GDC 2007 Coverage (Part One of Four)

This week, a large group of CMS students and faculty/researchers are spending time in San Francisco at the Games Developer’s Conference. I was unable to attend this year due to other speaking commitments. In the next week, I will be speaking at the University of Minnesota, at the Society for Cinema Studies conference in Chicago, and at South By Southwest in Austin. I asked one of the students who is attending the Game Developer’s Conference, Eitan Glinert, to share with my readers some of his impressions. Glinert recently arrived at MIT as a graduate student in Computer Science having worked with the Federation of American Scientists on the development of games for learning. We quickly snatched him up to contribute to the launch of GAMBIT, the Singapore-MIT Games Innovation Lab, and he has just as quickly become a familiar face at our community gatherings. What follows is some of his impressions of the first two days of the conference.

Day One

For five days, Game Developer’s Conference is a zoo of exciting discussion, innovative ideas, and social networking that becomes the focal point of many gamer’s lives, including my own. I’m Eitan Glinert, and for the next week I’ll be covering the conference from warm, sunny San Francisco.

Most people at such conferences might focus on a genre or a platform, be it first person shooters or the Wii, but today we’re going to focus on an entire field of gaming, Serious Games. It’s the market segment that involves all the games that your education obsessed aunt bought for you when you were little; the ones that made you roll your eyes and think “Great, another one of those games.” The area runs the gamut from “Carmen Sandiego” and “Flight Simulator” to Captain Novolin. The trait that all these games share, though, is a desire to teach the user or elicit some sort of behavioral change through game play.

Who’s making Serious Games? A growing number of people from myriad institutions – there’s military instructors who want training simulators for their troops, educational companies trying to bring new learning technologies into the classroom, and non-profits that want to bring about social change and political activism. These games are fine, but (with the exception of government funded military simulators) they are generally smaller games on smaller budgets, and aren’t aimed at or aren’t successful with the mainstream market. This reputation is what causes most gaming companies to avoid serious gaming like the plague – they make games for the general public, and they’re a guaranteed money loss. Right?

Wrong. Serious games are beginning to become serious money. In the past year, 5 of the top 20 games for the Nintendo DS in Japan have been serious games, including two variations of Brain Age, and English teaching game, and the ever popular “Cooking Navigation.” And some companies are beginning to take notice. Last year, Square Enix (of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest fame) announced the opening of a new offshoot called SGlab , created to capitalize on this newly discovered market. The company plans to work with both game developers and Japanese schools and libraries to deliver educational gaming products – however, as of yet, I have seen no news about upcoming releases.

This year, Ichiro Otobe, Chief Strategist of Square Enix, delivered the keynote at the Serious Games Summit section of GDC and spoke about some of the new projects they were working on. While it still remains unclear what, if anything, will come out of SGlab, it is more than apparent that the parent company is dedicated to making games in the field, as was seen during the demonstration of a new game unceremoniously code named “Project GB.” Running on the DS, it displayed some very impressive game capabilities: design, create, and play your own sprite based 2D games. The bottom screen serves as an editor in which the user “codes” the various objects that will comprise his game; meanwhile, the objects are displayed on the top screen and behave according to the proscribed rules. The demo featured a user-created version of Galaga, and displayed how easy it was to create new objects and change settings. I must say, it was rather enticing; I know I certainly wouldn’t mind recreating a newer, better Marble Madness and then passing it around to my friends to try.

If the model works (and I hope it does) then I suspect these games, and more importantly their profit margins, will open the flood gates and we’ll see many, many more serious games in the near future. The Wii and DS seem especially suited to such offerings, as the platforms are, at their heart, designed to draw in users that might be interesting in non-standard gaming options. After all, wouldn’t you pay $50 to learn algebra from Mario?

Day Two

Making video games isn”t easy. Well, that’s not entirely true; if you”re EA or Microsoft, and you have a huge number of developers and producers, and you have a money vault filled with gold coins you can swim through a la “Ducktales,” then it’s actually not that difficult. But for the rest of us, for the “Indie” developers out there, making games is a Herculean task. Frequently, independents have to work with a minimal or non-existent budget, a team that is too small and too inexperienced for the task, and usually have to take time off from development to spend time on other distractions, like classes or a job.

Here at GDC, these developers are getting a voice, and for good reason, as they are responsible for the majority of the games out there (even if many of them you haven”t heard of.) A small number of the games, like Second Life, manage to take hold and become a phenomenon. More of them graduate to “casual” online games, and if they”re lucky get linked to by a portal website and make a modest return on a few hundred/thousand downloads. The majority, though, never see the light of day. That”s why the conference has such as focus on making sure that the independents out there can learn what they need to know to at least help their chances of success.

So what advice was given? Innovate! Or, don”t innovate, but make a small change to something that exists and do a good job with that! Or do tons of self promotion, and make sure that you have a good market strategy! Get help from professionals in the field! Better yet, do all of the above, and then come and give advice at the following year’s conference!

The truth of the matter is, there”s lots of good advice that can be given, and different things have worked for different people, though most agree that being “at the right place, at the right time, with the right idea” certainly helps. One of the more interesting teams to come out of the independent game field in the past two years is thatgamecompany, a company started by several USC graduates including Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, both of whom I had the pleasure of talking to at the conference. We discussed their new games Cloud and flOw (both of which are available for download through the = company website), and the thinking behind their creation. Instead of simply trying to design a game based on that one “good idea”, they tried to identify an area that games were ignoring – in this case, they felt there weren”t enough games out there that promote feelings of relaxation and tranquility. Both games, especially Cloud, are designed around promoting these emotions, and the results are spectacular. When was the last time you played a game and the word “Zen” came to mind?

Certainly, their philosophy seems to work for them. But that”s only one way for independents to make games. Another great way is through contests, and here’s one you might be interested in if you are a college student looking to get into game development. It’s called Hidden Agenda, and at stake is $25,000 for the best educational game that is exciting and engaging, and teaches something on the side. But maybe educational games aren”t your thing, and you are interested in more basic, “fun” games? Consider making a game for One Laptop per Child, a new nonprofit trying to get cheap, durable laptops to children in third world countries. They”re really looking for talented, dedicated people to help them make games, and it will likely be a great way to get your name out there.

Tomorrow GDC proper starts, and we’ll see if my friend Kristina is successful in her lifelong dream of getting Miyamoto”s signature on her DS.