[I posted this on my game design blog and on Gamasutra, and have just realized it makes sense to post it here.]
2012 East Coast Game Conference, Raleigh North Carolina 25 to 26 August
is both a report about the East Coast Game Conference and comments
about the nature of video game markets and the new mass market.
fourth annual East Coast Game Conference (ECGC), billed as the “largest
gathering of video game professionals on the east coast” took place
this past Wednesday and Thursday.
professional video game conferences, such as the GDC conferences, that
are money earning concerns for a company that makes much of its revenue
from conferences, the ECGC is still organized by volunteers, and this is
reflected in the relatively low $99 entrance for professionals and much
less for students. For co-founders, John Austin, Walter Rotenberry,
Troy Knight, and Wayne Watkins it is still a labor of love, not a labor
for profit. I don’t know what the attendance was this year but it was
about 800 in 2010 and 1,200 in 2011. One critic on Gamasutra has
compared this conference to the very much larger Game Developers
Conference in California, and of course there’s no way a four-year-old
volunteer run conference can compare with professionally run and
enormously expensive GDC. Yet it provides a practical alternative for
those who cannot afford the long journey and expense of GDC. You could
say that ECGC reflects the “new South” as well as the old in the same
way that GDC reflects the great size and sheer craziness of California.
Raleigh Convention Center is a fine venue with lots of space. As with
most video game conferences the focus of the ECGC is one hour talks (48
altogether) by experts in various video game related fields. There were
also keynote speeches in the early afternoon both days, and finally
there was “Unreal University” where people could learn about using the
Unreal Engine developer kit (Epic Games is located in the area). There
is a small exhibition hall, but that seems to me to be a sidelight
rather than highlight of the conference.
describe some of the more interesting talks (to me anyway) I want to say
something about how these are conducted. Something that surprises me
about this conference– I don’t know how it goes at GDC -- is that almost
every speaker gets in front of the audience and talks at them for 45
minutes without interaction, then invites questions and comments.
Necessarily, when you write something (like this piece) it's very
difficult to have a conversation with people, you are stuck with
"talking at" them. But when you have a live audience you should
acknowledge that audience as you go along, especially at the start. Why
not make a few comments and ask a few questions? The only questions I
can remember any of the speakers (other than myself) asking were related
to what proportion of the audience was developers and what proportion
Audiences at many of these talks are
predominantly younger people, certainly people who love to use
interactive video software. They often crave interaction. There is no
interaction when you "talk at" people. I look at it from the
perspective of the teacher, and lecturing at students is a sure way to
turn off all but the most motivated. There may be times when there's
not another practical way to convey information but these should be rare
rather than the standard. The university teachers who get up in front
of 100 to 500 or more students and talk at them for an hour are not
actually teachers, they are providing an oral book. A book can
certainly teach, and of course an oral book is in some ways easier to
work with than a book you have to read, with young people much less
likely to read now then a generation or two ago, as is often testified
by game developers. (Real teaching, influencing a person's behavior and
worldview, requires much smaller groups.)
I am going
to partially describe some of the talks I attended, and then the
keynotes. I hope I don't seriously misrepresent what speakers have
Alan Wilson (of Tripwire Interactive)
described "A case study of failure in funding and success on Steam". He
described how his company, which began as a modding group, have become
self publishers. They explored more traditional methods of funding your
games but in the long run most of their funding has been through second
mortgages and then the success of previous games, including their
success in building communities that continue to invest in their games.
have found ways to increase over three years the sales of their
cooperative zombie fighting game Killing Floor. Community map contests
with cash prizes provide new free maps to users, but they do not sell
new maps. They don't want to divide their customers into those who can
play on a new map and those who cannot because they haven't bought it.
Their policy is to only sell cosmetic additions, with the limit being
new character skins.
They found that some of their
fans have become what Alan calls "collectionists". When Tripwire
decided to sell boxed copies of the game in Europe with an exclusive
character the company got pounded on their forums by the collectionists
who demanded to be able to purchase that character!
the effective copy protection of Steam has helped them, Alan felt that
some of the techniques could be used for ordinary retail sales. Steam
obviously has helped them acquire up-to-the-minute statistics about play
and purchase of their games. They found that a sales spike occurred
whenever there was a sale price or an offering of new content for the
game, and more importantly that sales stayed higher after the spike than
I suspect that the cooperative nature of
Killing Floor has helped them build community although Allen said
similar techniques were used for their Red Orchestra games as well.
Levy discussed "Game design is business design". When you design a
free to play (F2P) game you have to design the monetization method that
same time. According to a recent survey 15% of the US population aged 2
and up have paid money to F2P games. The question is how to persuade
people to pay money.
In Levy's view emotion is the key
to monetization, and when he is involved in the initial design of a game
he identifies the emotions that will be used. These can be:
Impatience. But there are more effective ways than the typical Zynga
energy deficiency. A company called Kixeye makes 20 times the normal
daily average revenue per user (which is 4 cents). Zynga makes 6 cents.
Revenge. Someone harms you, you offer a bounty for others to harm them if you cannot, as in Mafia Wars.
Dominance. You want better scores in your friends and you're willing
to buy temporary boosts to help you achieve this. If the scores reset
every week you have a constant stream of revenue.
Your friends have a particular decoration or possession, you're willing
to spend real money to get the same thing.
Achievements and trophies. People are willing to pay real money to
unlock achievements that they can then pursue.
suppose this amounts to a form of gambling. Levy's example was a game
in which players could earn the opportunity to open a goodie box and get
some perks. They knew what the chances were for each perk, and they
could use real money to increase their chances of getting the better
perks. This works wonderfully.
I am not a fan of games
that put in "pain points" (frustration) to try to persuade people to
pay money. Most of the above emotions involve frustration, but the last
two do not, and this makes me more optimistic about F2P games in
Rafael Chandler is one of the best
speakers I've heard at game conferences and conventions. While his
talks about story in games usually illuminate the entire process of game
production, this time in "Story Production for Games" he gave us a faux
post-mortem of a game ("Full Metal Rabbits") to directly illustrate how
the story of a game could be ruined by production problems.
ought to be cut out as the game progresses from preproduction to
completion, but in practice things are often added on, sometimes by the
developers themselves and sometimes by people "above" such as
publishers. This makes a mess. Someone has to be in charge of meetings
and the focus of meetings (though not necessarily of final decisions).
to prototype the sound early on using amateurs to provide voice acting
leads to problems at the end when it's too late to fix the professional
Minutiae often distract developers from
what's important. That's because it's easy to research and discuss
something that's not really important, rather than answer big questions
about the core of the game.
Zany documentation can be a
problem. Skip the entertainment in the docs, which are a blueprint.
You don't expect the blueprint to be amusing or entertaining.
Concentrate on clarity and precision.
direction is vital, there needs to be one vision not a different one for
every person. There must be a sole vision of the game that is
There is a notion that voice actors
are too expensive. It's better to spend more (money and time) on voice
actors, not less. Remember that under union rules you have 4 hours
with an actor, don't just use him or her for 35 minutes, record
alternate dialogue and multiple ways of delivering the same dialogue.
The first draft is not the best! Drafts need revision, revision, revision. "Writing is revision".
questions Chandler pointed out that unfortunately in video games, much
as in Hollywood, the writer may be the one least responsible for a
game's narrative. And where the choice is between gameplay and story
then gameplay is more important.
Totten, who has a Masters degree in architecture, described how
architectural principles could be applied to make better video game
levels. He described how ideas of Narrow space, Intimate Space,
Prospect Space, Refuge space, and Secondary Refuge could be applied to
level architecture, as well as height, shadow, and shade to provide
emotion in survival horror style levels, ending with a small level he'd
created to demonstrate his points.
piece "Designing Better Levels Through Human Survival Instincts"
describes the same ideas.
There are lots of things
more important when making a level than these subtle points of
architecture, but once you have grasped those most important points then
a presentation like this can make you think about level design from a
I was trying to do the same thing in
my own talk, for more than 75 people, providing a new perspective by
talking about managing and creating frustration in game design.
slides and an audio recording can be obtained at http://pulsiphergames.com/teaching1.htm. I expect a written version to
become available on Gamasutra one way or another, though of course there
are lots of differences between an oral presentation and an article.
Whereas there were six talks plus an Unreal session going on at the same time, the two keynotes had timeslots all to themselves.
Senior Creative Director, Paul Barnett, gave the keynote on Thursday.
Though he could have a second career as a standup comic, he nonetheless
made some very interesting observations. One was that every game player
who wants to make games has had a golden age or golden years, a time
when he was young and had no responsibilities and nearly infinite time
and patience to play games. The games of his Golden years, according to
Barnett, tend to dominate the rest of his gaming life, and in many ways
he is trying to remake those games. If you want to communicate well
with someone in the game industry, whether they are older or younger,
you need to understand the games of their Golden years. Here I can't
speak for video game makers because my Golden age occurred before video
games existed, even on mainframes. But I'd like to think, and certainly
believe, that the games I design now are not like the hex and counter
Avalon Hill games that were much of my Golden years, and are in no way
an attempt to remake them.
Barnett felt that there is
very definite division and mindset between people who have actually made
a game and got it out there for other people to play, and those who
only talk about it. It doesn't need to have been sold commercially but
it has to be out there for people to play. I agree completely: the last
part of the subtitle of my forthcoming book for beginning video and
tabletop game designers is "Start to Finish". This is not meant to
imply that one book can tell you everything you need to know, it's meant
to mean you have to complete games, finish them, before you can really
call yourself a game designer, and that the biggest mistake beginners
make is to not finish anything. Of course I don't mean finish as in
quit, I mean finish as in get it done so that you have a reasonable
product that other people can play. "Get it Done" could have been the
title for the book as a whole, though the most descriptive short title
would have been "Learning Game Design".
Barnett was so
amusing and entertaining as well as informative that he got a standing
ovation at the end of his talk. There were no accompanying slides but I
hope an audio version will become available. All of the presentations
were being video-recorded for use by the local community college, Wake
Zynga East Coast Executive Producer, Paul
Stephanouk, gave the keynote the day before. I was surprised at his
description of how much players of the many -ville games appeared to
love what they were doing. When he goes out he typically wears a
T-shirt with the name of one of those games printed on the front. For a
period of six months he was batting 1.000 for having people come up to
him when they saw the T-shirt and tell him how much they loved the
games, even before they learned that he had worked on some of them
(especially Frontierville). To a typical longtime game player these
games are very very very simple puzzles, but they mean a lot more to
people who are not typical game players. And Stephanouk had recognized
this, saying that he no longer designs games for himself but designs
games for his family, which includes a wife who is not a typical game
player and a five-year-old daughter and somewhat older son.
illustrates to me where video games have gone. Although Paul did not
use the term, video games have finally reached the same kind of market
that mass-market tabletop games have reached for many decades. Most
video games that attract game players are too complex or too intense or
involve too much opposition for the kind of people who like to play
Monopoly, Sorry, Game of Life, and other traditional more-or-less family
games. These tabletop games cannot have more than two pages of rules
because that becomes too complicated for most people. The very simple
social network "games" on Facebook are reaching that same audience.
Facebook itself has made this possible because people who do essentially
nothing on a computer but use Facebook can play Facebook games even
though they might struggle to install and play any other kind of game.
In other words the technological barrier is much lower.
casual audience is not the mass-market audience. Casual gamers may
play games for many hours a week, they may not mind having the game
oppose what they're trying to do, they might accept a little
frustration, they might not need to be told what to do next as Cityville
or Empires and Allies does. Many casual gamers still recognize that
they may be asked to earn something as they play. Mass-market gamers
want to be entertained, not challenged. Even if they’re capable of
overcoming gamer-like challenges, they're not interested. They are the
opposite of the hard-core who want to be challenged and who enjoy
overcoming challenges. Mass-market games make absolutely no demands on
the player (which is why children can play them), whereas many casual
games do demand some thought or quickness of action from the player.
description of "entertained, not challenged" also often applies to
casual gamers, and we can say that the mass-market gamers are the least
challenge-oriented (and much the larger) end of the casual game market.
action-adventure movies often have very simple, straightforward plots
because movie-makers think that movie-goers are easily confused. (I
think most self-described game players are much more savvy.)
Mass-market games are similarly designed to avoid confusion.
as with the tabletop mass-market, people play mass-market video games
because their friends told them about them and because they've been
identified as easy to play by the very fact that they're on Facebook
(the mass-market tabletop games are identified by being sold at Toys "R"
Us and Walmart). There may be games on Facebook that are not so easy
to play but they're not the ones that everybody hears about, and they're
not the ones that I hear elderly ladies talking about in the local
pharmacy, just as I would be unsurprised to hear someone talk about
Monopoly or Game of Life in the local pharmacy.
make no mistake about it, to people who might call themselves game
players, mass-market tabletop games are "the pits". The Game of Life
and Monopoly have just as bad a reputation amongst tabletop game players
as the -ville games have amongst video game players. But if you want
to make a really large amount of money as a publisher of games then you
want a successful mass-market game. Hasbro has to sell 300,000 to
1,000,000 copies of anything they put on the shelves to make it
worthwhile, even though typical tabletop games and toys sell 1/10th to
1/1000th of that. Similarly a mass-market social networking game has to
reach an enormous market of tens of millions of players to make it
worthwhile for Zynga to support.
publishers of Settlers of Catan, which is a casual game rather than a
hard-core game in both the original tabletop and computer versions, were
working on a "broad market" version, not quite mass-market but
simplified from the original. Broad market is not well defined in the
tabletop industry, no more than it is in the video game industry, though
I think the casual video games that still attract self-described heavy
game players, such as Bejeweled and Tetris, constitute the broad market.
hard core video game market can still generate millions of sales for
games like Call of Duty. Hard core tabletop games like chess still sell
in the millions, and hobby tabletop games that win the German "Game of
the Year" award can sell more than a million copies. But most tabletop
games, like most video games, sell immensely less than a million
copies. In the long run, "millions of sales" are the domain of the mass