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From the Editor: 5 key takeaways from GDC 2012

From the Editor: 5 key takeaways from GDC 2012 Exclusive

March 12, 2012 | By Kris Graft




[Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft looks back at last week's Game Developers Conference, highlighting devs' thoughts on future consoles, games on the brain and mobile niche opportunities.]

If you work in the video game industry and happen to be even more exhausted than usual for a Monday morning, you might have been at last week's Game Developers Conference 2012.

It was a week of knowledge-sharing, networking, deal-making and inspiration-giving, possibly punctuated nightly by a few drinks with friends. But when the honeymoon post-GDC high is over in a week or two, what are the trends that emerged at GDC that will leave an impact between now and GDC 2013? Here are a few trends that we identified from this year (see all of Gamasutra's extensive coverage here).

Mobile: For all your niche game needs

There are a lot of mobile devices out there right now. Between Android platforms, iOS and Windows, game developers do not need to try to be everything to every mobile "gamer." Now there is big enough of a pool of mobile players that developers can identify their audience, target them specifically, and become commercially successful.

Nathan Vella from Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery developer Capy told GDC attendees, "At first glance, the logic [of targeting everyone] makes sense. Super mainstream games such as Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope have each sold tens of millions of copies. Attempting to replicate that success is natural. But in reality, if you are making a game for everyone, you are actually making a game for no-one. The hit-based mentality takes you away from making a game that has soul or is fresh."

The strategy of targeting a specific audience worked out for Capy, with the stylized Superbrothers: S&S selling 350,000 units in its first 12 months on iOS.

Similar tips came from Cave's Mikio Watanabe. His company's hardcore iOS scrolling shooter games -- targeted for a clear audience in mind -- sell for about $12-13 on the App Store. "If it's a hardcore product, go for the higher price point," he said. "...Don't underprice your product."

And Matt Small, whose studio Vector Unit went from Xbox Live Arcade game Hydro Thunder: Hurricane to mobile games Riptide GT and Shine Runner, stressed, "There's an audience for just about any kind of game you want to make on mobile. ...Use the [audience] as a benchmark...don't try to be all things to all people."

"Hardcore" developers dive deeper into free-to-play

At one time, developers might have believed that "hardcore gamers" would be some of the first to reject the free-to-play business model. That's a "casual gamer" thing, right? At best, it's for MMOs? But in recent years, the eyes of "core," non-MMO developers have opened up to the possibility of serving a core audience through the free-to-play model.

Core game players are open to the free-to-play business model, as long as it's done in a way that doesn't appear unfair or exploitative. Valve's Joe Ludwig explained how his company changed Team Fortress 2 from a triple-A boxed retail product to a free-to-play, virtual item-based online product. The change revived Team Fortress 2's financial viability in a big way.

"It was risky, everything could have gone horribly wrong, but we felt it was worth the risk to try the new business model," Ludwig said.

Gamasutra also spoke with A.C.R.O.N.Y.M., one of the developers behind the Unity-based browser game Mechwarrior Tactics. It's a tactics game (typically a rather hardcore genre) based on the Mechwarrior franchise (giant customizable robots -- not really for mom), and it's going to be free-to-play.

Same goes for Ironclad Games' stellar-looking Sins of a Dark Age, a game shown at GDC which combines RTS elements with League of Legends-style action-RTS gameplay to create something unique. Also on the showfloor was Crytek's free-to-play shooter Warface. It's not a completely new trend (see Battlefield Heroes and LoL), but GDC 2012 showed that even more core game developers are going to give the business model a serious shot in the near future.

Re-think player feedback

Focus groups, usability testing and playtesting are nothing new, but the way that game developers approach feedback on their games is changing. Drew Murray, lead designer of Resistance 3 at Insomniac, for example, explained how the team started the game's aiming and shooting control from scratch, despite having released two previous games in the franchise. The team then relied heavily on player feedback to rebuild those controls.

But even that's a rather traditional approach towards player feedback. Spry Fox's David Edery, whose studio worked with Wild Shadow Studios on the online game Realm of the Mad God, said that after noticing some unintended player behavior, the developers decided to "fix" the issue and make significant changes to the game, even though they knew the changes would incite criticism from some of the more vocal community members.

The developers made the change, pissed off some people, then saw retention rates soar. "As a company, I feel like we've gotten really good at saying 'screw it, let's change it and see what happens.' That's kind of the takeaway -- remember to tell yourself, it's okay if it doesn't work, we'll just change it back," said Edery.

Vector Unit's Matt Small reminded mobile game developers that they shouldn't be "precious" with their games, even when they're early in development. Get your games in front of people, get their feedback, and, if it warrants action, act on that feedback. With the portability of mobile devices, putting your game in someone's hands is as easy as ever. "It's really important to get it in front of friends and family, you want to pull people off the street [to try your game and give feedback]," he said.

Console is a question mark

The role of video game consoles in the future is unclear. There will surely be a role, but the size of the addressable market and how they serve that market is anyone's guess. At GDC, many developers offered their own speculation.

Ben Cousins, formerly of Electronic Arts and Battlefield developers DICE, now works at mobile game firm Ngmoco. At GDC, he said the death of game consoles is already underway. " By 'die', I mean ... something that has significantly smaller market share with no sign of return," he said.

"I believe that mobile devices and mobile platforms are the disruptive technologies that are going to cut a slice through the Western [console] market," he said.

But there are still developers who are counting on the next-gen of consoles to succeed. Developers polled by Gamasutra, varying widely in size and influence, gave us a few items for their next-gen console wishlists.

Of course, some of them said they wanted more processing power, more RAM, and easier cross-platform development. But other wishes -- which were less likely to have come up back in 2005 -- related to developers suggesting console manufacturers should take cues from the mobile marketplaces, with their smaller-sized apps and a level of curation that isn't as strict as marketplaces from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo today.

Others told Gamasutra that more platform openness would be welcome in the next-gen, the kind of openness that would allow for faster updates for online games, a more direct relationship with online communities, and more support for new business models. We wouldn't be surprised to see a new console come along and try to be all of these things.

Game design and the brain still an important discussion

Do players put themselves in the shoes of Nathan Drake? If a game doesn't always stimulate the player's twitch reflex, does it fail? How do games interact with players' brains? Game designers at GDC 2012 continued to ponder the important and fundamental ways in which players play games.

Rich Lemarchand from Uncharted developer Naughty Dog dislikes words like "immersion" and "engagement." They're rather meaningless, he said. Instead, game developers should be more concerned with "getting attention" or "holding attention" of players. That can be done through aesthetics, narrative and story, or, most effectively, through gameplay systems. When well-designed, "gameplay is like mental catnip to us," he said.

Fellow Naughty Dog staffer, programmer Kaitlyn Burnell, said in her own GDC session that since the brain relies on chemical reactions, players can only sustain certain emotions for a limited amount of time. "If the brain uses those chemicals too much, players won't be able to feel that emotion," she said.

Ubisoft's Jason VandenBerghe has also been thinking about games and the brain. At GDC, he talked about psychology's five motivations for human behavior -- openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism -- and applied that to making games. "We tend to play for the same reasons we live," he said.

Dan Pinchbeck with Dear Esther developer thechineseroom argued that over-stimulation of players' brains actually kills atmosphere. His game is virtually void of gameplay systems, but it under-stimulates to great effect, telling a story through visuals and narrative along the way. "A lack of stimulation does not equate to a lack of experience. In fact, a lack of stimulation allows for other experiences to grow," he said.

Thatgamecompany's Chris Bell talked about not only how players think about games, but how players think about games when playing them with other players. His studio is behind the game Journey, which facilitates relationships through online play with no speech, text, or ability to see other players' faces. It's an online game in the purest sense, and it achieved that to critical acclaim. "Because you engage in these experiences with another player, there's the potential to go through a wide range of emotions with them," said Bell.


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