Sunday, December 20, 2009

My new gaming gig

It's been a crazy, productive initial couple of years in the game industry, piggybacking off of a decade of previous tech and biz dev work, and now I'm taking it to the next (for me) logical step in my newly launched career.

I've moved from product management for a middleware (game engine and tools) company to a production role for a studio on an upcoming game. More specifically, I'm now an associate producer for a studio, working on a cool game for the Wii.

For those that don't know me, this might feel like a bit of a 90-degree turn, but it's actually a sensible next step that presented itself, and I jumped at it.

Remember, I previously left a very productive (but brutally demanding) senior gig in the financial services world to go to middleware. I did that because I wanted to be less fractured between my toy job and my passions -- the latter of which encompasses the creative me, and my passion for video games. Middleware seemed like a good (sorry) middle ground between the game industry and my enterprise background, where I could use my mad biz dev skills and help a large number of game developers.

As is often the case, the reality was slightly different. The job was necessarily more about the company first, and the developers second (it is a business, after all), more marketing than biz dev (the latter of which I had to fight ridiculously unnecessarily to do, not that I didn't still make massive hay on that front), and actually took me too far away from the project and personnel management skills I was leveraging at my prior gig at BigHugeCorp.

So, after much conflict, I took this associate producer gig. While I'll probably talk about the squishier aspects of that life decision conflict in my other blog, some of the conflict, frankly, revolved around the possibility -- on the professional path front -- this gig could make it look like I fell off a ski lift over the last few years; International Technical Director to Product Manager to Associate Producer.

But the reality is, at it's heart, my interest in video games is about me being able to help great teams make games. So, my title aside, it's about that. This is a great first studio and first title for that.

Interestingly, it turns out this gig gets me closer to the project, dev, and personnel management skills I found myself missing in my last job. I'll be managing sprint teams, doing resource juggling, and negotiating requirements and various trade-offs as I work to help get the project out.

Not that this isn't going to be hard. For all intents, I've moved from an executive career path to kind of starting over mid-career. This takes me away from explicit biz dev (though I'm wired that way, so I'm sure I'll find a way) . Not easy things, but concessions we were willing to make to be a part of something important (yes, I think this game is important).

But on the career front, this opp is also about me figuring stuff out about the game industry.

See, the game industry thinks it's so damn special. I have never seen a vertical industry so adamant that if you're not from within their industry, you can't contribute to their industry. Ludicrous. I've been pursued by and successfully navigated everything from financial services to health care to the film industry, and never experienced this kind of bigoted attitude before.

So, I wanted to get into the game industry, and see if it really is that special, or whether software development is software development, and professional impedance in games is just the result of a cottage industry that just hasn't completely grown up yet. (The reality is it's likely somewhere within the continuum, but I'm guessing it's closer to the latter than the former.)

Now, my studio is a great place for me to start to try to figure this kind of thing out. Unlike other studios, they've been up front about wanting to work with good people, regardless of background. This creates a good space for me to learn the ropes, ramp up on the obvious learning curve, and not worry about also fighting against folks who expect me to fail (and may want me too, so they can stay special).

Starting to ramble. Let's just see if I sink or swim.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Black Friday Gaming Deals

I'm in the midst of a move, so I'm not going to be able to do my typical pre-Black Friday shopping suggestions lists.

Be sure to check out value-add Black Friday ad aggregators like BFADS (link is to the video game section, but check out other categories as well), and deal mainstay CheapAssGamer.

There are some great deals from last Sunday through this weekend, like $15-20 off just released games (Left 4 Dead 2, Borderlands, etc. at Target), amazing bundle deals (like an Xbox Live Arcade unit with Guitar Hero World Tour and free shipping for $199 at Amazon), and Xbox titles from $10-$25, but you need to be watchful to scalp stuff quickly or you're SOL (ask Mom to explain the acronym).

Me? I've already picked up things like the Tekken 6 LE version (with the Hori wireless fighting pad) for the price of the game alone, and will likely run around to get some cheapy games as stocking stuffers. Maybe.

Apologies again for punting on the Black Friday list this year -- things'll settle down once I relo.

Monday, November 09, 2009

This week's releases

I'm excited about a few of this week's game releases, as (after a bit of a lull), the holiday game season starts in earnest.

You can get full lists of the games at places like or Kotaku, but here are a few to watch:
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (360, PC, PS3) -- The sequel to a mondo game is a mondo game of its own, and the biggest of the week -- if not the year. We play every Monday and Wednesday nights.

  • Phantasy Star Zero (NDS) -- As an RPG franchise, I really dig Phantasy Star, and Zero looks to rock the Nintendo DS. At around 20 hours of story / gameplay per character (and three characters), this game'll likely take up residence in my handheld, now that I'm finally wrapping up Chrono Trigger.

  • Dreamkiller (360) -- I'm unabashedly a Painkiller fan (on the PC). Dreamkiller looks to be a spiritual successor to that game (complete with eastern European dev team), with a creepy, supernatural hook (psychiatrist goes into crazy's heads, a la an FPS trope, and ... erm ... cures them). Works for me!

  • Dragon Ball Z: Attack of the Saiyans (NDS) -- Dunno if this one will work. I still keep trying to finish Dragon Ball: Origins, but the freaking 10-minute, non-skippable intro pisses me off, so I play it rarely. Still, I'm a franchise fan.

  • Dragon Ball: Raging Blast (PS3, 360) -- I think DBZ: Burst Limit was really under-rated, and if you played this demo on XBL recently, you may agree that this frenetic 3D fighter might be the next Saiyan evolution. Or, you may not. But you're probably wrong.

  • Final Fantasy XI: Ultimate Collection (360, PC) -- Granted, on the PC it's the "Vana'diel Collection 2010" ('cause that'll get you the ladies), but whatever. It's the MMO version of the FF universe, and while it's been patchily received, this rendition will have the base game, all four expansions, and all three add-on scenarios -- all for less than twenty bucks.

  • Braid (PS3) -- If you missed this solid little indie title on XBLA, then PC, now's your chance on PSN. It's a fun, hearty little platformer that does a better job than some full-box titles. Sure, it might be a little over-rated. But genuinely good games are.

  • WorldShift (PC) -- Pretty sure this title, from Crytek-purchased Black Sea Studios, is actually powered by Gamebryo tech, since development was fairly far along before the acquisition. It's a good-looking RTS / RPG online / offline hybrid.

  • Rogue Trooper: Quartz Zone Massacre (Wii) -- OK, this one actually came out way earlier this year, but seeing it inadvertently included one someone's list for this week gives me an excuse to tout it again. I so liked this PS2/PC/original Xbox game, and gushed over it. Twice. Now, with my yearnings for a next-gen update, I kind of got my wish, as it's as it's polished and available for the now-gen Wii. No new content, per se, but if you missed it the first time, find an inexpensive copy. Go nuts.
That's it for this week. Next week, it's New Super Mario Bros. time!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Muddying who gets what piece of the pie

So, my previous post, "Cost of games, slice of the pie, and business opportunities", has caused a bit of stir -- most of which, despite my urgings, haven't made it into the comments of that post.

To summarize that last post, I wrote brief thoughts about what percentage of a given game's sales go to which groups. For discussion purposes, I used numbers from Dave Thomas ("The Crispy Gamer") / Jesse Divnich (EEDAR), which suggest the following breakout from a title's sale:
  • $12 (20%) goes to "Retail"
  • $5 (8%) goes to "Marketing"
  • $10 (17%) goes to "Cost of Goods"
  • $33 (55%) goes to the "Publisher"
These numbers and that post are helpful as groundwork for some follow-on posts I want to do. These work as placeholder numbers (and maybe they're totally fine), but they don't feel like they address some very diverse business scenarios.

The "bit of a stir" I reference above is from the mix of comments I received, largely on the extreme ends:
  1. "Spot on -- nice job!" (or, conversely "Too accurate, please do not share")
  2. "Not even close to accurate"
I wonder how closely these numbers match what people actively experienced in the industry have seen throughout their career. I say "actively", because I think folks need to have a historical sense to dissect these figures, and they need to be in the industry now -- because it's changed in the last 2-3 years.

As I said before, I'm personally not crazy about the numbers as actionable, mainly because I'm concerned they're too averaged to be individually applicable, and/or are not representative enough -- and I'm looking to refine them.

Obviously, there are several levers /complicating factors that start significantly shifting percentages, and therefore opportunities.

For example:
  • How do these numbers compare across console versus PC titles?
  • Do the percentages stay intact between a $60 MSP 360 or PS3 title, compared to a $50 Wii title?
  • Where do the first-parties (Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo) get their piece of the pie -- from the "Publisher" slice? Is it spread throughout?
  • What happens to the percentages in a $30 "budget" title?
  • Where are the cost savings and additional expenses in a digital distribution only model (Publishers, for example, are (arguably) largely in the risk management / brokering business, so how do the financial risk model change when that entity isn't involved)?
  • What about royalty models?
  • Are first- or third-party marketing development / discretionary funds "on top of" the "Marketing" budget?
  • How do the numbers change (or do they) based on geography, or cross-geography development and publishing?
I'm very interested in identifying financial risk and revenue opportunity by further refining these numbers.

Feel free to respond directly to me, or as a comment to this or the initial blog post.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cost of games, slice of the pie, and business opportunities

This is more of a biz dev(ish) post, because I want to talk through the cost of games, and use this post as a possible launching point for some other biz dev topics.

Since I think some of the industry numbers I have may not shareable, I'm going to use some public numbers, like those from Dave Thomas ("The Crispy Gamer").

Dave digs into the $60 game -- a price point I've railed against repeatedly in this blog. It's kind of an arbitrary price point, I would argue it should go down to $50 (for consumer and economics reasons), and the PC gaming side seems to "get" this, with the same newly released games routinely being available on console costing $10-20 less on the PC side.

Anyway, for purposes of discussion, I'm going to use Dave's numbers for who gets what pieces of the retail pie. Assuming a sixty-dollar game, Dave (citing Jesse Divnich over at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research) argues $12 goes to "Retail", $5 goes to "Marketing", $10 to "Cost of Goods", and $33 goes to the "Publisher", looking something like this (using my own charts and graphs):

And it probably helps to understand three quick things:
  1. Each of these areas would have a breakout underneath them (e.g., "Retailer" has facilities overhead, employee salary / benefits, etc.) that defines their monetary success criteria.
  2. What these categories include.
  3. How this percentage breakout varies on a case-by-case basis (which is partially why the numbers bother me).
Assuming the first item is pretty self-explanatory, here's a brief description of each of the categories, and representative costs associated with them (some from Thomas, and some from me):
  • Retailer: The (usually brick-and-mortar) establishment from which you buy your game -- so think of it as the money Best Buy gets when you by a $60 game.
  • Marketing: Discounts, game returns, and retail cross-marketing (Toys "R" Us gift cards and exclusive action figures, etc.).
  • Cost of Goods: Cost of getting the goods sold, which includes making the game disc, shipping the games to the store, translation, and anything else directly related to production, and distribution of the game package.
  • Publisher: According to Thomas, "It is generally accepted that most publishers receive $30 to $35 per game sold before they run into overhead, development and marketing costs."
Now, this varies widely, and the devil is in the details.

For example, in an interview with Wired Magazine, Epic Games' Mark Rein talked about Gears of War ostensibly being cheap to make:
"We spent less than $10 million to make Gears of War. Somewhere between nine and ten million dollars. People are always saying that making next-generation games is really expensive, and we’re saying, you should license our technology."
The interesting part of this is I would argue, in this context, Epic wasn't using licensed tech. Since they're the makers of the Unreal Engine, this was basically the equivalent of using internal tech, and reduced the cost to Gears significantly, because it they didn't have to bear the license fee that an external studio would have to bear. So maybe their cost of goods was down (or at least in line with) that 17%. (Now, the "unfunded" R&D expense that went into adding features to UE for Gears would be another interesting piece of the puzzle.)

But what about marketing? I think Mark is just talking cost of development --not Microsoft's hefty marketing part of the pie.

Remember those excellent "Mad World" and "Rendezvous" prime time NFL Football commercials? Those weren't cheap in licensed content, production, or placement, I'm sure easily blowing an 8% marketing budget, and/or eating heavily into publisher Microsoft's 55%. Add to that limited editions (expensive and small-run metal cases, art books, music CDs, etc.) and promotional deals like the radio controlled Centaur Tank that shipped with special editions of the game at Best Buy, or Fallout 3's lunch box / bobblehead / making of DVD / art book, and you can see costs for each of the categories eaten away at pretty quickly.

(Quick caveat is that I own the special / limited editions of a bunch of games, including those listed above, because I'm a passionate gamer, I like to vote for good games with my consumer dollars, and as an industry guy, the "making of" DVDs alone are worth the price of admission.)

As another example, MMOs don't fit into the breakout above nicely at all (I get very frustrated with people trying to shoehorn older industry models onto newer business that frankly isn't that new).

Look at a game like Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. Where does the ongoing server cost, or the forum / community infrastructure and personnel overhead that is part of these games get wrapped into the above model? (Often times, "Community Management" comes out of marketing dollars, and are not well accounted for between developers and publishers.)

Exceptions aside, the numbers above give us an interesting launching point to explore return on investment (ROI) for game titles.

So, assuming the base numbers are OK (!?), and a game with a $10M overall budget, you would hit a break-even point for the publisher at an MSP of $60 ($33 publisher portion) after selling 303,030 units (303,030.3, to be exact):

But "break-even" isn't enough -- because there's no profit. If your publisher's profit target is, say, $5M, you're $5M "in the hole" when you "break even" -- and you need to move an additional ~150,ooo units (~454.5K total) to hit that profit target (and, probably, to realize developer royalties):

So, looking at a game like the recent Halo 3: ODST (and totally making up numbers), let's pretend the budget was a "mid-range" $25M -- Microsoft would need to move 757.5K units -- just to break even at the same $5M profit target. Of course, ODST moved 2.5M units in the first two weeks, so even without know their profit targets, it feels like "they did OK":

Now, I acknowledge these numbers are a little problematic, in that they're theoretical, and there's a bit of an apples-to-hand-grenades comparison of the $60 MSP price point of a title, and the $33 publisher portion of the pie placeholder I'm using.

But that's intentional, as I'm setting this up for some follow-on posts.

More later. Comment below.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Upcoming games (through the end of the year)

OK, I meant to follow up fairly quickly from my basically Q3 list of upcoming games, and got distracted -- Largely because I've been playing several of those games, and some from the new list: Games from Q4 (I need sexier names for my lists).

To review from last time, I list the games I'm excited about as an armchair analyst, industry professional (?), and gamer -- particularly with an affinity for co-op games (so, L4D2, New Super Mario Bros., and Borderlands rise to the top.

Here are the games:

Dreamkiller (360, PC) -- There need to be more, frenetic, memorable PC first-person shooters, a la Painkiller (not related to this title, other than it looks like it's unofficially "inspired-by"). So, this title has my interest because of that, and because I've been carefully watching ASPYR and it its evolving business model over the years. I hope the game does well on PC, and while I hope for the same on 360, I expect it to falter as it goes up against top-notch FPS offerings like Modern Warfare 2, ODST, and even L4D2 -- but especially against Serious Sam HD on XBLA, which will provide that same super-frenetic action, with über polish and a fractional price point.

South Park Let's Go Tower Defense Play! (XBLA) -- A South Park tower defense game? Brilliant!

Lucidity (XBLA) -- LucasArts brings a new platformer to the XBLA platform? Brilliant!

Magna Carta 2 (360) -- I'm always on the lookout for a gorgeous, accessible JRPG. Magna Carta 2, the sequel to the 2002 PC title, may just foot the bill.

A Boy and His Blob (Wii) -- I'm a big fan of the original, and the absolutely beautiful nature of this new one has me really excite. I own a Wii, but play very few games for myself, but Q42009 will likely change that.

Brütal Legend (360, PS3) -- It's Tim [bleeping] Schafer, ladies and gents! And while this game was on my "must get, but maybe not right away" list, the demo changed that for me. If it's representative, this game is the perfect mix of Shafer humor and gameplay, Jack Black is used appropriately (not overwhelmingly), and the game seems to be scratching every itch for me. I'm excited. Wicked excited.

Fallout 3: Game of the Year Edition (360, PC, PS3) -- This single-player, first-person RPG is one of my all-time favorites, and now you can get the GOTY edition, which comes with the original game, and all five DLC expansion packs (The Pitt, Operation: Anchorage, Broken Steel, Point Lookout and Mothership Zeta). And you'll probably be able to find it for cheaper than full price or with purchase incentives. If you haven't bought this game before, you should. Both of you.

Marvel Super Hero Squad (Wii, PS2, NDS, PSP) -- I am such a fan of Marvel's cutified franchise, and while I worry about the possible rushed quality of this licensed brawler title, I'm likely to pick it up regardless for its scratching my multiplayer-plus-fanboy itch.

FIFA Soccer 2010 (360, PC, PS3, Wii, PS2, PSP, NDS) -- I'm not a big soccer fan, but I'm savvy enough to know this sport is the big dog 'round the world, and one of the biggest movers for EA (and therefore, biggest moments for sports-minded gamers). So it gets listed.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3) -- This Sony exclusive is arguably the big-dog for October, and probably the first of the genuine heavy hitters for the holiday. Taking a Tomb Raider formula that actually works, injecting top visuals and gameplay mechanics, story, and the introduction of multiplayer, this week's midnight launch will likely have people stacked up like cordwood throughout the nation.

Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time (PS3) -- You gotta respect the R&C, and this additional PS3-exclusive is (I think) going to make those console faithful happy with an updated take on the franchise.

Demon's Souls (PS3) -- YAPE (Yet Another PS3 Exclusive), this game is already garnering rave reviews, with people trumpeting the game's difficulty, but difficulty that makes you a far better gamer (akin to Ninja Gaiden, but with seemingly less profanity; slightly less). And the game looks slick.

DJ Hero (360, PS3, Wii) -- While it doesn't exactly float my boat, there are going to be a number of DJ-type games hitting shelves as the next wave of music-related games, so I'm curious to watch the trend. And peripherals make people lots of money. And it does look kind of nifty.

Borderlands (360, PC, PS3) -- (This one actually moved to Q4 after I did the original post) Teased for so long, with a relatively recent shiny new coat of paint, I have worked hard not to lose interest in this one. Gearbox has earned their place in the industry, so I'll likely pick up this game just to vote with my dollars as to how to do it right, and I'm guessing the game will live up to the studio that made it. This may be overselling it, but think "4-player co-op Fallout 3."

Tekken 6 (360, PS3) -- I've got a hankering for a new fighting game, and I like the marketing win of one of PlayStation's most venerable exclusive fighting franchises now bing on the 360 (starting with 5). That and I want to be able to pit a panda against a kangaroo. Over and over again.

Fairytale Fights (360, PS3) -- Twisted fairy tale trope at its best (and most violent). Think cutesy plus Kill Bill plus online multiplayer. Let's see if lands as expected.

Dragon Age Origins (360, PC, PS3) -- I think this Bioware RPG is going to be Oblivion / Fallout 3 awesome. Yes. That awesome.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (360, PC, PS3) -- I actually expect this game to be the big mover for the holiday season. It addresses all of the right markets -- it's not console exclusive, so it sells more individual units; it's an FPS, so it hits that crowd; It's not as hardcore as a simulation, but hardcore enough to get both casual and hardcore FPS fans on board; it's not niche-genre ("modern war" is much broader than "zombie"); etc. Members of my CoD clan are actually planning to take the day off to play this game. Seriously. (There will also be derivations of this game on Wii, PSP, and NDS, but they are differently titled, obviously have very different game mechanics.)

New Super Mario Bros. (Wii) -- It's Mario. On the Wii. With co-op (and adversarial, it looks like), a la classic Super Mario Bros. My hope is to be playing this all holiday long with my sweetie, which may cost me Xbox and NDS time (and will be well worth it).

Phantasy Star (NDS) -- This game (which would make my list just because of my love of the franchise) is allegedly an action RPG amalgam of the best of Phantasy Star Online and Phantasy Star Universe. Sign me up!

Left 4 Dead 2 (360, PC) -- I should not be this addicted to the first game. It's short, it's too niche, etc. Instead, I'm like a social crackhead at a snow party. Every Tuesday night (every), I and 3 other guys get online and play and replay the same campaigns, go after insane achievements, and pull other peopleion for the online modes. And just a year after that game, the sequel is shipping, which makes me all sorts of happy. All sorts.

Assassin's Creed II (360, PC, PS3) -- This sequel to a great stealth title from two years ago looks to up the ante on quality, gameplay diversity, and historical tie-in significance.

Ok, that's what I have. Dates my change, I feel like I've missed some titles, etc.

But it's still more than I can play without being professionally paid to do so.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Get your act together

OK, this needs to be a bit ranty / rambly.

I was at a great game industry networking gig last night. It was a big turnout, representing a bunch of companies, disciplines, and skill levels. And it's nice to hang out with good folks and enjoy their company.

A bunch of folks there last night are between gigs. The current economy is getting everyone -- That's not the issue.

So, now the Ranty McRanty part.

I've griped before about how the game industry doesn't network to help big things happen for each other like I've seen in other vertical (specifically, technical) markets.

But when you're looking for a job, you need to be even more on your A-game.

Most of these people in transition didn't have business cards. Or resumes (I don't mean "with them", I mean "at all").


Seriously, am I missing something? If you're trying to connect with someone to get a job, don't you want them to have your contact information? An easy way to see your portfolio? Maybe having a way for them to know who you are and how to get a hold of you might, I dunno, be helpful?


Always have business cards with you. Always.

For me, I have three -- whatever card from my current employer, my acting card, and a generic, title-less card for my next potential gig (like below).

And I have my resume on my phone (so I can Email it instantly, with a queued up Email template along the lines of "It was nice to meet you tonight! Here's a copy of the generalized version of my resume for your reference."). And it's available from my Website.

I'm not saying this is the way to do all of this, but I am saying it's a way. And it's far better than tripping all over yourself and shooting yourself in the professional foot.

Now, there were some people who were prepared last night. One guy even had hard copies of his resume with him (which was kind of cute).

OK, enough of the rant. Go get business cards.

(Hey, does the logo on my generic card look to much like a tramp stamp?)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Tokyo Game Show 2009

Crap in a kolache, I totally blew past The Tokyo Game Show, which is normally a pretty important gamer milestone (largely consumer, though there are a couple of biz-dev-ish days that precede the bulk of the show).

I blame it on GDC Austin, and a wealth of games coming out as the holiday season groans to life (Halo ODST, Bowser's Inside Story, Scribblenauts, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and L4D DLC) -- all of which I'm playing in rotation.

But for what it's worth, despite fewer games and lower attendance at this year's show, here are a handful of things from the event that floated my boat:
  • Natal buy-in -- Nay say as you will about motion controllers (I won't), but the train has left the station, and Microsoft for one is truly making it core to their business (I don't yet feel quite the same about Sony's offering, which doesn't even have a name yet). To add weight to the tech, at TGS Microsoft paraded 7 big-gun Japanese developers who are supposedly bought into Natal. This included Capcom's head of R&D Keiji Inafune (Dead Rising); Namco Bandai's GM Yozo Sakagami; Tecmo's Keisuke Kikuchi (Rygar); Kojima Productions's Kenichiro Imaizumi (Metal Gear Solid 4); Sega's Toshihiro Nagoshi (Monkey Ball); FromSoftware's Masanori Takeuchi (Ninja Blade); and Konami's Naoki Maeda.

  • Epic Games expands to Japan -- Sure, it's largely a support organization, but there's now way it's going to stay that way. And with top game dev talent in-country (and with recent, hefty, in-country game dev layoffs), the makers of the Unreal Engine are well positioned to make use of ground forces to directly address local game tastes, and conceivably work more closely with Japanese-HQed Sony and Nintendo.

  • Nintendo Wii price drop -- I'm not sure what I found more interesting -- Nintendo's price drop of the Wii to $199, or their brilliant timing of making the announcement during Sony's TGS press conference (which felt a bit lackluster anyway, and really lost live-blogging steam once their competitor's price drop was announced).

  • Square-Enix and billing innovation -- This was interesting, and got poo-pooed by a lot of gamers. Since I'm a financial services tech guy who moved into the game industry, and spent years in my previous life trying to push gaming payment solutions (I was told, "there's no money in that"; so I left), it's good to see a high-profile company raise awareness of the infrastructure innovations that must happen for games to evolve -- it's not just about hardware and game design innovation.

  • Universal video capture for 360 games? -- This one slipped a bit under the radar, but, allegedly, a gamer made a sideways comment about not building vid capture functionality into their game -- "... why work on something that the platform holder is already developing".

    Video capture, by itself, doesn't really float my boat (what is with me and boats, lately?) -- but theater capture (a la Halo 3) does. Why? Because this kind of capture captures (erm) the game data -- not just a video feed of the game being played. This lets you do all sorts of wicked cool things like play the scene over and over from multiple angles, from multiple cameras, speeding up and slowing down motion, etc., with a negligible memory footprint (especially when compared to raw video).

    Make that available in the Xbox XDKs for developers, and not only do you have cool functionality for gamers, but really useful stuff for game devs as they debug, test, and iterate on polishing their titles for gamers. This is tech on which to keep an eye.

  • Games -- Hey, I'm a gamer, so even if things weren't new, per se, I get stoked for new content for titles I like. For me, this included Snoopy Flying Ace (Snoopy versus the Red Baron on XBLA); Ni no Kuni (NDS RPG from Level-5 Studio (freaking) Ghibli); Dead Rising 2 (zombie games are not "old and busted"); Crackdown 2 (sequel to one of the most underrated games evahr); Alan Wake (I will not lose faith in this game); New Super Mario Bros. (co-op Wii franchise goodness); L4D2 (what is with this franchise? There are so many things that should make this not work, and I. Can't. Get. Enough.); and Dante's Inferno (a classic-made game; I hope it's success signals a Watership Down RTS).
Sorry for you letting you down on the real-time updates, Gaming Faithful. Still friends?

Anyway, get more retcon coverage from people here, here, and obviously here.

(And apologies to any folks in the kolache industry.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

AGDC: The Loner

I made one session amidst the day of mind-numbing negotiations, and that was Damion Schubert's "The Loner":
"This talk explores one of the more interesting puzzles of massively multiplayer game design: why do so many people choose to play these games alone? How should designers reach these customers? How important is solo play to games? Should game designers try to entice solo players to enjoy group mechanics like raiding, sieges or PvP? Or are MMOs destined to become 'massively single-player games'?"
I've known Damion (casually) for years, and I'm constantly impressed by his digging into the tougher (and/ or more important) game design challenges, with concrete takeaways. I don't like to summarize his talks, because theres so much rich content there. But I will anyway. Check out is blog,, for more of wisdom and wittyisms.

This talk was about the shift over the last five years in MMOs toward providing (really, requiring) solo play in addition to the "massive". He identified several types of "Loner" - both legitimate (personality type or good game design) and illegitimate (broken game states). Damion offered a large number of concrete design techniques that could help make great games (and avoid game-killing design mistakes)

Damion made an important observation that the "massive" is the differentiation for MMOs - "We can't compete in any other area". Despite this, it's not even an option to create an MMO without a solo aspect.

He also covered bits of psychology and usability -- like, many people don't want to learn publicly; but even more, they don't want to be embarrassed publicly.

Damion made some important real-world data analogies to MMO design (traffic, bars, casino design) that would serve game designers well to consider.

There are also gradations of solo players. Many people (like me) choose to play socially with friends, but solo if friends aren't online

Sociopaths, at their simplest, don't recognize social norms for the space they're in. But everyone who's new to a given MMO is a sociopath, until the designer explicitly trains them otherwise (you don't know the social norms for the new space until you're taught them, and they're ingrained). People who don't change or don't care need to be retrained, channeled, or booted.

From a game design perspective, being "a Loner" is OK; forced into being lonely is not, and is a borked game state.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

AGDC: Wizard101 - Lions and Tigers and Ninja Pigs, Oh My!

After a wicked busy (but productive) burst of partner and Customer meetings, I went to the post mortem for licensee KingsIsle's title, Wizard101 - "Wizard101 - Lions and Tigers and Ninja Pigs, Oh My!":
"In this post-mortem, WIZARD101 creator J. Todd Coleman discussed the challenges of making a kid-focused MMO, and the role of iterative design in discovering a games personality. How do you blend family-friendly characters, a cinematic combat system, and a collectible card game into a cohesive virtual world? Find out as the director discusses what worked (and what didn't) in KingsIsle's quest to introduce persistent world gaming to a new generation of gamers."
The game is tween MMO that runs lightweight on a PC, it's an 8 Mb download, and streams.

You might have seen the Game Developers Magazine article on the Wizard101 post mortem, but if you haven't, I encourage you to check it out.

One of the things I found particularly interesting from a planning / pre-production standpoint was their plan to create a game that had 3 areas of focus -- and if some 800-pound gorilla launched during their 3-year cycle, they would shift their focus to 1 or two of the other areas of focus. Very savvy from a risk-mitigation perspective.

What's Unique:
  • Personality (the game's got flavor)
  • Combat (card-based)
  • The World (The "spiral mechanic" - which allows for creation of oddly themed expansion worlds and side quests - is brilliant)
  • The story (At the same time, there is a single narrative thread-- as opposed to the typical MMO trope of multiple mini stories -- that keeps things cohesive
The game is ultimately about saving the world, with stark lines between good and evil, and each player is the hero.

Persistence? Respawning? Who cares? It's all about keeping it fun for the individual kid player.

The names in Wizard101 may be the greatest part of the game (Samoorai? Sherlock Bones? Meowriarty? Awesome.)

Combat is turn-based, cinematic, and uses a card collecting mechanic (the goal was approachable like Toontown, looks like Yu Gi O, plays like older Final Fantasy).

On the progression of the battle system, Coleman said they created a physical card game for focus testing with kids (sounds like they did a lot of focus testing throughout pre- and production). Next was a 2D prototype that let them further focus test the gameplay, and the AI. Then they did a canned cinematic to show how it would work together. Then they integrated everything.

What Went Right:
  • Scope - 30 people, and linear play made for needing less assets
  • Prototyping helped refine mechanics
  • Digital download/FTP mechanism for distribution
  • Minimum spec machine - Coleman asserts that kids get the lowest quality machine in a household; interestingly, he said this also enabled them to unexpectedly hit a chunk of the burgeoning netbook market
  • Steady, ongoing launch (as opposed to running up to a launch, getting big numbers, then dropping off sharply)
He showed comparative stats via that I'm going to have to dig into a bit more.

What Went Wrong:
  • Modular world building (bland, and the supposed re-use that drove the decision wasn't worth it)
  • Micropayment model (not enough variety at launch, not enough price points at launch)
  • Stats & Metrics ("too much is as bad as too little"; they had to many probes everywhere)
  • Design for growth (technology is scalable, but the design is not; this is due to things like using % for growth rather than absolute numbers, which causes problems when you need to raise your level cap)

There are social differences in a kids MMO - like for kids, everyone is a friend - but it's different (they'll friend you, but they won't socialize).

They offer a family pricing plan (Yay! Console service providers? Can you please do this?)

AGDC: Lead with Your Gut: How Courage and Common Sense Improve Efficiency

I had to duck out early for a partner meeting, but I wasn't going to miss an opportunity to catch any bits I could get from the AGDC session, "Lead with Your Gut: How Courage and Common Sense Improve Efficiency":
"This session provides insight into how studios can gain project efficiencies by communicating more effectively and engaging in constructive conflict. Using the trials and successes at Next Level Games, learn how efficiency drops and work gets derailed when people work in silos, don't communicate or 'assume' they know what's going on. Getting questions on the table at the beginning and throughout the project, along with planning for more face time, creates efficiencies that will reclaim hundreds of lost hours. Attendees will learn how common sense and the commitment to applying these principles consistently will put their team in a better position to turn out a superior product. It may sound simple, but if it was so easy, why isn't everyone doing it?"
Edoardo De Martin, Studio General Manager of Next Level Games, is an impressive fella. He was honest about his own experiences, shortcomings, and costs of genuine leadership (and the lack thereof).

He was a non-gaming leader poached into Black Box Games (then EA). Kudos to BB for recognizing talent outside the industry and hiring it into a senior position. Doesn't happen nearly enough.

Edoardo was actually going to leave the game industry and its burnout work ethos, until Next Level approached him -- and he said he wouldn't unless they did things differently.

This "differently" largely revolves around what Edoardo calls coaching, but not the touchy feely vapid non-coaching that tends to give the vocation and skill set a bad rap. What he described is akin to what I probably called mentoring leadership for the development teams I managed in past lives.

Other principals of his:
  • Avoid the "squish" (neither upper management or staff are happy with you) - naiive guys take it, but good leaders leave
  • Make then accountable (requires respect, integrity, constructive conflict, continuous learning)
  • Lead through action (have an idea? Act on it - quickly and consistently)
Edoardo reduced leadership in the games industry to business leadership (too often reduced/compartmentalized as producer) and creative leadership (same for game director) - which really requires purposeful conflicts to create genuine collaboration and work two very differnet leadership styles.

(Then I had to leave. So I didn't get all the "how to fix its". I need to call Edoardo.)

AGDC: The Universe Behind World of Warcraft

Day 2 of AGDC started with the Blizzard keynote, "The Universe Behind World of Warcraft":
"Design and implementation is only part of the process in running a massively multiplayer game. Maintaining the player base and achieving sustained growth requires a collective and consistent effort from numerous departments beyond the development team. This discussion will offer an in-depth look at the operational complexities of running a large-scale MMO, including some specific lessons Blizzard Entertainment has learned with World of Warcraft."
This was the third in a 3-year Blizzard series, starting 2 years ago with a design principles, followed up a year ago with the business side, and this year with the development and operational side. I've been at all 3. There should be an achievement for that.

Interestingly, the Warcraft team was working on now-defunct title, Nomad. Ithink I'd heard this before, but seeing the concept art again made me whistful for what might have been.

The talk revolved around detailed descriptions, charts, and numbers of all of the Blizzard WoW teams. While all of that is hugely interesting to me, more interesting is Blizzard's cultural principle of building the organization (and each department, and each team) around the individuals - not just slotting people into rigid org chart slots (no matter how often they may change).

I jotted down a bunch of the numbers and detailed org charts, and might post those later (maybe; that takes work). But the main takeaway is the structuring principle above, along with a recognition of the sheer complexity of the company which requires several discreet business units - which are uniquely organized, and appropriately (numbers-wise) staffed to successfully accomplish their charter.

And this was just about the Warcraft organization, Diablo and Starcraft have equivalent teams. One cool tidbit was the concept of strike teams from other game teams making sure game teams aren't getting too close to their game - at the game's expense.

And despite Blizzcon tickets being sold, the event operates at a significant loss - but to huge marketing gain.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

2009 Game Developers Conference Austin: Day 1

Another video, now that the Game Developers Conference Austin has kicked off?

Sure. Why not.

AGDC: Making an XBLA Game in 6 Months: A Splosion Man Postmortem

(Placeholder; full post coming when I get back to a PC.)

My final session of the day was "Making an XBLA Game in 6 Months: A Splosion Man Postmortem":

"Coming off the award-winning PC and Xbox Live Arcade title, THE MAW, Austin-based indie developer Twisted Pixel embarked on an unconventional XBLA title called SPLOSION MAN. In this in-depth postmortem, the lead programmer and lead designer look at how the splode-happy gameplay of the title evolved, including what went right and wrong during the project?s hyper-aggressive 6 month schedule, and lessons for indies wanting to make console downloadable games."

I'm a big fan of this game, so I was stoked to attend.

There were 4 full-time, 4 part-time people on the team for 6 months.

What went well: Iteration, Prototyping, Focus, Experience, and "One Level"

They had the game playable
The entire game is playable in the tools

"Ugly and quick"

Had room for only one in the schedule, so they chose "polish".

For milestones, they put harsh internal deadlines that were independent of the publisher milestones.

They made tough cuts (from 75 to 50 levels) prioritized, and (if necessary) re-prioritized.

Folks on the team were experienced, and people responded to that experience, check egos, and be open to criticism.

"One Level"
(Basically the vertical slice)

What went wrong
[I'll update this soon.]

AGDC: Emerging Trends in Gameplay: The Blurring Lines Between Casual And Hardcore

After a needed break from sessions for work meetings on the Exhibition floor, I ducked in to "AGDC: Emerging Trends in Gameplay: The Blurring Lines Between Casual And Hardcore":

"The line between what has traditionally been thought of as 'casual gamer' and 'hardcore gamer' has blurred considerably over the past few years, forcing developers to re-examine various gamer groups and their approach to marketing. Jon Radoff presents new behavioral gameplay data across multiple platforms and gamer groups, challenging the tired dichotomy of 'casual versus hardcore' and illustrating that gamers are more diverse than ever before. Providing analysis of current behavioral data, Jon will also help to answer the question of how to more effectively deliver and market a product to these various gamer groups."

While the info that the classification of games ("casual" versus "hardcore", etc.) isn't new news, Radoff had some great data, a la

While not a hardcore user, I've been on gamerDNA since I think the beginning, and I have been continuously impressed with their broad scope of intelligent data collection and data mining, and what they do with it (have you seen their Twitter heatmap?).

Radoff separated gamers into different segments for discussion, like social gamers. Play time for guild members in an MMO, for example, is far far higher than non-guild members. In addition, social gaming shows up in unexpected places (like Rock Band, as opposed to, say, Guitar Hero 3).

This resonates with me, because I'm a very social gamer. If I'm not playing a single-player title, I'm playing a multiplayer title because I want to touch-base with people -- to reconnect.

He also suggested breaking games into thematic segments, rather than gameplay types. His example was Bioshock, which should essentially have been a core game, but had play trends more akin to Rock Band interest.

His follow-on was each game has its own segmentation (social versus non-social, thematic tastes, brand-loyal and genre-loyal, competitive).

Radoff showed some great data for Halo 3 that is gold for biz dev, community management, and marketing folks. For example, DLC caused measurable spikes in player interest, but not as much among genre or franchise fans.

Interesting side tidbit: of the top 10 games also played by World of Warcraft players were Fallout 3 and Warhammer Online. Interestingly, Left4Dead consistently charted as a highly also-played among MMO players

Since 5/31/2009, Twitter has had a 7.6% weekly compound growth in tweets about games. That is phenomenal data. Just think about the analogy of a mutual fund.

AGDC: From Dragons and Daggers to Kart Racing, Cooking and Concerts...It's a Whole New MMO World

AGDC kicked off in earnest with the keynote, "From Dragons and Daggers to Kart Racing, Cooking and Concerts...It's a Whole New MMO World":

"In MMO development, companies can slip into habitual processes derived from targeting the same audience over and over. This session will explore Sony Online Entertainment's first tween/teen title, Free Realms, including market research, focus testing, business intelligence, online and retail distribution, and customer acquisition and retention strategies. Attendees will learn about the challenges and lessons learned when creating a full-blown MMO for kids together with a ground-breaking new business model; and how developers can re-educate their teams to move from stagnant and dated MMO design toward mass market success."

I like John Smedley - I think he's a sharp guy who's accomplished a ton for SOE and for the game industry (gamer gripes for Star Wars Galaxies aside).

To set context, Smedley shared some traditional MMO statistics (a la games like EverQuest) - like 33 is the average age of players, 85% are male, 15% are female, and SOE wanted to tap into more of the female / kid gamer market - thus birthing Free Realms, a free-to-play tween MMO, which represents a significant portion of SOE's new direction (DC Universe Online notwithstanding).

Free Realms is fascinating to me for a number of reasons.

First, I like the blue ocean(ish) aspirational aspect of the title.

Secondly, Smedley and a lot of the folks working on the game are family folks with kids, working to create a safe game that everyone can play. I appreciate they're working to keep it safe.

I like how serious SOE is about monetizing Free Realms as a free-to-play, genuine powerhouse of a worldwide brand, and paying attention to the significant differences in this gamer market.

To this end, they've really pushed formal usability testing (daily use of an on-campus focus testing lab, changing interfaces and user experience quickly to adapt to what the data indicates, etc.).

FR is a micro-transaction-based, with in-game items (clothes to pets to items that help your chosen profession, etc.), and I was surprised that they're doing back-end revenue share with retailers - which evidently is going very well. There is also in-game advertising, that seems to be tastefully handled, and largely within the Sony family.

There were also some compelling stats and anecdotes for the efficacy of TV ads for their target demographic.

Age breakdown of Free Realms players (to compare to traditional numbers above):
  • <13:51%
  • 13-17:29%
  • 18-24:12%
  • 25-34:5%
  • 35-44:2%
  • 45+:1%
Smedley could not emphasize enough how much data mining they do. Sounds like they're doing the business intelligence analysis to do something cool with it.

There's also some interesting gender data in the mining they've done. Boys and Girls are different. Shocking. (But not as shocking as those who pretend they're not. <flame/>)

AGDC: The Blurst of Times: How to Make a (Shader-Heavy, Physics-Based, 3D) Game in 8-Weeks

Heading back to the indie summit, I attended the very polished (and perhaps most important) session so far, "The Blurst of Times: How to Make a (Shader-Heavy, Physics-Based, 3D) Game in 8-Weeks":
"Matthew Wegner and Steve Swink of (Flashbang Studios) discuss how it is possible to create games like MINOTAUR CHINA SHOP and OFF-ROAD VELOCIRAPTOR SAFARI in an 8-week production cycle. You'll be surprised to learn that each Blurst game includes a two-week prototyping phase, multiple publicly playable beta versions, rigorous user testing, and detailed stat tracking and analysis. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that each game is produced with the team working 10am-3pm, Monday through Thursday. It's AAA game development in microcosm; each game is an experiment, both in production and design. Come reap the intellectual benefits of the results of's rapid fire approach."

The company is 6 people, and they, for example, spent 4 months on one of their bigger games, Jetpack Brontosaurus.

But this 8-week production cycle as the norm (goal?) is impressive, and is broken into 2-week prototyping, 5-week production, 1-week launch segments. That's a wicked little amount of time, and the company has to be laser-focused to make it.

Granted, you can arguably do quite a bit with a 6-person company, but there are principles that apply regardless of company size. (Think "The Four-Hour Work Week" or "The Cluetrain Manifesto".)

Flashbang Studios really seen to have a holistic attitude toward the company and employee quality of life (cross-fit memberships, etc.), a ridiculous amount of fun and respect, and (outside-in) seems to be the kind of company to which all companies should aspire. That may just be due to Wegner and Swink, but as a company's leadership goes, so goes the company.

Blurst puts a lot of emphasis on higher-level working efficiency, high-intensity work blocks.

They implemented 10:05-3:30, Monday-Thursday work days for 8-weeks, which created intense focus and productivity (Fridays are Google-style personal development days).

Along with this they recommend 48-minute time-boxing (not unique to them, but their discipline with them might be), Growl as a communication tool, real-time source control commits and notifications, company-wide stand-up meetings (with goals captured individually via custom Google widget and shared publicly, including how you do against them), pivotaltracker (which is rigidly Agile-based, but worked for them), an open office layout where everyone could talk to each other and collaborate instantly, etc. (they don't use bug reporting software, which is unique).

I had to leave the session early, which bums me out, so I hope to catch up with the guys at the show later.

(Blergh. This post doesn't capture the awesome of the session. Need to think how to do that.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

AGDC: Effective Marketing For Indie Game Developers

The final indie summit session I attended was "AGDC: Effective Marketing For Indie Game Developers":

"How do you use your own website, social networking channels (from Twitter
through IRC and beyond), independent editorial content, and even pre-release
versions of your tools to build a robust community around your game before it
even ships? Wolfire's COO, John Graham,
explains in depth how his company has been building momentum around PC indie
title Overgrowth, what has worked, and what hasn't."

This was a decent little session, though it's probably better couched as case study of a small (4-person?) indie studio figuring out what worked and what didn't, and how they used what works.

It was interesting, not least of which because it's an be an advocacy for a formal PR function within an indie environment.

Graham's a sharp guy, and it's impressive to see what the team has done to build buzz and put out useful content for their community. I'd really like to understand the details and timeline of their core business, technology, and game, to have context on how the PR maps to the reality of the project.

Someone needs to do an in-depth case study on there guys (they'd totally do it).

AGDC: How To Operate Your Indie Game Business - For Fun And Profit!

Finally breaking free from the toy job shenanigans (don't get me wrong, I'm grateful), I gave the independent games summit again - glad I did.

The session was "How To Operate Your Indie Game Business - For Fun And Profit!":

"One of the most stable indies out there, Ninjabee has made a large number of very diverse games for digital download. They?ve released games from CLONING CLYDE to A KINGDOM FOR KEFLINGS. These games were developed for XLA, WiiWare, PC, and iPhone. The down-to-earth Fox, talks about how NinjaBee can maintain the creative indie edge and still stay in business. He discusses how they handle contracting vs. self-funded games and compares development and success on various platforms. Hear tips and tricks on pitching your games to publishers or getting them approved from gatekeepers like Microsoft for XLA and much more on practical matters of interest to every indie game developer."

Brent Fox, from NinjaBee / Wahoo Studios, was a wealth of knowledge.

Starting out in weird way -- talking about the employees, all of their young kids, their need for insurance -- had a purpose. There is a higher need (speaking from experience, sometimes desperation) to provide for families that forces a company to run itself like a business and drive to profitability faster than what indie studios of a bunch of single folks might do. The game industry has been slowly moving this direction as the workforce matures, any way. Slowly.

(Blergh. The rest of this post has been deleted. I'll try to find it or reconstruct it from my notes.)

AGDC: The Super Heroes' Journey: Storytelling in MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 2

Taking a selfish break from the business tracks to feed my internal fanboy with "The Super Heroes' Journey: Storytelling in MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 2", which comes out today:

"Building a strong narrative for video gaming's largest army of super heroes
requires a unique fusion of writing techniques, tools, and production
strategies. Join Lead Writer Evan Skolnick and Narrative Designer, Jonathan
Mintz, as they take a deep dive into storytelling for a modern, large-scale
Action RPG. You'll learn how they worked with the team to plan the narrative,
develop the game's characters and world, and integrate story with gameplay
They'll share best practices for creating and organizing the wealth of content
that modern games require - along with some hard-earned tips about pitfalls to

I wanted to attend this session not just because I'm a franchise fan. I was curious how the team was going to tighten the gameplay and cutscene storytelling depending on who you pick for your teams (a challenge in the first title), while ratcheting up the mechanics (a la the fusion mechanic) and maturity level, complexity, and player choice and cost.

Secondly (and work-related), I was curious as to how the narrative design informed the tools and production pipeline (more on that later).

Evan Skolnick, lead writer, and Jonathan Mintz, Narrative Designer were the session speakers, and did a stellar job of speaking, keeping content moving, and answering questions.

Vicarious Visions had a roughly 120-person development team for the project, which took
2.5 years to make, and adapted Disney's Marvel's "Secret War" and "Civil War" arcs.

It sounds like VV and Marvel did a good job of adapting Marvel's "What If" trope to the stories, and have better represented the two sides of conflicts so that no one's "wrong" and the player can honestly "choose a side".

VV has done some smart stuff with handling in-game conversations, and I really dig in concept the implementation of their dialog tree.

I had a pretty good sense of what the Narrative Designer's role was, based on conversations with Jonathan after MUA1, but the team has really refined the role, and genuinely leveraged the Narrative Designer and Lead Writer roles in a collaborative division of labor whose sum was greater than the parts.

On the tools side, they created an Excel tool for the Writing Workbook, for the mission designer, lead writer, and narrative designer. More than just a project plan, this has a very slick multi-purpose XML output, used to create text-to-speech placeholder audio, VO scripts, gameplay pacing, descriptive text cues, etc. Very nice process.

They also used that data to prioritize mission scope, complexity, and features to avoid headaches (or at least as many). Coming out of a formal requirements background, I was impressed with their application of prioritization to mission structure.

Surprisingly, there was a very nice mini-post mortem as part of the presentation -- very cool, given the game shipped today.

Aside -- I also got to chat with DB Cooper, one of the best voice over professionals in the business (and one of the most accessible and gracious), and AGDC is one of the places I get to see her in person each year. She's good peoples. Even better to run into her since a con call made me miss her session (damn you, toy job that keeps me employed!).

AGDC: The Bit.Trip Series: Holistic Indie Console Game Design

After a brief intro of the whys and wherefores of the Independent Game Festival and related Independent Games Summit, the summit kicked off with Gaijin Games Mike Roush's session, "AGDC: The BitTrip Series: Holistic Indie Console Game Design":

"Having created the Bit.Trip series for WiiWare to significant acclaim, Gaijin
Games has melded retro game design aesthetics with a unified, holistic-feeling
style to create games with a special feel. In this design talk, Gaijin Games'
Art Director Mike Roush discusses how they created the retro-infused series,
giving tips on standing out on WiiWare and how to intelligently mine classic
gaming for a unique look."

I use "kicked off", but it more like shuffled along.

I like Gaijin Games and those folks (and what they've accomplished), but Roush is pretty relaxed, which isn't the best for an early morning game development talk (hey, it was also his first presentation of the type, so he gets a lot of slack).

The talk boiled down to leveraging all parts of a team (art, design, programming) as joint stakeholders in pre- and production to make a high-caliber indie game in 3 months (impressive).

The talk was too light on actionable details, but Q&A opened things up a bit -- like a little more process detail as to how the team resolves collaborative deadlock (domain experts can trump in their areas). Etc.

AGDC: The New Indie Hotness

Next up was "The New Indie Hotness", from Offworld's Brandon Boyer:

"Want to know what?s sparklingly new and fantastic in the world of independent games? Using his sekrit underground contacts, Indie Games Summit Austin board member Brandon Boyer (Offworld) will look at the top technical and gameplay trends out there, with plenty of audiovisual reference to games and experiments that enchant or confound."

The session revolved around Boyer playing various indie games (Spelunky, Glum Buster,Alpinist, Time Donkey, Captain Forever, Tuning), and taking about why they are significant.

I'm a big fan of indie titles, but this session was tedious. It would have been better served with pre-packaged video and narrative explanation ("Spelunky is significant because of it's procedurally generated levels").

I am glad Boyer showed titles like Time Donkey, to show the diversity and ambition in indie game development. Also, the indie community needs to get the attention of publishers, and the diversity, adoption, and demonstrative community excitement is key to that.

It was very cool to see Cactus's not-yet-released new platformer, Tuning.

As a very cool surprise, Polytron's new title, Fez, was demoed for the first time. It's a 2D/3D platformer, with a game story concept similar to the classic book, "Flatland". Very slick, innovative game mechanics.

Monday, September 14, 2009

2009 Game Developers Conference Austin

I'm in my home stomping grounds of Texas for the Game Developers Conference Austin.

Rather than spend words on it, here's a half-a$$ed video intro to the week. I'm hoping to do several travelog / videolog entries this week, but things are so crazy busy with meetings, this intro may stand as the pathetic, orphaned intro to the series that never was.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Emergent updates

I'm gearing up for the Game Developers Conference in Austin (I'm in TX now), prepping presentations for new stuff that's coming down the pipe for stuff from the company.

Catch up with us while we're in the Capital City, and contact me if you need to.

A few new games are out (or will be relatively soon).

Hidden Path Entertainment's Defense Grid: The Awakening, out for a while on Steam, is now out on XBLA. I've fawned about (on?) this game before, and it's now doing well on Microsoft's service, too.

Monkey Labs is a new educational video game from Larian Studios -- the same folks making Divine Divinity 2: Ego Draconis. I so dig the diversity of this studio, building a top-tier RPG and the next generation of edutainment titles.

While not new, Wizard101, from KingsIsle Entertainment, Inc., is doing wicked well, and seems to be everywhere. This multi-age MMO is celebrating a year, touting millions of users, has a post mortem in this month's Game Developer Magazine, and is doing a session or two at GDC Austin.

That's good for now. Catch up with me in Austin if you can.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

360 and PS3 go (commercially) head-to-head

(Or maybe it's toe-to-toe.)

Regardless, while a lot of GDC Europe and Gamescom did not float my boat (and Microsoft's presser certainly didn't), I am excited by the recent Sony / Microsoft tête-à-tête.

What tête-à-tête, you may ask?

Why, the $299 PS3 "Don't - call - me - 'Slim' - 'cause - Sony - says - it's - just - the - new - PS3", and the $299 Xbox 360 Elite.

So, now, both consoles have a 120Gb hard drive, both have HDMI, both are at the same price.

Now things are getting interesting.

The new Ps3 "not-slim" is smaller than the original PS3. But it doesn't have backwards compatability (which the 360 does for a boatload of titles, along with full game downloads). Online play is free for Sony-ites via its online service (PSN), whereas Xbox 360 charges $50 a year for access to Xbox Live (but you get a lot more content for that fifty bucks, so arguably you get what you pay for).

The PS3 has built-in Blu-ray support, and the 360's HD-DVD add-on is a dead goat (or something). But Xbox has streaming Netflix exclusivity, which is huge for me (and it has Netflix party, but in it's current state, I call a negative).

Microsoft has (for me) way more compelling arcade titles, and I like their indie games marketplace (though the crap to more-like-gold ratio is high). Sony is getting ready to launch "minis", which sound like cheap(ish), polished short-attention-span-theater-style games (which sounds great). But those are likely just PSP.

Sony looks like they're offering just the $299 version as a single SKU offering; Microsoft has both the Elite at $299, and the Arcade at $199 (which is cheaper than the Wii).

So ... does this change anything for you? Sway you one way or another? PS3 because of the new, smaller (not slimmer) form factor? Xbox 360 because the Elite is now $299?

Let me know in the comments. Though things could get more interesting. Microsoft's got more levers (what if they made Xbox Live cheaper? Free?). Sony could actually do something on their box (media wise) with all of the film, audio, and distribution studios and companies they own.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum ships Tuesday (tomorrow), and since it looks like the best Batman video game since …*, it feels like I should call it out, and in particular, this deal from Toys “R” Us.

While buying the title at TRU gets common folk a $20 gift card, Rewards “R” Us Members get a $30 gift card instead -- if you are a member and pick up the game between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. tomorrow (which is also Tuesday). The program is free, and you can enroll here.

TRU is also doing “buy one, get one half off” on Wii and DS titles this week. So, if you’re a mixed household, you could get Batman, then 6 hours later use your $30 for Imaginz Paramedics and Imaginz Emergency Intubation (caveat: these are not really games; yet).

As an FYI, if you buy Batman at Best Buy, you get a DVD two pack of Batman the Animated Series movies (Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero and Mask of the Phantasm). I … may already own these.

If you go this route, check the videos carefully. It's probably fine, but I've done these DVD offers in the past, and passed on them because the two-pack versions didn't have the special features (interviews with Bruce Timm, voice sessions, etc.) that really made the purchases valuable for me.

* To be fair, 1989’s Batman: The Caped Crusader on the Atari ST and Amiga was really good. It was probably published by Ocean Software and/or Data East, depending on the platform. It's been a long time.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Gamescon 2009


The toy job has got me wicked behind, so despite working in the game industry, I haven't been able to do my normal pre-event post.

This week is GDC Europe and Gamescon 2009 -- check to the left for industry links (in the case of; blogger trope from Kotaku and Joystiq).

The skinny is Gamescon was Leipzig, and looks to be a big ol' show.

From a gamer perspective, expect a ton of new videos, announcements, and demos on the various console download services.

From a biz perspective, I expect some new partnerships, hopefully more info about Natal and other tech, and maaaybe some disruptive announcements. Maybe.

Emergent will be there in force (but not me; sorry). Check us out, and let me know if you need to set up a meeting.

More later.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's Midway doing next

So, Warner Bros. has bought the once-great Midway.

Which begs the question -- what will Midway do next?

Part of me hopes they'll be working on "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" games. Only because I think it would be funny if the house that built Mortal Kombat built "The Bachelorette".

With Fatalities.

(Funny ha ha.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Comic-Con 2009 (the games)

Comic-Con is arguably the meca of all things pop-culture (far more than "just" comics), and just like the last few years running, video games will be huge this year.

Links to the Comic-Con goodness from at least a few sites are to the left (including the listing of games-related panels and happenings), and below are some of the things I care in particular about.

Stan Lee is going to be in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 ("MUA2", which, to review, I'm phoneticizing as "m-oo-ah-tu"; Marvelites get the gag). It's about time Mr. Lee was in a game. Dude rocks. 86, and far more interesting than Hugh Hefner. I'm a big fan of the first game, too. There's a panel. Mr. Lee will now be on said panel.

The Iron Man 2 game will have an original script from Matt Fraction, current Invincible Iron Man scribe (and a writer I like), so it's not going to be locked into the movie. And it sounds like they've learned from some of the gaffs in the first game. SEGA will be showing other stuff, with only Bayonetta currently getting me excited (review: hair suit, not hirsute).

As far as more Marvel, be sure to check out the panel on Sunday: "Marvel: The Next Generation of Marvel Video Games: Ultimate Alliance 2, Super Hero Squad, and Iron Man 2". Nice guy Chris Baker will be moderating, and cool producer dude Todd "TQ" Jefferson will be on the panel. Super Hero Squad is a brilliant expression of the Marvel U., this upcoming Wii game looks to be an accessible brawler blast, and I'm working through my anger issues of not having been auditioned for the project. I'm just saying ...

I'm curious about Capcom's Spyborgs game. Sounds like they did a re-tooling, and it sounds compelling.

Electronic Arts is bringing a boatload o' titles to the con. I'm particularly interested in whether they can pull of Dante's Inferno (next up, The Ten Commandments the Movie the Game), and there's a panel. I think Dead Space Extraction (Zorsis's baby) may be a fantastic example of how to take a next-gen title onto the Wii (oh, and there's panel).

Astro Boy is a licensed game based on the movie that I hope does justice to the franchise, but it's being done by High Voltage Software, who -- since they did Hunter: The Reckoning on the original Xbox for me (yes, I'm saying it was for me) -- will always get my vote of confidence.

LucasArts will be making a number of "World Exclusive Announcements" (thank goodness, because the "Local Exclusive Announcements" are lame) at the convention, and while some people already know what they are, let's wait for the announcements, shall we? PR people gotta eat, folks.

Microsoft will be making an waves with an unannounced project at the (for them) atypical venue. I have hopes. I have wishes. I have knowledge. And, dammit, I have to sit on my lips.

Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2) -- I'm sure -- will not disappoint. I'm hoping Valve shows something that shuts up the "this game is coming out too soon after L4D1 so why can't it be DLC" whiners. Oh no, quick follow-ups to time-sucking great games! Whatever shall I do?

There's a "What's next" session for the Halo franchise, and it'd be refreshing if there was some genuine information, but I'm thinking this may feel like a sponsored session talking about how much money they're making from current franchise milking.

There's a "Writing for the Computer Gaming Industry" panel, but Susan O'Connor's not on it, so I bite my thumb at them.

Capcom has a panel about their games, and they have another panel -- "Capcom: Fighting Games". They have two panels. There is a panel just about Capcom's particular fighting games. We've reached that level of granularity at the cons. Discuss. (Oh, and there's a third panel, just for Lost Planet 2, which I would attend if I could, to see what they say / show for the Multi-Target 2 engine. Oh, and another another Capcom panel about how to break into the game industry. Sheesh, who's Capcom snuggling up to?)

I want the game industry to get out of its bubble and learn more from other industries. The "State of the Animation Industry" session is one such area of discussion from which we could benefit.

"Beyond the Gaming Medium" shows what the more creative folks can do to create new opportunities inspired by or spun off from games.

The "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" panel is going cover the franchise spectrum, including games. They should so show the Vanilla Ice clip, and say absolutely nothing about it. Eastman (but not Laird) will be there.

Dynamite is doing a panel, and I suspect BOOM! Studios will be lighting it up, too. I'm a big fan of scrappy little comic publishing studios made big, and I'm watching these two guys to see when they move their licensed and original IP into games. It's happening.

Will there be a new Darkness video game? The Top Cow panel makes it sounds like there will be, but let's wait and see if they're just lumping in past and future projects in the abstract.

Gears of War is a franchise, and between panels and announcements, we'll likely hear more on the great game, jury's-out movie, and "ok" comic book.

Other things?

Oh, there will be slave Leias at the con. Dozens of them. Money on it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Upcoming games (now through September)

People ask me for advice on buying games. Sounds like a dicey prospect, because game taste is like music taste -- mine isn't yours.

That said, I am excited for a number of upcoming titles on multiple platforms, for a bunch of different reasons. Maybe some of those reasons match yours.

I'm just going to list through September, because there are a bunch of titles, and I want to do a follow-on holiday buying guide later.

Below are my brief lenses for my games excitement.

Professional: From the toy job perspective (game engine and tools product manager), I'm looking forward to a number of titles from my licensees on the PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii. Many of those I can't yet talk about (bummer), but I'm looking forward to a big ol' "boo-yah!" when I can.

Armchair analyst: As an armchair analyst, I think there are some games that will make some commercial or artistic waves, and hopefully push the market forward a bit.

Gamer: And as a gamer (and personally playing on the 360, Wii, and NDS), I've got a bunch of titles competing for my ill-managed discretionary cash.

Check out the list below. They're roughly in chronological release order, but dates may change, I'm not the publisher driving the title's release, I'm probably missing some big ones, blah blah blah.

And be sure to use the comments section to tell me titles to which you're looking forward.

Monkey Island: Special Edition
-- Have you not played this classic? Well, LucasArts is milking its back catalog, and its back-catalog rocks. Pick up this re-imagined gem on XBLA, and fall in love with the adventure genre all over again.

Tales of Monkey Island Chapter 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal (PC, Wii) -- I sooo hope this comes to XBLA (rumblings say yes), but a new episodic franchise based on the famed original? Done.

BioShock & The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Bundle (360, PC) -- Do you not own these two great titles? Stop reading, go out and pick up this $30 two-fer pack (wait for it ...) right now. Why are you still here?

Bust-A-Move Plus! (Wii) -- Make fun of me if you want, but Bust-A-Move is an IP favorite of mine. I'm looking forward to this title for mindless, frustrating, puzzling.

Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do to Deserve This? (PSP) --Letting handheld players build their own levels is a dicey prospect, but if it's pulled off right, the mechanic and the art and humor style of this could be a platform-seller.

Marvel VS Capcom 2 (360, PS3) --OK, so it's not so much a re-imagining as a re-release, but this 2D fighting XBLA release brings one of my favorite Xbox titles back, and I'm looking forward to getting my tail kicked by twelve-year-olds while I dutifully espouse the merits of Captain America and patriotism.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled (360) -- This re-imagining of the TMNT arcade cabinet (not the SNES version with the additional content) looks wicked slick. If you picked up the previous XBLA release for peanuts on Amazon recently, you shouldn't feel too angry about paying for this new, slickly skinned version. This is part of Microsoft's "Summer of Arcade", which could be subtitled, "The Summer of Wicked Expensive XBLA Titles", but at least they're quality wicked expensive XBLA titles.

The King of Fighters XII (PS3, 360) -- Fanboy franchise power in another high-caliber fighter; I'm curious to see the final units numbers.

Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta (360, PC) -- I've resigned myself to the fact I'll be playing Fallout 3 forever. More content equals more playing. Anytime I don't know what to play, I put in Fallout. And now I'm going to go off-world. Suh-weet.

Wolfenstein (PC, 360, PS3) -- I *heart* the classic forebearer of the FPS, and now that BJ's back, I'm going to be blasting. Not just for the name of the hero, but because the shroud mechanic sounds cool.

Phantom Brave: We Meet Again (Wii) -- The title that arguably busted open the strategy RPG is finally coming to the Wii, enhanced and expanded (more story, different UI, updated graphics, and new characters/ inventory swag / skills).

Batman: Arkham Asylum (X360, PS3, PC) -- I am a comic book fan; one hoping for the first Batman game that doesn't make me angry. This combo stealth actioner may finally be it. I'm worried its "Teen" rating my undercut the edge, but we'll see.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (DS) -- A co-worker got me into Curious Village recently, and now I can't wait for all of the titles in the franchise. Think beautiful, (non-stereotyped) Japanese animation puzzler on the DS, and you're part way to the awesome.

Metroid Prime Trilogy (Wii) -- All three Wii Metroid titles in one place, with the excellent control scheme from the third game brought back to the first two. It's in my Amazon wish list, so buy it for me.

Bayonetta (PS3, 360) -- Here's an over-the-top third-person actioner that has a new level of WTF written all over it. It's stylistic, seems to make no sense, vids make it look buttery polished already, and I dig that heroine's hair suit is not because she's hirsute (the first is kind of sexy; the second most definitely would not be).

Mini Ninjas (360, PS3, Wii, DS) -- Awe, cute mini ninjas, anthropomorphism, a Samurai Jack vibe, and the fact that ninjas are cooler than pirates? Arr, that's gold, that is.

NHL 10 (PS3, 360) -- I'm a hockey fan. It's off-season. So, normally I'm sad, but Electronic Arts and 2K Sports are duking it out for the most fantastic hockey treatment, and I win.

NHL 2K10 (360, PS3, Wii, PS2) -- I'm a hockey fan. It's off-season. So, normally I'm sad, but 2K Sports and Electronic Arts are duking it out for the most fantastic hockey treatment, and I win. I think 2K will win on the Wii and PS2 fronts.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 (360, PS3, PS2, Wii, PSP, DS) -- Loved the first game, and the second will hopefully be even more polished. I am nervous Raven's not at the helm, but Vicarious Visions did a ton on the first game, so the second is probably in great hands (looks like the CGI cut-scene budget is smaller, this time around, though). Plus some folks at Marvel have promised me this game is going to rock. They promised.

Scribblenauts (DS) -- Hrm. "Puzzle platformer game with 200 levels" doesn't quite do this justice. You write words. The words become objects. You use the objects to move around the levels and solve puzzles. Oh, yes you do.

The Witcher: Rise of the White Wolf (360 PS3) -- I hear bad rumblings this has been canceled. I hope not. A grown-up RPG on the consoles? Freaking finally.

Halo 3: ODST (360) -- Yeah, I can not get away from how much I am a Halo fan. While my clans have sickened me on Halo 2 (I bought a 360 for a reason), Forge and 4-player co-op keep me coming back to Halo 3, and ODST looks to have a fun game mechanic (innovative flashbacks), great story, more maps for Halo 3, a cool firefight game mode, and a beta key for Bungie's mysterious Reach project. And Peter David is writing the ODST comic book commercial suck tie-in, so I'm set.

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (DS) -- Single and multiplayer franchise expansion to the DS. Sqeenix plus Disney. Roxas and Axel as playable. Yippee.

Borderlands (360, PC, PS3) -- Teased for so long, with a recent shiny new coat of paint, I have worked hard not to lose interest in this one. Gearbox has earned their place in the industry, so I'll likely pick up this game just to vote with my dollars as to how to do it right, and I'm guessing the game will live up to the studio that made it.

Alright -- that's the list for now. Now comment, dammit!

Hey, I just realized no one ever sends me review titles anymore -- What up with that?

Maybe it's because I moved, and they don't have my new address ...