by Zebranky on Aug.16, 2009, under Games and Gaming

Yesterday was Boston Game Loop 2009.  It was pretty awesome times!  There were a lot of familiar faces, and some cool new ones.  The venue (Microsoft’s NERD in Cambridge) was very nice, though it suffers from a shortage of power outlets, and I think they tried to man-in-the-middle my SSH sessions after lunch (someone did, anyway!).

The grid got more full than not (should probably have a second day next year), so choosing sessions became challenging at times.  The sessions I ultimately graced with my presence follow:

Business Models for Indies (Audio)

This ended up focusing heavily on contract negotiations, going into specifics of royalty splits, rights (e.g. exclusivity, logo placement), differences between publishers, differences between physical and digital distribution, and so on.  This was largely because the Dejobaan guys were awesome and happily answered questions about anything other than sales numbers.  We did touch a bit on business models, particularly how to reconcile “free” and “being able to pay for lunch”.

Major takeaways:

  • Everything is negotiable
  • Digital distribution is the way to go (though that’s just a broad umbrella)
  • Smaller publishers can sometimes be convinced to give you advances
  • PR will make or break your sales

Project Management Philosophies (Audio)

I expected this to be an overview of agile, waterfall, et al presented in the rather boring/painful way that project management usually is.  Nevertheless, I went because sometimes I need to understand the synergies inherent in leveraging buzzwords.  It turned out to be a roundtable, and a pretty interesting one at that, as it addressed many of the issues I’ve noticed at Rogue Dao.

Major takeaways:

  • Developers need a properly-sized box — too big and they get lost, too small and they can’t be creative (and ultimately get frustrated and bitter)
  • Communication is pretty much the most important thing in the world
  • Not directly part of the talk, but I noted a fundamental assumption that devs don’t need handholding, which means everyone needs a functional understanding of the toolchain and how departments interact (something RDS lacks miserably)
  • For startups, corporate stock is very effective in lieu of payment, especially for technical folks
  • Producers often have a huge disconnect between their understanding of devs’ abilities and reality.  This is bad.
  • Feedback should be a regular occurrence (this goes back to communication)
    • Be specific when giving criticism (and praise!)
    • Take notes on specific things to criticize and praise if that helps
  • Producers are there to help developers do their jobs.

Session idea for next year: Managing an entirely Internet-based team.

Game Balance, Methods & Practices (Audio)

I walked into this session (which was kind of a hybrid panel/roundtable) thinking “iteration”.  That’s pretty much what it came down to, though there were some interesting ideas about how to iterate well.  The focus was heavily FPS/MMO/RTS, so not well-aligned with my interests.  Still, there were some general principles that I can use.

Major takeaways:

  • Balance is not just numbers: look-and-feel matters too, even if the mechanical numbers are identical
  • FPS players will bitch; MMO players will bitch a lot louder (and rightly so, because imbalance has much longer consequences in a persistent environment)
  • Death of a thousand papercuts (no, not the trope): There’s a trade-off in making large balance changes at once vs. tweaking more incrementally (kind of like ripping off a band-aid)
  • Metrics are super-useful, but which ones?
    • Obvious ones: K:D ratios, how long weapon was used, achievements, etc.
    • Track everything and apply AI (or an approach like sabermetrics) to figure out what actually matters
    • Use aggregate player stats or $bignum of AI games to identify areas of imbalance (though the latter may just be revealing quirks of the AI instead…)

MMO Players: Casual vs. Hardcore (Audio)

Something about the terms “casual” and “hardcore” made me not want to attend this session, so that’s exactly why I did.  They seemed a pair of obnoxious, heavily-used but poorly-understood generalizations.  The roundtable (which was a bit heavy with WoW talk) did nothing to dissuade me of this notion, but it did help with understanding why they’re such useless terms: their meanings are heavily dependent on the person using them.  That aside, the discussion did branch into some more meaningful subjects, such as learning curves, player elitism, achievements, PvE vs. PvP, free-to-play MMOs, virtual assets, etc.

Major takeaways:

  • Don’t use the terms “casual” and “hardcore”, because they will be misunderstood.
  • In-game tutorials: the more detailed (without resorting to jargon), the more accessible the game will be to casual players.
  • As a designer, your own placement on the casual-hardcore spectrum will color your design.  Make sure you take an objective look (or have someone objective look at it).
  • All studios should have at least one Luddite tester on call.

Procedural Story & Emergent Narrative (Audio)

This roundtable (which really should have been held in a round formation) got pretty much stuck as Shane warned it might from the outset.  I knew (and warned pretty early) that I would basically be channeling Chris Crawford.  I think a lot of the other attendees got some understanding of the potential awesomeness of emergent narrative, though, so I consider it a success.  If you have no idea what the title of the talk means (or even if you think you do), you should give it a listen.

By the way, this time slot had a lot of other sessions I was interested in.  If you have notes/audio from those, please please please post them.

Major takeaways:

  • Procedural story and emergent narrative are even more poorly understood than I thought going in.
  • Shane is a pretty cool dude, and has done wonders to restore my faith in Bethesda.
  • I totally didn’t think to mention it when NWN came up, but that could be a great engine for experimenting with this stuff, as it already has a lot of the necessary code underpinnings.
  • I need to play L4D and Facade.

Meaning in Games & Interactive Metaphor (Audio)

This was a nice finale, out on the lovely NERD patio.  The audio has some rumbly noises here and there from the wind and the Red Line running by, but you can generally hear everyone.  We started by discussing Passage, then got into any number of other games, with varying degrees of metaphor in their mechanics.  There was also discussion of moral choices in games and why they are really hard (impossible?) to do well, and why choices about things other than morality are often much more interesting.

Major takeaways:

  • Morality systems, at present, are silly (and can often be seen to endorse negative behavior)
  • Not stated overtly in the discussion, but: truths expressed subtly through the gameplay (Rollercoaster Tycoon example at ~20:25 in the audio), which the player must realize to be successful at the game, are far superior to explicit statements of what the player should do (BioWare-style good/evil meters).  Hidden variables are a good thing?
  • If you’re going to make an intentional metaphor, be careful that you don’t have an unintended one too.
  • If you’re not bothering with metaphor, still be careful about your unintended implications.
  • Shadow of the Colossus: Designing everything for a particular strong emotional impact can be very effective (if that’s what you want to do with your game, anyway).
  • Use metrics about how much the player cares for $gameplay_element (weapon, companion, etc.) to target the emotional impact.  This is a clear advantage of an interactive medium.
  • Killing is often treated remarkably lightheartedly.  This is strange.  Your friends should generally be passing judgment on your murderous rampages.

Thanks to Señor Kazemi, Señor Macmillan, the sponsors, and all the attendees for a fantastic event.  I look forward to next year’s with great zeal!

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