Develop 2010 Expo Highlights

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This year’s Develop conference in Brighton took place last month (July 14-15, 2010) and, while access to the conference itself carried a pretty hefty price tag, the expo that ran alongside it was free for anyone to attend. Headline-grabbing keynotes from the likes of Peter Molyneux and Tim Shafer were off limits to Expo-goers but a selection of smaller, 30 minute mini-sessions were open to everyone.

Business: Starting Up a Games Studio With No Industry Experience

Adam Green, Founder @ Assyria Game Studio

Adam Green ran through the ups and downs of founding an indie developer. His company, Assyria Game Studio, got its start with University classmates before becoming an officially registered company last year. It now has a total of seven employees and some six games to its name. Some of Adam’s key points:

  • Building a game and marketing it well isn’t practical.  Use an external PR agency (£200 for a small game)
  • Check out IndieDeveloper.org (although the site seems to be under construction)
  • To get funding, you’re going to need a business plan (project details, schedules, etc.)
  • Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) can help provide funding for new start-ups.
  • The Inland Revenue run free business management workshops that are well worth the effort.

Production: Developing Hit Games with Xbox Live Arcade First Party Publishing

Ted Woolsey, Director of 1st Party Publishing @ Microsoft

Xbox Live Arcade Logo

Ted Woolsey — who got his start in the industry translating some of Squaresoft’s SNES classics such as Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana — began his talk by outlining key Xbox Live usage figures which serve to illustrate, at least potentially, just how large and active the market for new Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) games can be:

  • 1.6 billion downloads (850,000 per day)
  • 15 million Facebook/Twitter/Last.fm syncs
  • 4 million personal message sent daily
  • 50% of users play online (compared to roughly 30% on Wii/PS3)
  • 2.4 million concurrent players
  • 270+ Xbox Live Arcade games available
  • 45% are puzzle games, 30% are action games
  • Role-playing, turn-based, and platformers are less common
  • Gold members spend 18.9 hours per week
  • Silver members spend 10.7 hours per week
  • 60% of gameplay is offline and single-player
  • 97% of users are male, age 25-34

So what should independent developers be doing to advantage of all this? Ted points to Trials HD as being a great example of an XBLA title because it’s easy to pick up and play, but hard to master. It’s also great fun and boasts fan favourites such as: asynchronous multiplayer, integrated leader boards, scalable difficulty settings, and unlockables.

Microsoft Game Studios (MGS) is very hands-on when it comes to helping budding indie developers get games on XBLA, says Ted. MGS has around 30 XBLA slots to fill each year so Ted recommends checking out the competition in order to create something that differentiates itself from the masses. A clear target audience is also important, and a strong presentation (including visual media) is imperative for pitching.

Upon submitting a proposal (including a 3-page submission form) games go into a review phase prior to a more thorough investigation which includes IP and franchising discussions. If all that goes well the game is recommended and, hopefully, given the green light. At this stage a producer is assigned to the game who will help with its continued development and eventual publication on XBLA.

MGS offers two distinct deals for indie developers. The standard is non-funded (although MGS does cover publishing costs) and includes recoupable services such as user testing. The other is a “collaborative” deal in which projects are completely funded by Microsoft. In both cases developers are given access to production, design and tech leads from AAA development studios who can offer help and advice.

Design: How to Write Great Drama for a Video Game

Hope Caton, Lecturer @ Kingston University

Hope Caton, a set designer turned screenwriter, began this session by explaining how she was brought in to fix the ending for Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation only to discover that most of the plot needed rewriting too. How did she do it? By adhering to a tried-and-tested “narrative structure for games” as summarised below:

Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelations Screenshot

Prologue – Training: Optional. Plants story/character details
Act One – Level 1: Introduces hero/main characters
Inciting Incident – Level 1 end, Level 2: Sets the plot into motion, propels hero forward. Call to action.
Act One – Levels 3-5: Hero learns about his mission, trains, meets allies, fights.
Act One End Hook – Level 4-5: Surprise revelation that will impact the game’s ending.
Act One Climax – Level 5: Culmination of progress thus far, but not the expected result. “Win but lose” – twist!

Act Two – Levels 6-8: Mood change. Introduce sub-plot, mentor, or allies. With reasons.
Midpoint Reversal: 180 degree turn with perilous consequences for hero. Something new/unexpected.
Act Two End – Levels 11-15: Hero learns from the reversal as he approaches his goal again.
Act Two Climax – Levels 15 end: Wrap up sub-plot, (kill the girlfriend, for example). Hero wins/loses again. Sets stage for finale.

Act Three – Level 16-18: Hero overcomes more obstacles before finale.
Act Three climax – Narrative climax Level 18: Hero defeats the villain.
Resurrection – Level 19/20: A hand bursts through the grave. Hero’s final struggle becomes personal.
Resolution – Level 20: Promise made at the game’s start is resolved. This circular reference is the key to good storytelling.

Coding: Technology in Transition: Migrating MMO Technology to Browser and Console

Rocco Loscalzo, Chief Technical Officer (CTO) @ Monumental Games

Rocco ran through some of the techinical difficulties faced by Monumental’s Online Studio while porting it’s existing massively-multiplayer architecture over to Internet browsers for use with the company’s upcoming Facebook game, Little Horrors.

Little Horrors, Monumental Games Little Horrors Screenshot (Facebook)

I didn’t get any detailed notes on the technical aspects of Rocco’s talk, but I did get a look at Little Horrors, which will tap into the world’s recent Twilight fever by allowing players to become either a vampire or a werewolf in an impressive-looking 3D environment.

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