The Montreal International Games Summit was held November 27-28, 2007 and gathered many developers from around the world - in fact it holds the title of the second-biggest game development conference next to GDC. It certainly didn't seem that way to me at first, but when you enter a keynote hall that looks able to hold around 800 people it's a lot easier to believe. Like all conferences though it doesn't ever feel overwhelming in size and in such a small area it's easy to meet up with old friends and meet new people. Being the sole GDNet writer in attendance I wasn't able to cover a whole lot, and the fact that my flight got cancelled the night before the start of the conference and I ended up flying in early the next day and missing the first half of the first day didn't help matters any. Still, I managed to gather some interesting information on casual gaming, a gold mine of Xbox Live Arcade publishing information (seriously, this was the best XBLA talk I've attended to date!) and a preview of Chris Hecker's upcoming GDC 08 talk.
Yes, the fact that this is all appearing over a month late is no one's fault but my own, though if you happened to catch my journal last month I was posting the coverage as I went. I was hoping to snare some additional coverage, things didn't pan out and I let this drag on far longer than it should have. So if it's you're first time checking this coverage out I apologize for the tardiness.
Now then, on to the good stuff!
Page 1 - James Gwertzman (PopCap Games) - Not so casual anymore
Page 2 - Jim Sink (Microsoft) - Getting your game on Xbox Live Arcade
Page 3 - Danny Ledonne - Playing Columbine: A Retrospective Discusson
Page 4 - EIDOS Montreal Studio Tour
Page 5 - Chris Hecker keynote - Structure vs. Style
Page 6 - Parties & Events - Booth Crawl / IGDA Party / Gamma 256
If you want some more MIGS coverage, Gamasutra did some detailed keynote summaries:
Finally, Randy Smith put his presentation slides online for his talk "How To Help Your Players Stop Saving All The Time". Since this talk depended a lot on the slide material thanks to diagrams, I won't bother even doing a summary of it as you're better off downloading and reading through the slides, which Randy re-did with copious notes included.
James Gwertzman (PopCap Games) - Not so casual anymore
What is a casual game? That is the question
James has been around the industry enough to have picked up the feeling that casual games, as most people think of them, aren't quite so casual anymore. His most provoking example was from his frequent visits to China, where they feel that anything not an MMORPG is considered a casual game. Other views on casual games fall under descriptions such as
- Short play sessions
- Less emphasis on technology
- Broad appeal
- Very addictive
- Short play sessions
- Low commitment
- Small development budget
- Simple controls
Casual games are growing up
Just this past summer, EA announced the formation of a new division for casual gaming. According to James, PopCap was contacted by lots of press wondering if they felt threatened by the move, but PopCap was thrilled to see a major publisher recognizing the impact casual gaming was having on the industry, that games were no longer "just for geeky 14 year-old boys anymore". Which James finds rather interesting because back when the game industry started, we were all playing casual games like Pac Man, a game so simple all you needed was a joystick and was enjoyed by both men and women. Then by the 80s or 90s the gaming demographic had shrunk considerable, and James believes the Internet is what brought the industry back to its roots by freeing it from the publishers that had until then strangled the life out of casual games.
So as casual games continue to grow, what exactly can they teach the rest of the industry?
Applying various business models
The one thing casual gaming has done and done well is to exploit as many as a dozen various business models to achieve profit, and James discussed a number of them. This is an area where casual games have made the most impact, and where the core industry is just starting to catch up, moving from retail shelf space to online distribution with services like Steam.
Download Try and Buy
This is by far the most widely-used form of business model out there on the Internet today; mainly because it was one of the first models to be introduced when casual gaming first reappeared. The player downloads a free trial of your game that is locked after a certain play limit, such as 60 minutes, three levels, etc. If the player decides they want the full game, they return to the website to purchase it, after which they download it to their computer and it's theirs forever.
The actual economics of this model comes from the conversion rate, which is the "magic number" in the casual games industry. The conversion rate describes the number of people who actually buy a game out of all the people who downloaded the trial. In this model, a conversion rate of 2% is actually considered to be very good. However this means that you're leaving a lot of money on the table by letting people download and try your games for free without purchasing them. However the flipside is this easy access to your game play produces a ton of viral marketing. People trying your games will tell other people about them, even if they don't buy them. This can be a great way to increase your marketing without directly spending more money. However be sure that your game is fun. Very fun. There's absolutely no room for bad games using this model as people will only pay for what they enjoy playing. Even big brand names won't help sell a crappy game. You may see more downloads, but that conversion rate won't leave the sub-cellar.
Here you're giving out free games that generate ad impressions, which are then sold to advertisers. When dealing with an online game, in addition to banners on your site you can also place ads in three different locations, although it's not recommended you use all three for a single title. Pre-roll ads appear at the start of the game session, with either a link to say "no thank you" if it is static or a message saying the game will launch in 20 seconds (for example) if it's a video or other animated ad. During actual game play, interstitial advertisements can appear between levels. PopCap however has a rule along the lines of not showing two interstitial ads within 10 minutes. So even if you finish a level in 5 minutes, if it has only been 7 minutes since you saw the last ad it won't show you another. Finally there's the post-roll ad that appears when the user exits the game session. In the case of a downloadable game, interstitial ads that appear should do so within the game, meaning they should be encased in artwork that doesn't eject the player from the game's environment. If a player wants the ads to go away, they can pay for the title. Another way to insert ads is to wait to do so after a certain length of play time, in which case the player again has to pay for the title to disable the ads.
The benefit to using advertising in games is that it creates revenue from users who otherwise wouldn't have paid to play the game. Not only that, but players who do decide to pay for the game will create an increased revenue from both the actual sale and the ad impressions. On the flipside, people who pay to remove advertisements also cut off that extra source of revenue from a total in exchange for a fixed one-time sum. This is why it is important that your advertisements do not disrupt the game in any way - people who play your game because it is fun and aren't bothered by the ads will create the most revenue vs. people who play your game because it is fun but hate the ads and pay to have them removed and keep playing the game, but you no longer earn a profit from them.
The idea for a subscription model is to allow players to pay a single fee (usually per month, sometimes with discounts for 6 and 12 month subscriptions as well) to have access to an entire catalogue of games versus paying for a single title. PopCap has found that their average revenue per user (ARPU) is about the cost of a single game, as they find that's how much the average user buys per year. It's not great, but it's better than a $10/mo subscription service right? $10 is after all less than $20. But PopCap finds that people usually subscribe for 6+ months, so immediately your ARPU jumps to $60, which is a significant increase. However the subscription model can be hard to get people to sign up for, as not only do you need your games to be fun, you need a lot of fun games for people to want to subscribe and play a majority of them. Per-Session Pricing
This is the "arcade" model that was pioneered by Wild Tangent, where players are basically buying tokens, which they can then use to start gaming sessions. The immediate downside of this model is having to set up the system of buying tokens, you can't be charging players $.25 on their credit cards, so you have to convince them to buy a bunch of tokens at once for say, $5. But once you've assigned a value to a token, once you have the whole micro-transaction system in place, a cool thing you could do is, for example, go to Coke and say 'here, by a token for $.05 each and place them on the bottom of bottle caps'. Additionally, you earn money off customers who wouldn't have even bought a game after trying it, since they had to pay at least a certain amount of money (we'll say $5 again) to try that game and others. So while $5 isn't as good as the full game's $20 value, it's better than if the player had tried a free trial and didn't like it, earning you nothing at all. Again, having lots of games to choose from makes it easier to convince people to buy tokens as well. Additionally, most models 'cap' the expenditure of players at the cost of the game, essentially allowing the player to work their way to completely owning a title if they've sunk enough tokens into it, otherwise people may simply stop playing if they find their spending more money than what the game is valued.
Free-to-play, Item-based Games
If you remember back to the beginning and the comment about China's stance on casual games, you may have wondered why they think that way. Well the fact is with piracy so rampant in China, they've been forced to adopt a unique business model. These games are MMO server-based games, which makes them much harder to crack than a normal client based product. Given away for free to encourage an initial player base, the real money comes from items within the game that people buy to enhance their experience. One example is a basketball game that exists over in China, where people can buy clothing like shoes that enhance your avatar's speed or clothes to make your avatar unique. Abilities that allow your player to, for example, hook shot or dribble behind the back are also up for purchase.
On the economics side, only a small percent of people actually pay for items in the game, but they can pay a LOT of money. Over time thousands of dollars can be sunk into these games, hundreds of dollars from just an individual person. Non-paying players also play an important role in attracting the big spenders, as the spenders will always need people to lord over and give them reason to purchase more so they can continue to remain at the head of the pack, which means small purchases by users continue to drive big purchases of the people ahead of them. Not only do you have to have a fun game in this model, but you also have to focus on the sale and marketing of your purchasable items in the game, as it is such a widely-used model over in China and being just fun won't attract people to purchase items. Finally, careful tweaking is needed in releasing items for purchase so that the game balance is not upset by players who can afford to spend more money than others.
Leveraging multiple platforms
PopCap has discovered the incredible value of making their games available on separate platforms, including:
- Mobile phones
- In-flight entertainment
- Lottery card
PopCap hates the word "port" and prefers to "adapt" games to various platforms, meaning that each platform version of the game, while looking similar, will seem to have been designed from the ground up for that platform. So Bejeweled on Xbox Live Arcade actually has co-op play and Bookworm on the mobile platform enables T9 text input so the phone auto-completes words for you, letting normal texters pick up the game quickly.
The catch however is that your game has to be simple at its core to adapt to so many various platforms. Obviously we're never going to see Half Life 2 on the mobile phone.
Attracting a broad audience
PopCap recognizes that it's not focusing on a small, single group of people when it's designing its games. The ability to remain open to multiple audiences greatly increases the potential sale of a title. PopCap's typical customer is a female age 35+ who plays about 2-5 hours a week and mostly to relieve stress. So they're obviously looking for an enjoyable game to relieve them, but designing games for women while still maintaining their broad appeal isn't easy. "A bunch of guys sitting around trying to figure out what a game for women is going to look like is not always going to work out." PopCap introduces people early on into the concept stage to make sure they're heading in the right direction, in this case that means bringing the games home to their moms, wives and girlfriends.
Taking time to polish
PopCap has the luxury of being able to take time to really work on polishing their games until they're just right. They prototype constantly and iterate over and over, keeping the good and tossing the bad until they have a solid concept, which they then produce with no budget, no schedules, deadlines or milestones, and no design document. They simply continue until they look at a game and consider it to be done. How is this possible? Well they break down each project into very small 4-5 person teams, and each member is highly experienced, especially the producer in charge of the project. It may seem like an arcane concept among the bigger developers out there, but there is one that operates similar to this, and that's Blizzard. By their track record, it's a solid concept if your company can support it.
Simplifying game controls
James showed a diagram of a PSP control scheme for a racing game, where almost every button on the PSP was in use and in most cases had dual functions for walking around on foot and driving in a car. This is compared to the typical casual game control scheme, which is a single mouse button. While this is mostly necessary for complex games, James still asserts that more thought can be put into control schemes to simplify them, using the context of the player's action in the game to dictate what a button does. If the player is standing near a door, Button A opens it. If he's running, Button A jumps. If he's walking, Button A crouches. Just because there are 12 buttons on a controller doesn't mean you should find ways to use them all.
The following lessons learned above to apply to mainstream games are:
- Experiment with alternate distribution
- Check out what's going on over in Asia (item-buying, micro-transaction, etc)
- Apply iterative development - more prototypes
- Reduce scope and scale - more time to polish
- Be ruthless in simplifying your controls
- Avoid unnecessarily alienating potential players
Jim Sink (Microsoft) - Getting your game on Xbox Live Arcade
I've attended a few lectures like this in the past, most notably the one at GDC 07, so I wasn't sure whether there would be anything new to report from here, but I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was there updated information, but Jim went into so much detail that I'm glad I recorded the session - I wouldn't have been able to keep up scribbling notes, especially since he didn't use slides. If you're serious about trying to get a game on the XBLA platform, I suggest you read the following very carefully and thoroughly. I'm going to apologize for the lack of any real structure - having no slides to highlight the sections of his talk, I'm just going to write it up as he delivered it.
What is an Xbox Live Arcade game?
The one thing to remember about XBLA games that Microsoft loves to see is: pick up and play, easy to learn, hard to master. This pretty much defines the core of an XBLA game.
XBLA isn't the best place for a 1st person shooter. Microsoft is really on the lookout for more unique game play experiences, especially ones that focus on bite-sized game sessions of 10-30 minutes. Longer sessions are okay, and some genres like turn-based strategy or board gaming do require it, but in other cases any long game play should only be in addition to short sessions.
Social experience is key. The Live service puts you in connection with all of your friends and you must leverage this. The best example would be Uno, which no one at Microsoft believed would be such an incredible hit. Their guess to its success is how it makes use of the video chat capabilities of the Live service. With the exception of classics like Castlevania, multi-player is required in your XBLA game.
Cooperative games are plus, however non-combat play is an even bigger plus.
Retro titles can be common, but well-known retro only is the only chance of being accepted. If you're a fan of some old Neo Geo game that was released only in Japan you will want to reconsider submitting it to XBLA. In addition, retro titles need to look like they belong in a 360, adapting to the possibility of widescreen and upgrading the graphics. There are exceptions, of course. You really can't mess with games like Castlevania, Marathon, and Doom. Not only that, but retro ports should also include new levels and game play. Microsoft does not consider XBLA a bargain bin for old titles.
XBLA games used to be limited to a 50MB download, which has since been increased to 150MB. Still, that doesn't mean you should leap to take advantage of this size increase. There are still people who will be unwilling to sit and wait for a 150MB game to download versus a 30MB game. Still keep your content footprint as small as possible, there's no reason to push the limits.
A good balance of original and existing IP is a great advantage.
Don't just consider competitive online multi-player, but think also of multi-player on the couch, and not necessarily co-op play either. One thing Microsoft would love to see more of is asymmetrical multiplayer, which means to allow players of various skill levels to compete against one another. So for example, setting the handicap in a golf game or like in Guitar Hero, letting people battle on different skill levels.
Making your game stand out
Several quick notes on how to make your game stand out from the crowd.
Compelling use of peripherals - like Uno's use of the video camera
Chat, online voice - make your game interactive with other users, not just played by other users
Compelling use of achievements - let achievements help to drive your game play
Original ideas for downloadable content - let DC expand your game's experience
To give you an idea of the current state of affairs in regards to the XBLA platform, there are around 102 games released at this time, however there are also about 80-100 that have been approved and are in various stages of release. Currently the Live team is releasing 2 games per week. That number is expected to rise as the number of Xboxes out there increases.
Getting onto XBLA
There are two ways to get your game onto XBLA. One is through a 3rd party publisher, and the other is directly through Microsoft. Neither way has any great advantage, it's just two ways to achieve the same goal. Working through Microsoft is the route that many (if not all) indie developers will take, whereas going through a 3rd party publisher is a method for established studios in the industry. There are four Business Development Managers that work with indies to help get their games published by Microsoft, whereas the 3rd party publishers (like Activision, EA, etc) all have Account Managers from Microsoft who bring their games to the table. An approval commission of around 15 people from all areas of Xbox development within Microsoft will then review the game. Is it fun? Does it raise the bar or nudge the needle in innovation? Will it perform well utilizing key aspects of the service? No single one of these is a deal -maker, you want to have all three. Although Microsoft will take chances on a game they believe in , even if they fear it might not sell well, as that is one of the purposes for the XBLA platform.
One thing Microsoft will do is keep a wall between indies and 3rd parties to keep game ideas from being duplicated. Business Developers who are working with you will not see any 3rd party contracts. If you and a 3rd party submit similar game ideas and Microsoft decides to go with yours and after its release the 3rd party claims you stole their idea, there won't be any legal issues since you and your contact in Microsoft never saw the 3rd party's similar design. Microsoft gets similar game designs more often than not.
Doing it the indie way
So I doubt many of you out there have ties to Activision or EA (among others), which means the first step you have to take is to submit your game to firstname.lastname@example.org. They will send you back a concept submission form, which is essentially a template to help you put your best foot forward on your experience. People like Jim (Business Development Managers) will see your game and if they like it take to Microsoft and be your cheerleaders.
How you submit a game to Microsoft will decide whether it gets approved. Obviously if you submit a few sketches and a couple of pages of text describing the game, you're most likely going to be turned down, at least initially. Only with an established IP or previous experience developing on XBLA will maybe, maybe get you an approval to begin development. Sending in an almost complete game can be great, except if Microsoft doesn't like several things it's going to me much harder to make any major changes in the game play. The sweet spot is to submit just a simple prototype that is fun to play and expresses the core feature that makes your game special. Artwork showing how the game will look beyond the demo are bonus as well. If you don't have a playable demo then a video showing the game play will suffice, although playable prototypes are far more preferred. Once a game is approved Microsoft will hold you to the look and feel - they will not let you release the game until it matches what you showed them in your initial pitch. To help you in this, you will be assigned a producer from Microsoft to oversee the development of your title. The first question the producer will ask however is - can you deliver? Microsoft doesn't want to fund a team that will peter out after 6 months and never release to Live, they just don't want to see it happen to people.
If the producer likes you and/or your team, then you will dive into the wonderful world of publishing contracts. Jim did not go into detail here, so if you reach this stage - good luck to you!
Once development begins, make sure you realize what you're in for. Generally it takes 9 months to a year at least to get an XBLA title released. The reason for this is simple - in addition to development you have to go through certification, localization and rating (covered later).
The XBLA market
So what's it like earning revenue off XBLA? Well the lovely things about digital distribution is that, unlike retail, you're not hoping to move a certain number of units in the first week of release or anything like that. In fact Microsoft finds that sales increase in the subsequent months that a title has been released.
The average conversion rate for XBLA games is 14%. This is the percentage of people who buy the game after downloading it for play. This is a very impressive conversion rate. James Gwertzman from PopCap games in his lecture cited a 2% conversion rate of being very good for PC downloadable games. Even crazier is the fact that this number is deflated since the Dashboard includes a feature to auto-download new Arcade games, which factors into the conversion rate. So a large percentage of people may be downloading games in the background and never even playing them, and the rate is still 14%.
Original IP that looks like it should belong on XBLA can see a conversion rate of up to 10-25%, with 400-500 downloads within the first month. Breakout titles, not necessarily hugely anticipated or well-known games, can reach 25-48% conversion rates with over 1 million downloads in the first month alone. After all, we're talking 8 million Live subscribers here people.
If you're unfamiliar with the XBLA point system, which player use to buy games, the equivalents to 400/800/1200 points is roughly $5/$10/$15. Microsoft is unsure as to how pricing will move in the future; certainly some games will drop in point value over time before being removed from the service. A 400 point game would be something very simple like checkers or cards. Famous retro titles and games that are exclusively multiplayer would also fit into this category. 1200 point games are huge IPs, very innovative with lots of rich content. Buyers of these games have huge expectations to meet. Everything else would fall in the 800 category.
XBLA game requirements
There are several requirements regarding the development of an XBLA game that you should keep in mind.
Certification - your game will of course be tested so that it does not break the console or any other games released on the service, and that any downloadable content that can be added to the game does not do so either. Make sure you plan for this in your development cycle. It takes time!
Localization - this used to be optional, it is now required. E-FIGS (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish) as well as Japanese are needed in your game. Make sure you have as little text as possible, especially in your interface. Whatever you can replace with icons, do so. If you're being published by Microsoft, they will aid you in this process.
Rating - all XBLA games must have an ESRB rating to be released, and this is a process Microsoft will aid you in as well. Again, this is another process that takes time so plan accordingly!
Tips for a great XBLA game
Do not hide content visibly
When people pay for a game, they expect to receive the entire experience. If there's an area of your game you hope to expand in the future, great - just don't let players know about it! Never, ever include grayed out text or icons that inform the player of some feature that's not yet implemented or they will be pissed off and feel ripped off.
Your trial is more important than your game
If no one likes your trial, no one will buy your game. Hence you should put even more thought into your trial than into the complete game itself. There is an art and science to the trial experience. The producer assigned to your project will help you with this, but there are several things you can keep in mind.
First is that you have 5 minutes to make an impression on players trying your game, so you have to put forth the cool stuff quick, either fun gameplay or unique content - preferably both. Don't give them too much, or they'll be satisfied and not have a reason to purchase the full game. Don't give them too little, or they might not get hooked or realized the game's full potential.
If your game is hard to play, a trial won't fool anyone - so don't make your trial hard to play either. It will hurt your conversion rate and turn off other people who won't even bother to pick it up once they hear from their friends how terrible it is. One way you may accidentally create a hard trial is by assuming familiarity with rules and controls. Don't try and save time by skimping on explaining in detail how the game is played.
Don't port straight from PC
Microsoft is not interested in a direct port from PC to XBLA. Take a look at your game, and then take a look at the features XBLA offers and how you can integrate them into it. The two most obvious are achievements and downloadable content. If you can't factor these two things into the XBLA version of your PC title you won't stand much of a chance. Other things to consider are the widescreen resolution, multi-player support and the ability to change controls to accommodate the game pad.
Fast load times
There's really no excuse for slow load times on an XBLA title that is downloaded to the 360's hard drive. However if for some reason you do need to pause an load content, do so before the player actually begins playing the game, like when they're jumping from the game menu into the game itself. If you have to load content during game play, make the load screen interactive somehow. Don't just black out the screen and put a little spinny circle in the corner.
Games like action side scrollers or other fast-paced genres should have some sort of auto-save feature that the player can enable. Even games that play slower should still auto-save the player's progress as they complete each level. No one wants to die and be sent back far enough to lose 30 minutes worth of progress. That may not seem like a lot, but you need to remember that these games focus on short play sessions. Power outages may also disrupt play.
Timing is everything
XBLA, like any other market, is affected by releases of other titles for the same platform. Don't forget that players can also purchase game discs to play, not just download off XBLA, so don't have your game released at the same time as Halo 3, because that's all people will be playing on their 360's, which is the same machine they need to use to play your games. I doubt Microsoft would let you do this anyways so I'm not really sure why Jim mentioned it.
Quality before quantity
XBLA games don't need huge play experiences. 3 hours of play time? Sure why not? That's not bad for five bucks. You don't have to include 100+ modes of play in your game, it's not better because there is more. Focus solely on making your game fun.
Achievements are the most incredible thing to come of the Live experience. Even Microsoft was taken aback at the popularity of them amongst the community. Remember this: people will buy your game just so they can earn achievement points. Yes, it's true. In light of this knowledge, make sure that your achievements are actually achievable!! Your game should award the player with an achievement of some type within 5 minutes of play time, getting increasingly difficult afterwards and being available in both single and multi-player modes. XBLA games are limited to 10 achievements totaling no more than 200 points. It's okay to have one (or maybe two) achievements that you think no one could ever get (like the SmashTV achievement of making it through the entire game without saving - people have done it) for people to attain and wear like a badge of honor.
Just don't make all of your achievements like that!
One awesome use of achievements Jim suggested was to upsell your demo. At the end of the demo congratulate the player and inform them that they just earned an achievement and all the have to do to get the points is purchase the game. Remember: people will buy your game just so they can earn achievement points.
Plan ahead for downloadable content
Understand that you cannot create any downloadable content that changes the base code of your game. This is a big no-no as your game was certified to work with the platform and changing it may result in breakage, which means you either need to re-certify or be smart and plan ahead by leaving hooks in your game that you can attach expansions onto without having to modify anything. Or hide the content in your original executable and have it be unlocked (remember - no gray text!). Data-driven downloadable content is the best kind
Be ready for unexpected popularity
You never can tell if your game is going to be a runaway hit title, and neither can Microsoft. So be ready. Have a community website set up for people to pour into should your game turn out to be hugely popular. If you're working through a 3rd party you can usually receive support from them for it, but you stand to reap more benefit by doing it yourself.
Game Studio Express is ready for prime time - use it
With the release of GSE 2.0 and support for multi-play, it's now a viable way to develop games for XBLA. TorqueX beat it to the table in terms of XNA development, and Schizoid is almost set for release, but 4 winners of Microsoft's Dream.Build.Play contest which use XNA GSE were offered publishing contracts as well.
Danny Ledonne - Playing Columbine: A Retrospective Discussion
After watching the screening of Danny Ledonne's film Playing Columbine, I was interested in attending his lecture to hear what he had to say about it and his game, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! I'm not some advocate of non-violent games nor do I promote violence in games, I'm merely looking into what this whole deal is about. Personally, in regards to shootings and the kids involved, all blame should rest on the parents for raising a screwed up kid - but that's just my opinion, and it is of course just one of millions voiced by people out there in the world. There are people who may agree with me, many who do not, and still more who don't even care what I think. This is the nature of controversy and the reason why Danny made his film and why he gives these talks; to inform people of the reason behind creating his game.
Speaking of the game -I've never even played it. Even after meeting Danny at GDC this past year and learning about it I never freed up any time to check it out. Not because I don't want to, not because I think it's sick, I just simply never got around to it. So seeing his movie was a step in that direction, as one of its main purposes is to inform people who have heard about the game, who have heard about what it's based on and who have formulated their own opinions without ever even playing it. After explaining the goal of his movie, Danny talked about the one question that journalists ask him the most often, which is why he would ever create a game about Columbine.
Living in Colorado, Danny was in high school when the Columbine attack took place. As with everyone else in the nation, it had a profound effect on him, more so in some cases because of his proximity to it. Back then, just before the turn of the century, the Internet wasn't the great blogsphere that it is today and Danny quickly found that he didn't have much of a voice for his views on the attack. Originally, his plan was to create a film on the subject, but then he discovered RPG Maker.
RPG Maker was what introduced Danny to the realm of game development, and as he played around with it and discovered its strong narrative qualities, he came upon the realization that he could use this to tell a story. From here he asked himself "what kind of story would I want to tell?" Thinking back to his idea of a video on Columbine, he realized that here was a free alternative to producing a film, which is costly. The additional interactive qualities of RPG Maker led him to realize he could put the player inside the minds of Harris and Klebold, which wasn't easy at first since information about what they did and what they said and how they did it was scarce for years. So over time he collected information that led to the game Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, released in 2005.
The initial reaction to the release of the game was meager. In the time it took for things to hit the fan, Danny moved on and went back to video production, doing a project on homeless people for a local shelter and blind bird watchers in South Texas who could identify birds by sound alone. Diversifying his media background, he wasn't relying or even anticipating the game to propel him into the public spotlight the way it did. He got a few emails saying "this is disgusting" and a few emails saying "this is interesting" and that was it, and that was all he thought it would be.
Soon however that started to change, as more and more people began to hear about the game and play it, the emails quickly became worse and worse. Things soon built to a point where Danny began to seriously question the decision to leave the game online saying he realized that "I stand to gain nothing, but I stand to lose a lot". Litigation fears, pressure on his boss at the time to let him go - these were just some of the things that were accumulating against him and making him wonder if, despite his reason for creating this game, the price was just too high. Despite advice from people saying the game did send a message and shouldn't be taken offline, it wasn't until he received the email from Roger Kovacs (a friend of one of the Columbine victims) saying he should remove the game and apologize for its creation that he decided "I have reasons for making this - there was a cause, however pretentious it might be in some people's eyes, for doing this and if I really believed in that, then I needed to stand on my own two feet and say why."
This decision led him to finally reveal his identity, after giving numerous interviews anonymously. His hope was that the media, finally uncovering his true identity, would run with the story for a short time and move on, which didn't happen as his going public only gave new fuel to dissenters. While anonymous, people would call him a "coward" and having "no backbone to support your design decisions". After going public, he was suddenly a "media whore" and someone who "just wanted attention from everyone" so he learned early on that there was just no way to win with some people.
Danny knew that "you don't make a video game like this, and then just say 'no comment'" and that in the end he had brought this down upon himself. As the media attention began to peak, Ryan Lambourn created a game based on the Virginia Tech rampage called V-Tech Rampage. Demanding donations in order for him to take the game down and post an apology, and telling the media to "go fuck themselves", Danny realized that he had a chance to leverage his own media attention and polarize his stance against Lambourn's in taking time to talk to the media and talk with people about his game and why it was made.
Soon after he began talking with the media and the public, Danny realized the core value of the game he created, which was that "at least for some people, it's an entry point to talk about a difficult or uncomfortable subject matter and it does so with the framework of videogames in mind." He also believes that as game creation becomes easier, as more tools like RPG Maker allow people to express themselves, we're going to see a lot more games that convey a serious message.
Danny is continuing to work on his film, which he started this August and doesn't plan to finish until January or February of next year. You can learn more about the game and its controversy on the website dedicated to it still maintained by Danny. The film also has a website dedicated to it. If you're interested in learning more about this controversy, those are two great places to start.
EIDOS Montr?al Studio Tour
Taking up the entire 6th floor of a downtown Montr?al office building, the new EIDOS studio is certainly ready to take on the massive number of employees scheduled to occupy the space in the coming months. Fully utilizing only 60% of the space with just under 100 people, by the end of 2009 the company expects to knock down a wall to expand to the rest of the floor and grow to as many as 360 people. The elevator opens up straight into the reception area, staffed by a secretary and adorned with chairs, huge flat-screen TVs showing the Deus Ex 3 teaser, and even a rear-projection screen inset into a glass partition displaying Hitman videos. There we met with St?phane D'Astous, the studio's General Manager and our tour guide for the afternoon.
Looking down the center walkway between the reception desk and a small sitting area to the left was an open hallway leading back past the conference rooms towards the management staff section. Two doors, one on the left and one to the right, lead back into the Q/A and development sections, respectively. We started off by trekking through the left door, which first lead down a short hallway past the server room containing the massive racks of server farms powering the studios build system and asset management. The hallway opened up into the Q/A section, a large section of open office with clusters of long desks separated by low partitions, usually two employees sharing the same desk.
Past Q/A towards the rear of the office was the management section. Here the office closed off a bit more, with higher partitions but still not enough to fully enclose an area. St?phane explained this was simply to allow as much light as possible into the office space, saying he didn't want the office to feel "like a cave" to employees. St?phane's office is the only fully-enclosed office in the building, but its walls are made entirely of glass. The management here is organized to be very lean in order to cut down on overhead and invest more money into Q/A and development. Besides St?phane, there are only 4 managers and no assistants and he hopes to keep the headcount below 10%.
Halfway through management we hung a sharp right through the door into the server monitoring room and from there we stepped through the soundproof door into the server room itself. Obviously it was very loud inside as dozens of racks of fans blew air off hot electronic components. They activated a large vertical bank of huge fans about 6 inches in diameter - you can see them in the photo as the columns with a control pad sticking out - so we could get an idea of how much air could be pushed around when needed. There are actually two rows of servers with room for additional cabinets as the studio expands. About 50 miles of cable runs out of these servers and through the entire office space. Networked builds, rendering and asset storage are just some of the uses for these machines. In addition to mirroring their own data, an offsite location managed in part by EIDOS does hold vital data in case of an office fire or similar disaster.
We were now passing the head of the central corridor leading back to the elevators and past the conference rooms, moving to the right side of the office where the development team was located. Here the space was arranged much like the Q/A section, however a lot more windows lined the wall, and St?phane mentioned how he had saved the best views for the development team, giving them a way to rest their eyes from looking at monitors by focusing on distant objects. Only one developer sat per desk but there was much more room in this section of the office, enough to contain the current 80 members of the development staff. Plenty of empty desks sat along the edges of the populated areas, waiting for the rest of the team to be assembled.
We were joined at this point by David Anfossi, the studio's Producer in charge of the Deus Ex 3 team. David talked for a few minutes about the team's current project, the amount of research they had done in order to make sure they would please as many people as possible, as well as recognizing that they're not going to satisfy everyone out there. My major gripe with the original Deus Ex (never played the sequel) was the horrible AI and I found out later that David felt the same way, and had hired an AI programmer with 15 years of experience to lead up that department. So they're on the right track as far as I'm concerned. That level of experience matches a lot of the talent they are attracting, including developers from out of the country. By matching up so many experienced people they're looking to really ease the development strain and avoid stressful deadlines and nasty crunches. They're also looking to focus their talent solely on next-gen. Sure, St?phane thinks the DS is cool, but that's not something they are ever going to develop for.
With David in tow, St?phane showed us the remainder of the office space. Bringing us to an empty desk he mentioned how he and David were both industrial designers and had planned out most of the office while he showed off the desk's features and the seat cushion atop a roll-out file cabinet that could serve as an impromptu chair. Heading back towards the front of the office led us into the break room/cafeteria.
The studio's break room featured various sitting styles, from low couches to tables and chairs to counter-top sitting. Refrigerators, a whole rack of microwaves, counter space, toasters - it was just short of a full-fledged kitchen. A table-top hockey game in the corner paid tribute to Canada's love of the sport, and two flat-screen TVs angled to cover the entire room could display local channels. Every night after hours they would have something different, from movies to drink specials, as a way to keep changing pace and keep people on their toes. Just outside the break room was a room with showers and lockers for people who like to travel by bicycle to the office.
Walking through another door, we ended up back in the reception area. From here St?phane took us up the central corridor and into the main meeting room on the right. To the left on the opposite side of the hallway were two additional meeting rooms, one set up for voice and video conferencing with up to four external locations, another for smaller more focused meetings between teams and departments. The main meeting room, a spacious area with a wide, long table and chairs for about 24 people, sported a flat-panel display hung along one wall in between two huge white boards, and a massive projection screen lowered from the ceiling. A server rack with a PS3, Xbox 360, HTPC and other multimedia devices rested in the corner. As half of the room was walled with glass, blinds could be drawn down to darken the room for projection.
After checking out the Deus Ex 3 teaser video on the Big Screen, St?phane took some time to talk about the five reasons why EIDOS decided to open up a studio in Montr?al. The first reason was the critical mass of roughly 5,000+ developers in the city to pick from, many of them very experienced. Secondly was the hope that area schools were finally starting to mature their game development curriculum and the influx of new talent would continue to increase. Thirdly, several major middleware companies reside in Montr?al, which helps extend the development community. Fourthly, St?phane maintains that the costs of living and operating in Montr?al are simply cheaper than doing so in say, Vancouver or San Francisco. Finally, and more intangibly, St?phane feels the development community in the city is very aligned and centered along common goals and culture, and that people coming from outside the country are more comfortable working and living in the area because of it.
Coming away from the tour there are several things that can be taken away and applied to smaller office spaces as well. The use of natural light, for example, isn't too hard to do for many office spaces. Keeping everything open makes it impossible for team members to sort of lock themselves in an office and not talk to anyone else unless they have to. The idea of evening or even mid-day distractions is nothing new; pretty much every studio has a plan for shaking things up and keeping people from falling into a rut and showing up for work expecting the same old, same old. Culture is also a strong determining factor in the success of studios. Having a team that can work together seamlessly is a beautiful thing, made all the more better by a suitable office environment. EIDOS Montr?al seemed to have all of these qualities - I'm eagerly anticipating their first product not only because it's a game I'd love to play, but to see how their careful planning of both office and team turns out in the end.
Parties & Events - Booth Crawl / IGDA Party / Gamma 256
First of all, there wasn't much of an Expo, hence there wasn't much of a booth crawl. Still, it was at least an excuse for people to come check things out, receive a free drink ticket (or several really if you just kept entering and leaving), and schmooze. If there's one thing I have to mention about MIGS' expo, it's the way they lit the space it occupied. Yes, the way they lit it. Just look at the pictures and you'll see what I mean. There's no way they could do this in such a huge space occupied by the larger shows like GDC (well, technically they could and there are actually huge trade shows lit like this but it's obviously expensive as hell). It was all very eye-pleasing and something I had never really experienced before so that was nice.
They had three drink tables spaced throughout the room, half of which was one of the lunchtime cafeterias. The award goes to Ubisoft for the coolest, most extravagant booth design. Like I said, there wasn't a whole lot to see and the free grabs on the tables were standard fare so I didn't bother picking anything up - I certainly have enough pens and whatnot to last me for a long time. I did take some time to play a little Wii, trying out the Zapper peripheral with Zelda: Twilight Princess. I got so engrossed I didn't notice them shutting down the other consoles, which stunk because I wanted to try Super Mario Galaxy too. Oh well.
Unlike the GDC, this wasn't an IGDA member's party, it was more of simply an IGDA-hosted reception for all conference attendees. A few of the people I talked to were a bit rumpled by them closing the bar while screening Danny Ledonne's movie Playing Columbine (which was a substantial 1:30 long), but I'm not a drinker so I couldn't complain myself. After the movie screening it was mingling and networking as usual. I didn't stick around too long afterwards, just chatted a bit with people I already knew before ducking out fairly early since I had been up at 5:30 that morning to catch my flight out.
This was a neat event, run by the group Kokoromi located in Montreal. If that name rings a bell to anyone, it's likely because they were just announced this week as a finalist in the IGF for Fez, which was nominated for Design Innovation and Excellence In Visual Arts. Gamma 256 showcased eight games that were developed under the guidelines of
- 256x256 resolution or any lesser ratio
- Windows XP support
- Xbox 360 gamepad for input
Mr. Heart Loves You Very Much
This was the one game I didn't get to play because it was so popular among the attendees. I downloaded it to play instead and wow is it addictive! I couldn't get past Level 8 though. You know those little sliding puzzle games where the tiles all jumbled up and one is missing and you slide the pieces around in a certain order to re-arrange them to complete the image? That had to have been the inspiration of this game, since you're doing that and rotating the puzzle, which affect the gravity on your character, causing him to fall "down" to the new bottom of the map. A great example of a simple idea turned into engaging game play.
This game was cool, rendered to look like 40's silent film stock with caption plates for any words spoken. The object was to fly your UFO around the map and look for people with a sign over their head that indicated they were to be abducted, at which point you'd hover over them and draw them up using your beam. Very soon people would start shooting at you, and you can't move while beaming up victims. The game tracks how many people you collect before you are shot down. If you fly too far left or right you go "out of frame" of the film, a nice touch.
This game took some experimentation to get the gist of but it wasn't too bad as far as pick-up-and-play goes. You dive off a boat and proceed downwards into the depths. Watch out for red-colored fish like sharks, squid and jellyfish, seek out blue-colored fish like dolphins, whales and turtles. Other white-colored background fish would occasionally swim by too. You have some sort of sonar pulse you can send out at about 2-3 second intervals that will freeze enemies so you can swim down past them, and talk to the friendly sea creatures, who will expel an air bubble for you to collect. It's like a game of Frogger as the sea creatures pass horizontal to your vertical movement. As you go deeper and deeper you see leviathans like blue whales and giant squid/jellyfish. Getting hit by a bad fish causes you to lose oxygen. When you run out of air you die. I never made it to the bottom, if there is one.
You're a square box dodging around the screen while avoiding a red-colored square that bounces around the screen and a blue-colored square that flies in from off-screen at random locations. The entire game is probably 15x15 pixels because they are huge looking, and the numbers counting up in the background which mark your time take up so much screen space they actually make things harder to see. If you hit the other blocks you're fried or electrocuted - game over. I believe the record score was somewhere around 56 seconds.
My favorite game. You're this zombie hunter and you have to collect keys all around the level to open the door to the next level. You wield this plunger-looking device that must be a circular saw or something because it grinds zombies to bits (literally) in a massive spray of pixilated gore. Even better, the blood drains down into the lower levels forming a pool that you swim in, and the saw accelerates your momentum like a boat propeller. So you're actually using the zombie blood to access areas of the level your character can't simply jump high enough to reach. Awesome, who doesn't like killing zombies??
Of all the games, this was by far the most artistic. You start as a young man, and to the right half of the screen, which is a horizontal slice, everything is compressed and even more pixilated. As you move rightward you pass through time, collecting items along the way (not sure what the items were). Visually, you see the compression start to ease out from the right side and appear to the left as you work your way through the game. Your character also slowly starts to age before your eyes until he's got gray hair, a bald top and a cane. Eventually you simply turn into a gravestone. You can hookup with a female companion too.
A sweet physics-based game. Your character runs around certain objects, gaining momentum until you fling yourself off into space, where you arc through a field of stars, collecting them as you pass through. While flying you can control your movement gradually. If you manage to throw yourself high enough from the ground level, you'll land on the moon. Spin around that, chuck yourself higher through another starfield, and there's a cat face to land on. If you jump too early of a surface its gravity can pull you back down. Also, your running about objects makes them grow larger and larger for some reason. If you fling yourself up but fail to land on another object, you fly off the screen and it's game over. This game isn't available for download.
You're a pixel character on the screen, traversing through several abstract worlds of various challenges and goals. I can't even explain it because it was all so... weird? I guess abstract sounds better. The screen shot will help you a little bit - in it you see the pixel (you) bumping rectangles (currently the white one) that bounce around to kill the PacMan-like ghosts trying to eat you up. Another game that's hard to describe, it's not available to download either. Go figure.
They had several music performers lined up for the evening, but I didn't stick around much after the first one struck up with a synthesizer and a drum set. My ears felt like they were about to start bleeding. Still, the event was a nice social occasion, playing games and chatting. Can't think of a better thing to be doing at a games conference.