It’s been almost a week since CasualConnect Seattle 2011 wrapped up, but things are still settling out for me! I met so many new people and contacts that it’s going to take weeks to fully explore all the new possibilities! I can easily say I got more than I came for this year, and had a great time doing it. Big thanks to all my friends and colleagues, both new and old!
With around 2500 people in attendance, there are sure to be many views and opinions about the conference. Here I share some of my personal key observations:
It was clear from moment one that this was the year of the venture capitalists. A feeding frenzy is in full swing, the likes of which we see at the beginning or boom of any industry. It reminds me a lot of what was going on around the world wide web back in 1999 – 2001. Everyone had realized they wanted a piece of this new thing, but didn’t really know what was going on yet, which is fertile soil for investors to over-inflate the value of various companies and make a killing by selling them off.
It’s no secret that there are huge amounts of money coming from Facebook and “social mobile” games right now. Huge! But I have serious doubts as to the wisdom of creating a long term business model out of that because all of these companies are making essentially the same three or four games over and over and over. This is an entertainment industry after all, so treating games like boxed products is going to be fraught with challenges in the long term. On the other hand, if you are looking to grow fast and cash out, you’d better act now because this feeding frenzy won’t last for long!
Talking to a lot of the 20-somethings pushing these services I couldn’t help but remember myself in my late 20s experiencing the web boom, and thinking how those good times would surely never end! Or how much buzz there was at the beginning of the last console launch. Or how people were all rushing to get into the real estate market in the 90s. You get the idea… I wonder how many of them will still have jobs after their companies are sold and dismantled through several venture capital rounds?
My challenge as the owner of Well Played Games is to plot a through-line that will allow me to compete with the insanity of today’s “fremium” games, while still leaving a viable long term business model that will endure through the next decade. Call me crazy (and many people did!), but I’m banking on quality, innovation, iteration and professional execution. Everyone else is solving my tool and distribution problems, so why rush to copy them? Rather than follow the leader, some strategic and creative thinking is sure to pay off, especially since we now have tens of millions more potential players than we did just a couple years ago.
Where are all the Tools?
If you were looking for a new game engine this year, you were out of luck. Unity3D has locked up the market by providing a top-notch toolset with a fantastically affordable price. Ansca mobile was back with it’s Flash-like Corona engine, and Game Salad made a showing, but more capable 3D engines Shiva3D and Torque were nowhere to be seen (maybe there was representation there, but I didn’t come across it!). Adobe Flash is still a viable option, but only for those who are doing a particular type of game. The one new engine I found is Moai, created by Seattle-based Zipline. It is a 2D engine based on LUA, and looks to be very early in it’s development. It appears to be free, but they will charge for a “cloud service”, presumably to place adds and facilitate micro-transactions. This seemed to be the same model most people were using this year.
What you could find in droves was the newer class of tools aimed at embedding advertising into your games, or enabling micro-transactions. Everyone and their brother is producing one of these now, and if that is a need your business has I’m sure you could leverage a great deal. The competition between these is pretty fierce right out of the gate, and I expect at least half of these companies to be gone by next year. I also saw a great project management tool from Hansoft.
I met more great people this year than ever before, and I’m really excited by the wealth of talent and ideas that are pouring into casual games from all over the world. With the console market stagnating and the Farmville craziness in full swing, it was great to see such a healthy collection of fresh ideas and talent bubbling everywhere I looked. I’m really looking forward to being part of what is sure to be many years of innovation and revolution in the game industry.
Plenty of Room for Everyone
Every talk I heard, and almost everyone I spoke to could give me all kinds of good reasons why their business model is the only viable one, and everyone else’s were flawed. To me this only means that games have finally arrived, and market interest is so huge and widespread that there is plenty of room for all of us. Being realistic about your available resources and setting your goals appropriately seem to be the only real barrier to entry for becoming involved at a payoff level.
What is Game Design?
There is a lot of confusion about what game design is. Depending who you ask, it could be ideas, production, statistician, ad placement, business analyst, team leader, or any number of other things! Pretty much anyone who makes some kind of decision about a game in any capacity feels comfortable calling themselves a “Game Designer”. I will admit that as someone who crafts user driven interactive experiences for a living, I find this amusing! Surely this will settle out at some point, but what “Game Designer” will really mean to people in a couple years is anyone’s guess.
Where Were You Guys?
Noticeably absent from the conference were Microsoft. Sure, the Windows 7 phone picture was on all the slides, but nobody was really talking about making games for it, and Microsoft seemed to be holding only private meetings. I would assume they are going after the big social-mobile companies (of which I am not one!). I found plenty of hard data about how much they aren’t making on app sales though, and nobody seems very interested to develop for Windows 7 phone or Kinect. Even blackberry apps are making more money! Microsoft needs to adapt it’s strategy pretty soon or they will be dumping their phones into the same big hole they put the Zunes in.
Newcomers to gaming probably found a lot of interesting content, but as someone who has spent the last decade and a half making games, intranets and user driven interactive products, I found most of the talks to be of little interest. The audio track was excellent, and there were some conversations about story and QA that seemed very good, but most of the rest boiled down to, “How to maximize your exit strategy” or “What they hell did we do to make any money last year?”. I hope that as the venture capital feeding frenzy dies off we see more content focused on actually making and improving products and user experiences.
This Year’s Buzz Words
“Pivot” – Easily the most overused word of the week, pivot has joined the ranks of “leverage”, “synergy” and all the other mean-nothing words that corporations have given us. You don’t have to make a second game, you can now simply pivot from your first into your second. You could also wear white socks, then later pivot into a black pair! How wonderful for all of us!
“Gamification” – This one is so ridiculous that it deserves an entire blog post. Look for it here very soon!
Also see my recap of the CasualConnect / IGDA Summit Overview – Days 1 and 2.