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  • 05/18/09 10:22 AM
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    Independent Games Conference East

    Event Coverage

    Myopic Rhino

    Northeastern University campus where the conference was held. Click for full gallery

    The Conference

    IGC East was a conference I had been looking forward to attending since last year for two reasons - 1) Boston is just an awesome city and 2) it's a conference focused on indie games. What's not to like? Last year the conference unfortunately did not happen, but this year I was able to finally make the 4.5 hour trip north to attend. Oh don't get me started on the drive there (and back). Let's just say that I-95 (The New England Thruway) isn't a road I should travel on. There is no center median, no shoulder, and thus nowhere for cops to really sit and stake out the road. And everyone on there knows this. I'm afraid I can't disclose the top speed at which I chased after an Acura Integra or that R8 in case the cops Google this article looking for me.

    But I digress. Back to the conference. So it was a two-day affair, which is normal for events of this size, and held on the Northeastern University campus. I stayed with an industry friend and not at a hotel, so I can't comment on ease of travel in that regard, although there is a light rail stop right down the road. Since I had my car I drove us in both days, and the campus had a nice parking garage within 5 minute walking distance of the conference buildings that only charged $20 for the day. NEU has a really nice campus, with plenty of open space and buildings with lots of windows to really let the light in. Sessions were held in two seperate buildings, but within eyesight of one another and and easy walk to and fro. Luckily the weather really held out for us and was in fact quite lovely for Boston at this time of year. It was probably nicer out than it was back home a ways south for me!

    Although the conference did not include lunch, there were plenty of on-campus options that didn't take long to walk to. I ended up going with my friends for burritos both days from Boloco. As usual dinner was an open-ended affair, although on Thursday night a local game developer meetup happened to be going on at a local bar down the street, so my friends and I ate there and then hung out at the bar afterwards. Always be sure to look into the local scene when you're out at conferences, because they usually try to schedule something around the same time.

    Internet, courtesy of NEU, was fabulous. If nothing else, I hope the conference returns to NEU just so I can have such wonderful wireless service again. Seriously. At GDC, you'll be lucky to get a blasted cell phone signal, let alone a wifi one. I was just at LOGIN more recently (which is an online gaming cnference) and ironically enough they didn't even have wireless (more on that this Wednesday when I summarize that event). At NEU they had a guest access point you could pick up anywhere - a simple click on their gateway page and you were online. I used it in both session buildings and even out on the campus lawn one afternoon, reclining in one of the many lawn chairs they have spread randomly about. Awesome.

    There was also a smallish "expo" outside the main lecture hall, consisting of 3-4 tables of companies showing off some products. Given the trouble GDC had with its expo this year, it was no surprise to see a small showing at IGC East. Even aforementioned LOGIN was lacking this year. I hear some companies are already pulling out of E3. It's a tough time for this aspect of game conferences.

    Darius Kazemi (Orbus Gameworks) and Chris Oltyan (Zeitgeist Games) talk about focus testing. Click for full gallery

    The Sessions

    IGC East had a two-track format of business and technology, with a keynote speaker each morning. There were 3 sessions in the morning (including keynote) and 3 sessions in the afternoon after 1 hour lunch break. The only real gripe I had with the schedule is that it was crammed. And by that I mean each session was bumped up right against the next one. So you'd have the keynote at 9:30 for an hour, then the next session at 10:30 for an hour and then the final morning session at 11:30 for an hour. This is a format that only 2-day conferences can get away with. It's very tiring to hit session after session, and even worse if you're jumping between tracks since you have to leave a bit early to get to the other building. However it does allow for the day to end early and have a worthy amount of content in it. So yea, it's a tradeoff. I'd still like 15 minute breaks at least.

    Almost all the sessions I attended were great. One or two where fine, just not containing the content I imagined so I didn't take away much from them, and I have to admit that Dallas Snell's keynote was a bit wonky for me. It's not that it was a bad keynote, however the way it was delivered was, to me, ineffective. After almost 30 minutes of him rambling on about his personal life I had pretty much zoned out, so that by the time he came back around to the game dev aspect of the lecture, I had forgotten what he was supposed to be talking about. He was a very entertaining speaker though.

    The business track sessions were held in an amphitheater underneath West Village F, and it had stadium seating with comfy chairs and a huuuuge projection screen. Or two side-by-side screens, which were used on day two. Being partially deaf, I had no trouble sitting way up towards the top of the room and hearing the speakers just fine. The technology track was held in a room about 2 minutes walk away at the Egan Research Center. It wasn't a lecture hall, but did the job just fine for presentations.

    Scott Macmillan from Macguffin Games shows off his demo. Click for full gallery

    Game Demo Night

    I'm all for demo nights. They're a great way of letting developers show off their games to potential clients and players. The format I'm most familiar with is where each developer gets 30-60 minutes to give either a live demo or lecture on their game (or a mix of both), but the alternative is to have it set up as more of an exposition, with all the developers set up at tables running demoes. Game Demo Night chose the expo route, and about 10 companies had their games set up around the room. The room itself was a bit smallish, but perhaps that was either the best one that could be booked (don't forget we're at a University here with classes in session) or the organizers weren't expecting as much of a turnout. The Demo Night ran for a good two hours at least, and the room was packed pretty much the whole time, with people spilling out into the halls for conversation. I would have to go out the door on one side and back in via the door on the other side - it was easier than jostling through the crowd. But I know the developers demoing their games weren't complaining!

    Conductor Yohei Sato leads the group through pieces from Chrono Trigger, God of War, Mario Bros, Halo, and more. Click for full gallery

    Video Games Orchestra

    The conference ended with a concert by the Video Games Orchestra, not to be confused with Video Games Live. While the orchestra usually performs with a full compliment of instruments, this show was put on by a smaller chamber group as the venue wasn't large enough to hold the whole contingent. I've played Alto and Tenor Saxophone in concert, jazz and marching bands throughout school so I love a good orchestrated concert whenever I can get to one. VGO put on a flawless performance and the musicians were all very talented and professional (and most were probably younger than me. Gah!). The entire concert was filmed and I'm waiting to hear from the organizers what's being done with it. When I know I'll update here and in my journal.

    Select Session Coverage

    I didn't take any session notes, instead I tried something a little different: Twitter. If you're on twitter and not following us yet, hop on over to @gdevnet. At first I was tweeting off of my iTouch because I had decided to not lug around my laptop the first day. However after seeing how great the wireless was I brought it the second day (and I kind of had to anyways since I was leaving that evening) and was able to tweet a lot more stuff. I was also greatly inspired early on in the first day by my friend Darius Kazemi (@tinysubversions) and the fantastic job he did of covering the game design panel via tweets.

    I'm pretty pleased at how the live tweeting thing turned out. Sure I had only 140 characters to explain things, but that meant I was able to naturally distill a lot of the talks without thinking about it too much. I've included all the tweets from the sessions I attended (and tweeted) below in case you missed them or are simply not on twitter. If you're not, then here's a good reason to join!

    Keynote: Challenges of Independence

    Vladimir Starzhevsky (Creat Studios, Inc.)
    • when working for hire, don't plan to leverage royalties into your budget - doubtful you will see any. Creat only saw some for 2 games
    • Creat's been in business since 05 over in Boston and saw their online publishing takeoff in less than a year. Having a strategy is important
    • RT @tinysubversions: To sign w Sony PSN you need to sign different contract w EVERY Sony (SCEA SCEE SCE Japan etc)! Took Creat 1 year

    Rapid and Iterative Prototyping, or How to Rip Off Dinosaur Comics

    Eitan Glinert, Ethan Fenn (Fire Hose Games)
    • Etain: N+ had a level editor - ppl spelled "fuck" in blocks. Was not worth it as much as N+ devs had assumed
    • Etain: don't pay focus testers. Ever. Paying sets a bad precedence. Oh, they work for you now? Food is a great & simple method of payment
    • www.firehosegames.com will have slides of their rapid prototyping talk online at some point
    • RT @darrentorpey: Fire Hose prototyping lessons: "Do it now, get it right later" ... "don't argue: implement, then test"

    Taking Game Design to the Next Level

    Linda Currie (Creat), Steve Meretzky (Playdom), Chris Foster (Harmonix Music Systems), Christopher Zirpoli (Moonlight Media Consulting, LLC), Cardell Kerr (Turbine, Inc.)

    Note: All these tweets are courtesy of Darius Kazemi

    • Discussing "Really Important Things" (RITs) in game design: 1. Formal project goals/focus statement. Guides every single decision.
    • Meretzky: I've seen more projects go off the rails for lack of clear agreed upon vision than any other reason. 1 person shld own the vision
    • Foster: at Harmonix we have the "one question". For Rock Band was: is it an authentic band experience?
    • Kerr: For LOTRO, we had the 3 A's: accessibility advancement atmosphere, if you're not communicating this you're devaluing your team
    • Foster: if you communicate vision well enough, the team will autonomously steer themselves in the right direction.
    • 2nd RIT is balance. Meretzky: Challenge, difficulty curve, economy, pacing, reward. Balance is obv hard b/c not all your players are th same
    • Meretzky: balance for your core demographic. Let players balance the game for themselves: autobalancing, diff settings, self-pacing.
    • Meretzky: in terms of rewards, carrots as far as the eye can see. Short term and long term rewards always visible. Civ: just one more turn!
    • Currie: balance is art not science. On Wizardry 8, was massive game. We scaled the diff w player lvl but ppl hated it, hurt sense of progres
    • Kerr: 60% content 40% balance. But you need to bake in imbalance to make players feel like they've progressed. No "eternal rats" at hi lvls!
    • Foster: if your game has lots of interconnected systems you need to be very cautious about changing any systems
    • Kerr: we modified one elf sword attack and it broke our DPS across the entire game
    • Meretzky: always err on side of overcommunicating. Foster: you buy yourself credibility thru communication
    • 3rd RIT: Constraints. Meretzky: financial, marketing, design space, technical. Constraints can be beneficial: 2 few or 2 many can be bad
    • Meretzky: some constraints are too much. In mobile games you have the publisher the carrier the tech and the IP. V hard to make a good game!
    • Kerr: follow your constraints to their logical conclusion. Otherwise you're making a dissonant game. Foster: if ur lucky tht can HELP design
    • RIT 8: don't overdesign. Currie: you design every last thing up front, you're no longer flexible. Foster: no one reads design docs!
    • Foster: real design is the conversation that happens around a design doc, so keep it short and to the point. Kerr: agile dev is great
    • RIT 9: iteration. Zirpoli: you can't predict where a design will go, so u have to b flexible and build in clay instead of in stone.
    • Zirpoli: good tools give you the ability to iterate!
    • Foster: my experience is that tools can get too complex and collapse under their own weight. Specific tools are much more helpful
    • Currie: iteration will happen. Don't get frustrated: you are never "done" so get used to it. Foster: nobody knows anything.
    • RIT 10: research. Currie: research your content, research similar games.

    Quality of Life - How To Build Games, Make Your Company Successful And Still Have a Life

    Brett Close (38 Studios)
    • Brett: Curt Schilling loves acting like a designer but knows he isn't. Throws ideas like spitballs at team to see what sticks
    • Brett: some QoL examples include working from home, non-standard hours, leave of absence, support for training and special needs
    • Brett's definition of crunch: working in excess of 50 hr/wk in excess of 5 days/wk - within core hour structure (like 9-5)
    • Brett: cites source saying 16-20% higher total output from working 8 hour days versus 9 hour days
    • Brett: productivity is hard to quantify - so where is the break even point? Generally around 4 weeks of crunch until diminishing returns hit
    • Brett: cultural no-nos include ego battles, personal agendas, territorial behavior, random productivity drains (like excessive web browsing)
    • Brett: 38 Studios plays Ultimate Frisbee regularly as one of many ways to break up any crunch periods
    • Brett: be honest in your hiring process to ensure that people fit with your culture (so they know if they'll be crunching a lot for example)

    How to Maximize PR for Your Games

    Sue Bohle (The Bohle Company)

    The slides for this lecture can also be downloaded

    • Sue: Assets are key - screens, videos, interviews or original art given on exclusive basis to key sites or writers. Key word "exclusive"
    • Sue: create an Asset Calendar that defines asset, outlet (website, magazine, etc) for asset, requirements for asset, date to deliver asset
    • Sue: treat community sites like press - will most times publish small updates that bigger sites wouldn't consider "newsworthy".
    • Sue: Great art makes a difference - save and use everything from concept to final art. Can bring more coverage if art is stunningly awesome
    • Sue: feature spreads on game site homepages (like IGN) are awesome, but best when given to just one site to leverage powers of exclusivity
    • Sue: find a 3rd party expert to comment on your title - can also open new doors for where news of your title will appear
    • Sue: exploit what is different about your title. Bohle got great press pushing Christian-themed game by focusing on the Christianity
    • Wow, seeking assistance from ppl like Bohle for TV interviews can really save your butt if there is any controversy surrounding your title
      Todd Hollenshead from id Software asked Sue if he should take a TV interview on game violence when his lawyer said don't even try it. Sue sat him down and prepared all the tough questions he could be asked and came up with soundbytes for him to memorize to step around dicey topics. At the interview Todd totally stumped the reporter, who was trying to catch him out while talking about violent games. The reporter finally just came out and said "But Todd! Why do you need violence to make an entertaining game?!" and Todd's reply was "in Romeo and Juliet, why did they both have to die?" and the reporter just gave up.
    • the hardest part is finding all the right media outlets to push your title to. There are so many, and new ones popping up all the time
    • Sue: tips for studios looking to promote themselves for contract work: speak at conferences, get interviewed by industry sites (like us!)
    • Sue's final tip: get your company positioning down first thing and find what's different about you and/or your title(s)

    Focus Testing - Making games that people other than you like

    Chris Oltyan (Zeitgeist Games), Darius Kazemi (Orbus Gameworks)
    • Chris: Generally not a good idea to bring focus testers to your home if you develop out of your house. Look into shared meeting spaces
    • Chris: don't focus test (FT) to *find out* if your game is fun. FT is to determine if *other* ppl think game is fun when you think it is too
    • Chris: know in advance that things will leak about your game from FT, so be sure to show only what you're ready for ppl to see & hear about
    • Darius: You can classify data in two ways: Subjective vs. Objective and Quantitative vs. Qualitative. Mixing them is key for good results
    • bringing in fans to focus test can be bad as they are biased and likely won't give you the hard truth about your game sucking (if it does)
    • don't forget that paying focus testers can raise all kind of legal issues. Go with a 3rd party service or find a creative way to recompense
    • watching people play your game can be creepy to the play tester but is an option if you have a limited budget (no vid camera for example)
    • Darius: The more quantitative data you have, the easier it will be to confirm subjective data collected. People are filled with lies.
    • You need to make sure you design the FT around the questions you want answered about the game beyond just "is it fun?"
    • Darius: Share test results with entire team. Ask for feedback from members specialized in area of FT. Test results can be useful in future
    • Test data can be a great weapon to use with publishers to swing their decision to allow key changes you feel need to be made to the game

    Networking for Indies

    Darius Kazemi (Orbus Gameworks), Scott Macmillian (Macguffin Games), Sam Houston (gamerDNA.com)
    • so far talking about the benefits of twitter and blogging towards networking. Darius met and helped a lot of ppl through blog comments
    • Darius: as an indie - good to be your own brand, having one twitter account for yourself and company is usually okay
    • Scott: know your audience - are you tweeting just to your friends or to people you may not know so well? Or may not know you that well?
    • Darius: don't be afraid to lose twitter followers, don't change how you tweet just to attract new people. Tweet yourself honestly
    • Sam: be responsive on twitter, make replies to people to engage in conversation. I'll have to ask the panel how far to take this concept.
    • Darius: try to make mundane tweets still useful. "having a beer" is a bit better as "having [beer name] at [place] and it's really good."
    • the panel agrees that at some point, you will have to strategically cull people you follow on twitter, blogs you read, etc
    • Use services like bit.ly and tr.im to track the effectiveness of your social media use
    • Also search.twitter and hootsuite. Google alerts can tell you when your blog is mentioned on the web

    Independent Self-Publishing on PlayStation(R)Network

    Gabe Ahn (Sony Computer Entertainment)
    • Gabe: why self-publish? You keep creative control, own your own IP, get larger royalties, no external producers
    • >20M PSN registered users, >380M downloads wordwide, >60% PS3 consoles registered on PSN, 175 d/l games since PSN launch
    • 79% users are aged 18-34 (ages are self-reported however - lots of teenagers reporting 18+). 6% female
    • contact SCEA Developer Relations to apply for Licensed Developer Status (SCEE in Europe)
    • Remember, as @tinysubversions reported yesterday from the keynote - you need to sign with EACH regional Sony office to distribute Int'l
    • DiRT, Flower, and Burn Zombie Burn are all games that shipped powered by the PhyreEngine Sony pushes for PS3 platform development
    • PSN has no restriction on the amount of content that you have to upload
    • there is however a 1.8GB PSP restriction
    • 2-5 weeks after passing QA/metadata approval is typical time frame for your game to appear on PSN
    • Gabe: Game Developers Conference 2010? Or will it be Game *Publishers* Conference 2010? Digital distribution makes everyone a publisher
    • while we're talking about digital distribution, if you're interested in Live Arcade, here's a great lecture summary on it: http://tr.im/kRK0
    • Sony gives you stats and such on your sales, but no spiffy web portal yet like Google Analytics or anything - they're working on it tho

    I emailed Gabe for the slides to his talk but he was unable to provide them. Here is some additional information from him:

    The submission is pretty straightforward and guided through two stages. Stage 1 involves receiving a game concept and we will examine game design documents to focus on game features in order to quantity the competitiveness of the game and fit for various Playstation platforms it's under consideration for. Once the approval is attained, the production schedule is dictated by the development team including setting Stage 2 deadlines. Stage 2 entails code submission and primarily checks the completeness of the game and fulfillment of the game features stated in Stage 1. During the stages, the developer is welcome to request Work In Progress (WIP) reports to get objective evaluation on the game. Once the Stage 2 looks good, they are given green light to schedule a QA slot. From QA check to Playstation store will typically take 3-5 weeks for most cases.

    I hope that gives you a clearer picture on the submission process. In terms of the cheaper kit, the PSN development is certainly more budget conscientious and we've adjusted to this fact by releasing the cheaper Mini Tools. There is a bit of misnomer even on the Test Kits that are exactly the same as consumer PS3s but can run unsigned code and primarily used for production testing environment. These units can run and debug code and actually perfectly fine for development as well. Lots of developers already take advantage of this fact and already do this. However, preproduction code may require the additional memory but usually not too much of an issue for PSN titles due to their smaller scope. These are pretty cheap at around $1K and coupled with PhyreEngine, it's makes a complete springboard for accessible development on PSN. Of course, the Mini Tool and Dev Tool is always an option too. Unfortunately, I can't talk about the details of the hardware specs, tools and SDK details, and pricing much to non-licensees so my apologies in that regards.

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