Evolving Develop

Mon 20 July 2009 by Jim Purbrick

As usual I headed down to the Metropole on the sea front last week to attend the annual Develop conference in Brighton. Unusually, this time I was attending the Evolve day which shifts the focus from console development to online, mobile and social games, which I had helped create as part of the steering commitee. I was very impressed.

The first talk I attended was not strictly part of the evolve day: I switched over to the Games:Edu track to listen to Alice Taylor talk about her work building games for Channel 4. In a previous era, Channel 4 spent £6 million a year on public service programming for young people which ended up being shown in the mornings when the only young people at home were off sick. In order to reach a wider audience all of that money was switched to online programming and, because 14-19 year olds love them, games. Since then, Alice and Matt Locke have toured the country commisioning small developers to develop games like Sneeze, Routes, 1066 and future games battling STIs in privates and making science fun for girls with Ada Lovelace. It all sounds like loads of fun and a great fit for Second Life (which already has a fair amount of sex and science adventures of its own), but the key here is availability. Alice is going where the kids are. Millions of people play the Channel 4 games using technologies like Flash which are ubiquitous: an order of magnitude more people than use Second Life regularly or used to watch the telly from their sick beds.

Next up was “Browser Based Games Past Present Future” which sounded perfect: which of the competing technologies is going to win the battle for the 3D browser canvas, which should we use to make Second Life more accessible to some of Alice’s teens? Unfortunately the retrospective and predictive parts of the talk were extremely limited and the talk was mostly a plug for Pirate Galaxy: an online Java based Eve. Luckily it looks incredibly well done. In particular the in world economy which allows either time or money to be converted in to energy and from their in to experience and eventually space ships looks very slick: to begin with energy is plentiful and little is needed. Slowly the screw is turned making the urge to invest in energy ever more inticing. There are also limits on the amount of short cutting that can be done by investing money, with game play still required to gain experience which is needed to buy the best ships. It’s all a long step forward from the experiments with economies and mudflation we grappled with at AGC, SIGGRAPH and on Terra Nova.

The highlight of the day for me was the talk by Kristian Segerstrale, CEO and co-founder of Playfish who make some of the most successful games on Facebook, including Pet Society: a game which allows you to collect rainbow poos and is as popular on Facebook as Rhianna and the Simpsons. Kristian talked about how social games are different: no longer focused on creating paths for solitary players to experience fear, horror, wonder and suspense, social games are toolkits for cooperation, competition and expression for friends. Social games have been responsible for most of the growth in the games industry over the last year and while the Wii and Rock Band have let friends gather and play together, games on social networks let friends play together online. Where traditional games spend years and millions in development and then launch with marketing splurges and shelf space negitiated with retailers, social games might intially be developed for 10s of thousands, sit on an infinite shelf and are marketed virally through recommendations from friends. Where traditional games rely on the intuition of a games designer who hopes to get it right, social games rely on feedback. After launch social games are deluged with information. Marketing is driven by numbers, buy buttons are A/B tested with users, designers analyse play, further investment and development desisions are based on usage, the skill is not in intuitively knowing what players will like, but by mining and filtering a slew of data to find out. Kristian’s talk felt a lot like Raph Koster’s dinosaurs talk from a few years back: it even used a similar meteor strike slide, however, this time around the small mammals weren’t micro user generated virtual worlds but pets doing rainbow poos and restaurant sims where you can hire your mum as chef.

It will be interesting to see how the small furry mammals evolve over the coming years.

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