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GDC Austin

We have a file on you: The tools & tricks of social games

Oct 13 // Allistair Pinsof
Amazon.com used to be some site that you bought books at but then analytics happened. In the late 1990s, Brian Lent helped lead the Information Technology team that would create Amazon's recommendation system. The system that would rewrite how the expanding online store functioned. Instead of recommending random items for sale, stores now gain data from users' searches, purchases, behavior, and any other information available to analytical software. Recommendations covered 14 percent of Amazon's revenue when Lent still worked there; now, it's as high as 40 percent of the company's earnings. The rest of the Internet would follow and, now, so are videogames. Videogame developers and publishers are now reaching out to analysts like Lent, who currently works for Medio Systems. It is one of many third-party companies that offer analytical software which does the heavy number crunching for developers. Right now, Lent is giving a speech at GDC Online, a gathering of social and mobile game developers in Austin, Texas. His audience is a group of grey-haired businessmen curious to get some of this Facebook cash they have heard so much about through the success stories of Zynga, PopCap, and Chillingo. He is now covering stage three of how to make a successful social game: monetization. "This stage is really about optimizing the next best offer," Lent says. "If you have another thing to show the user, what is the best thing (analytically-speaking) they are most likely to purchase next?" "Metrics" is a word commonly used among social game developers that didn't exist in the industry until analysts like Lent arrived. You hear people say it a lot at a trade show like GDC Online. Sometimes in a knowing way, and sometimes with the excited gleam of dollar signs lighting up the eyes. In 2009, social games made $4 billion a year. According to Lent's research, the market will reach $30 billion in yearly revenue with downloads rising to 21.7 billion -- over five times what they were three years ago. The market is growing and it's attracting developers like Zynga that are well-versed in the visual design and analytical tricks that have made successful websites tick. Now, they are applying the same tactics to videogames. Once users are acquired, a social game must engage them. Since not all social games are fun enough to play on their own merit, developers hook players with a carrot on a stick. Analytical tools tell designers when an offer should be made to what player. For example, a whale may be planning to go back to reality and abandon their home in DragonVale. This is when a developers must "figure out how to cross-promote and move people." "Collect all the data you can!" exclaims Lent. "Location, time of day, offers shown that they didn’t respond to, offers shown that they did respond to, friends they invited into game ... all that data is extremely, extremely valuable. No matter how you work, make sure you are collecting all the data you can. That data is a gold mine." Once a user is placed into a "clustomer" (a cluster of customers -- yes, they really do use this term), analytical tools evaluate what should be offered and how the offer should be presented. For example, the software knows Melissa is a whale because the data tells the system that whales are likely to use iPhones, reach level 12 in the game, live in Germany, and purchase the golden sword. All of these traits fit Melissa, so she must be a whale. "Have your product guys look into the purchase path for the golden sword, since that unlocks the game experience and leads them to buy more things," Lent says. This analytical software has increased developers revenue by five times, according to Lent. Not only does the software tell developers the nature of a user, it can even decide whether something should be promoted as "best price," "hot price," "NEW!" or "50% off" even though these are the same exact offer. However, some aspects of targeting social players will always be in the designers' hands. Emmanuel Valdez has nearly twenty years of experience in designing videogames, and he comes to GDC Online to discuss how visual design can help drive sales in social games. Since most social games are free-to-play, they depend on real-money transactions in a marketplace. Depending on the game, these marketplace items may alter the way a player's avatar looks or how the game is played, often making it easier on the player. Then, the worst offender: there are energy systems that lock a person out from playing the game until they are let back in via a timer -- unless they pay up. "It's not the art; it's not the budget; it's the design that makes great games," states Valdez. Valdez pulls many time-tested design principles from across time and cultures and applies them to games. For example, colors can reinforce what a person should look at. Game designers often color a group of icons to imply they are of a similar nature, but Valdez presents an example where a social game greys out all buttons except the marketplace. This button, and only this button, is glorious, bright, and shiny. How can you not click on it? Why would anyone resist? "Design for free-to-play games changes how we see design because they are all about getting people to spend money, most of the time," continues Valdez. Have you ever noticed that many social games apply baby face features to game characters? They often have big round eyes, small noses, and heads larger than the rest of their bodies. Valdez says developer's do this because it makes players more sympathetic. Research shows that they are more likely to pay to level them up. Developers want you to fall in love with their characters and then pay for that love. Placement is another key design aspect of social games. Leading players' eyes to the marketplace and the most expensive items is a primary goal for many developers and it's a task that has to be dealt with subtlety. Valdez says that placing the most expensive items first in a store will make them more likely to be sold, since these items will linger in the mind of players after exiting. Another principle is the Gutenberg Diagram which shows that player's eyes are drawn from the top-left to the bottom-right of the screen, so of course you are going to place your store icon there! "A lot of people from Zynga come from the web and that industry has been doing this a lot longer than we have. These principle are second nature to them," Valdez explains. "That's where we need to get." But where is this place and what kind of place will it be? One where each user is studied by systems, manipulated by artists, and led with a carrot on a stick? Many European countries, such as England and Germany, forbid the kind of data collection these analysts provide for a good reason. That reason is that customers should be served a quality product, not serving developers' research and data mining. Nevertheless, companies like Medio Systems work within a loophole that strips individuals' data and places it into a group ("clustomers"). No one is that unique, after all. This keeps personal data one step removed and the data mining within legal bounds. Even great game developers analyze test groups, use design principles to guide players, and give players incentive to keep playing. The difference is that developers like Activision Blizzard make a game first and tune it around these tools and tricks, not the other way around. The more I learn about how social games are made and the people that work on them, the more I am fascinated by this new industry and the more I want to stay the hell away from it as a gamer. I'm not a whale. If Zynga has a file on me, I kindly ask for it back.
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This is what social game developers say about you, behind your back
Meet Melissa. She's a forty-year-old mom who has recently become hooked on DragonVale, a free-to-play iOS game. She is what social game analysts call a whale. No, this isn't a comment on her physical stature or deep, raspy...

The trials, tribulations and rebirth of Ultima Forever

Oct 11 // Allistair Pinsof
“We really cared about it! We really wanted do to it, and we could get our hands on it," Barnett says about Ultima. "You’d be surprised how many times you want to put your hands on something and someone else says, ‘It’s mine you know!’” Just a couple yards away sits Ultima creator Richard "Lord British" Garriott who laughed and applauded throughout Barnett's off-the-walls, hysterical presentation, which doubled as a descent into one man's madness experienced during production. Ultima Forever has been rebuilt multiple times, shuffled around by production houses, and saved from cancellation through the act of begging to BioWare's co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk. Given Barnett's candor and spirited delivery, it's hard to tell when he's serious or not -- though, after the speech, he insisted he wasn't making anything up on stage. One of the most baffling things is that an early promo video for Ultima Forever (then attached with the subtitle "Quest for the Avatar") showed up at Mythic's office with a BioWare logo positioned at the start ... but they didn't work for BioWare, at the time. This is how they first heard of the 2010 BioWare Mythic merger that apparently marketing knew about before the developer. In March 2011, EA was overlooking its projects, trying to figure out which ones were making progress and which ones should be canned. Mythic scrambled together new footage and invited BioWare's Ray Muzyka for a studio tour. After feeding him a sandwich, Muzyka rushed off and threw up for two days. Instead of giving Muzyka a tour, Mythic had given him the wondrous gift of food poisoning. “We needed people to believe in what we were doing. All we had was a chicken and a spoon. We were up against it!” Barnett says. Barnett felt bad about Muzyka throwing up for two days in a Fairfax, Virginia hotel, so he sent Muzyka a video tour. The video opens with the team waving and shouting, "Hi, Ray!" The words "Sorry we poisoned you!" slowly fade into the screen. One gets the sense that working at Mythic is not so unlike living in an office sitcom. Another video made by the company is a holiday greeting that opens with a developer, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, diving into a snowman. “We had nothing. Nothing!" Muzyka shouts, talking about the state of the game during the time of EA was investigating the company's future. With support from Muzyka, the team scrambled together a new video of footage that mostly contained b-roll of the development staff driving around and goofing off in the office. It worked. “We just had to prove it could work," Barnett says, as a video of an employee imitating Medusa plays in the background. Another glimpse into the madhouse of Mythic. Months spent making a working prototype in Excel (not a joke) and painstakingly hand-crafted maps were for nothing, as the developer soon rebuilt Ultima Forever from the ground up. The main conflict came from an aesthetic disconnect between the art direction and game. For such a lighthearted adventure and bright world, it didn't make sense to have grim, D&D-style character portraits. The new Ultima Forever retains many aspects of Ultima IV but gives the game a new coat of paint. It's now a Diablo-style clickfest, it sounds like a PopCap game, and it looks as bright and shiny as Warcraft III. It may upset and divide some Ultima purists, but Ultima IV's original creator seems to support the new direction. The eight-week build shown is said to be "ancient" but it's the closest Mythic has yet come to making Ultima Forever look like a game people would pay to play (that is its chosen release model, after all). The studio continues to work with a large painting, styled after the iconic Obama "Hope" poster, of Richard Garriott: the words "Britannia believes in you" written below. Mythic printed a couple promotional maps for the game. A photo of Barnett and Garriott displaying the map is shown on the screen. Garriott proudly lifts his map up, in the audience. Barnett, on the other hand, no longer has his map. "[It] sold on eBay for $250. I think I found out how to monetize this game!” Ultima Forever is slated for release on iPad later this year, with a browser-based PC release to follow. [Image source]
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Creative director Paul Barnett tells all in a manic GDC Online presentation
“We went back in time to go forward," Ultima Forever creative director Paul Barnett said during a GDC Online presentation, Wednesday, on the game's tumultuous production history. Ultima IV is one of those much praised g...

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Bioware Austin win most awards at GDC Online


Hometown heroes claim four awards, Riot Games win three
Oct 11
// Allistair Pinsof
Despite having a hard time with employment and keeping membership afloat this year, GDC Online's judges sent Bioware Austin home with four awards for its Star Wars MMO The Old Republic. The developer won four awards in its si...

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New event GDC Next set for Los Angeles November 2013


Sep 17
// Dale North
The organizers of Game Developers Conference have just announced their newest event, GDC Next. This event is the successor to GDC Online, which has always taken place in Austin. After it's final show this October, GDC Next wi...
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2012 Game Developers Choice Online Awards nominees


Jul 26
// Dale North
Here are the Game Developers Choice Online Awards nominees for this year, chosen by the organizers of the Game Developers Conference Online, set to go down this October in Austin, Texas. These nominees are among the best of t...
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GDC Play Showcase to show off games at GDC events


Jul 07
// Dale North
Game Developer Conferences worldwide will now show off more games as the organizers of the GDC have announced the debut of a new event for developers to showcase their games.  Inspired by the success of the Independent G...

GDC Austin 09: Storytelling Through Independent Games

Sep 18 // Ashley Davis
Alec went on right after Twisted Pixel, and as such, a lot of people left when this less well-known indie darling took the stage. He started the talk by thanking everyone who stayed, and then thrust two middle fingers to the air to everyone who had gone. It was already apparent that this would be a panel packed with personality, and he did not disappoint those who did choose to stick around. He was there to speak his mind on stories and how they can be told through games, specifically indie games. Right off the bat, he admitted what we all know: there are a lot of terrible game stories, and a lot of people don't want them. He displayed the well-known John Carmack quote on the matter: "Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important." Many people feel the same way, but the bad rap that game writing gets is not very indicative of what can be done with it. He proceeded to give the audience a little bit of background information about himself: he's Canadian, sometimes makes games by himself, and collaborates with others other times. He called himself a thinker, and that all the questions to follow were things that enter his mind on a regular basis. The first question he asked himself was, "What is the basis for your games?" He explains that many things can be the starting point of a game's story. Some people borrow from film, images, or even their own memories. "For me, it's a character in a world. Everything else comes out of that." A slide went up, displaying the following flow chart: story > music > graphics > physics > input > gameplay mechanics. This flow chart, while it depicts the different elements that go into making a game, is wrong. "Making a game is not a linear process. It goes in cycles. Each part influences the other." He then switched gears to game reviews for a moment, stating that they should be more akin to how critics rate movies. "Don't rip out one component from the whole," he explained. "It is pointless. The connections between the mediums is important." He stressed the importance of taking note of how things like the graphics and sound and gameplay play off one other. The relationship between the player and the combined mediums is another thing he wishes were looked at more often. Alec then asked the question, "What are games?" He goes through a list of extremely varied things, from Pong to board games to card games. They all had different degrees of story, but they could all be considered games regardless. Then he spoke of interactive multimedia, which he defined as a "fusion of existing mediums into a cohesive whole, with an added element of interaction." "Are interactive games more legitimate?" he asked the audience, and answered with a "no". To explain, he went into a little background. He and his family were always making things like movies, musicals, and board games. On the projector screen, an image of one of these board games was shown, and Alec went into more detail about how these creations made his imagination run wild. "I started writing fanfiction about the world that this board game was set in. The world and the characters that lived there fascinated me." This game did not fit the description of interactive multimedia, yet he still managed to make a connection to it. He then went back to the list of games mentioned earlier and picked out two completely different titles to compare and contrast. The first was Pong, which is a game comprised of pure interaction. Then he chose Silent Steel, which has plenty of context, but barely any interaction. In his words, playing it "feels like suffering a multiple choice test that you didn't study for". He felt that the "sweet spot" that developers should shoot for is the median point between these two games. When story is used as context, it frames the gameplay very nicely. "With all of this talk of the importance of story, does Spelunky need one? No.""Can stories within games be awesome? Yes."He then pulled out his favorite game as an example: Final Fantasy VI. He said that the game has influenced every game he has worked on since. The music, visuals, and specifically, the story, really spoke to him even the first time he rented the game as a child. He stopped a moment to play the opening scene from the game, where the three Magitek Armor suits have their backs to the camera and walk through a snowy field. This is one of the moments that wowed Alec, even though it couldn't be interacted with. The best thing about it was that all of his friends who had played the game felt similarly to him, but for different reasons. While Alec loved the scope of the scene, which uses the fantastic graphics inherent in the last SNES games made and Mode 7 to scroll the field below, his friends grew attachments to the music or the way the characters were designed."The characters are what make it work," he said of the game. "They are uniquely motivated. They are united by a common cause, but diverse." He praised the spritework, and how everyone could show a lot of expression through such tiny sprites. The characters of FFVI are a big driving force behind the story and even the gameplay itself. In addition, Alec shared his thought that the battle system can tap into players' imaginations about how the characters get along with each other. "The player is a god-like team manager leading these guys along. It's really a fatalist game." Another FFVI cinematic was shown, this time of the world being destroyed. "The entire pacing of the game changes after this. It has momentous consequences for the characters and the player. That's why it works so well." This moment separates the player's party, and there is a shift in game flow from linear to non-linear. This challenges what the player has accomplished so far, which evokes an emotional response of some kind. One last cinematic showed the slow pan over the destroyed world, and then the point of the game where the player meets Cid. This part of the game has strong storytelling because you have to pick back up after the disaster and figure things out for yourself. Alec admitted that the first time he played, he fed Cid poisonous fish without knowing it For the longest time, he didn't think there was any way to keep him alive, but the great thing is that you can save him once you realize what you did wrong. "Taking care of Cid gives the player a real sense of responsibility." He likens the whole end of the world portion of the game to the experience of growing up. From there, he presented another question: "Why not encourage the exploration of emotional spaces?" The fact that some people just aren't into that sort of thing isn't a good enough excuse not to try. A character's personal gateway into the player is the emotion space, and without tapping that part, they'll never make a connection. He also described gamers he labeled as "unprofessional players". "They aren't Master Chief or Solid Snake because when they play the game, they do things these characters would not do. Instead, they co-create new characters that are more realistically human." After spending so much time gushing about FFVI, he switched gears to talk about storytelling in indie games. He used a moment from Aquaria as an example; if you haven't played the game, it takes place almost completely underwater. Near the end, you finally make your way to the water's surface. As the player makes the main character, Nadja, jumps into the air, the camera slows for a moment while she speaks about the experience. The use of music change, narration and slow motion during this moment was done on purpose to help the player feel the moment the same way that Nadja did. The placement of the event in the game's  timeline also played a big part, as breaking through the surface would not have had as huge an impact had the player not spent three or four hours in the dark water beforehand. On the other hand, the character Li was "a much less successful part of the game". The way that he behaves (which has been described by players as "like a dumb puppy") makes him not work. Alec admitted that he may have been more effective if his interactions with Nadja had been developed more. Players tend to not get as attached to him as the story says they're supposed to. Alec took a small break from talking to show the audience a short teaser trailer for his upcoming game, Marion.After quickly publishing the video to his website, he picked back up on the many advantages of using storytelling in indie games. One is that players can hear the voice of the creator in the final result due to small team sizes. Indie game stories are usually more personal, affecting, and diverse. They also tend to marry story to visuals to gameplay to make it a lot more meaningful than any big budget story. The approach he and Derek Yu took to making Aquaria was to think about how elements of a game interact with each other. "Link elements, challenge the player, and explore your own style. There is a whole ocean of gameplay under our feet." Questions from the audience began with, "Is 'story' the right word for what goes into a game?" Alec responds with a no. Stories are linear, and most games are not. However, he likes to use the term "storytelling", because games do act as a transport of story from it to the player.The next person said to Alec, "In movies and books, readers can identify with characters other than the main character, but in games, you can't really relate to most NPCs. How can we fix this?" Alec responded, "Make them integral to the gameplay. Make them help the main character in a positive way." He also said that developers could perhaps draw upon the history of story from books and movie scripts to help with this problem. Most NPCs are nothing but one line of dialogue, while secondary characters in other media are typically a lot more fleshed out. The next set of questions were, "Why do some people not like exploring emotional spaces? How can we reach those people?" Alec's response was to make games that are more subtle about their meaning to coerce people who would otherwise not be interested. If a game is too overt about its message, that can drive some players away. Someone then asked, "Is there a reason you choose female leads in your games?" He feels that most females in games are sexualized, thus someone needs to treat them with maturity. "Female leads just interest me," he said, which has been apparent through his well thought out characters like Nadja. "What about stories in games where you don't have a character to control?" the last question asked. Alec turned to Myst, a game where the player plays as themselves, as an example. In it, you play as yourself, an outsider to that world. But the story still works in that it gradually does make you a part of it. Games like that show that a game does not necessarily need an established main character to have a great story that engages the player, though characters are an important element to Alec personally. As Alec's talk came to an end, so did the Independent Games Summit. It was very fast paced and fun, with some great messages to all of the developers in the audience who perhaps wanted to take the more meaningful route with the games they create. All in all, it was a great talk to round out a great summit.
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Alec Holowka, formerly one half of Bit Blot (Aquaria) and currently the head of Infinite Ammo (Paper Moon), was the last speaker to go on at the Independent Games Summit of GDC Austin. A lot of the talks to go on in the hours...

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GDC Austin 09: Twisted Pixel's 'Splosion Man Postmortem


Sep 17
// Ashley Davis
We all know that Twisted Pixel's 'Splosion Man is a great game. But do you know how it was made, what went into it, or what mistakes were made during its development? I didn't either, until I attended Mike Henry and Sean Rile...
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GDC Austin 09: Flashbang: How to Make a Game in 8 Weeks


Sep 16
// Ashley Davis
It's very likely that you've played the hell out of one of Flashbang Studio's games. They've been on a roll the past few years with releases like Off Road Velociraptor Safari and Minotaur China Shop.Matthew Wegner and Steve S...
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GDC Austin 09: The Fantastic Contraption Postmortem


Sep 15
// Ashley Davis
Fantastic Contraption is a Flash-based browser game. Colin Northway is the man who made it. He is now a full time game developer for it. It's as simple a story as the game itself. The Independent Games Summit of GDC Austin 09...
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GDC Austin 09: Gaijin Games: Holistic Indie Game Design


Sep 15
// Ashley Davis
Many eyes have been upon Bit.Trip developers Gaijin Games recently. They are just barely a year old, but within the span of six months, they've already made three fantastic games. Not only that, but more is still to come mere...

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