GDC 2012

Where does one find time to decompress after GDC? I’m probably just as overworked as I was in the EA days, yet I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Right now I’m trying to steal a few moments out of my weekend to write my summary of GDC. I hadn’t been since 2008. In 2009, I was recently unemployed from EA. In 2010, I had just started my short-lived Gameloft gig and didn’t want to take a week off after only being there a month. The same was true in 2011 when I started at Full Sail. Finally, the stars aligned and I got to hajj back to the ancestral stomping grounds. This was by far my best and most productive GDC as I: 1) had business to take care of with Sky Parlor and 2) I actually know a ton of people in the industry, unlike four years ago.

I’m just going to splatter my notes up here like a Pollock painting and try to make sense of it after the fact.

Despite being there on Sky Parlor’s dollar, the first session I went to was at the Education Summit (the Smartphone/Tablet summit opener sounded useless to me) with the ever-engaging Brian Moriarty talking about his most recent project, Perlenspiel. Perlenspiel is an HTML5/Javascript wrapper that allows students to quickly make games in Javascript and iterate upon them. The problem he set out to solve was how to get students to make a ton of games in one seven-week course when they may have little-to-no scripting experience and how to teach game design concepts over the more necessary game implementation concepts. He showed a number of very interesting projects his students created and I was so enthused over the possibilities that I am currently evaluating it to find a home for it in Full Sail’s design program. This was in my top three sessions of the week.

Maybe it was hard to live up to Moriarty, but the second session I went to was “Designing the 5-Second Game”. It ended up being just a topography of popular casual games with such great pullaways as “You need to have bebopping tunes” and “Your game should be easy to learn and hard to master.” Needless to say, I ducked out early.

With my newfound free time, I decided to go to the IT summit where Prof. Bogost was presenting on his group’s Game-o-Matic. It is a clever little tool that allows you to place nouns and verbs into a diagram and then the tool converts them into a surreal little game. The objective is to make quick editorial games as fast as you can think of them and to that end it could have some potential.


Ian made an almost Dadaist game in about ten seconds where his head produced Cow Clicker icons that battled the Zynga dog that was attempting to destroy Earth.Questions of merits beyond the novelty aside, everyone seemed to have a good time. Ian even gave me one of these rad badge ribbons:

Badge Bro

Next up was “Designing a Game Your Teenage Daughter Will Play”. This talk could have been a train wreck but was obviously very well-rehearsed. Graeme Devine brought his teenage daughter on-stage to talk about game design decisions through her lens of perspective. I actually came away with a few great takeaways here:

  • Teenagers don’t like boilerplate. They don’t pay attention to FB or Twitter feedspam anymore, but may pay attention if it feels like the sender personalized it in a meaningful way. I don’t think that these takeaways are exclusive to teenagers. They are more helpful as a way to just challenge our ready assumptions about standard elements.
  • They have to be able to listen to their own music while playing the game (duh).
  • They love to customize, especially with things from outside the app (like pictures).
  • Everyone makes jokes about teenagers texting. What is like texting? Asynchronous gameplay. Why is …With Friends, Draw Together, etc. so popular? Because our multitasking society demands that twelve activities must be going on simultaneously. But teenagers are social and want to play together just like everyone else.
  • Free to play. Teenagers are surprisingly wise about their disposable income and won’t plop down 99c just to try a game blind, but they will pay 99c (or much more) to a game they have played and enjoyed.

I don’t think Graeme’s iOS dancing game that he showed at the end has a lot of legs (it looks too demographically-focused), but I wish him the best.

That was Day One. I went to a European marketing data thing of some sort, but it was just useless sales chart data, so that was that. Monday night I went to the TouchArcade party and found an ex-Tiburon and part-time-iOS champion Jim Spoto and caught up with him for a while while my coworkers tried to do business. I’m not a big fan of the standard booze-and-schmooze GDC parties because I find it hard to break the ice in those situations (too loud and crowded). But if I know folks there, I tend to have a pretty good time.

Some of the noobs had hangovers on Day Two. Pace yourself, padawan.

On Day Two started off poorly, with a guy lamenting a never-ending release treadmill while making games that put users on a never-ending hedonic treadmill.

If there could be a theme to GDC 2012 in my experience, it would probably be “Why the hell are you still charging for games?” I went to a talk from Appy Entertainment’s marketing/sales/something guy about changing their premium title to “freemium” (a portmanteau that I particularly loathe) which sold the concept using hard data and intuitive leaps fairly well. F2P games don’t follow the peak-then-long-valley model that we saw with Fire and Dice (and also that I saw when in AAA).  I just assumed that F2P revenue would follow the same peak-and-valley rather than spike along like a seismograph. When they went F2P, downloads increased by 5000%. The key point here was that since there is a generally low conversion rate among F2P, you need to have a large critical mass to reach enough players that you can reach enough paying players. Obvious in retrospect, but nice to hear reinforced.

Then I went to a bunch of useless junk.

Continuing the F2P theme, I listened to a charismatic speaker from Popcap talk about how the hell Bejeweled Blitz actually makes money. And it does: loads. Interesting points: iOS has 1/3 the users of FB, but has much better retention and ARPU. Android does slightly worse than FB. Only 20% of users use Facebook Connect, even though it is a critical low-friction feature. Popcap is big on mobile gaming: “Gaming on the toilet is a thing now.” One of the recurring points I’ve heard from talk after talk was: anything that can be server-side, should be.

Luke Muscat from Half-Brick reiterated all these same lessons with regards to Fruit Ninja. I learned a great acronym from him: JSIRSO, which usually reflects our development philosophy: Jam Shit In, Rip Shit Out.

I saw Stephen Totilo from Kotaku and said hi. He seemed like a busy guy, so I didn’t keep him long. Later, I was wandering around looking for a spare plug to recharge my overworked phone and I happened to find an open spot next to Stephen. I all of a sudden felt like I was projecting a weird stalker-creeper image. I felt incredibly awkward, so I didn’t say anything and I don’t know if he particularly noticed me.

On Day Three, everything opened up to the main conference-goers, so the pedestrian traffic at the corner by the Moscone West NOS clusterfuck became apocalyptic.

I’m always very wary of going to talks from Big Names. I’m double-wary of going to talks from Big Names that have spoken at the conference for the last twenty years. What more do they have to share? Regardless, I went to Sid Meier’s talk on Interesting Decisions because his Psychology of Game Design from last year was full of actual practical actionable takeaways. Most of this talk was kind of surface fluff which is okay on its own. There was an interesting thought at the end where he proposed that “[m]ost genres are defined by the amount of time given to the player.” That is readily apparent in the strategy space when you look at Civilization vs. something like Age of Empires. I don’t know how well it holds in other areas, but it is something to ponder.

Dr. Vili Lehdonvirta had an interesting talk where he explained what economists consider to be “well-designed” currency and how to subvert that into “bad currency” that can actual create good gameplay since we care less about efficiency and more about interesting challenge. There were some great examples from Habbo Hotel, which seems to be the only virtual goods example that Europeans use.

Vijay Thakkar, a fellow Horseshoe-ite, hosted a talk on Words with Friends that was particularly useful to our current endeavors. At the risk of just typing up my notes he focused on the importance of communicating with your users in meaningful ways, being able to shut down features from the server-side and always checking your performance in multiple ways. If you have GDC Vault, be sure to find this one when it goes up.

Jason Vandenberghe, also a fellow Horseshoe-ite, probably gave the talk of the week. It certainly was well-rehearsed as he was giving a version of it back in November when I saw him last. I made sure to move a meeting just so I could go see it. Jason is a natural storyteller and presenter and even if he didn’t have a thoroughly researched new idea, he could probably have the audience eating out of his hand anyway. The gist of the talk is that motivation psychologists have this well-studied schema called “The Big Five” that map our motivations onto five spectrums. The twist at the end is that this is cheating and it is actually thirty separate spectrums. These thirty dualities will tell us pre-facto what sorts of features we enjoy in our games. The remarkable thing is that these spectrums are normally-distributed (for the most part) so for every achievement-gamer there is an equal moment of contentment-gamer. Really remarkable stuff and I’ll post more about it when I see some more on the topic. Here are his slides.

That night I went to the Wild Rumpus / One Life Left / Venus Patrol party. I went as a volunteer because I was too slow on the trigger to buy a ticket. Boy am I glad I did. I helped out by manning Bennett Foddy and Douglas Wilson’s Mega-GIRP for the night which mostly meant that I told people to take off their shoes. I got to talk with both of them for far too short of a time. Both seem like good friends to have. I got to say hi to so many people that I only know via Twitter or reputation. I got to play Johann Sebastian Joust, Proteus, Pole Riders and Uprok which were one and all awesome. I felt so comfortable at that party, unlike every other game industry party ever.

Bennett and his game
Bennett and his game.
Joust got Crazy

Days Four and Five were mostly useless. Maybe I was just tired by that point. I’d bought a sweet hat at Goorin Bros., what else did I need? There was, of course, the Experimental Gameplay Sessions. This year seemed to focus on awkward controllers rather than the gameplay itself and had a really distasteful interlude regarding the Occupy movement. Steve Swink’s Scale was a highlight, even if it is probably going to be Portal 3. The final game, which was controlled explicitly by 100 separate laser pointers was another highlight; truly experimental gameplay there.

Friday night we went to the wharf and to the awesome Musee Mechanique which I highly recommend if you make it out to SF. Tons of old school coin-operated amusements from fortune tellers to arm-wrestling machines to dioramas of farting cowboys.

I started off near the hardest difficulty because I thought I was a tough guy. Level 3 is sufficient.

You have to be there to really get it. Even as I approach 2,000 words here, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I’d written in my notebook. I feel tired just trying to summarize what I did, who I met and what I learned. Maybe next year I should liveblog it.