May 022016

ChDzrYSW4AE9pVn.jpg largeI just got back from a week in Helsinki, Finland. I was there to run some game design workshops at Next Games, and do a lecture for them as part of an event they were hosting.

The request was for a talk of a similar shape to the one I gave at GDC: looking back over the history of games over the last couple of decades, identifying some cycles and trends, and discussing the ways in which those cycles were carrying us back again towards familiar territory. In particular, a huge topic of discussion all week, with many separate people from many different companies, was the way in which mobile gaming is discovering that the games need to be more social, more like games as a service; and more and more they find they must draw lessons from MMOs.

This isn’t that dissimilar to what I have been saying about social VR, either, and of course mobile is going to collide with AR given enough technological advances and time. So that was the skeleton of the talk.

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Jun 112015

The FTC imposes a fine on a board game creator who failed to deliver their Kickstarter.

Developers publicly wring their hands about the reports of high refund rates on Steam.

Everyone looks to VR, but there’s already people asking whether it is a bubble.

What’s going on?

There are two business models: sell something in advance using promises, and persuade a lot of people who might not like a product a lot; or give the product cheaply and charge after the fact.

Here are some basic facts of life regarding these two models.

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Game talkAn Industry Lifecycle

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Jun 022015

002A new platform on which to play games is invented. It might be a new graphics technology (Vector graphics! Color! 3d! VR!). It might be a technical advancement of a different sort (Modems! Servers! Streaming! D-pads! Small screens! Big screens! Touch screens!). It might just be a new marketing channel (Games in bars! Games at home! Games in restaurants! Games in stadiums!).

Its distinguishing characteristic is that it is worse at the old sorts of games than the existing platforms, but better at something new.

It’s still cheap to make something for it, usually, and it’s risky. Big companies stay away, or they try porting over something that has worked before. It doesn’t do great because it’s a mismatch for the new capabilities — and restrictions — of the new platform.

Small companies make something that fits the new platform well. Maybe it has the right controls, because the new platform offers something new. Maybe it has the right interface, or the right play session length, because of the new platform demands on the player.

It’s almost inevitably something new in mechanics, with fresh game system design in some fashion. It has to be, you see, to take advantage of what the new platform offers.

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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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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 talkGDC Next call for submissions

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Apr 292013

The call for submissions for GDC Next is now open. I am on the advisory board.

The conference will be in Los Angeles, November 5-7. This is the conference that is replacing GDC Austin; basically, it’s intended to be the most forward-looking of the GDCs, intentionally looking at what comes next, not what happened in the last year. Because of that, the tracks aren’t quite what one would expect:

  • The Future of Gaming is going to focus on things like second screen play, new kinds of play around mobility, episodic, and the like.
  • Next Generation Game Platforms will be digging into not just next-gen consoles but stuff like VR headsets, and glasses, microconsoles, motion tracking, smart TVs, watches, and whatever else looks like it is around the corner.
  • Smartphone and Tablet Games is a bit more here and now, but given the enormous worldwide growth that still remains ahead of these platforms, there’s plenty of cutting edge stuff to discuss, and current lessons to share
  • Cloud gaming will talk about game streaming — the tech, the business, the design
  • The Independent Games Track — we all know that indies are where the future lies. Lecture, postmortems, rants, covering design, business, and everything else.

We’ve got a mix of folks from the GDC Austin board plus a bunch of new advisors.

Go submit your talks!

Game talkThoughts from the LA Games Conference

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Apr 202013

This past week I was on a panel at the Digital Media Wire LA Games Conference.

The big thing that I wanted to get across to people attending is that many publishers are really caught in a bind. They aren’t willing to take on speculative projects, which is what smaller indies want and need. They ask for vertical slices or even profitable titles before they are willing to sink money into something. But developers are starting to conclude that if they can get a title to that point, they may as well just ship it and make money for themselves. Stuff like the recent financial postmortem of Dustforce shows how many folks are quite willing to trade higher income for creative freedom instead.

With over 50% of developers now describing themselves as independent, and showing a marked preference for platforms with as little publishing friction as possible, we’re going to see a lot of smaller games, a lot of “at bats” for a lots of developers. And odds are greater that some chunk of those will establish a new franchise successfully than a big publisher will. I tossed some guesstimates for team sizes for next gen console development at Chris Early from Ubisoft, and my guess of six studios and 1500 people for a single game was too low for even current gen Assassin’s Creed (he said it took eight studios (!) which is a stunning feat of coordination).

So 1500 people for three years and one game; or half the active industry — let’s say 15000 people — making a game a year in teams of five. That’s a lot of smaller bets. That’s where the next Valves, Rovios, Blizzards will be born. And as predicted, there will be a lot fewer big AAA titles out there than in the past, as their manpower falls and risk aversion continues to rise.

Here’s a few bits of coverage of the conference:

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Game talkOscar bait

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Feb 282013

side_oscarHollywood just got done with its annual parade of self-congratulation. And I don’t mean that in a bad way — the Oscars may have originated as a marketing gimmick, but they are more than that. They serve as a way for creatives to honor creatives. And every year, movies are made which get called “Oscar bait” — films clearly made without much expectation of huge profits.

At a time when big game companies frequently speak in terms of “it it doesn’t make a million a day, or have a million players a day, it’s not worth making,” why do Hollywood studios keep making films that are small, play to small audiences, and aren’t anywhere near as profitable as a summer blockbuster? Wouldn’t it make sense to focus all your resources on the titles that have the highest ROI? While many small films have great profit margins, the absolute numbers are small, and thus there’s a large opportunity cost to doing the small movies.

Don’t worry, there’s a business reason. The logic goes something like this:

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Oct 172011

Yup, a tiny bit more.

Side note, I am struck how little long-form coverage there is of talks anymore, now that so much blogging has moved to Twitter…