To: The Game Industry
From: Gen Katz, Editor
Topic: The Game Developers Conference
Date: Mar 2007

Not since the term "garage games" was coined have I seen a more robust and exciting mιlange of games. Producers hawking -- send us your games, mini, maxi, casual, formal, MORGs, alternate life, half baked – we'll put them on. Every technical school that once did drafting and mechanical design is now offering extensive programs of game design. The industry is seriously thinking to expand it's reach for players – women, seniors, the disabled and trying to polish it's reputation by getting into serious games. Square Enix is not going to sit on it's Final Fantasy laurels but will be entering into a joint venture with Gakken, the comic book publisher, to form an SG Lab. Imagine what that combo could come up with.

For those of you who missed the interactive experience – here are some that penetrated the fog of five full days. Casual MMOs by Korean producers, Nexon -- with 50 million worldwide users – is an item based producer. That means that the play is free and the monetizing is done through item sales of various items. Nexon's Maple Story offers a choice of introductory character rolls – warrior, archer, wizard, thief and from there it grows to many personalities, communities and developments that can involve marriages and what not. Although their major age group clusters around the 18-30 year olds, chat is watched over, and a single button press brings monitors. They are working with the U.S. retail Target stores to sell a special card for charges by kids too young to have a regular charge account. GoPets is another Korean venture with worldwide users. They use pets as avatars. This ongoing adventure has your pet, when you're not there, go off to visit other friends and sites, reporting back to you on their perambulations. Both games use cute and juvenile graphics as do the RPGs from Asia, and though they claim that their population is way past their teens; it will be interesting to see what the stateside demographics turn out to be.

Tim Holt argued for smaller and lighter MMOs, about breaking the rules, and making games that focused on good vs. pretty. He suggested that by using inexpensive tools like open source, 2D, Java, Flash, Shockwave, SmartFoxServer, you can make a meaningful MMO with even fewer than 20 persons.

The two Kims of Shuffle Brain talked about games being a primal response pattern and about the space between anxiety and apathy in game play, which results in flow – the satisfying play state. They stressed the importance of player created content and how relevant collecting and feedback is to gamers. Following their thinking would lead to the understanding of the importance of player stats, tables and leader boards.

Scot Osterwell, director of MIT's Education Arcade and designer of the "Zoombinis" reinforced the idea that puzzles are made to be played many times and that wrong guesses are part of the solution. He criticized the technique of constantly telling players, "good job", accomplishment is its own reward. He discussed the rise of drill and practice as contributing to the decline of learning games and talked about how learning games provides the important scaffold for future learning. Upon seeing "Zoombinis" again, I was reminded of how skillful it is -- and you can still get it.

Ian Bogost showed a number of "persuasive games" and how they can be used to influence players to take action through gameplay -- the army game where everyone sees themselves as the "good guy"; one on the geopolitical power of the oil god; another on the socioeconomics of obesity and one using humor about airport surveillance where shirts and pants become the non-allowed items. Because of the impact of serious games it is important for us to be aware of the message behind the medium, in fact, it wouldn’t hurt for us to be aware of the messages underlying regular games.

Jane McGonigal, in a keynote speech, discussed the immense power of alternate reality games to creatively solve problems. As an example she used the I Love Bees publicity stunt that involved a community of Halo players that correctly solved the hacking of a bee site by aliens.

James Bower described how he infected the Whyville inhabitants, on Valentine's day, with acne so they would go about investigation the hows and why's of infectious diseases. The site is the leading educational virtual world for kids and teenagers. This is one site I have to get on. Oh and yes, they welcome adults.

There was a lot of focus on modifying games for people with disabilities, which ranged from paraplegic to just plain older and not having the thumb twitch anymore – as it was stated -- "Games for the other 90%. Accessibility meant anything from making games for the blind and visually impaired, controlling games with your brain waves or breath, using an input device that was a needle and thread, to making down loads easier, ways to cut down user frustration, simplifying controls, like one button – do we really need fourteen buttons plus combos to play a game? Many old friends were talking on this one. Top Hatted Earnest Adams, Sheri Graner Ray, Dimitris Grammenos, Michelle Hinn, Richard Van Tol, Lida Lang, David Amor, and Alexey Pajitnov were just some of the luminaries who tackled this topic. Next year it will be even bigger.

Bringing more emotion into games was the subject of "Can You Make Them Cry?" and the technique addressed was to put more expressions into NPC and to have the interaction between the player characters and the NPC mirror the emotion that you want to evoke in your player. Of course you could always kill a significant character, as happened with Aerith inFinal Fantasy VII.

That stories are still an important part of games was evident at Earnest Adams' lecture on "Rethinking Challenges in Games and Stories". He attracted a packed lecture hall at 4:00 on Friday and addressed many things that designers need to look at if they expect to expand their player base. First off – loud and clear – games are too damn hard, the eye/hand coordination of older players has slowed down and so games must match the skill of various players, and further, mature players are busy and don't have a lot of time and so shorter games are more appealing. His visions consisted of games where players don't have to "earn" the right to play, games as a place to go, a travel destination, a Club Med with plenty of branches and places to go, new experiences and even moral dilemmas and political challenges. Sounds to me like a great description of games for girls and women.

Ah, and yes of course there are parties. Besides getting a drink and maybe some food, talking to people is most important for me. So I find that deafening music and a sardine packed venue is a waste of time.

Went to the Aussie Barbecue to meet with the people at Auran and tell them that we liked their train sim so much that we gave it to every train buff we knew for Christmas.\ While were there we were surprised at how many studios had an Aussie address – many whose names are familiar to us. On our reviews we generally only give producers names – but we'll start also giving credit to the developers. Food was -- you guessed – shrimp on the barbie. The other meet-up for sheer elegance was the CDV Beach Bash hosted by MMPR (Michel Meyer PR) and we got to speak with Michael himself. It was at the Martini Lounge and yes we drank martinis while we played with two of the new games and then we went home.

It was an impressive conference, with an attendance of 16,300, a 30% increase from last year. The game industry feels more like a young giant, ready to touch base with the whole world – moving out of the box, taking itself seriously and fueled by bright, dedicated and talented people.