I had a busy week at GDC Online, seeing some great panels and speaking with some enthusiastic developers. Since not all of you could attend this Austin, Texas event, we've done our best to bring you the highlights. Follow along after the jump for a quick rundown of what I saw, as well as the big takeaway from each.
Panel: Ian Bogost: Ruminations on Cow Clicker
At GDC 2010, Farmville won the Best New Social/Online game award, much to the chagrin of game developers everywhere. In the volatile atmosphere that followed, veteran game designer Raph Koster threw down the gauntlet and challenged designers to first make a Facebook game before passing judgment. Ian Bogost took the challenge, and he set about to distill Facebook games down to their very essence. The result was Cow Clicker, a game centered around the act of clicking a cow every six hours. Despite his attempts to abuse players with unreasonable demands -- $25 for a cow that faces the other way, for example -- he was surprised at how successful Cow Clicker became, and how invested some players became.
The Big Takeaway: Facebook games capture the heart, but not the soul, of games. The difference between a Facebook game and a traditional MMO is the the difference between the film Blue Velvet and an episode of The Suite Life of Zach and Cody. (Smaller Takeaway: Cow Clicker is a fertile field for puns.The Holy Cow and the currency "mooney" are my favorites.)
Front, center, and the largest booth on the floor, Bigpoint Games was determined to leave its mark on GDCO -- a point driven home by the invitation to its closing party, co-hosted by Playboy. Until recently, Bigpoint has focused on Europe, but in April it added a studio in San Francisco and is now aiming for the North American market. I had a tour of Bigpoint's browser-based games. The company has a free-to-play model that includes Battlestar Galactica Online, Seafight, Farmerama, and its latest title, a post-apocalyptic PvP game called Ruined.
The Big Takeaway: Low barriers to entry and smooth, browser-based graphics might bring Bigpoint the same success in North America that it's had in Europe.
Pirates of the Burning Sea made two major announcements recently. First, it officially launched its latest expansion, Power and Prestige. The expansion offers players the chance to be Port Governors through the Port Conquest system, revamped graphics and lighting, and faction rewards. There are 60 new missions and a "Brawling" fighting school. Second, the game is going free-to-play. The company has seen a substantial increase in player population, and Williams said that overall, things have gone smoothly.
The Big Takeaway: In yet another example of how players "find a way," Williams candidly talked about how marketing, and pre-launch player enthusiasm, affected beta testing:
"We had such a tight community and were so good at messaging that when beta went out, we had evangelized: this is how we're building, this is how we're expecting people to play. And people in beta were like, 'Yeah!' and embraced that style of gameplay. But after launch, someone would pick up the box and -- he's never heard about us, doesn't care about how we thought the game should be played -- and wow did they go to work.
"Things that we never saw problems about in beta, [we saw after launch]. My favorite was, basically people would collect a whole bunch of intention points. Ports started out, there's no PvP, and as one side starts trying to destabilize a port, it eventually flips to a state of PvP. So players would basically save up all these missions, and turn them in instantaneously, so instead of this gradual progression [it flipped instantly]. The idea is, 'this port's about to change, I'm going to leave, I don't want it.' And our goal is, 'I'm going to chance it one time, and find out about PvP and find out how great our PvP was.' What happened is, you're sailing a port that's peaceful and it suddenly flips. We fixed those things, but if you were a PvE player at the beginning of the game, you're like, 'I can't reasonably survive here.'"
The Big Takeaway II: Flying Labs has been working on lowering the barrier to entry by adding a streaming client, which should let players jump right in to play much sooner than they would if they had to download the entire game. The team has been working on this for a while and will unveil it in the near future. Williams said that they have lots of areas that they're excited to work on, now that they've finished work on the expansion and on the free-to-play transition. It sounds like they finally feel caught up from the post-launch issues and big game changes and are ready to push ahead with new ideas and a focus on fun.
Schubert, current lead designer at BioWare, talked about the grind in MMOs. He defined grind as something players don't want to do, but do in order to do what they want to do. Many things can be considered a grind, like leveling, killing rats or building up reputation. However, what one person considers grindy is another person's fun gameplay. He adds that the grind exists in games other than MMOs (Mafia Wars' requirement of level 18 before they play Las Vegas, for example). What he emphasized is that developers need to always ask themselves whether the grindy content they're adding is necessary.
The Big Takeaway: Schubert gave a morsel of information about work on Star Wars: The Old Republic. He talked about the idea of "gold quality content," and how in one particular starting area, the team had several quests with major storylines and unique objectives. The problem was that it actually overwhelmed the players, and in this case, the "gold content" actually was the grind.
Their solution was to space that content out, and move some of those larger quests near dungeons and other areas. Schubert also mentioned the notion of "bonus quests," which players will get while in the process of completing a particular quest objective.
I know, I know, you're saying to yourself, SOE has a playbook? Well, as Linda Carlson explained in her panel, when it came to the subject of integrating SOE's games with social networks, the playbook was a bit of a work in progress. Her talk was aimed directly at community managers in other MMOs, with an honest review of how SOE approached a very new subject.
The Big Takeaway: It was interesting to hear how SOE has tried to tailor itsr social networking strategy to each game. EverQuest, EverQuest II, and DC Universe Online use Facebook and Twitter for player communication and announcements. (Which sparked the question, "Do you see a time when there is no longer a need for official forums?") More casual games use Facebook for viral marketing. The Free Realms team has created new Facebook games that tie-in with the main game and offer in-game promotions to generate buzz and enthusiasm.
The Big Takeaway II: One interesting point Carlson brought up was the blur between "corporate" and "private" posts in venues like Facebook and Twitter. With thousands of players asking for developers to add them as friends, there is potential for private postings to bleed over into the community -- or worse -- create the scenario of the "developer scorned": someone who makes negative posts or tries to steal players if he or she leaves the company.
Although this was my first visit to Austin's GDC, the mood seemed more subdued than in San Francisco -- this was something that several GDC veterans also noticed. Perhaps it's the fact that so many companies are knee deep in projects, or perhaps it's the effects of the recession. It's hard to say.
Oh, and the CCP team looks like it parties as hard as its game. I tried to wear a black shirt to channel my inner EVE hardcore side, to no avail.