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Game Developers Conference 2009 - Day One Coverage
Posted on Tuesday, March 24 2009 @ 02:23:14 Eastern

Contents: 2D Boy's World of Goo, IGF Nominees List, Statistics on Indie Games (XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, PC, and iPhone), How Indies Deal With Sudden Press Coverage, Player Avatars and Psychology, Making Users Make Content For You,

Last year, my coverage of the GDC event was limited to one article and one topic, even though I visited at least four panels during a day. Why? Because I was “professional” and thought that I had to write a half-dozen cohesive paragraphs to produce an article. One year later, after being drenched in Duke’s beer and subjected to people from Belgi… err… never mind…, I know better. Instead, you will be reading notes on every panel I sat at, but it won't be like reading class notes made by one of your R-tarded friends.

In the sleepless hours I have between arriving home and eventually succumbing to my bed for the next grueling day at GDC, I will organize these notes into understandable English. Of course, you could just get mad at me, but once I tell you that an all-access five-day ticket to these panels cost upwards of $2,200 (!), I’m glad that I’m not shortening the deal by reducing the following six panels to one.

(The last panel I went to was about the localization in regards to Fable II. I thought it would be interesting, but the three-person panel just read from one script. Yeah, I just had to be wrong, didn't I?)


Monday, 10:00 - 10:45 AM
2D Boy: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going Indie But Were Afraid To Ask
Independent Games Summit
Speaker: Ron Carmel (2D Boy), Creator of World of Goo

(Should we really be taking advice from a publisher that has filed for bankruptcy? Anyway...)

Intro
- Didn’t know anything about how to go indie at the start, so please if you can, learn from his mistakes.
- Start a “Company”, a.k.a. the boring part: (In California) Fill out a one-page registration document, pay a $70 fee, receive registration number for tax ID number (5-minute phone call), and open a bank account (wait in line).
- But of course, you’re not starting a company, you’re making a game!
- Obvious point #1: Save money, quit, make game. It’s that easy!

Costs
- Costs for World of Goo (2-person development team): $4,000 Hardware (including dev-kits for Wii), $1,000 Software, $5,000 Quality Assurance, $5,000 Localization (surprising how much it costs)
- Other ‘after’ costs: $5,000 legal fees; living expenses (depends, of course) cost $2,000 for each month, and since development time was not 8 months but 24 months for 2 people, it cost $96,000 in total
- Received $60,000 in pre-orders, but each still had to take about $28,000 out of pocket
- Tips to lower costs: Lower your living expenses (live with parents?), make a smaller game (take a year, not two years), take contract work (be careful, though – make sure it’s short-time and well-paid, or you’re just going to delay your game)

Sales
- Sales = Eyeballs * Hotness, where Eyeballs = How many people see the game, Hotness = How hot GR thinks people think your game is
- Obvious Point #2: Make a good game! That’s the hardest part, really.
- Get press like WiiWare World, Penny Arcade (and GR, eh?)
- Establish web presence and make sure people come back to your site, whether that’s through press, updates, or a general blog
- Let people take pre-orders, and release finished project as early as possible
- Spikes in preorders are always done from media events (yay, GR matters!)

Distribution
- Sell on own website; make it as easy to purchase as possible
- Get on WiiWare from Nintendo America (get money), Nintendo Europe (get money), and Nintendo Japan (get even more money), as well as Steam and retail outlets (again for all three countries)
- But actually, the most money for World of Goo has come from Wiiware ~60% (for $15, instead of $20 for the PC), 2D Boy’s own site (~20%), Steam (~10%), and Retail (~3%)
- Making a deal with retail houses just takes too much time to justify the low sales
- Revenue by operating system: Windows (65%), Mac (25%), Linux (10%)

Publishers
- Why get a publisher? Well, it’s usually for funding and distribution.
- But since publisher’s focus is retail distribution and retail sales for downloadable titles don’t generate much, their main purpose is for funding.
- And in general, just go with digital distribution.
- What is a good deal? Whatever fits your tastes and objectives; for 2D Boy, that means maintaining freedom and maximizing upside.
- Some offers from publishers:
1) $180K advance + 10% Royalty Rate (not so great)
2) $225K Advance + 20% Royalty, then went to 425K + 20% Royalty Rate (better than choice 1), but too late in their offer
3) $700K + 30%-35% Royalty (looked great, but wanted control IP rights and right of first refusal
4) $700K + 15% Royalty and no IP Rights (best deal)
But our conclusion on publishers: don’t do it!, just go digital and self-fund

Tips
- Do it yourself, with small digital distribution houses
- Focus on the big boys (focus on XBLA, PSN, Wiiware... then everyone else like Steam will get on board as well)
- Nag creatively to Microsoft, Playstation, and Nintendo (because there is competition), send a free press kit and build to them
- Global release at uniform price (reduces piracy)
- Don’t bother with DRM, gets cracked anyway (better experience for the user so it doesn’t work), piracy rate is still the same across all games (DRM doesn’t matter)
- Don’t stop promotion; they thought that they could just sit back, but there were four months of work before they could settle down
- Some information about the release numbers: Day 1 - a huge number of sales which soon drops very rapidly; then scattered spikes for the Steam debut, WiiWare European release, Christmas, Steam, Linux version on 2DBoy.com; of special note is the 75% sale on Steam which spiked their sales what seems like 10,000%
- And speak to other indies as friends, not as your competition, as there’s plenty of room for more people

Questions:
- Free-to-play model? (It sucks!) But no real advice.
- What’s your first game? Developed smaller games. But the reason World of Goo is so polished is because his partner Kyle is a perfectionist. Kyle did not let him cut the 100 corners he wanted to.
- Personal story behind quitting job? Had dream to make own game. Was an engineer, so didn’t have any creative power at EA. Decided to go for it. Quit job. (But since the economy is hard, it’s probably not a good idea to quit your job right now)
- Why the delay? Actually, not a delay. The original estimate of eight months was just a flat-out mistake. Having no game design document made it more freeform.
- Why Wiiware and not Xbox Live or PSN? Specific controls that (actually) works well with the WiiWare. Xbox Live and PSN versions didn’t have controls that worked very well with the game, and they didn’t want to put out an inferior product.
- Feel more or less job security? Ah… zero job security, but that doesn’t matter anymore right now with the economy
- Publishers and prototyping? No real prototype. The demo to publishers was the demo that was shown in last year’s IGF competition.
- What’s next? "The Sophmore Game"… it’s intentionally mediocre… just kidding… we don’t know.
- Good idea to launch on every platform at the same time? Yes. Just a lot of hard work and no sleep. Digital only took days, retail months.



Monday, 10:45 - 11:15 AM
Preview of IGF Competition
Independent Games Summit

- IGF Overview, 226 Entries, 22 Finalists
- Student Competitions, 145 Entries, 10 Finalists
- Mobile Competition, 105 Entries, 14 Finalists

(Some of these titles are already out like Pixeljunk Eden on PSN, but look for these games to break out soon. The previews were so quick, I could barely get the basic information.)

Between - Jason Rohrer – Innovation (Nuovu) Award
Blueberry Garden – Erik Sevdang – Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Audio
Brainpipe – Digital Eel – Excellence in Audio (Psychedelic Rez Tunnel)
Carneyvale Showtime – Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab (Seumas McNally Grand Prize)
Cletus Clay – TunaSnax / Anthony Flact (Excellence in Visual Art) Sequel to Platypus.
Coil – From The Depths – Innovation Award
Cortex Command – Data Realms – Technical Excellence – Worms Armageddon
Dyson – Rudolf Kremers and Alex May – Seumas McNally Grand Prize (Attacking enemy planets in a meditative, abstract, minimalist style)
Feist – Filthy Grip – Excellence in Visual Art (Physics, Hazy, Black Art Cutout Style)
The Graveyard – Tale of Tales – Innovation Award
Incredibots – Grubby Games – Technical Excellence (also Flash game!)
Machinarium – Amanita Design – Excellence in Visual Art
The Maw – Twisted Pixel Games – Technical Excellence
Mightier – Ratloop – Innovation Award (Print out puzzle on paper, scan in to create 3D solution in game)
Musaic Box – KranX productions
Night Game – Nicalis / Nifflas – Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Design
Osmos – Hemisphere Games – Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Excellence in Design, Technical Excellence (like 2D Katamari Damacy but moving actually makes you smaller)
Pixeljunk Eden – Q-Games Ltd. – Excellence in Visual Art, Excellence in Audio, Technical Excellence
Retro/Grade – 24 Caret Games – Excellence in Audio, Excellence in Design (Reverse 2D shooter)
Snapshot – Kyle Pulver and Peter Jones – Excellence in Design (Take snapshots and place that picture someplace else to solve the game)
You Have To Burn The Rope – Kian Bashiri – Innovation In Design (Speaks for itself)
Zeno Clash – ACE Team Software – Excellence in Visual Art 1st Melee Combat (punches, kicks, slashes)

---

Monday, 11:15 AM - 11:45 AM
Independent Games & Sales: Stats 101
Independent Games Summit
Speaker: Simon Carless (Independent Games Festival)

(Note on presentation: Way, way, way too much information. I was garbling text on the screen for the entire time.)

- This is an attempt to quantify sales across five areas: PSN, XBLA, WiiWare, iPhone, and PC.
- Some of the statistics are publicly released stats; some are speaker’s non-scientific estimates

Playstation Network
- Sold 21.3 million worldwide (Dec. 2008)
- 60 downloadable PS3 games
- Cumulative Sales: US $180 million as of Feb. 2009
- Flow sold 120,000 copies, is #1 in U.S., #4 in UK
- The majority of the ‘famous’ indie PSN games are closely Sony-published via Santa Monica (this is gradually changing)
- High-end sales figures: 75,000 to 200,000 units (10% of games)
- Advantage of developing on PSN: Lack of competition, Disadvantage: Doesn’t handle demos very well

Xbox Live Arcade
- 28 million Xbox 360s, 196 Xbox Live Arcade games
- 125 million XBLA games - including demos - downloaded
- Top 10: Castle Crashers (553,000 units), Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, Braid (278,000), A Kingdom for Keflings, UNO, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Fable II Pub Games, Duke Nukem 3D, Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Worms
- Claims that VGchartz overestimates by about 10% due to formula discrepancies
- High-End Sales: 150,000 to 500,000 units (20% of games)
- Advantage: Demos on XBLA can easily sell lots of copies of the final game, Disadvantage: Microsoft has been bad about giving a heads-up for soon-to-debut games, but being included in a group promotion like ‘Summer of Arcade’ is significant

WiiWare
- No formal stats have ever been released on WiiWare
- 286 Virtual Console games, so a lot of competition on WiiWare… but not many exposed, good, original titles
- Tetris Party (180,000 units), FF: Crystal Chronicles (325,000), World of Goo (175,000)
- Due to storage/demo issues, lower-profile titles seem to sell slowly
- Oddly, there is a minimum amount that developers needs to sell on WiiWare (in the mid four-figures) before they get any money
- High-End Sales: 40,000 - 250,000 Units (10% of games)
- Advantage: Lack of demo versions, Disadvantage: Downloadable storage problems are a major hindrance, only ‘sure-fire’ titles are purchased

iPhone/iPod Touch
- 6500 games, 70% profit goes to the developer
- Sudden sale effect (Blocked, usually 5-15 units per day, then on sale for 99 cents, gets 10-15,000 units per day)
- Getting into the Top 100 is vital, since it’s easy for the game to get lost
- High End Sales: 10,000 - 300,000 units (only 3% of games)
- Advantage: Least hurdles for publishing, Disadvantage: Small percentage of games make it to the high time, easy for games to get buried

PC Games
- Multiple methods of distribution: Downloadable from own site, core portals, casual portals, web game-related, microtransactions
- IGF finalists with some buzz but not masses of advertising have solid 5,000 copies directly at $20 each (anecdotal)
- Core Portals: Steam, Direct2Drdive, Impulse, GamersGate (takes 30-50%)
- Casual Portals: Big Fish Games, Reflexive/Amazon (takes 60-70% but larger potential market).
- Web-game related: Lots of free Flash games out there
- Alternative Games: Selling in-game upgrades and items, charging for the expansion/episode,
- High-End Sales: 40,000 K
- Advantage: Many options to choose from, Disadvantage: Not too much exposure

Future possibilities
- DSiWare, PSN for PSP games, and XNA Community Games



Monday, 11:45 – 12:30 PM
Indie Games: From Buzz to Business
Room 131, North Hall
Speakers: Zach Aikman (Fishbeat), Tom Buscaglia (Dev Biz, Inc.), Dylan Fitterer (Audiosurf, LLC), Michael Wilford (Twisted Pixel Games)

- Why does this matter now? Unlike in the past, in the last couple of years, the IGF finalists (or even just plain submissions) have been given a licensing deal.

Stories of Sudden Rise to Fame
- Audiosurf: IGF Finalist last year, then received huge load of business deals, worked with Steam, got incredibly productive and excited, made demo (very, very important), puts ads in the local paper for people to play your game for the first few minutes (user testing is key)
- Twisted Pixel (The Maw) – Year 2006, X360 is out, XBLA is on the scene, let’s take the plunge!, the three founders crawled into a dungeon free space, had The Maw shown at GDC 2007, suddenly met with Microsoft and pitched the game, Microsoft gives them it a chance, 3-person team became 8-person team, banged out the most polished $10 game they could in 9 months, sent it to The PAX 10 on a whim, then received word it was one of the PAX 10 Finalists, sudden exposure, now The Maw is an IGF finalist, 8-person team is now a 14-people team
- Fishbeat (Synaesthae) – Summer of ‘07, going to office space, remaking it for XBLA platform, IGF rolled around in March, good publicity, no business experience, pitching IGF success, took 5 months to get funding

The Buzz
- Good: Exposure, getting publishers to listen, having G4TV want to see your office (Twisted Pixel), bloggers, having IGN email back (also Twisted Pixel), just “them” wanting to met you (leverage)
- Bad: Nothing really bad... well… okay, time is somewhat sucked up with nitty-gritty business practices, you’re totally caught unprepared, feels like you have a full-time job at the height of the press bug (but gets you to rise to a new level, and it fuels your passion and erases self-doubt)
- Ugly: Having to talk to the attorney, people trying to take advantage of you by putting your game on their channel exclusively (so learn how to hold on to your IP no matter what), releasing an open beta that was too open, where pirates created proxy servers, and some crazy DLC lady who calls between midnight and 4am asking you to fix a level in the DLC

Maintaining Buzz? Studio Branding? Community and Support?
- Buzz: Getting your game out on other portals (…like GR), downloadable content (can be a knife in the back, Twisted Pixel created three DLC levels, got a lot of flack, people complained that it should have just combined it with the main game, and Microsoft relaying incorrect information on pricing and release dates)
- Studio Branding: You can create a studio if that’s what you want to do
- Community: Go on forums at various sites (…like GR) and just communicate with your fans

Advice
- Be ready to commit an answer to a publisher and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (don’t half-ass it), abuse relationship with a publisher insider, make friends with journalists (yay!), need PR person to get interviews and more exposure and community manager, make a great demo

Questions
- What about a Steam-free version? Only a tiny fraction of people want one.
- Where to get funding? Angels… or the 3 F’s: Friends, Fools, and Family.
- Word-of-mouth exposure? Through fellow students and independent gamers and social networks (MySpace pages for the game or game characters). Digg and Fark are also possibilities.
- Collaborative partners beyond just hiring? Contract work into full-time work.
- What were the terms for The Maw to be exclusive for XBLA? Any Microsoft commitments? Can’t really talk about it too much. But there is a negotiated time period. They may want IP. They may not want to give you too much funding. But push back on everything since it’s negotiable.



Monday, 2:00 PM - 2:45 PM
Make Me! Giving Players Better Avatar Creation Choices and Experiences Using Psychology
Worlds in Motion Summit
Speaker: Katherine Isbister (NYU-Poly)

- Speaker’s experience: Ph.D. in social science of character design from Stanford University, Social Game Lab at NYU, more than 10 years of experience with character and avatar design and research

Avatar Psychology 101
- A player’s choice of a self-avatar answers the fundamental question of “Who am I?” in both a shallow and deep sense. It is a bridge into the game world and its logic, a bionic problem-solving unit. It represents and enhances the self, to others, and internally for the player’s self-image.
- Four layers of avatar psychology (visceral, cognitive, social, fantasy)
- Visceral: Do I like how I look, based on first impressions, stereotypes, and snap judgments? Does it feel good, moment to moment, to be me? Do I like how they move, act, use body language, the sound effects they create, and point of view on life?
- Cognitive: Does what I can do match up with how I look? Does my character that looks like he or she can do what they can do?
- Social: Does what I look like and how I act fit the social backstory of the world I’m in? If in a MMO, can other people tell which character is me? What about who I am in real life? (Or am I purposefully acting like someone else?)
- Example (FFXI Online): Player likes the idea of being a small but deadly weapon, so creates a tiny character that fits within the context of the world itself
- Fantasy: Is this a better, cooler, heightened version of me? Do I like being in the backstory of the game world as this avatar? (Say, playing as Jack Black’s character in the yet-to-be-released Brutal Legend; or the blood-thirsty Spartan Kratos)

Avatar Types
- Also, two types of avatars: puppets and masks
- Puppets: Fun is derived from manipulating them in a visceral and cognitive sense (like Sack Boy in Little Big Planet)
- Masks: Fun is mostly in whom I can be to others in a social and fantasy sense (like a MMORPG)

Character Creation Tools and Psychology
- Does your creation tool allow meaningful customization of these psychological layers?
- Example (Mii): Highly constrained choices. Players always complain that they can’t create their hair. But Miis are not meant to be photo-realistic in any sense. In fact, it’s Nintendo’s iconic art style.
- Example (Little Big Planet): Changing a Sack Boy/Girl in real-time is part of the charm. Slapping around the other character never grows old. Making an angry face or funny gestures is great puppetry. A Charlie Chaplin-esque wonder about the avatars.
- Example (Second Life): High degree of control in creation of avatar, but off-putting to most novices due to the depth and tricky interface; many people couldn’t figure out how to create the character they wanted because the system was too complex and intricate
- Example (City of Heroes): Obvious fantasy and visceral appeal, includes a short biography to fashion the backstory of their heroes, players usually already come in with what superhero character they want to be

Future?
- Wish for a game that forces two players to collaborate together to create one avatar
- Likely will see a game that finds that sweet spot with its puppet avatar that everyone wants to play and copy for their own game



Monday, 3:15 PM - 4:00 PM
Your Own Zombie Army - Driving User Behavior with Game Mechanics and Behavioral Economics
Worlds in Motion Summit
Speaker: Rajat Paharia (Bunchball)

(In this summary, we are not talking about our own GR ranking system. Absolutely not. I don’t want to hear it.)

Zombie Army System
- How do developers get users to create free content for you? (Or how to not be cheated by websites that know how they exploit people?)
- Cater to human desires: reward, status, achievement, self-expression, competition, altruism
- In other words, Points (Reward), Levels (Status), Challenges (Achievement), Virtual Goods (Self-Expression), Competition (Leaderboards), and Gifts (Altruism)
- Create system with in-game points, seniority, and status
- Ask users to create something for a challenge and use fake money or points to get regular people to do work. (Well, at least GR actually gives you online gift certificates for strong Vox Pop articles, so we’re better than this…)
- Increase levels, the rank, the emblems, and status name
- Give clear goals and checklists of objectives to track progress
- Follow the idea of Achievement points in XBLA and Trophies in PSN. People hate holes in sets, and want to collect as many achievements and points as posible
- Make a higher ranking have “upgraded” icons

(Though I have to say, I’m sick of all the points and reward cards at this point. I’m not really motivated anymore by this kind of ranking system unless it’s for a game I care about.)

Abusing Human Behavior
- People maximize a reward’s frequency, not its magnitude. Put simply, “how often” is usually more important than “how much”. So give users points just for doing one simple thing like logging in or fixed interval rewards.
- Even better is a slot machines. On average, you will win one time in 3 times. Since it’s variable, you’ll continue playing you keep, but at least that average is constant and a mathematical fact.
- Relativity: Would you drive fifteen minutes away to save seven dollars on a $17 pen? Now, would you drive fifteen minutes away to save the same seven dollars on a $447 dollar suit?
- Decoy effect: One option that no one picks but makes you want to pick one of the remaining option. Example: Bejeweled, Bejeweled 2, or Zuma? Hardly anyone would pick Bejeweled 1, but that makes people get Bejeweled 2, because you have something to compare it to.
- Another Decoy: Don’t know how much a bike really costs? Walk into a store. A bike is priced at $200. Another bike costs $400? So you get the $200 one, though it really costs $100.
- Free effect: When something is free, there’s no downside, so it must be good. But just because it’s free, doesn’t make it detrimental. Not all gifts are good.
- Loss aversion: We feel losses more than winning. Pick one: 50% chance of losing $200 or 100% chance of losing $100. Now again, pick one: 50% chance of winning $200 or 100% chance of winning $100.

- Have you been exploited in any one of these ways? I don't like to admit it, but I know I have. Damn Rock Band DLC? *shakes fist*

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