GDC 2012: How to use it & what to think of it

I had my fourth year of Game Developers Conference this year. GDC is like “the week of the year” for the game devs, even though most of them actually don’t see any presentations. They are there for the business meetings, and perhaps for the parties. But presentation-wise: this is the place to be if you want to understand the industry.

GDC is a good place to have an overview of the industry. It is not like people are telling you directly what is the future, but you can read a lot between the lines and from the general atmosphere. The one of the reasons I keep coming back to this conference and prioritize this over academic ones is that people are actually pouring their ideas instead of vague and abstract notions of historical theories of whatnots. Academia can be so slow and stupid from time to time. But it is not so that the whole GDC is gold. It requires some skill to get best out of it.

GDC 2012 at Moscone North

Let me first tell you my tricks how to “use” the conference and then share my thoughts on what this particular year is telling me.

Some of the tricks I have inherited from the veterans and some of them I have developed myself:

  1. First of all, let yourself shop. The conference has altogether over 400 sessions spread for 5 days. It is most probable that you will not be able to see all the sessions you find mildly interesting. You have to prioritize the sessions, but leave second or third options too: eventually you only need about 5 minutes of the session to know whether it is going to be good or not. If you feel agitated, just leave the session and go for the second best on your schedule. This will not insult people. The worst-case scenario you end up bashing the presentation on Twitter as you feel trapped inside bullshit generator. That might be insulting.
  2. Follow Twitter #GDC. You can read the best bits from other sessions while they are happening. Feel free to jump to that session if something caught your eye. Unfortunately this is not the best trick, since ultimately the best presentations are silent during the presentations; people are really focusing every word of the speaker.
  3. Utilize the Vault: most of the sessions of GDC are recorded and if you have all access pass, you can check those later. My advice is that you DO NOT prioritize those sessions that are the most awesome information-wise. Just leave them to check from the vault. Think it this way: will you REALLY have time to watch the session online later when the buzz has gone? If so, you are ok with that session to be left for the Vault. If not, go and check it NOW. So if you have to choose; go for the second best; the ones that are slightly peripheral to your interest. This actually relates to the next rule:
  4.  Don’t go (only) for your core. If the session will address something that you already know through and through; chances that you will get something new out of it are small. It is best to go and browse something that is interesting but not necessarily your domain. This way you learn more and get bigger picture.
  5. Lastly, there are certain formats of speeches that always work, or names that always indicate a good speech: my personal favorites are game design challenges and rants as well as design postmortems, experimental gameplay session or year in reviews. And favorite speakers include: Eric Zimmerman, Nick Fortugno, Paulina Bozek, Sott Jon Siegel and Jason Rohrer to name a few from this year. I also like to go at least one Japanese session with simultaneous interpretation, just to amuse myself by the interpreter and to get at least one Japanese thought in my head to spice the bias of Northern American speakers. On my pooplist based on this year is at least Sid Meier. He really had nothing to share other than his fame – and the room was packed. I would recommend anyone with a moderate understanding of game design to avoid his speech. But if you are a total beginner he might deliver points that really get you going.  Also Spry Fox Daniel Cook was not that great. But average is not always bad. You need to mix proven formats and safe names with totally random speeches. Go and listen also nobodies, they can be the next big things on this industry.

So those were my tips. Now, let me explore what I think that this year was oozing for me:

  1. Bifurcated maturity. Summits were surprisingly good and main conference was highly detailed. Past years mobile summit and other summits have been a bit less great. Social, casual, smartphone areas have matured. The processes are well thought; there are bigger players involved and there is no difference in the quality of the speeches comparing the “new” and the “old” players. On the other hand, the main conference was very detailed, loads of detailed technical speeches. Nothing that striking or revolutionary: perhaps even slight stagnation: Uncharted 3 was covered by eight speeches, similar to four presentation of Saints Row: The Third.
  2. Metrics are here. It is not that crazy anymore – it is not about evangelizing the power of metrics within the innovation process. Instead the speeches were subtler and more detailed including loads of formulas and best practices. Metrics are like bread and butter for at least social game developers and A/B testing is the thing.
  3. It is time for design. In the meanwhile as we wait for another technological leap (if there is one coming), it is time for design. For the past years, there has been a lot of innovation within business models and even though I did not take part of any myself to verify this, I heard that business track was poor this year. Nothing new under the sun. But I think that after couple of years of technological changes and business oriented innovation; there is a lot of pressure for design innovations. We do have the improvements in 3D, probably also in motion detection in upcoming year, perhaps something rather new like brain controllers etc. But in general, the potential of these have not been actualized for various reasons. Whether we can actually have push from the design side is yet to be seen. The strength of the indie track within GDC is one of the indicators that it is time to let designers play more.
  4. Developers hate free-to-play (at least some of them). Last year the hatred was cast on gamification. Last year it seemed that the bastard child of serious games was taken over the whole conference. Loads of jokes on how to lifificate games or even gamify games were addressed. Now this year the joke was on free-to-play. During the decades of digital games, a strong identity has evolved. Now there is need to maintain it. It is time for ludological manifest number two. Games for their own sake.
  5. And as a last point, which is not necessary visible in the presentations: This year is the GIRL year. I had never ever had to wait in line for a toilet at GDC before. This was the year one. I also overheard two girls behind me discussing in deep details of social game design on a street one morning. Never happened before too. I mean, I don’t think there has not been someone discussing passionately about viral design last year or years before, it is just that what are the odds? I bet this year the odds were much higher than last year. I only wish we will see more girls also on triple-A productions. This might be the last year guys own the industry. Who knows?
Thou shalt not monetize thy neighbor
"Thou shalt not monetize thy neighbor." & "God hates game designers."

Altogether, it seems that industry is in a somewhat stable situation. Casual/Social/Smartphone has been established it’s position within the industry, we are waiting for design innovations from that side; business innovation has cooled down, f2p is not going away; Triple A companies do what they know best: better tech, better stories, deeper engagement and so on.

Perhaps it is quiet before the storm… Who knows? Am eager to see GDC 2013. If it is not any different from 2012 – I am definitely disappointed. 

Presenting at Meaningful Play 2008

I presented a paper at Meaningful Play 2008 conference in East Lansing, MI, USA concerning the game-based idea generation tools that we have developed in GameSpace project and especially the experiences designers had with the idea games in our pilot study. The presentation slot was quite short (15 min. for the presentation, 5 min. for discussion) and I had to rush my 20+ slides, leaving so many interesting things out. But what I tried to concentrate at was introducing our games and discus why they were so popular, despite their flaws. The presentation and the paper are not identical, as I added some new thoughts that I am working on into the slide-show. Papers will be available online later on, here are the slides:

The presentation background is taken (and modified) from the GameSpace Tool that we have been working on the last weeks of GameSpace project. The tool will popularize the whole range of research findings from our project. We are going to announce the tool later this year, as soon as it is ready!

Happy Discipline at Future Play 2007, Toronto

After discussing, tossing and turning, analysing, wiriting, preaching and presenting GameSpace views of casual in several different occasions, we finally made it as a paper called “Casual Games Discussion“. The paper was presented at Future Play conference, Toronto, where we also presented a poster on “Creativity Techniques in Game Design”.

The conference itself was quite fine, except for scheduling. There was no proper time slots for discussion and some keynotes were scheduled as “lunch keynotes” (poor Espen, for example). Organiser really did not want us speak to each others and socialise. As some of the “official” supporters (which name I cannot recollect) phrased game studies as a “happy discipline”, I started to think, if we were nonetheless mistaken as “listening discipline” from the “ADHD discipline” that I would find more descriptive…

Our Gamelab was rather well represented: Frans Mäyrä gave a keynote at Saturday, Jaakko Stenros paper presentation about pervasive games on Thursday and me and Janne Paavilainen about casual games on Friday. Because of the schedule (or other possible reasons that we also acknowledge), we did not manage to get any comments. Poster presentation on “Creativity Techniques in Game Design” was much more discussive success. That was my first academical poster (ever) and I enjoyd it much more than the traditional presentations, I have to say. Only thing that I did not got was that posters were not set all through the conference, instead of few hours (after that we had to remove them). I did not even have time to check posters of others.

Ok, I could say more: there is some stuff about karaoke, sushi, Scandinavian bunch backed with one American, sugar, margaritas, brownies, smokey salt, missing a stop on the subway, and couple of things alike. But to keep it short I end this post here and give you some pictorial material (much more you can find with a search word “futureplay2007” at Flickr, check also Jenny Brusk writing about the presentations of the conference).

Me, Alex and Janne (camouflaged) at downtown. Poster “Creativity Techniques in Game Design” 
Jaakko and his pictures. Espen getting deeper to the topic after people finished eating.
Espen and Frans talking about “not that happy” stuff. Jenny, Alex and Jennys student (they won the game price!! Hooray!). They eat, if you did not got it. Jenny and Alex fooling around since there was a funny building. Always a good reason.

NGC 07: Games, Rock and Party!

The University of Oulu and Elvi project organised a game conference in Oulu, titled as Northern Game Conference (NGC) last November. The two-day event included presentations from speakers such as Ernest Adams, Chris McDonough, Erik Robertson and Ilari Kuittinen. Speaches emphasising different parts of game development provided interesting take-outs for GameSpace project as well.

The conference was organized in a very professional manner. The stage looked like a talk-show setting and speakers walked in with their own theme music (Isn’t that cool!?). For example, Ernest Adams was introduced with the Hurriganes tune Get on and Tony Manninen with Guns N’ Roses tune Welcome to the jungle. The whole event was also streamed online.

But even more important: the Thursday party was excellent! We were provided with different sets of entertainment including, booze (of course), rock band playing retro game tunes and Pacman performance. This all happened as a private party in a nice and famous Oulu bar called 45 Special. I have to say that I enjoyed the party, the people and the whole event into the extent that I am really looking forward to the next year. Next time, however, i hope to see also broader “Northern” aspect, not only Oulu game industry. Isn’t the whole Finland north enough? 😉

Ernest speaking about interactive storytelling. Again.

Play New Vancouver ideating

In between my Seattle trip, I visited Canada for one day to give a workshop for Play New team at Nokia, Vancouver led by very nice dude, Dan Scott.

Play New team is divided to Vancouver and Espoo, so I started with the same presentation that I gave to Espoo Play New team earlier in September. After the basic info on our techniques, the team was divided into smaller groups and we started to play the GameSpace idea generation games. I got a lot of interesting feedback from Vancouver team and enjoyd the discussion with them, which also gave me some foretaste from the upcoming study of idea generation techniques that we are currently conducting.

Here some pics (mouseover for explanation):

Dan posing while eating lunch. Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives (VNA) in practice. Using “REFINE” card in GameSeekers.

Casual Seattle

Since the Mobile Games Seminar in L.A. was cancelled, I spent my September travelling week in Seattle meeting interesting people. My host for the week was Alex Thayer from Microsoft Hardware and I had a chance to give a small speech to their team on Monday. Again, I was preaching about casual in games cultures and giving similar presentation as I did for the Nordic Game audience. Hardware team was eager to discuss about the issue and the presentation hour was rather pleasant for that reason. Later on that day I gave the same presentation to Microsoft Research (hosted by Daniel Pargmanand they recorded and streamed the speech. I hope that someone saw it online, since in the audience I had only two people. Well, the lecture was notified internally rather late, but still: I felt weird almost talking to myself. Later that week I had also brief discussion with Marc Smith from Microsoft Research.

Later that week I also had meeting in downtown with Big Fish Games dudes Nate Webb and Patrick Wylie. We had interesting talk about the casual, even though the lunch time was too short for deeper conversation. I am myself a big fan of Big Fish Games and I wish all the best for their team.

I had a meeting scheduled also with John Vechey from Popcap, but unfortunately I did not manage to get together with him due to changes in the schedule. Fortunately I had a really pleasant conversation and office tour at Microsoft Casual Games division by Kim Pallister who showed interest on my Nordic Game slides earlier this summer. Kim seemed to be well aware of the “casual” on that same perspective that we in GameSpace project and we ended up also sharing some memories of C64 games. He seemed to be very sharp guy. Ok, it seems this feeling is mutual.. 😉

 Here are some pics of the meetings (mouseover for explanations):

Alex and Microsoft mail box. My presentation at Hardware. Seattle and blue beetle.

Me at the Space Needle. Nate and Pat. Nice dudes. Perhaps too little public transportation?

Travel & conferences

I have been rather busy with travelling and starting up the idea generation study from the middle of September till now. The craziness ended last Monday when I arrived from Toronto, Future Play 2007 conference where we presented our “Casual Games Discussion” paper and “Creativity Techniques in Game Design” poster. It took me more than a week to recover from the jet-lag. It’s like Japan all over again. Well, some of the jet-lag problems must have been due to the lag of sleep that I gained in Northern Game Conference in Oulu, week before that.

Future Play 2007 conference was actually my second trip to Canada, since in September as I travelled to Seattle and Microsoft, I spent one day over border in Vancouver with Play New team playing our idea generation games.

In between these two I have been completely busy on putting finishing touches to our idea generation package that was sent for GameSpace industry partners. As we delivered the packages, we conducted pre-interviews with Hannamari Saarenpää and Johannes Niemelä and even though we have not have time to analyse the data, I have to say that we are holding a valuable piece of information. 🙂