Develop Conference 2010, Day One (Part 1)

July 13, 2010

So today I attended the Evolve day of Develop 2010 and I honestly wasn’t sure what I was going to take away from this. I haven’t exactly embraced the sorts of changes or games that the day was devoted to, but was pleasantly surprised by how much I felt was worth noting down.

SESSION 1 (KEYNOTE): Traditional Games Breaking into Social Networks – Louis Castle

He spends some time talking about how the Internet has disrupted traditional business’, we’re all pretty familiar with this so I probably needn’t go into details. The big example that comes to mind is those old encyclopedia books, massive great big collections that parents used to spend a small fortune on in order to pretend that their children would learn something by their mere existence. But then encyclopedias were released on CDs that were far cheaper, sure the content was probably less accurate or peer reviewed but cheap is cheap and suddenly that old business model of selling big books people often didn’t use seemingly dissapeared overnight (Yes, this is CDs/multimedia doing the disrupting here rather than the Internet).

Here’s what’s interesting though – the claim is made that “direct downloads fails to disrupt”. Why? Well, the process for buying goods is broken down:

Bricks & Mortar: Learn about product -> pay first -> wait -> sample

There’s exceptions here, I think, downloadable demo’s & reviews can assist, but not everyone tries demo releases (Assuming one is available) and there’s unfortunately a certain amount of distrust about reviews (that says more about the people reading the reviews than the reviews themselves in my opinion). Curiously, in theory direct downloads should solve this, but they don’t in practice, all it does is remove the go to the shops element of retail purchases – an improvement sure, but not much more. Anyone remember trying to play Half-Life 2 on Steam back when it was released? They tried something pretty clever there, you could play the game whilst it was still downloading content for later on in the game, but it didn’t quite work, for me at least, the game would pause to download an audio file or something it needed which broke the experience in all sorts of unpleasant ways.

Louis claims the future lies in something more like this:

Discover & Share -> Free -> Play

The idea core to this is that people can try the game, discover they like it and because it’s free they can evangelise the game to friends (etc) who can also try it. After this point though it gets a little bit sticky in a ‘how do we make money from this?’ sort of way. Louis is clear that he doesn’t believe he has the solution but is working towards it at least, he also alludes to something he’d hoped was announced by now, but it isn’t and thus cannot talk about it (NDAs suck).

Also key is the idea of having a thin client, I’ve kind of lost track of what that specifically refers to, but I think it went along the lines of not being a pain to use, anything you want to try should be easy & quick to do (including downloading the game), anything that delays the ‘try’ part of the equation will damage the parts after it.

Abstraction layers don’t work, virtual machines = poor performance.

Everytime you ask for a click on something online, you lose people. Even just a dialogue box with ‘ok’ on it will lose users. If your user is looking for a game, chances are they don’t want that game to be hard work (within reason).

(Personal note not explicitly stated, but inferred – Give customers things that make them WANT to pay for a game, the note was written whilst some chatter was going on about piracy and so on, Luois also mentioned he believes that large data storage devices being released for the consoles will lead to a surge in piracy on those platforms).

SESSION 2: 5 Things Big Publishers Don’t Understand About Small Games – Sean Murray, Hello Games (released Joe Danger)

Some pretty interesting stuff here from the outset, Sean explains that as a programmer, numbers are naturally his thing so he discusses his research into sales figures for small digital download games like Joe Danger. Naturally, as publishers generally embargo sales data on these sorts of games (On games generally as far as I can tell, unless it’s major bragging material – hey look at us, we sold 5 million copies of Generic Shooter 59, aren’t we great!) he went to pains to make clear there’s a little room for doubt, but that he’s done his best to filter out any figures he percieved as unreliable or dubious.

We’re actually given two sets of numbers, the first is the full set of his percieved reliable data which came out as 47% sell less than 25k units, 21% around 100k, 13% around 200k and 17% sell more than 200k units. He then makes clear that these numbers are being skewed by old IP re-releases and that with those factored out, the numbers come out as: 77% less than 25k units, 11% up to 100k, 12% up to 200k.

He briefly mentions the cost of developing this game could be (simplification alert) summed up as:

(beans & toast) x 4 developers x 365 days in a year x 2 years dev time

He later jokes that 4 people eating beans & toast in a small room together is probably going to be a bit, uh, whiffy, but you can see what he’s getting at, no extravagances, keep the dev costs as small/streamlined as possible so you’re more attractive to publishers with some spare change to spend on your project. Then with any luck, for your next game, you can be eating Tesco’ finest beans on toast for the next project.

There’s discussion of taking ownership of your work (editors note, that might be taking ownership of IP, I umm, forget). Remember that as a small studio of 4 people you can adapt far more than the big boys.

He talks about why he thinks publishers might be putting out lower quality titles than you might expect:

Publishers possibly not spotting good titles? Developer interference? Dev losing ownership (Perhaps by that he means having your precious taken away from you) and publishers overwhelming tiny studios (presumably with the processes that larger developers can sustain, particularly ones that have multiple projects on the go that can survive say, a change of management at a publisher that gets your project canned by default). He mentions the Uno effect, that for a time, after Uno managed to sell 1 mil units (Brief temptation to do an Austin Powers joke supressed) publishers were all about trying to do card based games. Just one problem, the success of Uno was skewed by it being given away free with one of the 360 SKU’ releases and gamepads don’t necessarily make for a good way of interacting with virtual cards.

The speaker makes clear that you should connect with grass roots, that when the market is small you should effectively sell your game one copy at a time, each sale is valuable. He mentioned how awful an experience game shows are for trying games, you’re stuck in a queue for the big releases and your so concious of the queue behind you (I’m British, I know ALL about queues and a small amount about pool cues) that you only get 5 minutes with the game before you’re throwing the controller down. Conversely, with the indie stalls around the edges, you can get 30 minutes with someone and really get to see and enjoy the game (if it’s fun, of course) and that’s pretty useful when you’re a small independent.

Risk everything! he says, downloadable games need word of mouth to thrive and playing safe is unlikely to generate word of mouth except possibly the negative kind (“Oh look, another shooter, we need more of those!”). You could argue that the idea behind I maed a game with Zombies in it was a silly risky idea that shouldn’t have caught on, but I, who only owns a PC & Wii (for the moment) have heard about it because it got evangelised by fellow students last year. Take risks – you’ll stand out amongst the competition that is scared to take risks.

He gives a comparison to skyscrapers (No, wait, this is clever), that publishers build big skyscrapers and because of the complexity you need really strong well thought out plans for how to build the skyscraper. The publishers want proof that you can build that skyscraper and if you don’t have the game yet then you’re reliant on the plans to get across to the publisher that you’ve mitigated any serious risks (like bad technology, process management, anything that could gets into unsung hero territory (I’m paraphrasing extensively now, be advised)). Conversely, the small indie houses aren’t run of the mill everyday things (you could probably argue that many building projects for houses are also large, plots of houses rather than a single house and something wacky for a single house has more chance of being taken on).

Joe Danger broke even on release day, it sold 50k units in the first week. Q&A revealed they paid for QA, localisation, certification & other things as well.

SESSION 3: Panel: Forget Dragon’s Den: What Venture Capital Really Means For You

First comment that came up, Dragons Den is a terrible show, it’s more about making innovators look bad and stupid and mock-worthy than about actually good investment. That’s not in my notes, I just liked that comment enough that it stuck in my brain.

Likes: Online mobile, equity, multiple distribution points.

The multiple distribution points thing came up in later sessions, take iPhones for an example, if you only make games for an iPhone and Apple decide they don’t like your app, your screwed. It’s a risk factor that should be minimised, solution? You should also be releasing on other phones, heck, maybe on non-mobile platforms too, if it increases the chances of earning lots of cash.

Dislikes – 1 game companies are considered a risk, so, like how they prefer a company that is making a game for several platforms, they’d like a company making several games as well (Hmm, you could think of it as say, Hello Games 4 man team, but three sets of them each making a different game together. They can colaborate with any large issues too). There’s also a dislike for long term developments, not so much because long dev times are inherently bad, but because it delays the return on the investment – the sooner you can get the first wave of users and start growing the product/business as part of the business/product plan, the better. I think this is covered by the phrase ‘traction’ if I’ve taken this session on board correctly.

There’s a like for a 4 to 10 times growth equity/return on investment (Sorry, I’m actually a little lost on that sentence).

Apparently you should never admit to owning a company car whilst talking to venture capitalists. Didn’t really elaborate on why, but I’d assume it suggests you’re more interested in style than in actually making a desirable product.

If you plan to have multiple waves of bringing in venture capital and you don’t meet the goals you set out following the first wave, you’ll have trouble getting further investment on the second wave.

They made it clear that being reliant on one company is unattractive to an investor. I’m tempted to reach for Apple as the obvious one with the iPhone, but it works in other ways, for example if you’ve outsourced your art and it comes back less than great, do you have anyone else lined up to pick up the pieces? (Sometimes outsource ‘test work’ is done by the outsourcers best staff, but the bulk of the work is done by other people who might not be as talented or have screwed up processes/pipeline).

If you can get traction/initial users without venture capital funding, do it, it’ll reflect well on you if you later need VC to fund growth.

It’s not necessarily all traction traction traction though, ‘cash’ is a route. With this, you need to be able to make clear that you’ve identified a major weakness, a broken system or perhaps a niche. And by solving that broken something you’ll generate cash in the process. Take MMORPGs for instance, lots of people were chasing those, what about other kinds of MMO?

They like social games, the reasoning being that the social interactions can lead to more people playing the game who are joining a community of like minded players of the game (etc). Basically, this reduces the risk of not getting good growth of players, of course, that won’t prevent a bad game from beind a bad game, just thought I’d throw that in.

Try to find VCs who are knowledgeable about the sector your in and read up on it, they might not fund your game themselves, but they might meet someone at a networking event looking for investing opportunities and could point them your way. Worth thinking about, eh?

SESSION 4: Games as a service: Do you realy know what it means? – Thomas Bidaux

This session was largely about how it’s sometimes overlooked that the game experience also exists outside the game. Is the installation of the game good for the experience?  So, for example, and I’m just throwing this out there, does the installer start playing music and you can’t turn it off, and it’s loading the music from the disc whilst the game is being installed from the disc and oops I’ve just broken the monitor from sheer rage (Ok, not really). It’s like phoning up tech support and being stuck in a line, that wait line is rage inducing, I feel a great deal of sympathy for call centre staff with long wait lines, because they must surely have to deal with much angrier customers than is otherwise necessary.

Back on topic, Thomas talks about definitions of a service and how it varies, he mentions how it involves account management (which should have easy account creation, remember the note above about how each click can lose you users?). So think of e-mail versus a username, an e-mail address which a person uses regularly, is far easier to remember than an account ‘name’ (Conversely, it might be less secure I suspect).

You should only ask for information you really need and if you can prefill information so the user only needs to correct it if wrong, that’s great. For instance, you can guess the users location by IP address, but still allow them to change it. Always allow the user to update their details if they need to do it as part of account control (etc).

If your user has to waste time on forms, maybe they should be rewarded for doing so.

If you decide to have trial accounts, be very careful about what limits they have when interacting with paid users, you don’t want the people getting in free to put off your paid customers, obviously.

He then goes onto localisation, good localisation isn’t much more expensive than bad, good localisation buys you a lot of good will with non-english speaking users (They might then evangelise the game for you, for instance I’ve seen MMOGs with a guilds for French, Russian, German, Polish, etc – It’s especially valuable in online games with repeat purchases like a subscription scheme or microtransactions).

You should design/code for localisation, integrated with the content creation process. Work with vendors sooner rather than later and localise everything – in world billboards, random signage, menus, etc. etc. etc. If the game allows for speaking French but it’s not supported in the account management screen, you might lose sales. The ultimate goal is user comfort regardless of the language – you don’t want anything in your game that stops the player enjoying the game.

Localisation can break the game, if you update a quest saying you need to kill 15 boars instead of 10 in English and no other language, you’re going to have a lot of confused non-English speakers banging on your forum doors.

Short on cash? Consider openning localisation to the community, bonus points of you reward them in-game for doing so. You need to be able to trust your players in order to do this though.

The more payment methods/systems you have, the better, I recently experienced lots of problems getting the hotel wireless billing system to work, it didn’t want to accept my credit cards by itself, I tried through paypal as the payment method, nope, eventually I walked over to a different hotel, bought two £10 pound vouchers and get one of them turned into a £20 week long voucher through the tech support. If they didn’t have the voucher method, I might not have bought wireless access at all. (I would also be clinically insane a day later).

The big caveat is that more payment methods is more choice, so you need to make sure the UI for doing so is as effecient and easy to use as possible. When the game is available in multiple regions, be aware of which payment method is most popular in each region, set the default payment method as being region specific and quietly fail to offer the most abused/exploited/defrauded payment method on a region by region basis.

Design can fight fraud.

Make sure you have good recovery systems for when things break (unintended/accidental) or are broken (intentionally).

Make sure you make payment systems easy to find. Personal note though, don’t be too eager, if I see a button to take me to a payment screen the moment I load up the game for the first time, before I’ve even started account registration, I might do a runner, I’ve done it before.

Also, if the player can buy/pay without exiting the game client, that’s ideal (Still offer standard web browser payment of course), basically, make it easy to pay.

Build good communication systems to allow users to interact with eachother easily. It’s surprising how often games don’t go far enough with this, I’ve played a game where it’s at its strongest when a group of people organise to meet up at a specific point in time but to advertise this event to my fellow guild/outfit mates, I have to spam the chat on occasion and hope that people remember (etc), what if someone logs into the game at different times than me, what if someone has a question about the event – can he get a hold of me to ask that question?

And finally, make it easy to patch. For instance, if it’s a game that’s had quite a few patches, maybe you could offer a catch up update that can be downloaded separately and it’s a cumulutive update that reduces the patch & repatch & repatch & repatch (& oh god kill me) time.

———

So, it’s just gone 11PM, I’m short on sleep so I’m gonna call it there, sorry.

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