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GDC Next - Cool First Conference

Both of us attended GDC Next 2014 November 3-4. It was a cozy conference, focusing primarily on non-development topics: marketing, social media, business development. Both of us feel pretty lacking in these areas, and so eagerly hopped on too-early flights to attend.

Rather than give a boring session-by-session description of what I attended and learned, here's discussion on some of the highlights:

Biz dev

Business development doesn't mean a whole lot to me. "Developing the business", obviously, but I've seen the term used very strangely in some places I've worked. And how does it apply to being an indie game developer? What develops my business?

Without worrying too much about a precise or comprehensive definition, it's the techniques you use to build and strengthen your business. For us, that's connections with other developers, connections with journalists, connections with artists and musicians -- people with whom we want to exchange knowledge and services. It's connections with people who work for vendors of tools we use or might use.

It's... people. At least, that's my understanding of it at the moment. That's enough to get me doing something about it, so I'll run with it.

Remembering those connections is difficult enough for me to do on my own. It's a lot of names, a lot of companies, a lot of positions. Not everyone is on LinkedIn or Twitter. And crucially, Gregory and I can't readily share notes without something centralized.

So I picked a Customer Relationship Manager (CRM). I tried the free version of SugarCRM (unusably unattractive and lacking in features), Nutshell (has a trial, but would be at least $15/month), and Highrise (free for 2 users and up to 250 contacts). Highrise was the winner for now, especially when combined with a mobile business card reader.

One of the main things I wanted to capture were all of the composer and sound designer cards I've collected in these last two years. I really want to work with an external music person on one of our upcoming projects, and there are some cool local folks I've met through various meetups. That short stack of business cards is now captured.

Free-to-play Games

I don't want to make them.

Just kidding. Sorta. The bulk of the content in the F2P talks was about funnel optimization, ad revenue, and how to extend the life of these games. It was like listening to just about anyone I work with my day job. Seriously. Very, very little about the actual games, or about innovation in that space.

As we open Exploit: Zero Day's alpha, both of us are revisiting what we want to achieve with the game. We think there are great stories to tell in the game, but development on it has been slow for the amount of game produced, and both of us have a bit of fatigue on the project.

I wanted to learn about F2P games. Instead, I learned about F2P business, and worse yet, relatively little of it seems applicable to Zero Day. (I readily accept that I might be wrong on this.) We won't do ad revenue. We probably won't care too much about daily stats on Daily Active Users (DAUs) and Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) and the like.

Except... what if we do? Eep. I absolutely love stats. I'd probably build a Piwik plugin to generate those reports for me, which would take hours and hours.

Time I wouldn't be using to make more games.

Player Involvement

Involve users in your design. Don't involve users. Accept their feedback, then ignore it. Spend lots of time engaging your community. Spend even more time (and some money) with VIP members of your community.

Manage the perception of how much you care what customers suggest.

Not too strange of a set of ideas to anyone who's worked for a small-ish company, at least in the software industry. Many users can conjure up feature ideas for you, both good and bad. Problems often get reported as solutions -- "I don't like this. I think you should do this other thing instead." Well, what's the fundamental problem, so that we can apply sound design techniques to solve it?

Anyway, I think I was just surprised to see this crop up at the conference.


I'm thoroughly swayed towards hiring a (maybe local) composer and sound designer for our next game, even though the money may come out of my pocket.

Zero Day is a good, easy project for a sound designer (yes, please), but our next game is more traditional (currently being prototyped in Unity), and audio will likely make or break the mood of the game.

Famous People

I got to hang with cool famous people. They were awesome.

Difficulty Management

If you consider challenge in games to be a mechanism for learning the system of the game (think of how blatant this is in games like Portal 2 or Braid), then consider carefully the impact of tweaking that difficulty. Attempts to make games more accessible (e.g., removing obstacles from levels), to rubber-band players' progress (á la Mario Kart), to encourage grinding, or slowing down users' progression (often done in free-to-play games) has all sorts of implications on the players' intrinsic motivations and how much learning happens in the game.

It's one of those things that seems perfectly obvious... once it's laid out in an organized way, with pros and cons of each tactic.

Given my own interests in accessibility, I've been thinking on how this applies to game accessibility. Most things I think of as accessibility-related (as pertains to disabilities) are "meta" things -- including an option for subtitles or allowing people to remap their control schemes probably only slightly impacts the gameplay, despite being "barrier removal" of a sort. (Counterexamples are welcome!)

And So...

For a two-day conference, and as my first game dev-related conference, GDC Next was perfect. Meet cool people, learn cool stuff, and have a mixture of actionable and thought-provoking stuff to run with.

Previously: Next:

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