable option when a developer does not have a particular set of specialized skills (e.g. 3D animation). The other issue outsourcing addresses is the problem with hiring and layoffs in a traditionally structured studio, where it is not only hard to find people, but it is hard to fire people when a project is completed and no immediate income seem to be coming into the studio.
Next Generation consoles are hugely expensive to produce (exceeding the $20 million budget set by Valve for Half-Life 2), and this is the chief reason publishers are taking a more risk-adverse stance in their business making (going for sequels and franchises instead of taking risks in innovative new titles). Outsourcing can help ameliorate this problem by ensuring that the content creator retains their intellectual property (IP) while greatly reducing development cost (from $20 million to probably $1 million per title). This would mean a lower break-even point for royalties, and less risk would translate into more room for experimental/innovative games.
Gabby speculates that the real solution to counter the current monopoly held by the big two nations is by massing up SEA companies to create critical mass by working together as a single entity. He termed it "Katamarization" (which we all know what it means!), and this is done in sharing 3 main things:-
His motto was for SEA companies to create a bigger pie for them which will eventually lead to internal "healthy" competition for the share of the pie. AGDS 2005 is a first step towards this vision, but what is the next step? At this point of the talk, I could actually hear some mumblings and snorts.
He explained the main challenges that we will face in this.
- Lack of AAA experience
- No experience translates to no AAA projects
- But no AAA projects would mean no experience gained.
This vicious cycle has de-motivated most SEA companies and has made us stunted in our position within the outsourcing food chain. We are still stuck at the lowest portion of the food chain, which deals with the localization of foreign products. We have yet to fully progress up to the next level of providing engine programming and level design for foreign developers. Ideally, the best outsourcing level would be full game development and IP creation. We need to definitely change the AAA companies' perception on SEA quality.
The following are proposed by Gabby:
- Partnering with established companies
- Knowledge transfer
- Train/study abroad
- Band together for international events (maybe an Asian E3?)
- SEA game development body needed (active forum)
- Focus on quality and not on cost as a benefit
Our advantages as SEA developers are numerous:
- We have deep gaming history (with which I whole-heartedly agree) with many of us being there when the first Commodore Vic 20 was released.
- Good understanding of gameplay.
- Natural English speaking ability. (I agree with him to a certain point, as the majority of SEA are still not speaking English to an acceptable level. It might not be a problem in Philippines, but I know it is a bigger problem in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.)
- Can converse with IP creators using their creative language (especially when compared with China and India).
Success Stories under our SEA belt?
- Anino Entertainment
- Zaro Corporation
Immediately after Gabby opened up for Q&A, a participant went to his mike to propose that SEA companies come together to tackle an AAA title of their own without the intervention of foreign publishers. He strongly believes that we have the potential to do an AAA without having to rely on foreign help.
James Chong pointed out that it is a viable step, as MDV is already in the midst of getting an AAA game developer to set up shop in Malaysia. This solves two things, namely getting an AAA project and secondly, training local people by knowledge transfer.
However, many voiced out their disagreement that we (SEA companies) have a big enough market in SEA to make a triple-A success. At this point, Chris Natsuume spoke up from behind the room, and the crowd went quiet. Basically, Chris "ranted" (his choice of description) about not focusing on SEA market but to publish it to any market that is available to us. His basic contention with SEA companies is that we do not believe in our own abilities and therefore we have already set up a "fixed mindset" that hinders us at very beginning. He puts the blame on the lack of risk-taking within the game development community. He went on to cite references to the case of Far Cry where the demo was made by brothers who took their family's money to finance it. They were successful in roping in a publisher (Ubisoft) on the strength of that piece of demo. And it is exactly that lack of "putting your own skin on the line" that is hindering the real progress in SEA.
Sarah Fay Krom brought up the issue of the role of government to help take at least a portion of the risk faced by most SEA companies. Someone else brought to fore the fact that government should build the confidence of the local developers, which education killed.
The second part of Chris' rant followed immediately, as he pointed out that the American government never provided game developers (for mainstream titles) any government grants. Yet, game development thrives there. The problem with the use of government support is the over-dependency on them by local developers to the point where nothing is put on the line. This translates into a lax attitude in development which is the cause of inefficiencies (especially in cost management) and poor project management. They still have to learn to take risks for themselves.
Sarah clarified by explaining that the US government does give out grants but they are usually for Serious Game Developers and it is on that model that she is addressing the possibility of similar role taking in SEA.
One of the last points raised was the fact that in SEA there is a huge lack of support from parents and people in general for game development, and this is a big obstacle for us to face. Contrary to popular belief, it is the same everywhere, as Chris Natsuume points out his parents' reaction then and now, which has not changed. He finds that there are not many cultural differences between the people except on one point: failure in Asia is not acceptable. Asian developers are just not able to accept failure and move on; instead they will just give up on everything. This, he proposed, is the main cultural issue which must be tackled.
The room was by then (12:10 PM) packed with participants from the other breakout session by Mike Ooi on Micro Transaction-based Business Models. We proceeded with lunch provided by Cititel. The spread was lovely and there was, as usual, much mixing around and exchanging of business cards.
Since the break was for an hour and a half, I took the time to do some quick window shopping at the Megamall (Cititel takes up on small section of the mall), and then it was straight back to the conference.
Talk 3 - Breakout Session: Embracing Innovation in Production
Chris Natsuume, Creative Director of BoomZAP Entertainment
After such a big meal and great discussion in the previous talk, I was totally unprepared for what Chris had in mind. He basically covered 45 slides, which were packed with heavy information, within 1 full hour! We knew we were in for a mind-numbing experience when the speaker said "I know the other speakers gave you their introduction and background, but I won't be doing that because we just have too much to cover!"
The main things that were covered in this section were the practical things that game developers can do in order to improve their production processes. This can only be done if your production design is innovative and productive in the first place. From the outset, he explained the purpose of developers to spend less money and sell more games. He was passionate about the need to view games as products and not art. If it is not viewed as a product, then it is merely a hobby.
Most components within the production process and the revenue model are controllable by the company except for price. The unfortunate part is that we are not innovative enough, as true innovation is seen in changes to the mechanics, distribution, control and genre of the game production. Fortunately, we do not need to be wholly innovative as there are iterative innovations (constant improvements in story, graphics, sound & etc.) that are constantly seen in profitable products like World of Warcraft, Age of Empires and your other favorite successful games.
Chris encouraged the attendees to really understand their customers inside out. This is extremely important as the game product is made for the customer. It is wise to actually flesh out your customer to your developers, instead of just treating them as a generic customer type.
Competing Features vs. Winning Features
He brought up the concept of distinguishing Competing Features from Winning Features. The majority of features fall into the former, where developers refuse to innovate unless it is absolutely necessary. They usually have a "good enough is good enough" attitude and can actually rely on ripping off features from other companies. Documentation is usually done by references to other sources.
However, this is in contrast to the winning features where nothing is good enough, no matter what efforts have already been made. Innovation is usually from all angles and developers will refuse to copy unless necessary. Documentation is done by prototyping and diagram.
"Use them" he says. Chris believes in empowering his teams. This creates a better attitude in them when compared with micromanagement style of work. The other thing which he highlighted was the need to know how much your people cost and to factor the costs constantly into your work decisions.
He used plenty of Japanese terms throughout his presentation. Some of the main ones used were "Kaizen," "Pokayoke" and "Heijunka". The first talked about the need for constant improvements to the production processes. The main purpose of this was to eliminate waste as these would hurt developers much in the long run.
The second term meant "idiot proofing." Here Chris showed his general attitude towards workers, which is akin to Murphy's Law: always expect the worse things that can ever happen from your employee to happen! Management need to be careful to ensure that mistakes/dummy accidents are not possible for your critical processes. Automation is a very good tactic to achieve this.
The last concept refers to production smoothing, where he believes in not working off batches, although logic would encourage this type of assembly line thinking. In assembly line thinking, batching reduces costs. However, Chris argues, this does not take into consideration the costs of back tracking within your production processes. This is a very important point that many developers in the session later admitted as an oversight in the way they do things.
Before closing the session, which was non-stop lecture ALL the way, Chris encouraged everyone to concentrate on getting their basic critical operations corrected first before any real improvements are achievable.
No one asked any questions for the session. Probably, it was because our cerebrums were still aching from the one full hour information overload!
Talk 4 - Breakout Session: Developing on the Source Engine using Visual Studio
Robert Crouch, Team Dystopia
I did not manage to take many notes as my head was really still reeling from the previous session. However, the speaker was a lad from Brisbane who co-produced Dystopia, a total conversion of Half-Life 2.
Some salient points from the session are as follows:
- Dystopia is based on Valve's Source engine.
- It has a cyberpunk theme where gameplay takes place in both the real world and cyberspace.
- It basically pits punk mercenaries against corporate security forces.
They selected Valve's Source engine because:
- Of the powerful graphics engine;
- Solid, proven multiplayer network code;
- Excellent SDK support; and
- Valve's track record of supporting mods.
They selected Visual Studio because:
- Simple debugging tools;
- Ease of collaborative coding;
- Intellisense class browser; and
- Fantastic syntax checking on compile.
Their goals were to create a fun action FPS game and to gain real experience in game development.
- Draw up high level aims
- Continuously evolving design documents
- List, prioritise and assign tasks
- Iterative development cycle: design > prototyping > test > polish
There were numerous challenges faced, basically in:
- The limited time
- Zero budget
- Developers were geographically diverse
- Changing Codebase
- Fluctuating team numbers
Robert recounted his experience of going to Valve's studio in America and of seeing how they actually work. They were grilled on the concept of their game and were given much feedback. Most of them were on the complexity of the game, which Valve would never be willing to undertake. It was only after the 2nd playtest before they were given a chance to actually explain to the Valve employees anything about the game.
Some crucial advice he learnt was to not be afraid to take things out of the gameplay. The only way to know whether that component is needed is if its absence significantly changes the "feel" of the game.
Valve values simplicity of the learning curve within a game. They want that to be maintained in all their products. A good measurement for them is within a 10 minute time period.
Robert provided the audience with a demo reel of Dystopia's gameplay.
Talk 5 - Breakout Session: Approaching Game Publishers
Josh Galloway, President of Dragonback Media Interactive
This session was basically drawn up to educate game developers on how to make their pitch to game publishers and what the usual processes in approaching this matter are. Josh told the reality that out of 2,500 proposals given to him, in his previous company, only 15 were green lit.
He advocated the need to form a strong core development team before even thinking about pitching work. He strongly advised developers to prepare, at the very least, a proof of concept and prototype if they want to stand even a minute chance of being accepted. This is, unfortunately, the way it works, especially for new studios or new work teams.
The session was relatively quick, lasting only around 45 minutes. But the main part of the talk was in the sample pitching documents which Josh brought with him. We spent the remaining time looking through these documents and asking him finer technical questions on how to produce the documents.
My head was practically about to burst, at 5 PM. I had to cancel my initial intention to attend the last breakout session then, and proceeded home. The Asian Game Developers Summit has been a thorough success with so many good speakers on board to provide advice, lectures and to share their knowledge with our local developers. This is definitely the turning point for game developers in this region.