Game talkGDC Next Call for Papers

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Apr 292014

headerIt’s that time again — GDC Next, the inheritor of the GDC Austin slot, is requesting submissions for talks. The high-level theme this year is, more or less, “after the game idea, what’s next?” We all know that the idea is in many ways the easiest part, and in this climate of maturing markets, knowing what else needs to be done to have a success is mattering more and more for people trying to make a living at games.

The tracks, and the stuff that we the advisory board want to get submissions on:

Community: including Live community, how and when to use social media, e-sporty stuff, games-as-experience, and everything else that touches on.

Discoverability: Early Access! YouTube! Twitch! How to get seen on the App Store! This section of topics has gotten incredibly important in the last few years, and there are a lot of things that successful indies are pulling off that are worth looking at.

Biz and marketing: Business 101 for game creators! How to tell a good offer from a bad one. How to manage growth. Crowdfunding postmortems. Is there an international market for your game?

Production: Cross-platform — obviously, but how? What are the tradeoffs of the various x-platform engines? And maybe even more importantly, which platforms and when in your game’s lifecycle? How to do test marketing! How to build an IP that a player remembers.

Design: The usual goodness. GDC Austin, and then Next, have historically had sky-high ratings for design talks, some of the best of any of the GDC’s. So game mechanics, stickiness, revenue, smartphone and tablet, all that.

So head on over to the site to get the full details and submit!

Game talkOn SiriusXM tomorrow!

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Apr 132014

I’ll be speaking on SiriusXM Business radio on The Digital Show Monday at 2pm Pacific/5pm Eastern, with Kartik Hosanagar of Wharton. It’s on channel 111, and the topic will be virtual reality.

This is of course occasioned in part by my post on the sale of Oculus to Facebook, but I hope we spend time talking about the broader context: how VR is one of the things that a beleaguered core gamer audience is looking to as a great saving hope, and how VR has the potential to link into long-dormant Metaverse dreams, and more. And of course, whether VR is really where it’s going to be at, or whether AR is really the hotter space… though really, I am of the opinion that they are more or less the same thing… about which more on the show. :)

Game talkMusings on the Oculus sale

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Mar 252014

four-square-1Rendering was never the point.

Oh, it’s hard. But it’s rapidly becoming commodity hardware. That was in fact the basic premise of the Oculus Rift: that the mass market commodity solution for a very old dream was finally approaching a price point where it made sense. The patents were expiring; the panels were cheap and getting better by the month. The rest was plumbing. Hard plumbing, the sort that calls for a Carmack, maybe, but plumbing.

Rendering is the dream of a game industry desperately searching for a new immersion, another step in the ongoing escalation of immersion that has served as the economic engine of ongoing hardware replacement, the false god of “games getting better.” It was an out: the plucky indie that bucked the big consoles but still gave us the AAA. It was supposed to enable “art.”

But rendering was never the point.

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Game talkGDC: Building game retention tips

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Mar 252014

Aside from the ten minute talk at Critical Proximity that I posted yesterday, I spoke for an additional six minutes at GDC2014 (yes, that’s unusually low commitment for me!). It was a microtalk on retention tips for free to play games in the “build and invest” genre — stuff like farming games, city games, all those isometric games where you plonk down little objects. You can find the archived presentation here.

Quests work against self-expression. They force you to build what the developers want, not what you want.

Most of the panelists focused on the “modern” use of the term “retention” — which is to say, they focused on how to get people to come back for the second day, or for a week. The phrase “daily login bonus” was a common reference. But I knew that would be the case, and so took the opportunity to continue my hapless crusade to get social-style games to greater heights of community and user involvement.

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Mar 242014

The debates about “what is a game” happened between multiple overlapping circles that have very little to do with one another… “Games” is never going to fall into one bucket or critical lens… We enrich ourselves and our mutual understanding not by claiming pre-eminence of one circle, but by learning to move between them.

On the Sunday before GDC, I attended and spoke at Critical Proximity, a games criticism conference. It was quite excellent. I am left with many thoughts, which will have to go into a separate post on the subject. In the meantime, there are write-ups available in several places:

As regular readers know, I have been involved in a lot of discussions about “formalism” in games over the last few years. This talk was an attempt to reset the conversation with insights into “formalism in the real world” as Brendan Keogh put it on Twitter, a look into the ways in which looking at the formal structure of games is able to help out and illuminate all sorts of games criticism. Including “softer” or more humanistic approaches, such as historiography, study of play, and cultural studies approaches.To that end, I deployed a set of analogies from other media: fine art, and poetry, and music, to help draw connections between the ways formal approaches and even notation are used in these other fields, and how we might use them in ours.

My talk is below the fold (hover over the slides for the notes text), and for the full transcript plus a link to the video, go here.

There were many other talks I highly recommend… the entire Twitch stream is available (see that same link) and lasts 8 hours!

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Game talkMe at GDC 2014

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Mar 132014

gdc_2014As usual, I will be in San Francisco this year! It’s a relatively quiet year for me though.

I’m giving a talk at Critical Proximity, which is a brand-new conference held on Sunday, the day before GDC kicks off. It’s a conference all about games criticism. My talk is called “A New Formalism,” and it’s about ways to apply various sorts of picky craft approaches to games in ways that hopefully enrich the non- formal styles of critique.

I am also giving a microtalk as part of the GDC F2P Summit, on retention tips and techniques specifically for “build and invest” style games:

Microtalks: Retention Tips for Free-to-Play Genres

The two pillars of free-to-play gaming are retention and monetization. Because players monetize over time, you need to keep as many of your players coming back for as long as possible. But how do you accomplish that? In this uniquely-formatted session, seven battle-hardened free-to-play veterans will give microtalks about retention techniques for seven different free-to-play genres: builders, hidden object games, card battle games, RPGs, word games, shooters and social casino. Learn the tips and tricks that the pros use in each of these genres.

That’s on Monday, Room 2016, West Hall, at 4:30pm-5:30pm. Remember, my part is all of six minutes — I share the time with a bunch of wonderful folks.

Beyond that — a whole bunch of business meetings, dinners and networking and whatnot. I will have a copy of my card game with me at all times, so if you see me, expect to get dragooned into playtesting. I will also have a variety of other game prototypes too…



MailbagMailbag: breaking in (again)

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Mar 082014

Hello Mr. Koster, my name is J___ A_____ and I am a recent college graduate with a computer science degree. I came across your name on the Wikipedia article about MUDs, and noticed the link to your website and in turn this contact form. I realize this is a complete shot in the dark but I’ve gotten so many friendly “no thank you” letters recently I figure the worst that happens is you never reply.

In 1993, I began playing a hack and slash Rom 2.3 mud called Creeping Death, and completely fell in love. In 1999 I taught myself C and with the help of a friend, we put up our first MUD. I have been actively coding them off and on ever since. A few years ago I went back to school and pursued a Bachelors in Comp Sci and am desperately trying to break into the video game industry. Outside of mud coding I have little expertise in game design. My question then is this:

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Game talkBalancing novices and experts

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Feb 062014

ninjasquirrelOnce again, another question that came in via Quora. The issue at hand is, what do you do to balance experts and novices in a game? Especially if there are persistent elements like leaderboards in the design, which tend to cement experts towards the top?

This is a big issue as games become more persistent and emphasize multiplayer aspects more heavily. Single-player games now swim in a soup of constantly connected profiles with all sorts of achievement and expertise data, effectively rendering them all multiplayer via the addition of a metagame. And we should not forget: the average player is below average; or to be more precise, the median player will have a win-loss record that is lower than the mean or average win-loss record, because the high-skill players win a disproportionate percentage of the match-ups. This results in the mode for the win-loss record curve being “loss.” (For more on how Pareto curves manifest in this sort of persistent environment, I refer you to my 2003 talk on “Small Worlds” [PDF]).

This sort of accumulated record of expertise can serve as a huge disincentive to participate. Novices will look at high ratings and consider the game hopeless. Nobody likes feeling inadequate. And of course, once in an actual game session in any sort of competitive scenario, it is rare for the match to actually be between perfectly matched opponents. It doesn’t even take a significant skill gap for an accumulated win-loss record between a novice and a ninja squirrel to begin to look pretty dismal. And of course, in skill-based systems that lack infrastructure, people can try to hide their ratings — that’s the basis behind being a pool shark.

There is no way known to solve this issue. In fact, balancing arbitrary teams, for example, is an NP-Hard problem. Fortunately, there’s a pretty standard grab-bag of tricks to ameliorate the issue: Continue reading »

Feb 052014

Slide14My GDCNext talk “Playing with ‘Game’” has been posted up here as video with slides:

Gamasutra – Video: Playing with ‘game’ – What games can be, and what they can mean.

I described the talk thus a while back:

The talk starts out with some basic semiotic theory — basically, the difference between a thing, the name we give a thing, and what the thing actually means. This serves as an entry point into talking about not only the way the word “game” is incredibly overloaded with different people’s interpretations, but also as a way to start discussing the way games themselves can mean things.

This leads to exploring the notion of “play” as space — free movement within a system, which is not a new idea at all, ranging from Derrida to Salen & Zimmerman. And then to looking at the two big sorts of play I see: the play of the possibility space of a set of rules, and the possibility space of a set of symbols or signs, which we might be more used to calling the thematic depth of a literary work. Along the way I break down writing techniques, game design techniques, and more, trying to find the ways in which these tools can be applied to games of different intents — which tools work best for a given craftsperson’s purpose?

For me, a lot of the reason I did the talk was to try to bring together the parties separated by contention over “what is a game” and similar debates. I wanted to show that there’s a lot more commonalities there than not, but also that different creators have different goals for their work, and therefore pick up different tools from the workbench. And that, actually, sometimes this means that games we’d never link together actually have structural commonalities just because the techniques that the creators choose to use.

I actually think I ended up spending too much time on the first half, which is effectively “game critic inside baseball” for quite a lot of people (though might be interesting nonetheless). The result was that I kind of rushed the second half, the part with the tools and techniques. Ah well. I am told it was an interesting talk anyway, just not one of my best.


Jan 272014

Slide1Periodically I have gotten requests for either audio or video of the talk I gave at Living Game Worlds IV back in 2008. I have the slides, but they aren’t even posted up here, and honestly, without the actual talk, they don’t make much sense.

My talk was complex. I just watched it, and honestly did not remember it all; how it came together linking railroad yards, the first major copyright case, Kenyan mobile phone companies, Wagnerian opera, text muds, shipping containers, molecular biology, microtransactions, and of course, the future of games. But yeah, it hit on all that and more.

Videos from LGW IV (mine is “evening keynote”).

It still feels rather relevant today, even if my ending on Metaplace doesn’t. In many ways, what I was talking about has come true via indie games, Unity, Twine, Gamemaker, and countless other “banjos.” In fact, I am particularly hopeful that it will be watched by those who see me as a ludological fundamentalist or representative of “the old guard” or whatever, as there is a moment in there where I jeer at Game Informer magazine for the ludicrous term “impostor games” they used for games that were not challenge-based. FWIW, I also bluntly call MMOs colonialist and racist at one point.

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