NB: I’ll be putting up my presentation notes in the next few days.
As a game developer at the conference told me, “When people hear that I’m from Montreal, they think of two things. One, that we speak French, and two, that we almost separated.” They certainly don’t think that Montreal is a place where computer games are made; surely those French wouldn’t make such crude entertainments?
When I received an invitation to speak at the Montreal International Game Summit, I just thought of one thing – ‘Montreal?’. However, the conference’s two main sponsors – Ubisoft and EA Montreal – reveal the fact that there is a serious amount of talent in the city. Over 700 people registered for the conference, which is no small number given that it’s only in its second year, and of course, that it’s in Quebec. I was asked to give a talk introducing game developers to alternate reality games, and happily accepted.
I flew into Montreal on Saturday 29th October, which gave me a couple of days to look around the city before the first conference activity began on Tuesday 1st November. I’m not going to talk about the city at length here – you can read it over on the Middling column (when I get around to writing it). It’s enough to say that I found it an interesting place, unlike any other I’ve been to in North America, and with some decent and affordable food to boot.
So the first activity was the opening cocktail reception on Tuesday. This wasn’t too well attended, with maybe only a hundred people or so there, despite the availability of free drinks. I took the opportunity to get to know the other speakers and attendees. I was happy to discover that a lot of them already knew about ARGs and Perplex City; in fact, a couple of people were players. One of the interesting people I met there was Susan O’Connor, a writer who first found out about ARGs at the Austin Games Conference for Writers.
DAY 1 (see programme)
Warren Spector – Junction Point Studios
The conference began properly on Wednesday, with an opening keynote by Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock). Warren’s talk could be summed up very simply – doom and gloom. Of course, it’s more complicated than that – he thinks that the industry is becoming marginalised in society, development costs are going up, developers’ quality of life is going down and innovation has completed stopped, meaning that there are still huge swathes of the population who are not served by games (females, ethnic minorities, elderly, etc). So, basically, doom and gloom.
He said there were two options. The first was to hunker down and wait for all the naysayers and old people to die, which would take a while but result in a happier future. The second was to start innovating and improving the games industry’s image in society. You can imagine which one he preferred. He also, like almost everyone else at the conference, proclaimed that content and original intellectual property (IP) is king!
People enjoyed Warren’s talk, as did I, and there were plenty of questions. My talk was fortunate enough to be scheduled directly after the opening keynote, which meant that everyone was still awake, but it did mean that it began 15 minutes late since Warren overran.
Through the Rabbit Hole: The history and potential of Alternate Reality Gaming
Adrian Hon – Mind Candy
My room was packed full with about 60-100 people, which was a great turnout. As requested, I gave people an introduction to alternate reality games and rapidly covered its history, current status, relation to other media, challenges, opportunities and future (you can say a lot in 45 minutes providing you don’t waffle). There were a few questions afterwards: one was predictably about ‘what if people get sucked in to the game?!’ and another more interesting one was about the potential use of ARGs as simulations for education and training. More on that later.
In general though, not that many questions. The audience just didn’t seem particularly inclined to ask much; it was the same for the EA talk and other interesting ones. Maybe it’s something to do with the Quebecois culture? Who knows.
In my talk, I took the unusual decision (compared to the rest of speakers) not to use dozens of slides with bullet points that I would just read from. Personally speaking, I can’t stand speakers who do that – the talks are invariably boring and the slides are distracting. I’d rather have people to listen to me than divide their attention between voice and screen. I understand that this is a personal thing and of course you need slides for pictures and be saying something interesting, but I’ve always found that the best talks are the ones without any slides – and believe me, I’ve been to a hell of a lot of talks and lectures.
After my talk, I met the CEO of KOG Studios, Won Lee. KOG is based in South Korea and makes a ‘mini-multiplayer online fighting game’ (he gave a talk about it later, unfortunately during my interviews). How many players does it have, I asked. ‘About 3 million’. Revenue stream? ‘Micropayments’. Stuff like this just makes me realise not just how different South Korea is, but how far ahead it is. I wouldn’t even imagine using micropayments for an ARG right now, let alone getting 3 million active players buying various bits of clothing and toys, Habbo Hotel-style. Although the idea would have legs in the future… hmm…
Keynote – Trends
Neil Young – VP and General Manager, Electronic Arts
Neil Young gave the afternoon keynote. He was talking about ‘How to create a next generation hit’, and the content was mostly bland, featuring some old PS3 videos that are already on the net. Neil claimed that there were three elements required to make a next-gen hit. The first is ‘good execution’ – that’s something you can’t argue with. The next was ‘1-3 innovations’. I found this idea of quantifying innovation rather mystifying, but Neil gave some examples of these ‘innovations’. One was the additional of ‘aspirations’ in The Sims 2. Another was the ‘GameFace’ feature in Tiger Woods 2005 (or 2006, who knows, they’re all the same). GameFace apparently allows players to manipulate their character’s face so it looks like theirs, and according to Neil, it was solely responsible for a $45 million increase in sales over the previous title in the series.
Suffice to say that I thought this was perhaps the most ridiculous statement in the entire conference – as if anyone gives a damn about that sort of stuff, let along $45 million worth. This so-called ‘innovation’ didn’t increase sales – it would’ve been better marketing.
Neil’s third and final element was ‘mass appeal’. The audience was notably silent on the whole ‘mass appeal’ thing, which they correctly translated as being ‘dumbed down and boring’ and later on a couple of people mutinously asked about the lack of EA innovation and its pandering to mass audiences.
So on the whole, he didn’t say anything wonderfully interesting, although the talk was a good window into EA’s priorities for the next 3 or 4 years, namely making next-gen hits and high-definition (HD) presentation and gameplay. He’s keen on getting over Zombie effect wherein game characters don’t look human. Obviously he’s not so bothered by innovation, but he did talk about making people cry and making players the actor (which no-one believed). Actually, the title of his talk was ‘Can a videogame make you cry?’, but a more accurate title would have been ‘How EA intends to make craploads more money over the next 5 years’.
What he *didn’t* talk about was very telling. He showed off plenty of demos from the PS3, but said nary a world about the XBox 360 or XBox Live, which is surprising given that it’s about to be launched.
As an aside, Neil had a lot of problems with his laptop, which delayed his presentation by five minutes or so. During this time, he made various Eddie Izzard-like jokes which I found annoying (only Eddie Izzard is allowed to do this jokes – they just don’t work with anyone else) but he got some weak laughs. All in all, I felt it was not a keynote-worthy performance. Honestly, you wonder why EA Montreal bothered stumping up the money for it – it certainly didn’t make anyone like EA more, which is what the primary purpose of any EA talk these days should be.
Next up for me was an interview with the Quebec equivalent of MTV, M.net. As with most reporters I talk to, he seemed genuinely interested in ARGs, Perplex City puzzle cards and the game mechanic. I tend to find that if I can talk to journalists for at least two uninterrupted minutes, I can get them onside and understanding ARGs well. During the interview, I had the odd situation of being asked my opinion about game trends and whether the XBox 360, PS3 or Revolution was better (Revolution, of course), what I thought the future of the industry was going to be, and so on. I imagine he asked all his interviewees the same questions, but it was fun being a ‘games industry figure’ for a while.
Frederic Gignac, the editor of Hardgamers.com, was my next interview. This was another interesting chat about ARGs. As usual, we talked about the possibility of people getting too far in and becoming addicted. We also chatted about innovation in the games industry in general – a fun few minutes was spent bashing Neil Young and his $45 million GameFace. It then turned out that Frederic was playing Civ4 and Age of Empires; he likened the addiction of RTSs and turn-based strategy games to ARGs. But where you are only typically addicted to such games for weeks, with ARGs, you could potentially be addicted for months. This isn’t new – World of Warcraft and Everquest were there first. I don’t think ARGs are at that point yet, not for a mass audience, but it’s something to consider.
Away From Keyboard: Designing Real-World Games
Frank Lantz – area/code
As I mentioned, I missed Won Lee’s talk due to the interview, but I made the 3:15pm talk, given by Frank Lantz of area:code. Frank is into real world gaming. This is a genre that is often confused with alternate reality games (most notably/amusingly by the BBC Culture Show) and usually features people running around cities shouting into mobile phones and chasing stuff. I already knew a lot of the case studies he mentioned, but there were a few good nuggets.
One was his description of a Japanese mobile Final Fantasy game called Before Crisis. A large part of the game is based around collecting ‘materia’ of different colours. The way you do it is by using your cameraphone to take pictures of colours, and the materia you get in the game is based on the predominant colour of the photo. Really clever stuff. Obviously a rather crude mechanic open to abuse, but it’s interesting to see the game mechanic involving real-world interaction, a bit like the recent Nintendo game that could tell whether you were playing outside or not by using a light sensor.
Another interesting indie game was called ‘The Journey’ by Mopius. It’s a text adventure game translated into the real world, where you move between different ‘rooms’ in the game by moving in real life. Due to the difficulties in getting positioning information from mobile phones (it’s much more finicky than you would think), they used the relative position of cell tower IDs, which is only accurate to a few blocks, but is adequate for this. Naturally I would love to run an ARG that could use reliable positioning information down to a few metres. Can you hear me, mobile phone operators?!
Frank’s students at NYU were also involved in that famous game of recent years, Pac Manhattan, which was a fun part of the talk. The final question was about the oldest of real world games, sports. ‘Do you buy football? Or Frisbee?’ his slide asked.
Of course, you don’t ‘buy football’, you buy a football. Ditto for frisbee. The rules are so simple, and the implementation so simple, and the IP isn’t owned by anyone, so no-one can charge anything. All three elements wouldn’t be true for an original, high-tech real world game. Plus certainly ARGs feature custom content, which is just more IP and thus more stuff to sell. Still, an interesting question.
NEXT GEN Character Design: A Psychological Approach
Katherine Isbister – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
The last talk of the day was a packed session by Katherine Isbister from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It’s a telling indictment of the games industry that she was the only female speaker at the conference, out of maybe 30 people. She gave a talk about “Next Gen Character Design: A Psychological Approach” in which she asked developers to try and make their characters more psychologically real; they should use proper body language, facial movements, good voice acting, that sort of thing. All sort of obvious, but almost so obvious that it gets forgotten or ignored despite its benefits. Anyway, the talk was a real success because this aspect of gaming never gets addressed and game designers and programmers are fascinated by new stuff like this, especially things that might give them a ‘next gen edge’.
Everyone was pretty tired after the talk, and there was still a ‘VIP Cocktail event’ to go to, which wasn’t particular VIP given that there was rather a lot of people there. As usual, met more people, talked about ARGs, briefly talked to Rich Vogel and Doug Church, then eventually went back to the hotel so I could get up early the next day.
DAY 2 (see programme)
Keynote – What we have learned from Nintendogs
Hideki Konno – Nintendo
Events kicked off with a keynote by Hideki Konno, the Manager/Producer of the delightfully named ‘Software Develoπment Group No.1’ of Nintendo. In case you don’t know what Konno has worked on in such an illustrious Group, he’s been involved in various incarnations of Mario Kart and most recently, Nintendogs. Nintendogs is really the flavour of the moment, in the way that it’s reaching out to non-traditional gamers.
There’s something hypnotic about listening to Japanese and hearing it translated a few seconds later. You’d lose the magic if you could speak it. I suppose it’s like listening to opera without knowing the words.
Unsurprisingly, we didn’t learn anything earth-shatteringly new from the keynote, but there was a lot of more subtle information there, about how Nintendo works. Apparently Nintendogs was developed in parallel with the DS hardware, so they were actually able to include the hardware guys with what they wanted their game to be. Konno also talked about the fact that the dogs in the game not only have to perform voice recognition (in order to understand commands like ‘Sit!’) but also voice verification – that is, telling one voice from another.
Some other interesting tidbits include the fact that not only did Nintendo count on girls playing Nintendogs, but also on guys playing in order to meet said girls. At one point they wanted to have 15 different versions of the game, with 15 different dogs, on sale at shops, with a special ‘petshop’ themed point of sale stand.
Despite the fact that the talk was entitled, “What we have learned from Nintendogs’, it was more like an extended plug for Mario Kart DS and the Nintendo Revolution (their next console). If this came from any other company, people would’ve been annoyed, but everyone loves what Nintendo does – they’re one of the few big companies left that actually seems interested in making fun and innovative games. Konno showed off the now-famous Revolution promo video, which I’m sure most of the audience had already seen but nevertheless responded with the most resounding applause in the entire conference – I’m surprised that no-one stood up!
He then held up a Revolution controller in his hand. It was a lot smaller and thinner than I expeccted. He also had a nunchuck-attachment with him – the cable looked to be about a foot long. And he confirmed that the nunchuck will be supplied as standard with the console!
On the whole, it was a pleasant talk, and the fact that he talked about the Revolution and Nintendo’s wireless multiplayer ambitions with the DS was a nice treat. For me, it was a real smackdown on EA’s ‘next gen hit’ talk, with its insistence on limiting innovation (in case players get confused) and dumbing everything down.
How to manage large-scale online gaming communities
Rich Vogel – Sony Online Entertainment
Immediately afterwards was Rich Vogel’s talk on managing large online gaming communities. Vogel worked for Sony Online Entertainment, and while much of what he said was pretty obvious and straightforward for any self-respecting online game developer, there were one or two bits of useful advice there. His talk was unabashedly practical and he implored people not to tell their players about his advice, most of which was very pragmatic. I’m not going to recount his advice here – not to keep his secrets, but because it’s not particularly interesting, and any self-respecting online gamer is bound to know all the tricks anyway (e.g. isolate and ignore serial complainers, give presents on holidays, etc).
Call of Duty 2: Post-mortem of a large budget, large team game
Grant Collier – Infinity Ward
I wasn’t sure which talk to go to next, because none were particularly related to what I do, and in the end plumped for Grant Collier’s post-mortem of Call of Duty 2, which concentrated on the practical aspects of managing a growing development team. I’ve never played CoD and I’m not into FPSes, but I know it was fairly well received. He had some useful practical accounts of the problems he experienced with the growing team, such as the difficulties of maintaining good relations and communications within the company. He was also (eventually) unusually candid about the things that went wrong – I can only attribute this display of honesty due to the fact that he was mostly pleased with the game, and that they’d gone gold.
The one really striking thing about the talk was that Collier had zero slides. I was very happy about this, and not just because it meant that I wasn’t the person with the least slides at the conference. Collier had a big audience, and he managed to keep their attention on what he was saying for the entire talk, and I think that wouldn’t have been as easy if he’d been constantly flying through charts and bullet points.
Some useful points: they had an in-house dedicated recruiter. Fostered a culture of excellence, and they had no mandated working on weekends (very nice). They concentrated on getting all difficult tasks done first, rather than putting them off until last. In a further black mark for Microsoft, he revealed that only 20 out of the 50 XBox 360 beta hardware kits they received actually worked.
Keynote – Making and Breaking Rules: Game Design As a Critical Practice
Eric Zimmerman – GameLab
The afternoon’s keynote was by Eric Zimmerman of GameLab, a sort of concept driven games company/consultancy that’s currently doing little web games. In the first half of the keynote, Zimmerman was a bit too loud and abstract for my liking – a typical neogeek person of the Cory Doctorow ilk. I recall sitting back in the dark theatre and thinking about an especially interesting problem as he gesticulated on the stage in front. He seemed like a good entertainer to me, at least. There was a lot of earnest talk about ‘What is a game?’ and suchlike.
We then engaged in a game of MMRPS – massively multiplayer rock, paper and scissors, wherein he got everyone to stand up and play a game against their neighbour. Losers sit down, winners keep on playing until no-one’s left. Nice idea. But it’s not massively multiplayer in the sense of games like Everquest – you might as well call the World Series of Poker ‘massively multiplayer poker’. Except that would sound stupid, especially when ‘tournament’ is a perfectly fine word as it is.
(I am informed that this trend of people giving lectures with ‘massively multiplayer [insert traditional game]’ is increasing – watch out at your next conference for this trick!)
After a bit more conceptual talk, Zimmerman seemed to blow a gasket or something and the talk flew off in a totally different direction, about a ‘Game Developer’s Bill of Rights’. Suddenly everything had turned deadly serious and he wasn’t joking any more. He compared it to the ‘Comic Book Bill of Rights’ that’s apparently been written a few years ago, and was convinced that coming up with a list of ‘alienable rights’ (say what?) would really benefit people.
The problem was that the rights were so biased against publishers and towards developers (like ‘Developers own everything they work on, and they have final veto on everything’) were so unrealistic that even if they were desirable – and in some cases they weren’t – they were totally unachievable. Evidently people agreed with me because after the talk, Zimmerman was subjected to a barrage of doubtful realists asking what the point of the Bill of Rights was. ‘It’s more of a guideline for negotiations,’ he claimed. But if they’re so biased and unachievable, what’s the point, others asked.
So, on the whole, a very odd and naive talk, I felt.
Tips/challenges of working with licensed IP
Don Daglow – Stormfront Studios
Two more talks until the end! The next was by Don Daglow, CEO of Stormfront Studios – they worked on Lord of the Rings. This was all about the joys of working with licensed IP. It’s worth pointing out that the current thinking is that developers should always try to develop their own IP, so this talk sort of bucked the trend. Now, there is no doubt that using licensed IP has its upsides, which Don clearly pointed out, but he did himself a disservice by ragging on original IP so much. Let me explain…
He said that original IP needs exposition, whereas if you are developing a game based on a movie or book, you save a boring two hours of introducing characters and settings. This argument is so mindnumbingly ridiculous I couldn’t believe it. Yes, if you happen to be a terrible storyteller, I can imagine it might be helpful if someone writes your story for you. But the suggestion that developing original IP is some terribly damaging burden flies in the face of games such as Half Life, Ico, Zelda, Ultima and countless others.
Another claim he made was that licensed IP – like Harry Potter – gives a game an unmistakably seal of quality. Once upon a time, perhaps it did – and maybe it still does, to clueless parents and grandparents – but not to informed gamers. Games based on movies have a terrible critical reputation that is only beginning to recover now.
Finally, the thing that bothered me most about this talk was the way in which Daglow kept on using ‘voices’ in his talk. You know, putting on the voice of an excited teenager or a slow-witted person. I don’t mind it in moderation, but not all the time. Clearly this is a subjective thing and some people in the audience found it funny, but it just drove me nuts. It was just distracting and facile.
Serious Games, Serious Opportunities, How to Crack New Markets for Old Skills
Ben Sawyer – Digitalmill
The final talk was one of the more interesting I went to, given by Ben Sawyer of Digitalmill, about Serious Games. These are not merely educational games of the Carmen Sandiego genre (which are more like books on computers than games) but training games and simulator games like SimCity. Sawyer’s argument was simply that an awful lot of companies and governmental organisations now want ‘serious games’ and they have a correspondingly large amount of money. Maybe not as much as you’d make with Halo 2, but a decent enough chunk of change as it is. This of course relates to alternate reality games and their potential use in education and training; people have made ARGs for corporate training and team building in the past, but nothing much beyond that, and clearly there’s a whole range of possibilities out there…
Surprisingly for such an interesting talk, I don’t have any notes at all, but I just put it down to being tired. Straight after the talk I had to head back to the hotel and then catch a taxi to the airport, thus missing the Game Design Challenge and the IGDA party in the evening.
I had a useful time at the Montreal Games Summit. While there were few talks directly related to alternate reality games, there was a lot of lessons that were applicable to what I’m doing. As usual, I met a lot of interesting people and the experiencing of speaking at a major games conference was fun. I’m not sure I’ll go again next year (unless I’m invited again) but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the speakers and the venue.