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Game Developers Conference 2009 - Day Five Coverage
Posted on Friday, March 27 2009 @ 20:44:46 Eastern

Contents: Game Critics Rant!, Controlling A Game's IP, Developers In Recession, Level Design in Mass Effect 2

Damn it, I couldn't make the 9AM interview session with Emil Pagliarulo, once game journalist and now lead designer for Fallout 3. I'm so pissed. This is what you get when you write, write, write, and then sleep at 4am for the fourth day in a row. Grr...



Friday, 10:30 AM - 11:30 AM

Burned by Friendly Fire: Game Critics Rant
Moderators: Jason Della Rocca (IGDA), Eric Zimmerman (Gamelab)
Speakers: Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra.com), Heather Chaplin, Tom Chick, N’Gai Croal (Newsweek), Adam Sessler (GR), Stephen Totilo (MTV News)

N’Gai Croal
- Calls himself a "Recovering Journalist", as he has left his crowd-favorite blog on Newsweek to go into game consulting. [Good luck, N'Gai!]
- Rant: There is no difference between hardcore and casual gamers? What's up with these definitions: Is a "hardcore" gamer someone who does not restrict themselves to one genre and knows how to play at least five genres? Why such an arbitrary definition? Is this separation supposed to highlight the difference between the dedicated and the uninformed?
- "Casual" and "hardcore" are terms coined by marketing PR that game journalists use without really knowing what they mean. In fact, these terms obscure more than they reveal about how people play.
- So please, people, search “A new taxonomy of gamers” on Google. Then you'll know how to use "real" terms like "Skilled Players vs. Tourists", "Completists vs. Perfectionists", "Wholesale vs. Premium Players"

Stephen Totilo
- Our reporting is fine… it’s our writing that sucks
- Examples: “It’s a compelling piece of work…” – I wrote that in 2008; "There was a time I was going to call this column ‘The Wind Waiter.’” - I thought I was being witty
- Examples contributed by users: “Oh man, how long have you got?"; “IGN.com”; " “A squid (which technically isn’t an animal)..."
- Blog about bad writing about games: http://www.magicalwasteland.com/bad_writing_about_games/
- Please, writers, be more demanding of yourselves: Use language that is clear, crisp, and confident.
- And readers, please demand for good writing.
- Four Things That Must Be Banned From Writing About Video Games (not including lists):
1) “compelling” (tells you nothing… just like “interesting”)
2) “visceral” (does anyone know how to use this word anymore?)
3) “very”
4) adverbs [...Okay, I understand his point with careless usages of words like "frequently", "especially", and "particularly", but some careful adverb choices can add something flavorful.]

Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra)
- Why are readers threatening my family?
- Then she brings out brings out a companion cube (audience) and Teddy from Persona 4 (developers), and makes herself the middle(wo)man.
- Developers, why do we always get the PR rep, when we want to speak to you? Why not tell us what we need to know so that we can write something intelligently? If you don't want us to write ****, let us know, because we want the audience to understand the experience you're trying to create.
- Sure, everyone blames us for selling out to traffic and marketing, but wouldn't it be nice to establish trust between the audience and developers.
- Also, we know that the PR response that everyone loves each other, especially between different developer studios, is bullshit.

Jamin Brophy Warren (Wall Street Journal)
- Why do we get such stupid readers? I wrote a feature on the racism in Resident Evil 5 and I got the following message: “You know something you’re a liberal like the rest. This article is racist. ITS JUST A VIDEOGAME NOT REAL!!! Your gith ITS JUST MOVIE NOT REALITY. You kidding me with this already. Why don’t you say oh my god guns kill people every day. NOT THE GUN THAT KILLS IT”S THE PERSON BEHIND” (Someone, please relieve him of his existence.)
- And why is everyone white? There needs to be more main characters that are Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Handicaps, etc. At the very least, let players choose the race if they can. And like Fallout 3, have something like the player's dad be procedurally generated.

Jason Della Roca (IGDA)
- Not sure on his rant style. It's a bunch of apologies. Apparently, it's a Canadian thing, but meh...
- Sorry for being too focused on execution while being the IGDA president for 9 years
- Though... 99% of you volunteers didn’t do anything!
- Sorry for this, sorry for that, sorry for everything
- Sorry for not making you more passionate about your profession, not realizing your power collectively and independently
- But **** you, it’s not my job anymore…

Heather Chaplin
- I spend way too much time defending the industry, from angry parents getting their pants all in a bunch over space aliens, marines, and girls with metal bikinis wielding axes.
- And the reason for all this? Guys... guy developers.
- We can no longer use the excuse that this is a new medium… blah, blah, blah… eh, yeah, when is it going to grow up? The video game industry is 35 years older.
- Games are too enveloped in guy culture. Why are you all such a bunch of stunted adolescents. You are not adolescents but grown-ups.
- Guys fear four things: Responsibility, Introspection, Intimacy, and Intellectual Discovery
- And as culture makers, you guys, this is a problem.
- What's up with all these power fantasies, running around with a gun with a chainsaw on it (Cliffy B...)?
- A theory: neoteny (in developmental biology, it describes the phenomena of a species that has become domesticated – the older revert to the juvenile quality of the series). Following this, chihuahuas resemble in wolves in embryo. So guys, do you want to be a Chihuahua or a wolf?

[Um... Where is Ben Yahtzee?????!!!!!]

Chris Hecker
1. Journalism is an important job. More important day-to-day than game development.
2. Your reporting impacts people, personally and professionally.
3. With great power comes great responsibility.

- Example of poor, poor journalism:
Headline: "Chris Hecker Apparently Responsible For Simplified Spore Gameplay"
Tagline: "New articles suggests the Hecker wanted dto move away from a more scientific approach in favor of a ‘cuter’ game; Hecker says ‘nonsense’"
- Oh, yeah? The "new article" is a freakin' forum post. And that 'nonsense' I was supposedly talking about? Again, another freakin forum post.
- And what about at the end of the article: “We’ll do our best to try and get Hecker’s side fo the story of this issue.” Uh, no one did **** for me. There was no phone call. Nothing.
- Finally, this jewel of journalism: “There’s a tendency among the press to attribute the creation of a game to a single person,” says Warren Spector, creator of Thief..."

Adam Sessler
- Whoever it is: Stop Twittering as me!
- Thought of this in the last 24 hours: Fuck Metacritic. I already have to attach a number to a review on a 5-point scale. I hate attributing numbers to games. But Metacritic marks our review a 40 (a 2 out of 5). We contacted Metacritic about this, demanding a change, but they said no, we're wrong. What?! It’s my scale.
- And what’s the difference between a 73 and a 74, anyway? Can anyone tell me?
- How can Metacritic pick and choose which websites to include and then not respect those websites who they choose?
- And shame on you, publishers, for using our score on Metacritic as the reason that your game isn’t selling well. Perhaps you should actually read our review instead and start blaming the game itself, instead of coming to us.



Friday, 12:00 PM - 1:00 PM
Who Controls a Game’s IP and Who Reaps the Financial Benefit?
Speakers: Tim Langdell (CEO of Edge games)

(Roundtable consisted of Screen Actors Guild-esque people, producers, CEOs, Warner Bros. Records, film industry members, lawyers, Brutal Legend, and some game developers.)

- Financing video games is different than financing for movies
- Funding with milestones in video games; no such thing in movies
- Should you have a simultaneous release with a video game and a movie, or do just one of either and not risk so much with the IP?
- Games and movies are different vehicles for stories [I would say that one is a storytelling device and one is a story builder... but I will need another feature to show you why.]
- Also, I found one misunderstanding by the narrator (and I didn't find Tim all that effective with his soft voice and lack of direction for the roundtable): Unlike what he suggested, game stories actually do close. Though the player can continue playing, the script does have closure.)
- Merchandise… is it for the game? Or for the movie? Usually, the rights to merchandise is given to one studio, though there are instances where the other gets some (usually smaller) percentage of merchandise as well.
- Huge difference between selling your IP and having creative control. It all depends on the contract that is signed and whether both the movie studio and game studio can come to a mutual agreement.
- Example (Mortal Kombat and Stranglehold): Midway has the IP to Mortal Kombat, and had a creative collaboration with the movie studio for the Mortal Kombat movies. On the other hand, John Woo has the IP of Stranglehold. Whereas Midway has game sequel rights, John Woo has movie rights and auxiliary products.
- Taigon Studios and Vin Diesel’s Production Company has rights to the Wheelman movie. But whether there will be a Wheelman movie (or at least partially how well it is received) will depend on how well the game sells.
- If it’s a simultaneous release or a collaborative work, both have some piece of creative control, though that can cause a lot of stress. Example: Vin Diesel changed the storyline during the middle of the game's production, and that made many assets go to waste.
- Games based on movies: Still a big risk due to high licensing fees, but mostly reward. In the Top 100 in sales, the majority of them are licensed products with a movie tie-in.
- You can also fix a time frame in terms of a negotiation. "Fine, you get 50% of the merchandising rights, but if you don’t make the movie/video game within this time frame, then the rights goes back to us."
- If the movie/video game damages the IP, the risk is even greater.
- Surprising fact : Retailers receive the rights to drop the price of your product if it doesn’t sell a certain percentage of its inventory at a store for three weeks, six weeks, etc.

Friday, 2:30 PM - 3:30 PM
Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk
(Unfortunately cancelled.)

Friday, 2:30 PM – 3:30 PM
Raising Capital In A Recession
Speaker: Chris Kauza (Managing Director, Soltus Group)

(Meh, I thought it would be more than just about how to get investors to fund your game… the title was kind of misleading. Also, the well-dressed speaker had a relatively deep, monotonal voice... which made me want to curl up with my laptop in the fetal position.)

How Can Developers Survive During A Recession?
- In 2001, $40.6 US Venture Capital Investments; in 2008, only $28.3 (but there is a lot of money to be made in Asia).
- VCs (or Zombie VCs, as some are called since they are just drifting around) are still very afraid of investing right now. [They are scared due to the recession, in part because they have no idea when the government is going to bail out someone else (and maybe it will be them, eh?).]
- Some stats from NPD: 61% of Americans play video games – up 2% from last year: 35% are online (up 2%), 87% are PC-based (down 3%), Xbox 360 most popular online platform, Wii fastest-growing platform
- Online Virtual Worlds growing and projected to continue growing
- Where Are Developers Going? It's bad and it will probably get worse. So connections are more valuable than ever.
- Some Projected Trends: Mergers, Consolidation, Management Buyouts (no really new IPs and IPOs), Partnerships (Coming together for strategic and tactical reasons, say for outsourcing)

Examples
- Twitter: Lot of buzz in the media, raised $35M, plus additional funds from previous investors, and they should have ~$50M in Cash on hand
- Blade Games (Digini + Vyk Games = Blade Games): Management Buyout (combination of two companies), Raised $4 Million, did China-based outsourcing services
- GameFly acquired Shacknews, supported by Sequoia and Lehman
- Harmonix earned $325M (to date) against their ear-out provision with Viacom (you can still be aggressive and find opportunities

Getting Venture Capitalists
- What VCs are looking at? Existing Portfolio Investments (tested and true), want that one company that gives them that 10x return. (They are greedy… so pitch new technology, government stimulus; for serious games that maybe simulate Hurricane Katrina or something.)
- VC Financial Planning: Out of 10 Funded Deals, they imagine that 4 will be failures (0%), 3 will be viable (15%), 2 will be solid (50%), and 1 will be a superstar (100%); so anything you can do to credibly enhance your equity valuation is important.
- Remember that all loans come with strings attached. They might fire you if they have control of ownership and you haven’t given them their expected returns in time.
- Also look to allied developer and publishers for loans.
- If you get a “no” from a VC, then ask within a week on getting feedback on why that was.
- Investors are always looking for ways to say “NO”: Unrealistic claims, Spelling / punctuation / grammar, content / format / mathematical errors, incomplete / vague / unsubstantiated information, too defensive / aggressive
- For the most part, they are looking for a great team that has had a lot of experience, especially together (successful track record, industry experience and reputation, passion, vision, knowledge, skill level, ability to hire well, team-building skills)
- Know your competition well, know exactly how much time you need

Some comments
- Many companies started during a recession: Hyatt, Burger King, FedEx, Microsoft, CNN, MTV, GE, Sports Illustrated, HP, Wikipedia
- Lower your expectations… but don’t “fire sale” your business



Friday, 4:00pm - 5:00pm
The Iterative Level Design Process of Bioware's Mass Effect 2
Speakers: Corey Andruko (Project Manager), Dusty Everman (Lead Level Designer)

- Level Design Overview: Do only the work that answers the right questions in the right order.

Level Design on Mass Effect
- Mass Effect 2’s level design evolved from lessons learned from the original Mass Effect
- General Process: Plots --> 2D Map --> Block Level --> Level Art + Dialogs + Cutscenes + Combat and Plots --> Performance Optimized for Everyone

Level Creation Problems
- “Silo Mentality”: Each department only focuses on their task and not the level in its entirety  or the entire team (works well only if you know what you need to do and the plan fits together. but that is rarely the case), deliverables not always judged in-game
- A change in one area might effect somebody in another area, and that change isn’t communicated --> Rippling effect of problems
- Impact of Silo Mentality: Costly and unplanned iterations, little to no communication between departments, intractable performance issues
- Levels are rarely playable (difficult to evaluate new game mechanics or creatures, a hindrance to QA testing, late review of content [in other words, it sucks up all the time], some content was cut (like Planet Caleston, which had cartels, refineries, and a hub, but it was cut…)

The Phased Level Creation Process
- Purpose: Get answers to critical questions early, and only do the work that is required to get those answers
- Basic Premise: Always playable, always a foundation, always at performance
Phases: Narrative Overview, Narrative Playable, White Box, Orange Box (Collision-only level), Hardening, Finaling
- Narrative Overview: The story, narrative, characters, 2-D layout, art theme, cutscene descriptions (signed off on all departments)
- Narrative Playable: Pacing and spacing, deliverable of first playable - just box level geometry, concept art, placeholders for set pieces, and box level dialogs; have characters that just talk, just an abstract of what this character will be doing, writers can use this very quickly; pop-up cutscene (as an interruptive placeholder); prototyped level mechanics.
- This is where “level blasting” was done. And then you see the mistakes early and remove them until they cause too much wasted work.
- White Box: Can you see the fun? Deliverable is representative collision (where the doors and walls are), box-level geometry and then does first pass modeling, writers will do first pass of dialogue, “bronze”-level combat (just basic cover placement), somewhat animated cutscenes, placeholder music (setting the tone)
- Orange Box: The deliverable needs have collision (real collision), untextured geometry, fialog-ready for VO, dialogs cinematically blocked out, “silver”-combats (full cover placement), basic MoCap cutscenes
- Hardening: Could this be shipped? If you had to ship tomorrow, can you? Deliverable is “Finished” Level - Textured and lit level art, VO’d dialog, cinematic dialog, gold combats (fully scripted, smooth motion cutscenes, actual music and audio
- Finaling: Can you feel the awesome? Deliverable: Final level

Our Production Process
(Or, what we borrow from Lean Manufacturing):
- Focus on the elimination of waste
- “Muda”: “waste” from non-value added work (only do the work we are willing to reiterate upon)
- “Muri: “overburden” (time boxes - time of investment; and load balancing)
- “Mura”: “variation” (established deliverables at each phase)
- “Kaizen”: continuous improvement plan (level reviews at each phase, peer reviews one-time events, level design “mindshare” meetings weekly)
- Agile & Scrum: Terminology
- Backlog: List of prioritized functionality you want added to your game; Sprint: Fixed period of time in which a team’s goals do not change; Sprint review: Review from that sprint; Time Box: Amount of time you wish to invest in that sprint
- ME2 Project overall uses Scrum (Sprint planning worked initially, it established time boxes and called out things that were too technically complex and expensive)
- Later, level design shifted away from Scrum (retained principles – playable levels, communication over documentation)
- But We don’t always live in the ideal world (hitting time boxes over completing specific levels)
- Team Size & Composition “Dogpiles”, 3 level designs and 2 artists per “dogpile”, sometimes other people are added as needed
- Product Owner & Reviews (at-desk previews – have lead level designer go to each desk, creative signoff, are the next steps clear?)
- Pairing Level Art & Level Design was good, and co-located together in a room, time-box (uh, just good scheduling, okay, what’s up with the vocab?)
- If you’re stuck with some specific asset, then do what you can without the asset and get that approved

What Doesn’t Work
- Missing a step can hurt (e.g. concept art, writing); everyone has an idea of what the level was supposed to look like and that causes a conflict of vision
- Too many levels wanting to be that “special snowflake” (every level wants to be one); pick them carefully and don’t approve special programming-heavy characteristic in a level unless you’re absolutely sure you're going to use it
- Level teams getting too big makes things to difficult
- Creatures need to be “representative” early (for their size and AI movement)

(Ended with a conclusion that is all speculative on whether this process would have worked in Mass Effect 1… blah, blah, blah… no one really knows if it would have worked…)

But either, this was a nice ending to the 2009 GDC event at large. Overall, this was a better event than last year's GDC, perhaps due to my experience in what to pick (despite a few letdowns). Perhaps next year, I won't burn myself out as much as I did (today, I'm going to have 15 hours of sleep), but I just like giving as much coverage as I possibly can for you all. And hey, the endurance test is good for my ninja skills.

And so, for your now whetted appetite, here is a some special on-hand footage of the early development stages of Mass Effect 2 in motion.

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