Lunch with the Luminaries 2009

March 25, 2009 — Leave a comment

This year, I hosted a lunch at GDC with:
Will Wright – EA
Warren Spector – Disney
Rob Pardo – Blizzard
Neil Young – NGMOCO
Brian Fargo – inXile
Gary Whitta (veteran game reporter) was our moderator
(from Gamasutra – By Chris Remo)
During a fast-paced luncheon panel held during Game Developers Conference, notable industry veterans discussed a variety of current gaming trends, including social gaming, changing attitudes towards pricing, and cloud computing in the context of the recent OnLive announcement.
Assembled at the Gamasutra-exclusive event were Warren Spector of Junction Point, Neil Young of ngmoco, Will Wright of Maxis, Rob Pardo of Blizzard (or “the U.S. Mint,” as moderator Gary Whitta joked), Dave Perry of Acclaim, and Brian Fargo of inXile.
The event was kicked off by recounting a recent Nolan Bushnell quote disparaging social gaming: “Social is buying someone a drink. Sitting in a dark room in your underpants talking to someone might seem social, but it’s not cool.”
He then turned to Pardo, who manages “maybe the largest group of people in their underpants in the world.”
Pardo said social gaming is “becoming a cooler and cooler thing to do,” pointing to all the people who have met in World of Warcraft and ended up maintaining real-world relationships — even up to marriage. “It’s too bad the media continues to paint it in a certain way,” he said. “A lot of [players] have families, have kids, play with their kids. …Look at all the stuff with the Wii. It’s the same with massively multiplayer games, or social games. …It’s becoming more acceptable.”
“But is that a real relationship?” asked Perry.
Responded Pardo, “Sometimes it’s more real. When you’re at a bar, what are you talking about? When you’re online, you’re sharing a hobby with someone.”
“Who cares what you’re talking about, if you’re getting something out of it?” asked Wright.
Wright called for a “broader definition” of social gaming, saying that all kinds of shared game experiences can be social, be they intentionally so or not.
But “is it a change for the better or worse?” challenged Whitta.
“To me, the biggest shift is that in the past, most of the social gaming has been with people you don’t know. There’s now the dynamic with Facebook, that it’s with people you do know,” said Fargo. He gave an example of getting into Facebook games initially, simply because he wanted to beat the high scores that had appeared on his friends’ pages.
“So you’re saying we’ve found a way to monetize peer pressure,” said Wright, generating laughter around the room. “Look at kids playing Pokemon, which is really a dreadfully boring experience,” said Wright — much of the enjoyment comes from sharing Pokemon with other players, and discussing the play experience.
Spector suggested to Pardo a paid World of Warcraft service that would allow players who find themselves totally in sync to actually meet each other using real contact information. “You could prove or disprove ESP in about six hours,” he joked.
He also spoke on the time benefits of asynchronous multiplayer, as is common in Facebook games. “I’m really wrestling with the fact that we’re this high-engagement medium…but we’re also a high-commitment medium. It takes so much time,” he said. “I tend to focus on single-player experiences and empowering players to own a story, but even there I’m trying to find a way to reward players for low commitment. I don’t want players to have to give me their whole lives to enjoy what I do. …I want games in smaller chunks.”
“That’s old school back to the way people used to develop personal relationships — with correspondence,” Wright pointed out. “That was asynchronous in nature.”
Whitta offered that that is actually less social, because there is no direct interpersonal communication.
“But consider how long a session is going to last,” Wright responded. “You might play a game over weeks, and during that you can still communicate.”
“I’m not sure I agree that Facebook play is drop-in, drop-out,” Young said, guessing that their core users are as “hardcore as anyone. …There’s probably an interesting mapping you could put against humans. There are core humans that get addicted to certain things, and will throw tons of time and energy at it,” as well as those all across the rest of the spectrum. “I think it might be a misconception that the way all Facebook games are played is asynchronous.”
Wright noted that asynchronous designs can inherently accomodate that entire spectrum — from a focused half-hour, to weeks for a single game. Spector noted that he actually likes it when his opponents aren’t online as he takes his turn — because when they are, he ends up sucked into it for longer periods of time.
“I’ve actually become more antisocial,” Fargo admitted. “In a weird way, I find that…we become more antisocial as we spend more time on this. …If you watch kids today, they don’t pick up the phone that much. They don’t physically socialize with each other.”
He and Wright then joked about communicating with their own families asynchronously with Facebook and IM, even when relatively close.
Spector apologized for teasing Pardo about World of Warcraft, but followed up by describing how amazing it is that his own wife now has a 40-year-old housewife friend in Europe, purely because of meeting people in World of Warcraft.
Still, Spector added, he wishes MMOs had a wider range. “I think what we need to do is change their content,” he said. “I am so sick of games being, ‘Is the guy going to get an axe in the head? …Is it going to be a demon? …Is there going to be an alien coming out? …I think the kind of fantasies we provide aren’t helping.”
“I love fantasy,” he noted, “but I don’t love that that’s all we do. …Give me something a little different. …When I think about the future of this business, I’m so heartened by the stuff in the IGF boot, because at least people are trying something different.”
“I’m sure half the people in this room have played the men’s urinal test,” interjected Wright, to several seconds of silence followed by explosive laughter, after which he explained an online test that grills men on “restroom etiquette.” “Most men ace this test, and most women get 50 percent,” he said, because men have learned experience using urinals.
“We can make games about the real world that are interesting, surprising,” he said. “We can make games out of everyday life.”
Said Young, “It feels like there’s a pretty high correlation of new interesting things coming out of a new generation of game makers that are just thinking dramatically differently than we are. …People who…grew up with our medium are just more willing to fully explore it.”
Fargo responded: “At a certain level, we also get trained. When we stray outside the boxes of fantasy or science fiction, you’re going to get smacked down and you’re not going to get a payback for it. …[Blizzard] are the kings of knowing what works. Why did [Blizzard] pick high fantasy? …There’s a good reason, and it’s not because Blizzard isn’t clever. Having been on the development side, a lot of these young guys, if I were to pitch their titles to EA, would it have been picked up?”
“But you’re defining games by a single dimension,” argued Young. “You’re often defining things by the subject matter and content. You do’nt just have to be progressive in the content. You could be progressive in the game design. …Our audience, certainly the younger demographic are not seeing the exact same way we saw them. They can intuit them differently.”
“If it were really creative, and played really well, it could work,” said Perry, to which Young noted, “Yeah, it’s called Portal.”
Perry went on to say that he is concerned that this industry frequently tries new things without actually putting the proper effort into them to make them fully executed.
“I think we sometimes value innovation too highly,” said Pardo. “I feel like we preach that so much…and we really don’t teach lessons of execution enough. It’s not necessarily that there are a lot of fantasy games. I don’t think that’s so much the problem as that there are a lot of bad fantasy games.” He pointed to Nintendo as a company that is “always nailing the execution,” which Blizzard tries to do as well. “You get rewarded for that,” he said.
“In my heart, I know you’re right, and I think I’ve always undervalued execution and overvalued innovation,” Spector said, “and I’ve tried to modify my thinking. …You have to focus on execution. …I just say, ‘Look, we’re still a novelty-driven medium.’ People have to see one thing they haven’t seen before. In the past I would have said, ‘Do everything! Go!’ Now I just say, ‘Find one thing.’”
“At the same time, you’ll have people going up into new realms, dropping new stakes into there,” said Wright. “You almost need low-quality games that are pushing that envelope. …Then people go further on. You need a balance of both to keep the industry healthy.”
Said Spector, “Many of the games coming out of the indie movement arne’t crazy original titles…they’re almost like commentary on the games that have come before. They’re built on, say, a lifetime of playing platform games,” referring to Braid. “They’re deconstructing our games.”
“It’s like we developed this language we had to learn as non-native speakers,” said Wright. “They grew up with that language.”
Whitta then moved on to a new topic: cloud gaming, particularly pointing to the recent OnLive announcement of remote game processing streamed to PCs and televisions.
“Would it change what you do?” asked Whitta.
“Not in the least,” answered Wright.
“Completely,” countered Spector. “How could it not change the way you do business?”
“On the creative game design side, aside from some latency issues, I don’t see why I can’t be delivering the same experiences [I already do],” Wright said.
Spector started throwing out examples of episodic content and serialized content: “You have to think about narrative differently — if you’re creating a serial narrative…that’s a totally different experience.”
Latency issues were raised, but Young noted that cable companies “want nothing more” than to fix those issues, if indeed the technology can add new audiences and revenue streams.
“How many game designers here feel like they are significantly constrained by hardware here?” asked Wright — and none of the assembly answered in the affirmative.
“I don’t know what, ten years from now, we’ll be able to do,” Spector explained. “Right now, I don’t feel contrained. But we shipped Ultima 6, and it required 10 megs, thinking, ‘Nobody has a hard drive that big.’ Then CD-ROM drives came out, and we said, ‘We’re never going to fill this!’”
Pardo said that Blizzard spends a lot of time designing experiences that work equally well on low- or high-spec systems — and cloud computing would remove the need for those worries.
Spector suggested that even a constraint like latency issues could introduce a new creative constraint that could lead to new and interesting design avenues.
“In the old PC days, it was very difficult for the average person to get a PC,” said Fargo, “and then, on comes cartridge — plug it in, you’re done.” He said he’s concerned more with matters of accessibilities than matters of technological ability. “For me, if the cloud makes it more easy for the average person to play something, that’s when it becomes important.”
“Games are going to become far more browsable than they were before,” said Wright. “Imagine you could just be flipping channels, but flipping games instead. …In some senses, it’s going to have to make our games a lot stickier. …In two seconds, I could be flipping to Crysis, instead of your boring game with a lot of backstory I have to read,” he said, vaguely in Spector’s direction.
“So it would completely change the way you design your game,” declared Spector in response, to considerable laughter.
Whitta then interjected again, noting the statement by a GameStop executive claiming a threat to retail from digital distribution is potentially upwards of a decade away.
“That’s because he’s reselling everybody else’s software,” said Young.
“When’s he going to go to congress and ask for a bailout?” asked Spector.
Wright recalled the rise of CD-ROM software, which was extremely slow for about eight years, before it suddenly exploded. “We’re almost at the steep part of that curve” with digital distribution, he estimated.
Whitta asked Young how he deals with the changing attitudes towards pricing, partially as a result of digital distribution, where people sometimes consider even tiny price points more money than they are willing to pay, since there is so much free content by comparison.
Young then referred back to ngmoco’s strategy for iPhone game Rolando, which will receive a slate of free content on a regular basis, followed by a paid sequel, with its own new free content, and so on. “It’s kind of like a proxy for building a service around your intellectual property,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is build a relationship for customers. …After that 12 months, we’ll end up making as much or more money than a DS or PSP game developed over a longer life cycle,” with the added benefit of getting more feedback from customers along the way.
“When we did The Sims Online, our primary customers were 12-year-old girls,” Wright said — and those consumers had no access to credit cards to purchase digitally-distributed content. “But these same people had no problem buying expansion packs every three months. …The expansion packs became voluntary subscriptions.”
Whitta mentioned price points again by pointing back to the release of Braid, which released to outcry over its comparatively high price point relative to many other Xbox Live Arcade games.
Pardo warned against listening too much to those vocal critics — WarCraft III had been the company’s most successful game to date with no added subscription, but World of Warcraft ended up blowing that game’s sales out of the water, even with a much higher investment.
“There’s a big difference in terms of the difference between free software and premium paid software,” Young added, noting that Rolando sold at $10 for two months before it was brought down to $5.99. “We wanted to bring it down to 7.99, but Gameloft were fucking up the market by bringing their prices down.”
“It’s absolutely our long-term agenda to make sure the average revenue per user for games on the iPhone goes up over time,” he went on. “It’s a very nascent business — it’s very new and very fresh. …The iPhone business is kind of this super-heated version on the old industry that’s iterating really, really fast. I would say the jury is still out about how pricing is going to work on the device. …The market sets the price.”
Spector pointed out that, even now, with a twenty-dollar bill, people can go out and buy any kind of entertainment — buy an album, buy a book, see or buy a movie — but they can’t buy a game.
“I can buy twenty games,” said Young.
“It’s remarkable how wide the variety of opportunities is,” Spector acknowledged, noting that there are now is now a huge number of types of business in the games industry — as opposed to mere years ago, when pretty much everyone “was the same kind of business.”
As the final question, Whitta asked what the participants would like to see in gaming hardware going forward.
Said Perry, “I’m getting concerned that the console manufacturers will turn into followers, that they’ll end up just trying to check the boxes that Apple has already checked for them. …We’re still following.” He asked the other attendees what they would do if they were put in the position of delivering the next platform experience.
“Maybe they’re done,” offered Young. “Something that’s been interesting to me from the Apple experience…I kind of expected Apple to function as a first party…in the way first parties typically function,” but he noted that that ended up not being the case — there were fewer quality control mechanisms in place than in a traditional console environment. That initially concerned him, but he explained that he now appreciates that that has opened up to the door to many new developers who are becoming invested in making games but would not be able to get a foot in the door elsewhere.
“I’m getting pretty tired of doing firmware updates every time I turn on my PlayStation 3,” said Perry.
“But the firmware updates are always rubbish,” Young added, comparing the PS3’s firmware updates to the iPhones, with the latter being significantly more impactful.
Whitta asked Young to elaborate on his comment that “maybe they’re done.”
“Sometimes companies go away. Sometimes industries go away,” Young offered. “Sometimes they reach the end of their dominance.”
“Removing barriers to the creation of content, removing barriers to the consumption of content” is the proper goal for platform holders, Spector said. “In terms of the pool of potential developers, there are pools of thousands of people who want to make games. Get out of their way.”
Pardo suggested that companies like Sony and Microsoft look to Nintendo and work on improving their input devices, saying that Blizzard chooses not to put their games on consoles because they would just end up being “crappy ports.” He added, “If they don’t come up with a way to come up with new forms of gameplay, and new mechanics, than there is no point in giving us new hardware, because then it’s just about cloud computing.”
“This is going to make or break [console companies] this time around,” Perry warned. “I’m not aware they’re really putting a big amount of effort into finding out what the people who are making the games [want].”
“I think they’re so focused on the all-in-one device…I’m not sure they’re actually thinking about the games that are actually going to come out,” Spector said. “It seems kind of crazy.”
“I’d love to see what you guys do with the Wii,” he said to Pardo, to which the Blizzard exec smiled and raised his eyebrows, but stayed silent.

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