October 8, 2005

Live at the IndieGamesCon (day 1)

by Andrew Stern · , 4:49 pm

I’m blogging live today and tomorrow from the Independent Games Conference, aka IndieGamesCon, in Eugene, Oregon, organized by GarageGames.

GarageGames’ introduction:
“It is now possible to quit your dayjob and support yourself making indie games”


Casual games panel

Casual games are currently a $0.5B business, may grow to 3x that in 2 years

Popcap — James Gwertzman, previously of Escape Factory and Sprout Games, now the new director of business development for PopCap
Mobile casual games are becoming big
I’m concerned about venture capital money coming in and not keeping eye on short-term profits — there’s a danger there

Trimedia — huge growth in casual games this year; also concerned about influx of VC’s

Playfirst — we’re on the first publishers of casual games

Reflexive — casual games growing, getting competitive

Oberon media — we’re a publisher, developer
Looking towards international expansion of casual games
Getting harder to tell what’s “casual” and what’s something else

MSN games — Greg Canessa, general mgr of Microsoft live arcade for xbox 360
explosive growth of casual games — will be $1B business by 2008
beginning to think more and more about multiplayer
innovation — new play concepts and play mechanics

Q: are we getting better profits/revenues? split pot more ways? keeping IP rights? falling into patterns of hit-based sequels?

Reflexive — publisher aggregation is bad for freedom
but it’s way worse for retail; publisher agg. is a middle ground, you still own IP
need publishers to help you distribute

Playfirst — are you developers getting richer? yes.
need to find the right publisher for you as a developer — e.g. you may or not need marketing, PR, press effort
if publisher owns somw of the IP, it’s because they’re helping you manage the IP

oberon — developers can use publisher as risk diversification
devs can leverage publishers to get better distribution deals

popcap — you won’t make as much as if you did it on your own without a publisher; but publisher can give you a multiplier effect

Trimedia — we’re going to see agents help get games up onto portals
publishers help you get the game ready, fund

Q: the term “casual games” — do we like it?

MSN — don’t like the term “casual games” much, vs. broad appeal
ultimately the term is restrictive
games for the rest of us — pop music, pop games; time commitment
entertaining, quick, fun, appeals to all types

Oberon — what casual movies did you see lately? casual books?
need to redefine what videogames mean
“casual games” is a very restrictive term

Popcap — the particular name doesn’t matter to consumer — “casual gamers” actually don’t think of themselves as gamers, they’re just “having fun”
A name like “casual games” help distinguish this healthy new business from old broken business (retail games) — we need that new term, regardless of what it is
different types of games, distribution models — need that label
don’t want to lump ourselves back with traditional games

GarageGames — “casual games” is an industry term — consumers don’t get/know that term

Reflexive — soon everything (eg traditional big games) are going to be downloadable;
how is the mass market appeal (casual) games going to distinguish from old broken games?

MSN — it’s fun to bash traditional games — but don’t forget it’s a $10B business, it’s not really broken
Popcap — well, it’s broken from a developers perspective
MSN — i’d call it higher risk, higher reward

Playfirst — we’re more broken because we haven’t tipped yet — the consumer doesn’t know what it is — we’re making mass-market entertainment, popular, but most people aren’t aware of the difference in the consumer’s mind
Casualness really is trends in people’s play behavior — timeslicing — play in smaller increment, time chunks, may not have win/lose

Popcap — this is an exciting time now, precisely because we haven’t tipped yet

Q: how are you looking at multiplayer games?

Popcap — earliest games were multiplayer; backed off, hard to monetize; Popcap is coming back to that now

Trimedia — adding multiplayer casual games to our distribution catalog

Oberon — we shouldn’t underestimate how long it’s going to take for multiplayer to take off
cross platform is important for multiplayer

Q: future challenges?

Popcap — I was just in asia — opportunity is in conjuction with multiplayer
attempts theere to replicate business models in the US

trimedia — casual games will become a industry in itself

Playfirst — risk: more commoditization will mean less innovation / artistry
There is a vast mass market opportunity that hasn’t tipped yet
Want to avoid ossification, quashing of innovation

Reflexive — don’t forget the Mac market

Oberon — we make easy to use, fun, feel-good games
have opportunity in multiple forms — different platforms, monetize strategies, different cultures
expand the platforms, markets you’re targeting

MSN — casual games are not well known worldwide franchises
want to make multibillion francishes out of these — e.g Tetris; Bejeweled is on its way
new and emerging business models: digital objecta and microtransactions — it’s beginning to happen — e.g. xbox 360 — you get points to buy objects to apply to and change your game experience — asia and europe is ahead of us
exposure, visibility, awareness — need to break out — need tipping point


MMO design from the trenches

Steven Snow of NCSoft
[eds. note — most of this is really advice for game development in general]

The pitch

1. First thing to consider — who are you? do you have expertise? have your team made a game together before?
if you have a group that has made a game before, that’s good — you have worked out the kinks, etc.
defined team that’s worked together in past is worth something
if haven’t worked together, spin it out — explain why the team will work

anyone can have a good idea
means horseshit if can’t get the team to make it

2. the game idea
understand what your going — need core focus
what makes it unique? not all games need to be unique.
core moment to moment game isn’t new, but is polished to fuck. you’re playing better version

if you can’t say it in a sentence, you’re dead. you’re dead right out of the gate.

write a one page document that tells me the core features in the game, and they’re exciting to read about, you’re headed in the right direction

3. analyze your features
what am I going to do that’s going to be unique — this is my risk — then really think that through
don’t need to do everything unique — borrow from other games, pick subset features you’re going to emulate, but need to do it at least as well as the other game — these are risks, but not as big risks

4. what kind of technology are you using
identify what pieces are missing that you have to get / make

5. art
art will haunt you
make your best piece of art early, setting the bar for your game
but other newer games coming out, during your production, will come out with some better screenshot, always make your publisher nervous; you end up re-making your art to keep up

need top notch art assets for your pitch
a publisher will always hound you for assets

watch the balance between more important to market your game than to make it

Team structure — really really important
need a producer to ask everybody, what are you doing, how’s it going
make a schedule, keep everybody coordindated on it
gives you accountability, that leads to credibility
nothing more powerful in this industry that you can say something will be done and you deliver it
got to have core hours, cutoff times
don’t let anyone destroy their lives to make a game
(actually, you can crunch like mad for 2 weeks, but you can’t do that again for 2 months)

most powerful tool you have as a developer: say you’re going to do something, and actually do it
overestimate how long it’s going to take
people have to learn to tell you when they’re not going to make the date
if you’re going to make a unique feature, you have no idea how long it’s going to take
if you can’t make the date, tell the publisher immediately, and give the date you will make it

When you hire someone, make sure your team has accountability
there’s always too much to do
with a larger team, people need to have responsibilities — need to understand the ramificatons of not accomplishing your job

development tools: very very very very important
can’t stress it enough
defines how quickly you can make content
for MMO’s, the most important tool you’ll ever make is something that simulates users, always use simulated AI to test your games
a tool that does 70% of what a standard user does is so valuable


Marketing indie games
panel of indie gamesite managers, press

Q: what is the hardest thing for an indie developer to get news out about their game?

– press: if I don’t know you exist, I’m not going to cover your game
– it takes a lot of work to cover games — developers need to contact the press
– because you don’t know what you’re doing — you need a plan with how to get the word out, before the game ships
– takes a lot of grinding, a lot of mundane work getting the word out
submitting to the news sites that cover games
submit your game to shareware submission sites
make revs to resubmit to these sites
don’t wait until your done with your game to create buzz
that allows you to understand earlier where you’re going to narrow your marketing focus

Q: how do we get the word out to non-gamers, our mythical audience for indie/casual games?

Game Tunnel guy says: lots of people do actually come to game sites to find games

Q: is there oversaturation in the market to the point where the press gets overwhelmed? ie just a press release won’t get noticed?

press says: don’t make your own website, game developers are usually very bad web developers
your website is your first impression

Q: how do you market a niche game?

directly talk to bloggers who talk about your niche

For example, some guy made a barrel game of some sort, and he worked to get links to his game on all kinds of rodeo websites — and he’s making lots of money. He’s not on any traditional videogame sites.

Press kit:
why the heck we should play it
what are the important things in the game
tell reviewers what’s cool to find in the game — give reviewers reason to care
make cheats to allow reviewers to easily get to each game level, so they don’t have to work to see the game levels

Q: What is the best month for an indie game to come out, to get attention?
February — after Xmas.
Also summer, but there are fewer readers.

A great tool for sending out press releases: PR web — only $80 will get your press release out

Q: Do a soft launch first? get feedback, then do a bigger rollout?

smart move — first of all, useful from a testing perspective
more importantly, let’s you know what the public is going to think about it

Find a midlevel site, offer them an exclusive release at first; after you get a decent review, then you can approach everybody else

7 Responses to “Live at the IndieGamesCon (day 1)”

  1. michael Says:

    I’m intrigued by the need to have AI to simulate MMO players during the development cycle; that this is “the most important tool you’ll ever make.” I wonder how important it is to closely match real player behavior in order to make such a tool useful. That is, if your simulated player just randomly takes allowed actions from the list of possible player actions, is this enough to discover design and technology bugs, or is it important to have the distribution of player actions look like real human distributions? If the latter, seems like machine learning and data mining techniques would be very useful.

  2. andrew Says:

    I think the guy said something like, “if the simulated player AI does about 50% of what real players do, that’s already extremely valuable”.

    btw, there’s a show-off center here with 25 machines (20 PC’s, 5 Macs), where people can install their indie games on them. I installed Facade on 8 of the machines, and it’s been getting a lot of play and good buzz. A bit to my surprise, almost no one here had heard of Facade before seeing in here — which just goes to show how the word of Facade’s existence still isn’t out yet. That suggests its download numbers have a lot of room to grow, I think.

  3. Nate Combs Says:

    Hi Andrew –

    “a tool that does 70% of what a standard user does is so valuable”

    “if the simulated player AI does about 50% of what real players do, that’s already extremely valuable”.

    I would be interested in further detail here – can you cite who said this or website. I just gave a talk on this topic involving a lot of the usual conjecture and supposition. Would enjoy inputs from those in these trenches. Detail about what they actually can simulate (vs. what is too hard) is of special interest.


  4. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    [I]if your simulated player just randomly takes allowed actions from the list of possible player actions, is this enough to discover design and technology bugs, or is it important to have the distribution of player actions look like real human distributions?

    Maybe you can find a Zipf-curve-like power law that maps input frequencies to the list of allowable player actions. If so, that could be a shortcut to that artificial “70-percent-player”.

  5. Grand Text Auto » Live at the IndieGamesCon (day 2) Says:

    […] 9, 2005

    Live at the IndieGamesCon (day 2)
    by andrew @ 5:14 pm

    Adding to yesterday’s coverage, I’m continuing to blog live today at the […]

  6. Raph Says:

    The commonest thing is to log in a bunch of agents to do simple random walks invoking collision, whilst chatting randomly and playing emotes. Just doing this sort of thing with a few thousand agents load testing the server is going to hit the most basic “smoke test” sort of thing. Simple automated testing suites to try every command to make sure they all function, that sort of thing.

  7. andrew Says:

    Nate — it was an outspoken guy named Steven Snow of NCSoft; looks like he is/was a producer on an MMO called Auto Assault. He was speaking off the cuff without slides; any facts or figures he said were based on his own experience / anecdotal evidence / gut feeling.

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