There's nothing like a sense of accomplishment after a job well done. Standing there in the lobby hall during a break in "GameIS 2008" the annual Israeli game developer conference, I felt like a proud father. I've been a supporting member of the Israeli game development community for nearly a decade now, and I've seen it grown from virtually non existence to a growing, productive, fruitful community of game developers and game development enthusiasts.
Ever since volunteering to co-coordinate the Israeli Chapter of the IGDA, I've been striving to create a nourishing atmosphere for gamedevs to meet, drink, talk, and share their experiences with each other. GameIS 2008 was certainly the pinnacle of these events and it rose high above our bi-monthly get togethers that take place over beer in a local Irish pub. GameIS 2008 is the third annual conference of it's kind and gathered over 300 hundred people, with one common interest - game development.
The conference was ran by Guy Bendov, CEO of "Journeys", a game company that makes a browser based social MMO with the theme of Journeys, along with myself, Oded Sharon, CEO of Corbomite Games, making episodic adventure games, with the voluntary help of several other members of the Israeli game industry: Ilan Greicer, Creative director of Funtactix, Dr. Yesha Sivav, Dudi Peles from PiSoft, and Doron Freidman from the Interdisciplinary center in the town of Herzelia, who were gracious enough to host the event.
My role was primarily to be in charge of the agenda. For weeks, I emailed lecturers, replied, had phone calls, and discussions until we found a great line-up of lectures that will fit our theme of this year's event : "Guys! Look! We have an industry!"
The theme for last's year event have been "Listen, we have great potential to start building a game development industry" and therefore a lot of the lectures were dealing what what can be done, how to raise money, how to make games and who to make games for.
This year it was all about accomplishments! Over the past year several companies, both fully funded companies, and independent developers made and released a bunch of games out to the world. For the first time in the Israeli game development history, people could stand on the stage and show their wares and products and be proud of them. And of course, I was proud of them too, as if they were my own children which I've been nurturing into adulthood.
I'll now give you a short summary of some of the lectures and highlights from the conference, as seen from my perspective.
Recently, some big news spread around the Israeli game developers community, Sam Glassenberg who started his career as a graphics intern at Lucasarts, later led Microsoft's DirectX development team is the new CEO of Funtactix - One of the promising leaders in Israeli game development.
Sam gave a truly inspirational speech about the reasons he moved to Israel. Sam talked about the lack of recognition Israel currently has as a significant player in the game industry. Sam mentioned that part of his role in Microsoft he would meet with developers all around, and in each company, he will meet an Israeli. Up until recently, Israelis who wanted to work on games would have to relocate and leave Israel to work at a place where a job in games is available. Sam explained that it is changing, and continued to talk about where he sees the Israeli game industry in 10 years. Sam envisions GameIS 2018 as one of the worlds leading conferences for game development, where the most respected speakers will travel around the globe to attend. He envisions the Israeli game industry to be as large as important as Israel's high tech industry, where companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel all develop major parts of their products, and he sees Israel as one of the largest places for game development and a hub where every large game company must open a branch in.
Rising Eagle - The First Israeli "AAA" title
Following the heart warming and inspirational keynote, it was time to start hearing about the real stuff. Yaron Dotan from Invasion Interactive talked about "The Willing Suspension of Disbelief". He wasn't talking about the game's story, plot lines, reliable characters, or environments, or even about the suspension of disbelief in his game! He was talking about the suspension of disbelief you must have about your project's potential failure as an independent game develop.
Yaron and his team created a multi player game called Rising Eagle, which is a first person shooter game set in a military futuristic earth. Yaron showed screen shots of fights near a half-ruined Eifel tower and other scenes and team "fragging" videos from the game that were made by players.
Yaron enumerated the various stages of a game's development life cycles, and elaborated on the various difficulties, decisions and mistakes they made while creating Rising Eagle.
He started by talking about the early stages of the Idea and its basic development, moving on to basic game design. He talked about common mistakes that game designers make (and that they made as well), for example going too wild, or thinking to simple. He mentioned the importance of thinking big, but scaling back and toning down your huge ideas after each step, to be able to create something feasible.
As for R&D - Yaron believes that Research always comes before development. Research is the time when you re-evaluate your game design. When you decide if further decrease in the game's production is required. It's the time when you fully translate your game design into software design documents. During this stage you have to be aware not to fall into your "Tech addiction" where you have to carefully balance and decide between being cutting edge and being conservative. Yaron says : "Aim high, but dont' go over the top".
He discussed the options of buying a game engine vs creating your own, his conclusion was that the best method was to combine the two - Don't buy a full expensive engine, but instead but parts, integrate them, and combine existing solutions with parts of your own.
The most important lesson Yaron learned from his experience is that the phrase "It's the journey that counts, not the destination" isn't true, and for a game to succeed you have to be mindful of where you're going and not how to get there.
One of the most important parts of any conference are the breaks.
This is the time and place people talk. Network. Interact. Exchange business cards. Add each other to Facebook and LinkedIN. What I love doing best during networking events, is to constantly introduce people to each other. It's something I've seen Jessica Tams from the CGA do at her Casual Connect events. She'd go around the room, look for people and say "Hey Oded, Have you met Ted?"
That's what I did in the coffee break of my conference.
The Israeli Independent Game Developers Panel
This event was my turn on the stage. Being one of the leading independent developers, I moderated the panel of Israeli game developers who independently released games by themselves.
I've introduced myself and my company, Corbomite games, and showed some never before seen content from our upcoming game series "Pizza Morgana", which tells, episodically, the story of a young girl that's teleported into a magical dimension with daemons and monsters and vampires and who are all pizza delivery guys.
What are independent games ? What makes an independent game developer one ? Are they more experimental in nature ? Is it a matter of budget ? Of creativity ? why are independent games important?
But most important, why Israel ? Why is Israel a good place for independent game development?
Each panelist got the stage for 7 minutes.
Making games yourself in the garage
The first panelists who took the stage wereJonathan Yalon and Ori Wachtel who talked about their adventure game "Boundless Osher". It's an adventure game done with the AGS engine over the course of several years. It features real life actors on a photographed background and tells the story of an Israeli who gets an overly high bill payment request from social security and decides to run for president so he can change the laws and nullify his bill.
The game was done in Hebrew and the two are working on an English version.
Zoopaloola and Warsheep - The fine line between art and code.
Uri have been making Interactive content and Casual games for 15 years, and best known for his game Warsheep that was featured in the popular Israeli messenger client ICQ.
Uri talked about developing in Flash, and showed the step-by-step creation proccess of his game Zoopaloola from prototyping to finished product. He talked about independent as not being suitable for everyone, that you have to know your strengths and weaknesses when you become one, and that it's not bad to "branch" a little, and so he did some greeting cards for a while.
On the other hand - Indy game devs can create in their garage, with a small team of two like his great games that people actually want to play.
Israel and casual games
Their definition of casual games are games that don't require preliminary gaming knowledge, have a very flat learning curve and offer a wide comfort zone to the player. The two listed the various existing casual game business models :
Trial to Purchase - 750,000 downlaods a day with 1-2% conversion rate. 42% of the market.
Advertising Supported - 34% of internet users play free games
Subscription: club pogo and club penguin were given as examples.
Skill-based Games - King.com - 190 million games played a month (Feb 2008).
Microtransactions: Kart rider and Maple Story $16 million per month
In-Game Advertising & Advergaming
Yuval Bayrav, who is the editor of one of Israels largest game related websites quoted some figures about casual gameplay in Israel, saying 50-75% of Israeli Internet users play games online - that's 1.75-2.8M users - and 75% of casual israeli games are male, and 69% are under 35. (which is contrary to the world's demographics)
While there are many players in Israel, the income from casual games is small, however there have been a lot of advergames produced by interactive companies targeted at young audiences.
Due to the latent arrival of consoles to Israel, Israeli gamers and game develpoers are predominate PC gamers, and the casual market in israel is closer to the global casual market than the non-casual market.
According to them, there is a great untapped potential in Israel as a casual game market and it's only in its infancy.
The portal for success
"Hello. I'm Ido. I'm 16 years old. I'm a high school student, and I created 'Portal: The Flash version' together with Hen Mazolski."
I think that was one of the best lines I've heard on stage in a long time.
Ido is certainly the "wonderkid" of the Israeli game industry. Along with Hen (who is young himself - only 19 years old) they created one of the most popular Internet games of all times.
Portal - The Flash version was Played over 5 million times worldwide (estimation)
Newgrounds: 2,000,000 plays
Kongregate: 500,000 plays
Armor Games: 500,000 plays
Other Flash sites: > 2,000,000 plays
Not bad for a game that was developed during high school's summer break !
Ido talked about the game's creation process, which was created entirely by watching Portal's trailer and never having played it. PTFV was created with Flash 8, coded in actionscript 2.0 from scratch, and only took a couple of months to develop. It included the game engine, phsyics, art, animation, scripts and maps.
Ido showed some sketch arts for the game's levels and step-by-step screenshots of creating a level from initial map sketch to a complete level.
Ido later showed his next game he and Hen are working on - Codenamed "Galil" which is a combination of RTS and side-scroller done in flash.
Ido's short lecture left the jaw-opened audience captive and he received a standing ovation.
It's all about the community
Michael Rosen from Tacticsoft talked about creation of his game "Battle dawn" in a letcure titled "putting yourself out there". Michael single handedly created a game PBBG (Persistent Browser Based Game) called Battle Dawn, which is an online MMO RTS that is played through your browser.
Michael started very small, and developed the game in his spare time in parallel to his studies. He released it for free and increased and improved it according to feedback he got from games.
Battle Dawn makes its revenue from micropayments where people pay real money for various upgrades in the game, be it visual upgrades for their units, or actual tactical upgrades.
Tacticsoft's employs over 12 people worldwide, none of which ever met Michael in person. Michael hires people by "promoting" them from within the community. For example, all the artwork in the game was done by gamers who played the game and offered to contribute to enhance it visually.
Michael emphasized the importance of building and maintaining a community and spoke about few of the methods he use to do so, from organic growth, to volunteering community managers, and about personally posting links to his game in all the other game communities.
Starting From An Empty Canvas - Casual Game Design
Sandhill games made a bunch of casual games, amongst is Ring pass not which got very popular and was no.1 game on Kongregate for a while. Ofir who comes from a background in art gave a stunning lecture about how to design a casual game, from scratch.
The game that was created featured two "players" - and two "pawns" - each owned by a player. The pawns were given colored paper hats, and blindfolds, and the game was constructed step-by-step with suggestions by the audience for rules.
Ofir talked about the difference between core mechanics and "extras" like power-ups and the importance of keeping the basic rules of he game interesting enough before adding artificial game elements that don't effect the gameplay itself.
Ofir kept the audience alert and laughing as the two players moved their game pieces on a stage filled with obstacles in effort to capture the flag of each others.
The GameIS 2008 awards.
To top everything off, GameIS 2008 conference concluded by giving away awards to the best achievements in game development in the Israeli game industry during 2008.
The winners were:
Compedia - Peleland
Peleland is a online social game world for kids
And the Student's award: Office Warz by Bob Productions.
Office warz is a casual shooter game where you use various office supplies to attack your co-workers.
In overall, GameIS 2008 was by far, the best game developer conference Israel have seen so far. We're have great inspirational lectures, a large attendance, and beneficial networking opportunities.
We hope that GameIS 2009 will be even better, will include multiple international speakers, and many more great Israeli developed games will be presented and talked about.
I've had a blast volunteering to organize it, and hope this year's baby steps will become next year's giant leaps.
CEO, Corbomite Games
IGDA Israel Chapter co-coordinator