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Notes from MIT Gaming Conference
Bar Harbor
On Friday, I went to a conference at MIT on "Innovation in Video Games: A French-American Dialogue".

The first presenter was Alexandre Houdent of GlobZ. His presentation is online, so you can see it yourself if you like. GlobZ does mostly small games, for the web or mobile platforms. There's an interesting slide there comparing the time it takes someone to play a game vs. the time it takes the creators to make that game -- an interesting measure of "efficiency" that makes most modern AAA titles look horribly bloated. GlobZ has also experimented with making games as simple to control as possible -- they actually have an impressively large library of games where the entire interface is "click." There's some real cleverness in making different games and game mechanics out of that one interface notion. I recommend people head over to the GlobZ web site and check some of them out.

Next up was Eric Viennot of Lexis Numerique, talking about his game Missing. This is a multimedia adventure game, similar in some ways to Majestic, in that it uses internet, video, and e-mail as adjuncts to the game experience. I gather that they are even experimenting with geo-location based puzzles, for people with GPS devices. This sort of storytelling is, by necessity, layered, so that those people get "extra" story elements, but the basic customer still gets a satisfying experience. They tried very hard to blur the line between reality and the game, making even the physical CD-Rom itself a part of the game story.

The most interesting part of this presentation, to my mind, came from the Q&A section. Someone asked "Since so much of your gameplay is on the internet, what happens if some fan site gets a better page ranking than yours in the search engines, and has spoilers on it. Apparently, the fan sites for this game *all* are set up as if they were part of the game fiction! The fan base not only embraced the blurring of game and reality, they *extended* it, with no prompting from the publisher! It doesn't surprise me that some people might have done this, but I am pleasantly surprised to find that it was so overwhelming.

The third French presenter was David Cage of Quantic Dream, talking about Interactive Emotions, with specific reference to his game Indigo Prophecy. He claims that the *real* revolution in the "next-gen" of consoles will be emotions. He divides Emotions into two categories, Primitive (fear, excitement, frustration, competition, etc.) and Social (love, sadness, jealousy, anger, shame, compassion, etc.). Games have so far mostly evoked just the Primitive emotions, not the Social ones. He feels that games will never progress until game makers embrace the fact that they can have creative artistic ambitions and need not be "just toys". Creating emotions remains a very difficult problem; the primary constraint is in the number of "verbs" available to the player.

Indigo Prophecy solved the "verb" problem by having almost no "standard gameplay"; the game is built largely around a generic interface for highly contextual actions. It's not a set of game mechanics with a story tacked on, it's *entirely* about the story, and game mechanics exist only in order to support that story. The story is also structured in an interesting manner; rather than use the typical paradigm of "lock and key blockages", the player is allowed much freer reign, with the story reacting appropriately to anything the player does. [This is obviously at least partially hype. I haven't yet played the game, but I guarantee that there will be things that I think "I should be able to do" but that the develpers haven't allowed for." Still, even making the attempt to cover that puts these people well ahead of the pack.] The metaphor he used for the story structure was that each piece of the story is a rubber band, that can be "deformed" by the player. If the player follows the most direct path, he may finish a scene very quickly, with one set of consequences; a more careful approach will take longer, and have different consequences. And not just time is affected, but also the shape of the story (the rubber band is not just stretchable, but twistable).

He attempted to make the story involving by putting the player in highly-charged emotional situations that don't have obvious black&white answers, and then prompting them to say "If I were really experiencing this, what would I do?" He also points out that all aspects of game production are competing with movies these days, and you can't really skimp on anything (Indigo Prophecy got Angelo Badalamenti to do there score). He recommends bringing in people from outside teh industry to cross-pollinate their knowledge with ours. He closed by comparing the current state of story in videogames to that of story in porn movies -- something that no one really seems to care about, but just gets in the way of the action.

After the presentations, there was a round table, bringing in a bunch of American game people. They were asked to introduce themselves, and talk about their innovations.

First up was Ian Davis of Mad Doc. His big drive has always been to create "believable characters". One of his company's current projects is a (not yet announced) squad-based tactical game, which has *4* full-time AI programmers on the team (not counting Davis himself doing the AI architecture). He talked a little about how, depending on how you interact with certain NPCs, your character may develop an "affinity" for them, and maybe even a romance, with the plot of the game adjusting itself to your actions. This is the sort of thing I've occasionally heard about in the context of an RPG, but never before in a strategy/shooter game. [The game is one which "involves a lot of time not actually shooting people". I wonder if they ended up with the SWAT license?]

Next up was Robert Ferrari of Turbine. He struck me as more of a suit than a designer, and said things like "the Lord of the Rings MMO is *all about* story," which I am dubious about.

Greg LoPiccolo from Harmonix (who I worked with briefly back in the LG days) talked a bit about how his company seems to be innovating a lot in terms of controllers. They made Karaoke Revolution, using a mike, a game that used the EyeToy camera, and just came out with Guitar Hero, which uses a toy guitar as its interface.

Vicky Wu of Froghop -- not really sure what her company does, besides pump out buzzwords. Something about "finding complemantarity between mobile and stationary game experiences." She did have some useful stuff to say later on, though.

Some points I took home from the round table:

French developers aren't interested in making "Freench games" -- France isn't a big enough market, so they try for global appeal.

There was some dispute about just how many "French Publishers" there really are. There are a lot of publishers with French names, but the claim from the French designers was that most decisions are now made in New York, by Americans. Some of the American designers countered by saying how they'd flown out to France for meetings within the last year.

The EU is almost as big a market as the US, depending on genre. For some MMOs, the EU may actually be a bigger market.

The French complained that American publishers said that there games wouldn't succeed in the US because they were "too intelligent". [I note that even these "cerebral" French games are still both about serial killers...]

There was some of the standard discussion about how mainstream America has insane attitudes about sex and violence (sex being verboten, while ultra-violence is typically accepted). Indigo Prophecy got especially badly bitten by the Hot Coffee scandal. They have one scene where a woman is taking a shower, behind a translucent shower door so you really can't see more than an outline. But despite being so obscured, for the American edition, they were forced to put a swim suit on the model. For the *Japanese* edition, they had to make the swim suit bigger!

It's very hard to sell games in the US which aren't, at root, about cars or guns. Publishers seem likely to blame, since the culture isn't *that* different.

Ian Davis mentioned something that I hadn't previously heard, that helps explain some of publisher conservatism. Apparently the accounting rules are such that money spent on established franchises gets counted differently in some significant way than money spent on original IP. I didn't get all the details, but apparently there is a (presumably) unintended effect there that makes original IP less attractive to the accountants.

Interaction between different platforms (console, PC, phones, PDAs, portable game devices) is on the way up.

Next-Gen consoles may be able to synthesize high quality music in real-time, leading to more dynamic scores, and more interesting games *about* music.

French IP law has an unintended effect of making French developers leery of using French musicians. French musicians must, by law, get royalties from sales of the game. Hence, they don't get used. On a related note, the French government is considering defining games as "cultural goods" -- and the French games industry is actually ambivalent about that. Doing so would trigger all sorts of "authorship" and royalty-tracking laws that they have (so far) been able to ignore.

Several US companies have been using "Serious Game" contracts to plug holes in their traditional production cycles. These games don't need the same degree of polish that a commercial entertainment product does, so can be turned out quicker. Closing the deal is also quicker -- crazy as it sounds, it's much quicker to get the US government to sign off on a deal than it is to get a green light from a major game publisher these days.

Hyper-Realism is a creative dead end. More games should explore using 3D rendering technology to do things that *can't* be done in the real world.

Afterwards, there was a reception. I ended up having a long talk with a woman from MIT about various aspects of the industry. I came up with a comparison during the conversation that I think worth sharing further: The US Games Industry has fallen into the same trap as the US Comics Industry. Both of them are selling to niche markets that are far more limited than they could be. But neither of them has the courage to try to find the *new* markets that are out there. Most new experiments only get advertised and distributed through traditional channels, and therefore have no chance of reaching new audiences.

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Fascinating. Must digest all this info. Will get back to you when missing pronouns located.

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