I really do love these conferences.

A good long day of interesting presentations and meeting people… once again, I am so glad I decided to make the trip, despite the usual hassles of travel and schedules and hiccups at work, oh my!

A “brief” summary of Day 1 below the fold.  P.S.  Sorry if it seems a bit disjointed.  I have to admit, I’m a bit exhausted…not as resilient as I used to be, I guess.

Prelude 

Got up at 6 am to get the day started without any big rush, especially since it was fairly late when things finally got settled down last night (I hit the hotel about 11pm).  Got cleaned up, and after a brief bout with email and office-related tasks, hooked up with Brent (VirginWorlds) and Erik (Granite Games) for a quick breakfast at a nearby coffee shop.  These Extended Stay hotels are fairly nice, but they do lack some of the conveniences of the top flight hotels, such as complimentary breakfast buffets, for example.

We then walked over to the convention center and after getting our badges and the like, met up with Michael Zenke of MMOGNation blog, Slashdot, 1up, etc. in the hall for the Day 1 Keynote, presented by Michael Morhaime, president and co-founder of Blizzard, titled “How To Rule The World (of Warcraft): Ten Lessons”.   While I didn’t find it quite as inspirational as last year’s keynote by Rob Pardo, it was interesting to hear what he felt had been key to Blizzard’s success over the years.  Many of the points were expected: don’t release until it’s ready, build and protect the brand name, and so on.

One point that was somewhat new to me, though quite logical in retrospect, was how important simultaneous release was to Blizzard in the single player game market.  A good 2-3 minutes of the talk went into the effects that pirated and/or “grey-market” purchases in Europe and Asia had on titles, and how much greater apparent market acceptance and penetration was achieved simply by releasing regional titles at approximately the same time.

In short, it was a decent presentation overall.  I’m sure Michael will have a complete write-up posted somewhere soon, he was quite busily and ably (very impressive, actually) typing up the entire thing as it progressed.  Watch his MMOGNation blog for specifics.

Hooked up with Aaron of Anyway Games blog after the keynote, chatted very briefly, then went our separate ways for the first session…

Session 1: No Room in the Inn?

The first disappointment of the day came when I tried to get into either of my two first choices for Session 1.  Raph’s presentation was packed by the time I hit the door, and then the real issue came to light… maximum occupancy rules were being strictly enforced.  Find a seat, or you have to move on… and there were no seats.

So, I’m thinking, after a brief surge of irritation, well, that’s okay, Raph usually posts his presentations on his blog anyway… this gives me a good excuse to go see Psychochild and Jessica Mulligan in action at their session.  <HONK>  Wrong.  That one was full, too.  I had a few unpleasant thoughts for the organizers at that moment, I must admit, though I understood the situation.

I did finally find a session I could sneak into: Caching for Web 2.0-How and Why, presented by Adam Martin.  This was actually quite interesting, from a technical geek point of view.  I walked away with a little better understanding of what concepts really encompass the Web 2.0 paradigm than I had before, as well as some good baseline info on various strategies and potential issues related to caching  (5 second summary: validating during caching, bad; assume requests are valid; good info on caching at http://danga.com/memcached/)

I presume he will have more information up shortly re: this and much more at his blog.     

Lunch

The lot of us (Brent, Erik, Aaron, and myself) then regrouped and met up with Cuppycake (Tami), blogger and, of course, new Community Manager of Areae.net.  A little wandering found us a restaurant that wasn’t totally packed, and we successfully got a little lunch put away in addition to a whole lot of chatting back and forth.

I just have to say, Brent and Tami are both just plain amazing in how many people they know (and how many know them), especially amongst the SOE staff, but really even in general terms.  (I am simply in awe.)  The discussion went back and forth amongst mutliple topics simultaneously… blogging, podcasting, news and rumors, the works.  It was a great time, and I felt honored to be included.

Session 2: Stories that Flow

Originally, I had intended to go to Community Management 101, if just to finally see Tweety presenting in person after years of enjoying her writing (Eating Bees blog).  Brent, Cuppy, Erik and I all headed that direction to start with, while Aaron headed off for a separate session.  The rest of the Civilized (Gaming) World apparently had much the same idea, however… and the two programmers (Erik and myself) bolted from the crowd, and ended up in the “Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Building Game Stories That Flow” session instead (which had about the same number of people, really, but the room was far bigger).

I really enjoyed this one.  The presenter, Patrick Redding of Ubisoft (Narrative Director for Farcry 2, I believe) really had a great presentation trying to elaborate on how the psychological concept of Flow might be used to evaluate and better incorporate story into games in order to make it more central to and supportive of the game experience.  My notes are spotty: I’ll have to track down better references at some point, but the basics are as follows.

The eight elements that lead to Flow in games, according to Sweetsen and Wyeth, are

  • Concentration
  • Challenge
  • Player Skills
  • Control
  • Clear Goals
  • Feedback
  • Immersion
  • Social Interaction

His presentation went thru each of these elements, and gave examples of how each might be better implemented/represented in designing game systems, narratives, and stories.  His example was very illustrative of how to better integrate Challenge and Control elements without compromising things like Immersion and the like.

There was far too much to try to summarize it even briefly, to be honest.  His blog is here… hopefully he’ll post his presentation soon.  Lots of good material and solid insight.

Session 3: Breaking Barriers

I pretty much lost track of everyone at this point, having some sessions I really wanted to take in that no one else was really interested in.  Breaking the In-Game/Out-of-Game Barrier was the first.  I’ve always felt that “lower intensity” additions of ways to access and interface with the MMO genre (like EQ2Players and WoW Armory), and for computer games in general, has huge potential for gaining and retaining players… and here are two guys that agree with me!  Woot!

Sean Flinn and Todd Northcutt, both of Gamespy, were the presenters in this session, and had some nice examples of existing games and platforms that are leveraging information and activity from within the game in web sites and other “out-of-game” venues to extend community, entertainment value, and create greater retention.    Games they mentioned included:

Battlefield series: started with Battlefield 1942 as a fairly typical standalone game, then over time added a full-on web portal with buddy list, stats from gameplay, and so on.

Forza 2: racing game for the X-Box that builds additional value with web-based stats and an interface into the in-game auction house that allows you to research designs and track (tho not yet make) bids.

Nintendo WiFi: driving traffic to a web portal with stats and content for even the simplest games, showing things as simple as “Last 20 players” and “Day vs. Night usage” to generate traffic and retention.  Mini-Mario 2 has user-created levels that can be uploaded and downloaded, and catalogued via the web portal, creating further value.

EQ2Players.com: highlighted as an example, along with WoW Armory, of how MMOs are extending game involvement (if not play) beyond the dedicated client.

WoW MySpace: an example of leveraging other social networking tools to generate greater player interest and interaction beyond/outside the dedicated client.

This was a really good presentation that really engaged my interest in additional ways to extend involvement in games beyond the “play session”, a phenomenon I first noted in pen-and-paper and have always felt had amazing value.  I was really gald to see someone take the concept and give it some emphasis.  The session was very well attended, as well, so I have high hopes we will see even more of this type of thing moving forward.

Session 4: Back to Geeksville

I am a database guy at heart.  I love just playing with data… I can query usage stats on a system all day long, searching for patterns and just generally entertaining myself with row upon row of numbers.  So, of course, when I saw a session named “The Latest Learning-Database Solutions”, I just had to sit in on it.

A really good session, actually.  There were three presenters: Rafhael Cedeno of Multiverse, Jay Lee of Trion World Network (an MMO company I had never heard of before… they’ve got something in the pipeline, need to track down what), and Doug Mellencamp of Bioware.  Each gave a brief synopsis of how they are approaching the problem of handling the massive data storage issues of MMOs with existing data storage concepts.

The takeaways in brief were: there is no one size fits all solution; having a caching layer is almost always a good idea; component-based development is starting to become a popular alternative to the more typical OOP paradigm, which has an impact on data handling strategies; use every trick you’ve got in your trick bag to fine tune your schema, both before and after launch, because it will matter. 

The most surprising thing of all for me was how little of this was really “new” to me: I’ve done systems in IVR that were data-driven with a level of abstraction similar to what Mr. Mellencamp presented as a potential component-based schema, for example.  The reassuring part was that there was little really new info… but a lot of good tips and tricks also slipped in during the presentation that were very illuminating as well.  All-in-all, I was really happy I made it to this one.

Fini

Well, that’s it for today.  I crawled back to the hotel and holed up in the room, checking the old email, typing up this post, and just generally relaxing.  I feel a little bad that I’m not out at the various social events, but those have never been my forte… I’ll leave those events for Brent and Cuppy and others far more suited to describe as they see fit.  Hopefully I’ll be able to give a similar overview of the next two days as well, and that people can get at least some small sense of the conference as a result.  Until tomorrow…

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