When a game developer's fancy turns towards San Jose
at the end of March each year, they are naturally thinking of Game
Developers Conference, hosted by CMP. However, the day after the
world-renowned GDC is over and most of the regular "professional
developers" have returned to their hometowns is when the truly
hardcore hang out across the road in the Hyatt Sainte Claire hotel.
Cramped into a room not much bigger than those hosting some of the
smaller sessions at GDC, giving up their weekend, they swap stories
of success and failure, academic research papers and interesting
Welcome to MUD-Dev Conference 2004, the second-annual official
developer's gathering of the MUD-Dev Mailing List that took place
March 27-28, 2004. Inaccurately named, the conference covers all
forms of Massively Multiplayer Online Games rather than just Multi-User
Domains (a.k.a. Multi-User Dungeons). Considering how hot a topic
these games are in the games industry right now, there were probably
many people at the GDC who would have benefited from the MUD-Dev
conference had they realized that it was taking place and the topics
it was to cover.
Easy going and relatively quiet-spoken J. C. Lawrence is the MUD-Dev
mailing list moderator. With his jarhead buzz cut and bone-crushing,
no-nonsense handshake he's the sort of person you'd expect to find
on a parade ground barking orders at raw recruits, not MC-ing a
gathering of weedy, pasty-faced game developers. J. C. ran the show
with all the stress-free aplomb of a seasoned conference organizer.
He had time for everyone and more energy than the entire room combined
as he squeezed his 6' 7" frame between crowded aisles bearing
the radio microphone that conference attendees would use to bombard
the current speaker with questions, comments, and occasionally lengthy
rebuttals. It was a testament to J. C.'s professionalism and easy-going
nature that even though the conference began 25 minutes later than
planned and ran those 25 minutes late throughout the day--not one
person kvetched. Everybody was there to have fun and learn what
they could. If the conference had been any more laid-back, a few
chairs would have tipped over--that made for a pleasant change from
the almost constant frenetic pace of the previous five days at the
Game Developers Conference.
The MUD-Dev Conference officially kicked off at 10AM on Saturday,
but almost the entire conference attendee list gathered the evening
before to walk the few blocks to Teske's Germania, a Beer Keller
situated in downtown San Jose, for what is quickly becoming a traditional
dinner gathering. It was here that the first inkling of just how
diverse a group of people would be attending, and how far they had
traveled, became apparent. Each person in the room stood up, one
by one, and briefly introduced themselves to the assembly--no rambling
introductory speeches allowed. The ratio of men to women was noticeably
more even than at other game developer gatherings, echoing the wider
demographic appeal of online games. One more MUD-Dev dinnertime
tradition happens when desert is served--everyone stands up and
exchanges their current seat for another, forcing everybody to start
a new conversation with a new group of attendees.
Walking around on the Saturday and talking to the attendees felt
very much like the early days of the Game Developers Conference,
back when Chris Crawford was a big part of the event. Everybody
knew everyone else, and people were not just faces in the crowd.
The person you spoke with earlier or had a lively discussion with
about game design over a crowded lunch table was later presenting
a panel discussion on the history of Habitat, or an academic
paper on "Continent Scale Persistent Online Worlds."
The conference had a strong academic and professional presence
with luminaries from universities and companies around the globe.
Attendees from large developer studios (such as Sony Online Entertainment)
were here to listen to what others had to say about persistent multi-player
worlds, and offer their own advice and experiences.
The speakers, consummate professionals who presented their topics
with the same zeal they practice their craft with, covered a head-spinning
range of topics. These ranged from specific programming issues related
to automatically generating interesting content for online persistent
worlds to more academic discussions on the future of cyberspace
economies and sociological issues.
Alistair Riddoch, a lecturer at the University of Southampton,
England and one of the co-Lead Programmers on the Open Source Software
(OSS) project "WorldForge", opened the conference with
an academic paper detailing how to stream large, continuous terrain
data sets using pseudo-random predictive interpolation for compression
of the height field. Programming continued with John Arras presenting
his academic work on hierarchical world generation that is used
to automatically spawn content for a persistent world.
A panel presented by a number of professional award-winning developers,
which included Daniel James, one of the developers of this year's
Independent Games Festival multiple award winning game Puzzle
Pirates, spoke about developing independent online games, the
hurdles they faced, and the financing models available.
Shortly after lunch, Constance Steinkuehler, a psychologist studying
online games for her PhD, gave her experiences as an online guild
leader for Lineage: The Blood Pledge, also the subject of
her thesis. She advocated that companies be more open and give greater
control to the players, who contribute enormous resources to the
game world both online and offline. She presented possible ways
in which companies could leverage those players who make the games
a large part of their life. Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar, winners
of the first IGDA Penguin Award--given to trail-blazing pioneers
in game development--and the founders of Habitat for the
Commodore 64, on the other hand, gave a more sobering look at what
really works in the commercial world with a case study of their
experiences at Habitat and in later online communities they
developed. Their long experience in the field gave some very valuable
insight that creators of any online community or game could really
learn from. For anyone who missed the conference and is interested
in digging deeper, Chip maintains a lot of this information in the
Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat" on his website.
At the end of the Saturday programming conference, attendees began
the pre-organized trek out to Dave & Busters (Chuck E. Cheese
for adults) to consume vast quantities of bar food, alcohol, video
games, and further lively conversations concerning online worlds.
Sunday saw the conference take a slightly different approach. Willing
people were divided in to small Kaffeklatsche (round-table discussion
groups for those who don't speak Dutch) too tackle the various laws
of online gaming and then come together at the end of the conference
to present a summary of their deliberations. The conference wrapped
up quietly around the middle of Sunday afternoon, with the majority
of attendees heading to an open-invite BBQ benevolently hosted by
Jon and Beth Leonard.
For more information on the MUD-Dev Conference, to purchase the
audio recording of the single presentation track (well worth the
money I should add) or to discover more about the group, check out
the MUD-Dev mailing list website.