The continuing story of a blogger wandering the conference center halls…

Another good day, and more good stuff, though I’m not sure a lot of it is of interest to anyone but me.  The “brief” version of today is as follows…

Note: missing some links below… I’ll get them tomorrow, just having a little problem keeping my eyes open at the moment…

Pretty much started the day same as yesterday, coffee house breakfast with Erik and Brent, met Aaron at the conference center.  Decided to skip the keynote and instead head on into the exhibition hall with Erik, make a first pass through and see what there was to see.  Bumped into Michael as we were waiting for the doors to open, but he was heading for an interview, so just basically got to say “hi”. 

We met and talked with the Multiverse evangelist, Ron Meiners, (who blogs at Virtual Cultures, btw) and who amazingly recognized me from a brief discussion back during IMGDC.  (I was kind of surprised, I usually fade in people’s memory pretty fast.)  Talked a bit about the latest news there, added yet another thing to the endless list of things I’d like to take a deeper look at sometime…

We then wandered over to a new company I’d never heard of as an engine maker (tho Erik had) called Icarus Studios.  I’d heard of their game, of course, Fallen Earth, but not that they were licensing the engine and tools.  Apparently a fairly high end package, like Hero Engine (so not exactly pocket change to get into it) but we went through their guided demo of the tool set and engine, looked pretty solid.  Fun to see the various products and get a chance to dig under the hood a little.

Lots of recruiting going on as well, toolkits for ambient sound, voice chat, contract services of various types (customer service, marketing/PR, etc.).  Other big engine booths that I didn’t get a chance to explore were Bigworld and Hero Engine.  Sun’s Darkstar engine I did get a chance to look at a teensy bit later in the day… I need to look a little more closely at the site later.  Sounds like they already have some integration with Torque, which was an interesting tidbit…

Anyway, so we missed the keynote and the first session just wandering around the exhibitors hall, then joined Aaron for lunch.  He, of course, immediately made me wish I had went into the keynote by saying it had been one of the most thought provoking presentations of the conference so far. (sigh)  Presumably I’ll be able to catch the gist of the talk somehow, somewhere…

Session 2: Zen of Design

A packed room for Damion’s presentation, “Zen of Design”, which was another good one re-examining some of the larger design questions of the MMO domain.  We arrived early, and thus succeeded in locking up decent seats, by happenstance near Cuppy who was there for the session as well, with others from the Areae crew.

I’m not going to try to recount all of it, especially since I’m sure it will be up on his blog in relatively short order.  (And yes, the cupholder history/analogy made perfect sense). 

I particularly liked his take on the World vs. Game debate, in which he basically added Community as a third element separate from World and Game, and then suggested evaluating various systems and design elements by looking at it from each of those three perspectives, getting a “include/don’t include” response from each, majority rules.  Of course, nearly all of his examples ended up with Community and Game on the same side, and World as the odd man out, him leaning a bit more philosophically toward the “Game” side of the spectrum, but I personally thought the model is quite innovative and has significant merit.  I’ll post more on this once he puts his slides on line, I’m sure.  Short version: a greatly entertaining and thought provoking talk, and I was very glad I was able to attend.

Session 3: Ahead of their time

Next we decamped to the adjacent room to take part in Brent and Michael’s panel on blogs and podcasters, “Playing Nice with Alternative Media” and a discussion of how these new “alternative media” forms might be better utilized by developers and publishers as alternative methods of communicating with existing and potential players.  The attendance was somewhat disappointing, actually, although the number of “big name/celebrity” people from various companies was actually quite impressive, and of course several bloggers (including Aaron and myself) and podcasters showed up as well.  Perhaps 40 people total… not an empty room by any measure, but not as packed as other sessions, either.

The discussion was moderated by Michael, who did a nice job of mixing up the questions and keeping things moving, and the panelists were all obviously keyed in to the discussion.  Brent, of course, ably represented the “indie blogger/podcaster” viewpoint, Alan Crosby of the EQ podcast, Elizabeth Harper of the WoWInsider blog, and Sanya Weathers, perhaps best known as former community manager for DAoC, aka Tweety, now blogging at the Eating Bees blog and new Community Manager for GuildCafe.

All the panelists, whether corporate or indie in background, believe strongly that blogs and podcasts add a new dimension to the possible types of interaction game companies can have with their audience, and while only Sony has really capitalized on that to any real degree as of yet, there was an unspoken concensus that such avenues would likely become ever more commonly utilized moving forward.  Perhaps to be expected given the panelists, but still nice to hear, nonetheless.

I imagine there will be something from Brent or Michael or someone as far as a more detailed transcript of the questions and some of the answers, so I’ll keep this short, but all the panelists were engaging and interesting to listen to, and comparing the responses based on very different perspectives, perhaps the most notable thing was that everyone saw many of the same challenges and responsibilities in precisely the same light, from how best to deal with rumors and false assertions, to the best way to reach out to bloggers and podcasters to generate interest (i.e. largely a hands-off yet responsive approach was the concensus on the latter).

Very enjoyable, and I was very glad I went.  It will be interesting to see if other companies besides Sony start to pursue similar levels of engagement with the “alternative media” avenues that we bloggers and podcasters represent.

Session 4: Story, the Bioware way

Last session of the day was in the Writing for Games category, “Writing, the Bioware Way”.  This was a discussion of the internal processes Bioware uses to develop their stories for RPGs in particular, which has evolved over time, but been used in one form or another for titles like Baldur’s Gate, NWN, Jade Empire, and their latest soon-to-be-released Mass Effect.  Very interesting how intense the process really is, with multiple review and rewrite iterations in each phase, all the way from initial brainstorming right up through the final integration of voiceover recordings and facial expressions.

Mass Effect will incorporate an interesting new twist, where dialog, while still branching in a very similar manner to past Bioware titles, will not show you the exact words of your response, but instead will be more general: for example, an option to agree to undertake a task for an NPC might be listed as “Sure, why not” on the selection ring, but the dialog will be fuller, to the effect of “I would be honored to assist you in finding your grandfather’s sword”, or whatever might be appropriate.  In the examples we saw, it really made for added interest (at least for me, the RPG geek), in that even as the option was being selected with complete control over the general response (yes, no, maybe), I was wondering exactly how it would be expressed.  A unique and quite engaging twist… Mass Effect is going to be a very interesting game, I think.

The review of the Bioware process, and tools they use to generate their dialogue trees, was also quite interesting, tho not all that different from what one might expect if you sat down and thought about it.  The tools looked very full-featured and easy to use, and yet a lot of it really wasn’t all that different than what was shipped with NWN… just added functionality to accommodate new interfaces, new features, that kind of thing.

Anyway, a good informative session, and the brief little preview of how Mass Effect will look and handle dialogue just made it all that much sweeter.

Conclusion

Final day of the conference tomorrow, of course.  Not sure whether I will be blogging or catching up on sleep (I never sleep well on the road) tomorrow night, so the review of the final day may not be up til Saturday after I get home… just an FYI.  More later…

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