Ah, the joys of living in Maryland! There’s the occasionally perfect weather, the widely available crab dip, and one of the largest game development communities in the U.S. If you remember my article on the last event I managed to snake my way into, you’ll know that I’ve been trying to create some sort of bridge between us lowly consumers and those who provide for us. Given how quick the internet is to judge anything and accuse its creators of homosexuality, I feel like there has been an old fashioned failure to communicate. It’s understandable though. When you look at monolithic companies like Monolith it’s easy to forget that a corporation is merely a group of people (in this case, usually very talented people). I digress though. What I’m here to talk about is an event I attended that is hosted by the Baltimore chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).
While their website might seem a bit opaque or of little use to your average gamer, there’s a wealth of information to be gained from the IGDA meetings held by local chapters. Much in the same way that music or literature becomes more interesting when you understand the artistic process, talking to game designers can lend a new perspective to the art form. I’m sure at one point almost everyone who reads this site thought of an “amazing” game idea but never really got past the basic concept. Discussing games with developers is an opportunity to see just how much a project can grow and change from just a simple idea.
The first “developer” I spoke to was a young man who had taken the wildly successful MaKeyMaKey tools and created a demonstration of exactly how flexible the hardware can be. The basics behind MaKey MaKey revolve around the simple transmission of an electrical current through basically any conductive object. The signal can be split and sent through multiple inputs and can basically turn anything into a keyboard input. Their Kickstarter video covers some of the more obvious applications for the toolkit, but my new friend had a slightly more ambitious use for the tools. His goal was to create _ a completely responsive and intuitive sword fighting game with local multiplayer (something that still hasn’t been achieved with the Wii). What’s even better is that it requires negligible processing power and ,besides the MaKey MaKey kit, the cost of the peripherals is several cents. This is of course a rather flowery way of describing a pair of tinfoil pads that are hung from players’ necks and their corresponding tinfoil wrapped cardboard rods, but there’s a great deal that can be learned from a project like this. The most important lesson being that in an industry that seems to throw millions of dollars at perceived problems, there’s still room for affordable solutions and innovation. I’ve said it before: it’s an interesting time in the industry, especially for those who can think outside the box.
The second developer I spoke with had a bit more of a typical indie developer approach. One of the heads of Impending Studios was kind enough to let me play an extremely early build of an as-of-yet untitled game. While the demo itself was a rather basic top-down space-shooter, the lead developer was more than happy to explain where he was trying to take the title. Adam named the “Age of Discovery” as one of his major touchstones. Dancing on atop to vast gulfs between the pillars of human knowledge is after all a classic direction to take science fiction. It’s hard to think of a more vast gulf than space itself. I wasn’t able to pry a release date out of him, but Adam reassured me that investment, be it time or money or passion, is one of the great motivators in game design. While the game itself may not ready for some time, it’s clear that Impending Studios has invested a great deal in it.
But on to the main event! A presentation on the relevance of focus-testing games from Mark Allenbach of Frank N. Magid Associates Inc. Not on the top of my list of lectures I’d like to attend when six beers deep but I’m always open to new experiences. As it turned out, it was worth hearing Mark out. His first point was to emphasize why focus testing is even necessary in today’s industry. There’s plenty of opposition to this point from both players and developers right now. Even I’ve expressed qualms about the overemphasis of “committee based design” , but Mr. Allenbach actually had some interesting things to say on the matter. He spoke at length about the problems that tunnel vision can create even in the early phases of game design. Maybe other mediums can support the unadulterated vision of a gifted auteur, but save for the occasional gaming prodigy, nearly all titles of any significance are a collaborative project that require input from multiple perspectives. Allenbach was insistent on reminding the present developers that while they may have an emotional investment in their project, a fresh pair of eyes probably wouldn’t see it the same way.
In terms of more specific insights, Allenbach pointed to some of the statistics on MMOs that his company had gathered. One of the more obvious conclusions he had come to is that the MMO crowd represents a very invested fan base. Part of the reason could be the sheer amount of time that most MMOs require or large communities that enforce a sense of commitment to a particular title. This is what’s led to the term MMO becoming incredibly loaded. Reliable user-bases tend to put the genre in a safe-zone so that long time players can know what to expect. The problem is that this tends to scare off untapped groups of customers who tend to see nothing new in a product line they already don’t enjoy. Mark also noted that most MMO players usually fall into one of two camps. They either play one title exclusively, or they play eleven. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s been around gamers long enough but it’s interesting to see confirmatory evidence from industry professionals.
Overall I was actually quite surprised by the insight that Chris had to offer. I guess in my own rebellious way, I’ve always been distrustful of those who would “exploit” an artistic medium for commercial gain. While that may be the case for some publishers, it’s important to recognize that a work of art’s commercial success isn’t due to propaganda or brainwashing, it’s because that art resonated with people. Marketing is as much an exercise in psychology and cultural study as it is a corporate tool. Even if their endgame is monetary gain, a marketing department is still trying to understand gamers as a whole.
There you have it folks. The penultimate IGDA Baltimore meeting in a nutshell. Ask around town to see if they have a chapter near you and go to a meeting or 2. I walked in thinking “why the hell not” and came out having learned a few things; the most important of which being that game developers can be some of the most knowledgeable and passionate people you’ll ever meet.