MyOGDC 2007

(Seems like MyOGDC should be some sort of open source middleware, doesn’t it?)

OGDC was a very good conference. This was the first year, so it was pretty small, but that just meant more contact with the people who were there. Even the sessions that seemed like they might suck were quite good. I’m thrilled that I was able to attend, let alone speak.

Here is the high level summary of the stuff I saw at OGDC.

9am Thursday – Writer: the Red Headed Stepchild of the Videogame World

Our own Jess Lebow (Or as he’s known among the Dev-butt-kicking beta community, Captain Elbow) talked about what it’s like being a writer in a game company. His talk went well, and later I talked to a writer from another company who said a lot of Jess’s points really rung true for him also. He outlined a bunch of ways that a writer can contribute in a game company outside of writing the in-game text. Those include:

  1. Acting as an editor for PR text like press releases, ads, and major news posts.
  2. Acting as an envoy between design, art, and programming and to give these people an idea of the context of the art, system, or code desired.
  3. Naming things (though Jess didn’t really seem to like that as one of the things a writer can do. :)
  4. Developing the “internal story”, which is to say the background that is essential to telling a coherent story but is never actually shared with the outside the world.
  5. Additional fiction for the web site, exclusives for fan sites, etc.

The talk wasn’t really aimed at me (and I actually heard it a few weeks ago in the office) but it seemed like it would be pretty useful to a fellow writer.

10am Thursday – Working in the Data Mines: Uncovering Gameplay Gold

Darius Kazemi gave a talk on metric collection and interpretation in MMO games. I had dinner with Darius on Wednesday and talked to him on this subject throughout the conference, so I’m not completely sure all of this came from the talk itself.

He was at Turbine during the development of D&D Online and LotRO analyzing metrics on both games. They did a fair amount of collection on DDO the “wrong way” so for LotRO they started with the database schema they wanted to query from and then figured out how they could log into that database from the code. He left Turbine a couple of months ago to start Orbus Gameworks, which is a metric collection middleware startup.

Darius advocates storing all sorts of game data in easily-queried tables even if that isn’t the native format of your table. His “character” table has one row per character with all the stats for the character as columns. This can be combined with a second “character history” table that contains the changes made to the character at each event. This lets you re-construct the character stats at any point in the past with a fairly simple query. Of course this diff table will get pretty big so you will probably need to keep only a short history.

He also demonstrated how “infecting” a small number of social hubs with a piece of information can be an effective way to communicate that information to your player base. A very small number of hops from the originally infected can cover the majority of your players, and the new spreads in a way that pulls the players deeper into the game.

11am Thursday – Automating Online Game Balance

This was a talk by one of the +7 Systems guys about how you can balance your game automatically by measuring the popularity of various game options and adjusting automatically based on those measurements. These guys sell middleware to do this, but the talk wasn’t really so much a sales pitch for their middleware as for the idea of automatic balancing in general. I came away from the talk unconvinced that automatic balancing was a good idea.When this came up in the metrics round table at AGC last year, someone suggested that it was going to nerf female night elf priests just because they were popular, even though they were popular for entire non-gameplay reasons. It seemed like kind of a problem for me, so I asked about it in the Q&A. Their answer was that it doesn’t matter why something is popular… if you want to maximize your content utilization you need to drive players to different choices through game balance. That doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Two things I took away from this talk are actually applicable whether you want to do your balancing automatically or not:

  1. Communicate to your players that rebalancing is a part of the game. Do this continuously, and not just because you’re about to nerf a bunch of people.
  2. Make many small changes instead of a few big changes.

Noon Thursday – Lunch

OGDC had the best food of any conference I’ve ever been to. And Thursday’s lunch was the better day. Yum!They did something really clever with lunch/keynotes. The keynotes were held in the same room as lunch, so everyone had an hour to gather into the ballroom/eat lunch, and then the keynote started. It worked really well.

1pm Thursday – Keynote: Concurrency

Herb Sutter from Microsoft (of The Free Lunch is Over fame) talked about the multi-core future. He estimates that we will have 32-128 core machines over the next few years. He also went into how features like futures and transactional memory are going to make concurrent programming much more feasible going forward. It was a great talk about a subject that my own knowledge is a little lacking in.

It was a little odd as a keynote though. I think it went over the heads of about 2/3 of the audience.

2pm Thursday – Engaging Your Community – what you can do for them and what they can do for you.

Community Managers from a bunch of games (including ours) got together to put on a panel on community management and how to get your users to help you out. These are always entertaining (which is pretty much true of any time you put a bunch of extroverts on a stage) but not terribly relevant for me.

Oh, and they always have plenty of straight talk about communities that you really shouldn’t repeat on the internet. ;)

3pm Thursday – Security Issues for Third Party Games: Technical, Business, and Legal Perspectives

This was the only talk at OGDC that I regretted going to. The first half was a big long list of a bunch of security breaches that have happened in games over the past two years. The second half was a bunch of “security is important” stuff, but nothing really specific enough to act on.

I hear the Chinese Game Market talk in this slot was awesome. Wish I’d gone to that one instead.

4pm Thursday – LIVE on Windows Essentials

Zsolt Mathe from Microsoft talked about using LIVE on windows. There was plenty of useful information here about how LIVE works in general and on windows specifically. The big scary thing I took away from this talk was the notion that to use LIVE, even on Windows, you have to get Microsoft to approve your game. That doesn’t appeal to me at all, though I understand why they would require it since any LIVE on Windows game can earn achievements and communicate to any Xbox LIVE game. Still, the lack of a “get permission to ship” checkpoint on Windows is one of its biggest selling points.

5pm Thursday – It’s All in the EULA

James E. Dunstan, a lawyer, went through a EULA step by step and talked about the reasons and case law for each major section. “How boring” you might say, but it was very informative and really interesting. This guy was Mythic’s lawyer in the Black Snow case a few years ago, and has a long history of other video game and media cases. He really knew his stuff. Oh, and it was nice to finally hear a talk about legal stuff that didn’t have the phrase “but I’m not a lawyer” every 5 minutes.

9am Friday – Adventures in Middleware

I think my talk went pretty well. The surprising bit of feedback I got from several people was “thanks for including the prices for all this middleware.” That surprised me mostly because all of the packages I talked about publish their prices on their website. There were no secrets there, just a collection of information in various corners of the web.

I ended up in the first slot of the day, so the session wasn’t packed, but the 15-20 people who came had plenty of good questions.

10am Friday – Building World Class MMO While Building a Company – Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment and Stargate Worlds

Joseph Ybarra talked about how the company got started and how they are going about building a team in Pheonix Arizona, where there are no game developers to steal people from. Cheyenne Mountain is probably bigger than you expect… they are still working on their first game, Stargate Worlds, but have already spun up two additional studios to work on other MMO titles. They have tons of investment and are positioning themselves to be a big player in the MMO space. It’s really interesting to see a more traditional startup model applied to the game industry…

Noon Friday – Lunch again!

I ended up at a level with the +7 Systems guys and we had a nice talk about their stuff. I’m still not convinced automatic balancing is the way to go, but it was good to learn more. This kind of spontaneous conversation is something you can get at a small conference. It is much less common at GDC. It’s also why I blow off my co-workers to go sit with people I don’t work with. Nothing personal, Jess and John!

1pm Friday – Keynote: Games Industry 2012

Erik Bethke of GoPets outlined his vision of where the game industry is headed in the next 5 years. Here are the highlights:

  • WoW will be on its third expansion, which will include both ninjas and pirates. You can get the pirate part of that way before 2012 with a certain pirate MMO, Erik!
  • Software piracy will be rampant everywhere in the world, making the only viable software business models be those that are more like services than products.
  • 3 billion additional people will be online with broadband. Almost all of these will be in the developing world
  • Television ad revenue will plummet and the revenue from the biggest MMOs will be as big as all of television.
  • RMT and item sales will be normal. The notion that the company running the game actually owns everything in the game will vanish.
  • 7-11 and PayPal will have “prepaid online cash” wars with each of them providing age-restricted cash. This will allow content providers to restrict things by age without knowing who their customers are.

Some of these things sound more crazy than others. It was a good keynote overall, though. Definitely more entertaining than the GDC “our console is awesome” keynotes.

2pm Thursday – Culture Clash: When Security Comes Knocking

Dave Weinstein is a very dynamic speaker. So much so that it was sometimes hard to tell that there were two other lecturers.

Dave talked about the different perspectives that game developers and security professionals bring to the table. The game developers are under a huge amount of pressure to get their games done on time, and then along comes this security guy. He often arrives late in the schedule and bounces from game to game adding more work to each one. This can lead to some hostility from the game developers who have been crunching for months trying to get their game out the door. I can certainly see where that would cause a conflict. Apparently Microsoft has really started taking security seriously, and are now enforcing security work for all game projects on Xbox.

One thing I took away from this is the notion of a fuzzer. This is a piece of code that takes a mostly-legit data stream and tweaks it in a wide variety of ways to try to demonstrate bugs. That seems like something that’s easy to write but could really help track down potentially serious security issues.

3pm Thursday – Dissecting our Baby: AutoAssault Postmortem – the good, the bad, and all the ugly

I expected more of a game design or programming postmortem but ended up with a business level postmortem. In other words, there wasn’t as much gore as I expected.

NetDevil’s agreement with NCsoft for AutoAssault was a fairly traditional one for single player games: A bunch of milestones with pre-defined features in each one. The trouble was that this meant NetDevil had to put in some version of those features to get the milestone criteria satisfied. This kept the payments coming so they could make payroll, but didn’t necessarily result in shippable features. Each payment was an advance on royalties, which meant that no more money would come in post-launch until the game earned enough money to pay back all milestone payments out of their cut of revenue. At a certain point they just had to ship or they were never going to see a dime from the game.

Some key lessons learned/suggestions from the talk:

  • Keep your publisher involved in the game on a day to day basis. Get them into your play tests, make sure they have a very clear picture of where the project is.
  • Get a very small subset of the game playable ASAP and keep the game playable from that point until launch.
  • Keep most of the complexity away from the player in the early game. The first part of the game should be incredibly simple
  • Make distribution of builds very easy from the start. Do something like the Guild Wars in-game content downloads so you can double click on an icon to play the latest build without having to download all the content again.
  • If your staff isn’t playing your game, you are in trouble. They will make all sorts of excuses (“I’m not the target market”, “I’m too busy”, etc.) but it all really means is that your game isn’t any fun.
  • Don’t feel like you have to have every feature that another game has, particularly when they aren’t right for your game. (The skills in a driving/shooting game were the example here.)
  • Focus test and usability test early and often. Actually take the feedback from this testing and implement them instead of cramming in all the scheduled features that you knew about before the testing.

The talk was fairly upbeat. Thanks to the LEGO project, NetDevil has survived AutoAssault, and feels like they’ve learned a ton. It was nice to see that they really don’t blame NCsoft for what happened… they took responsibility for their own screw ups.

And that’s all the sessions I made it to. I definitely want to go back next year. This was one of the most useful conferences I’ve been to.


One Response to “MyOGDC 2007”

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  1. Trackback from RAY YU .: Ray of Light on :

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