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  • The Importance of Archiving Gaming History

    If you’re anything like me, you sometimes get nostalgic for the games you played as a child. More importantly than preserving classic games for our own enjoyment, archiving them teaches later generations and honors the industry’s pioneers.


    We can be grateful for people who invest in creating museums and exhibits, such as Berlin, Germany’s new Computer Game Museum (Computerspielemuseum) and the Art of Video Games exhibit, coming to the Smithsonian American Art Museum next year.


    The Computer Game Museum has archived 14,000 games, from the first arcade game to current-day e-sports that are popular in South Korea. Computer hardware up to 2001 is on display chronologically, including the first home video game console, whose inventor is the museum’s patron.


    Smithsonian's Art of Video Games exhibit 


    Taking a slightly different look at video game history, the Smithsonian exhibition “will show the development of visual effects and aesthetics by highlighting influential artists during five eras of technology.” Four game types — combat/strategy, target, adventure and action — will demonstrate video games’ eventual role as a storytelling medium, pop culture’s and international events’ impact on games and games’ reciprocal influence on society.


    The description on the exhibit developer’s site perhaps best sums up the exhibit and the importance of archiving the industry’s intellectual property: “A medium that is still in its infancy, video games have, none the less, cemented their place in society as one of the most expressive, dynamic and powerful canvases of expression in the past century.”


    Similar to movies, which have the American Film Institute in the U.S. to catalog and preserve the classics, video games deserve a counterpart organization, in my opinion. But how should it be done? With vintage consoles hard to come by, what’s the best way to let the public interact with the classic video games? Are museums the only answer? I would love to read your ideas for preserving our industry’s history, which could help shape its future.

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  • How Young Is Too Young to Start Gaming?

    Children ages 2 to 5 are more likely to be able to play a video game than swim or tie their shoes, if you believe a recent poll of Internet-enabled mothers. The poll questioned 2,200 women internationally. A whopping 58 percent of their offspring can play a video game, 59 percent if you look at girls alone. That’s compared to just 9 percent (of both genders) who can tie their shoes and 43 percent who can ride a bicycle.

     child on computer


    In another new statistical analysis of video games, almost 10 percent of children are at risk for a gaming addiction, according to a study that looked at gaming habits of 3,000 Singaporean schoolchildren ages 8 and 9 and 12 and 13. Researchers defined study participants who spent an average of 31-plus hours per week playing as "obsessive" and more apt to become seriously mentally ill. Pediatrics journal published this study.


    The combined information in these two completely separate study yields thought-provoking questions about video games and their potential long-term effects on today’s youth.


    Are parents contributing to this potential addiction by exposing their kids to computers, smartphones and games before reading age? Or will such early computer gaming become a life skill in itself? Only time will tell the final results, but we want to hear your opinion.

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  • Liability Lawsuits Against Information Content Providers: Could You Be Liable for Users' Comments and Ads?

    This is a guest blog post by Emma Enriquez, Esq. This post is meant for general information purposes and does not constitute legal advice. 


    Are you an information content provider? This is a question web developers should know the answer to when working with content providers on their sites. The right answer could save a developer from lengthy lawsuits and damages.


    In early November 2010, a federal district court denied Zynga Game Network’s motion to dismiss a complaint brought against it by a consumer. In Swift v. Zynga Game Network, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117355 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 3, 2010), a consumer claims that misleading advertisements displayed while she was playing Zynga games enticed her to sign up for “trial” products that she didn’t want in exchange for virtual currency. When she later tried to cancel the products, she was either unable to do so or unduly hassled. Zynga argued that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) immunizes it from any liability for misleading advertisements because Zynga didn’t create them. The court did not agree and, for now, Zynga remains a defendant. The case is still in its early stages and Zynga could very well prevail in its defense as the facts of the case further develop. This case, and others that have recently sprouted up concerning liability for site content, are worth watching.


    In a case involving Yelp!, a “defamed” dentist sued the consumer review website and a disgruntled consumer for a derogatory posting. The dentist voluntarily dismissed Yelp! after deciding that the CDA probably shielded Yelp! from liability for any untruthful statements posted by the consumer. This case, Wong v. Jing, 189 Cal. App. 4th 1354 (Nov. 9, 2010), continues between the dentist and consumer in a California state courtroom while Yelp! is now free from this litigation. Zynga was probably seeking a similar result with its recent motion. 


    At what point does a web developer face liability? Here’s the short answer: when the developer “materially” contributes to content. So far, sites like Yelp! have been legally described as “interactive computer service” providers. They create the site and leave the content to others. These content “neutrals” can maintain the site and delete posted content without liability for illegal content by third parties. But if Yelp! decided to help consumers in writing reviews, then it could be relabeled an “information content provider” which could open it up to liability.


    This seems easy enough, but the line between “service provider” and “content provider” can quickly become hazy. In a 2008 federal Ninth circuit case involving a housing match site,, the Ninth Circuit found that the online forms Roommates provided to subscribers for posting information opened it up to liability for discriminatory housing violations. And in the recent Zynga hearing, the court found the following allegations to be important: (1) Zynga’s virtual currency offers were part of the controversial advertising and (2) Zynga was responsible for the “design, layout, and format of the special offers.” It will be interesting to see how things ultimately play out.


    About Emma D. Enriquez, Esq.: She is a litigator with a passionate interest in the developing web and social media marketplace and a member of the IP litigation team for the California-based firm, Gresham Savage Nolan & Tilden, APC. She can be followed on Twitter at @cyberlaw12.

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  • How the Gaming Industry Should Talk to Women

    In this guest blog post, Sugar Gamers coordinating producer and editor Rebecca “Bonks” Rothschild shares her perspective on the game industry’s relationship with women.



    Sugar Gamers was founded in Chicago based on our founder’s desire to meet more women who enjoyed video games. I joined the company in its early stages as a coordinating producer and editor and watched our female following grow. The first thing I noticed was the incredible diversity. All sizes, races and walks of life are represented in these women. Even better, these women LOVE to game, and their gaming palate is as diverse as they are. This is clear evidence that the videogame industry has the potential to bring in a much larger female audience. 



    The truth is the industry has been male-dominated for a long time, and not really on purpose. Male gaming enthusiasts don’t always have the easiest time meeting women and I feel that like them, the industry just needs to work on its approach. Nowadays little hints of estrogen have been popping everywhere from developers to pro gamers. Not to mention female characters have taken on more interesting and empowering roles. And while this is all fantastic, I feel that the industry’s marketing has a little catching up to do. I have been aching to run into more ladies on my favorite shooters. Cute and cuddly is fine, but give us ladies some options. Some of us love shooting up evil aliens as much as the next gamer.    



    Women are multifaceted, as their gaming tastes will reflect. Don’t put us in one genre. Three games our female members constantly gush about are Gears of War, Soul Calibur and Final Fantasy. Three different genres with similarities that have incredible appeal to women, and all three are pretty light on the cute and cuddly.



    Male or female, anyone can appreciate a beautifully crafted game of any kind. Lucky for the industry, women have flocked to gaming without much attention from marketers. The industry may want to consider a little conversation with its female fans. Every woman loves good conversation, and we’re notoriously loyal to good listeners.          



    About Rebecca Rothschild: A sci-fi and gaming junkie who was working in corporate America as an IT and not feeling fulfilled, Rotschild is currently the coordinating producer and editor for Sugar Gamers in Chicago, a local female-oriented gaming community. Her biggest project on the side is her graphic novel still in the works. She loves comic books, anime and, of course, video games, first-person shooters being her specialty.

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  • Is The Zombie Trend Dead?

    Zombie games have been around for at least two decades, but the trend has become more invasive over the past couple of years. It seems the undead show up in mash-ups and star in new titles every other week, from Plants vs. Zombies to Zombie Driver. They’ve re-entered pop culture in TV shows and movies, too. GameStreamer asked our Twitter followers and Facebook fans if they think the zombies’ end is near and what the next big thing might be.

     Plants vs. Zombies  Fort Zombie 

    Press A to Continue, a new gaming magazine based in Hawaii, says “don’t think we can count out the zombies, it's always something that will continue.” David Nguyen agrees, “Not dead-it's still being milked for all it's got with shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ and zombie mods and such.” Joseph Snodgrass cleverly adds “zombies will never die.”


    Kimberly Unger, game designer and CEO of video game startup Bushi-go, believes “Zombies still have some legs :D We haven't yet hit the critical ‘me too’ mass needed to kill it off. Next up? Lycanthropes/shapeshifters.”


    Blake Howard offers his stab at the next trend, “I expect alien invasion games to go back on the rise.”


    What do you think the next trend will be? Developers, do you take the latest trends into account when creating your games? Share your thoughts with us.

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  • Slaying the Dragon: Think Small

    This is the third post by independent game developer Dan Felder, who has his own indie studio and consults other game developers in his spare time.


    The dragon rears its head, roaring loud enough to shake the stony walls of its mountain home - fire shrieking through the air to blast in at you. You duck, you dodge, your desperately roll - heat searing your cheek red. And now the dragon itself is barreling toward you, its long serpentine neck, each shining scale a tiny reflection of your imminent death, rushing out with its longsword-sized teeth eager to rip and tear through your screaming flesh.

    There is a sickening, shattering crunch...

    And its teeth taste stone.

    Welcome, Indie Game Company, and congratulations on your quick thinking. You managed to survive by ducking into a tiny passage in the cavern's side - enough for you to fit inside but nowhere near large enough for the massive beast to follow you through.

    There are times when it pays to be small.

    Now, you probably hear this all the time - people saying that being small is an advantage to an indie company... But usually their reasons ring a little hollow, and you're left feeling that they themselves don't quite believe it. The best reasons they can offer up are that being small makes you quicker, faster, more agile and more able to explore. If they say more, it's hard to hear over the silent cries of 'bulls@!#' echoing in everyone's mind. After all, bigger companies have far more resources to explore new projects with. They can power titles to market much faster due to their manpower and while they might be less agile at times, agility doesn't do you much good when you're so cramped for resources that you can barely stand up, much less turn a somersault.

    However, there is one way that you can leverage being small and turn it into a fearsome weapon indeed in your battle against the dragon... And it just so happens that that's what this article is all about.

    Isn't it nice when things work out?

    So, grab your adventurer's pack and your trusty longsword because we've got a dragon to slay.

    First, a shortage of resources is nothing more or less than a creative limitation. You don't have the budget to make glorious AAA graphics or a millennium of fully scripted content. It's easy to bemoan our losses and just accept that our graphics and such will be worse than our competitors... But 'worse' is a very tangled term. Our graphics might not be as fancy or lifelike as our competitors... But does that make them worse?


    Only if you allow it.


    For example, take a look at Calvin and Hobbes. No, it's not a game - it's a comic strip by Bill Watterson that was featured in newspapers once upon a time. It was pure comedic gold as well as being exceptionally meaningful and wise... And look at the art style. It's simple, cartoonish and absolutely perfect for the strip.

    Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

    Would Calvin and Hobbes have been more enjoyable if it were drawn in a much more difficult, hyper-realistic style? No, not at all. The comic strip's creator was an eminently talented artist and was very capable of creating much more 'high-end' illustrations, but he wisely chose not to. The cartoonish style served Calvin and Hobbes far, far better. Even though he had the resources to produce highly realistic and fancy drawings, he stuck with a much simpler style that suited the strip better.

    See a parallel here?

    If not, then let's set sail to Tales of Monkey Island, Telltale Games' most successful title to date. The game has garnered high praise for its art style, one that suits the game absolutely perfectly... And yet, it's nothing near what something Square Enix might spin into being. Ask yourself, would Tales of Monkey Island be better off for having FFXIV's graphics at their disposal? Hardly! The game is meant to be silly and fun, something the graphics provide with grace. If the game used the fanciest of high-end graphics, it might well hurt the title and be vastly more expensive overall. That's something that no game company should want.

     Tales of Monkey Island by Telltale Games

    Limitations on resources are a little like street signs. Just because you can't cross the street on red doesn't mean that it's a bad thing! If you can figure out a way to get where you want to go on time, by following the proper street signs, you'll still be there and you won't get nailed by passing cars on the way. If you can figure out how to make your limitations work FOR you... You're way ahead of the lumbering dragons still trying to chew their way through a stone wall.


    A title that I'm currently working on has been conceived from the ground up by this principle. Directly going into the earliest design stages I was planning the title to use the least expensive resources to its advantage. I knew I didn't want to worry about a high art budget, so I decided to create a lost-in-wonderland style based on creating a sense of childlike wonder in the player. Even now the main line in the design document for art style still reads, "The graphics should look like something out of a seven-year-old's sketchbook." By adopting such a simple style and tying it to a strong theme, we can make the most out of our limited resources. If someone came to me today and offered me a hundred million dollars to give this title the best graphics money could buy, I'd turn them down in a heartbeat. And that is a wonderful place to be in.


    There is a catch, though. If you're a tiny game company who wants to make a title in the style of Mass Effect... You're in trouble. Mass Effect benefits enormously from a sense of hyperrealism. The more lifelike the aliens look, the more plausible the technology, the more a sense of belief in its universe is created - something needed for a serious Sci-Fi title. Less realistic art styles aren't always better, you need to find ways to make them the best choice in your particular situation. Give Monkey Island's graphics to Mass Effect and you'll end up with a lot of disappointed gamers. You'll be fighting fire with a much smaller fire... And we all know how inefficient that is, right? If not, take a look at the second installment in this series for a little reminder.

     Mass Effect 2 by BioWare

    But when you scope the battle with your size in mind, you can make extraordinary use of it - diving into tiny caves, tunnels and holes the dragon cannot follow you through, running between the dragon's legs to hack at its ankles and remembering, always, the simple truth:


    The bigger they are, the harder they fall.


    Dan Felder


    About Dan Felder: A student at Babson College in Massachusetts, Felder is studying entrepreneurship while building his own indie game studio. He has a passion for storytelling and theater, which is playing out in his studio by giving it a creative vision to advance the conversation about what games can be and how games can touch us, move us, embolden us and strengthen us. He also blogs for Gamasutra, a leading game industry news site.


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  • Are Video Games Addictive?

    Should we blame video games for causing gamers to become addicted to playing?


    In August, a man sued the manufacturer of Lineage II over his addiction to the game. The popular health site, WebMD, contains an article warning about video game addiction and discussing a detox center in Amsterdam that caters to the treatment of game addiction. Back in 2007, doctors shied away from designating video game addiction as a mental disorder, explaining that more study would be required before such a designation could be made.


    A brand-new study by Yale University suggests that “a small but not insignificant proportion of kids find themselves unable to control their gaming,” said study author Rani Desai, an associate professor of psychiatry and public health at the Yale University School of Medicine.


    “That's cause for concern because that inability is associated with a lot of other problem behaviors."


    The study defines problem gaming as having three main symptoms: trying and failing to play games less, feeling an irresistible urge to play and experiencing tension that could only be eased by play. The majority of the study participants showed no signs of problem gaming, but 5 percent reported all three main symptoms. The symptoms are more likely in boys (5.8 percent vs. 3 percent in girls). The study draws correlations between the symptoms and a higher risk of smoking, drug use, depression and fighting. The study does not conclude that problem gaming causes these other issues.


    An extensive article by Aaron Ruby that appears on The ECA’s site analyzes other studies that do draw the conclusion that video games are addictive. Ruby argues that these conclusions are flawed and even biased.


    Can video games be an addictive substance? Should video games carry warning labels like cigarettes? Or are people with more tendencies to develop addictions the ones who are becoming “addicted” to video games?

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  • Slaying the Dragon: Fighting Fire with Water

    This is the second post by independent game developer Dan Felder, who has his own indie studio and consults other game developers in his spare time. Read his first post here.


    Look at the dragon. It’s tremendous, a monstrosity that dwarfs giants and their kin. Its gleaming scales are hard as diamonds, its jagged teeth sharper than nails…. And to top it off, it breathes fire. Yes… Fire. Now that’s just not fair!


    In order to defeat the dragon, you can’t fight fire with fire (remember its aforementioned respiratory condition). If you want to take down this beast of legend and get away with some of its treasure, you have to tip the battle in your favor. Seriously, have you ever tried fighting fire with fire? It sucks. Instead, fight fire with water – you’ll be a lot happier.


    When you’re shifting the battle to your favor, it has to be at a game the dragons aren’t used to playing. Hit them where they’re weak, hit them where they can’t strike back, and – if possible – try to challenge them to a ballet contest. Dragons are great at tearing through mountainsides and roasting regiments in their flames… But they have a bit of trouble fitting into a theater (not to mention a tutu).


    So how do you shift the battle to your advantage?


    It starts in design.


    Your first goal is to create a title that changes the discussion of how to evaluate the game, matching your strength directly against the Dragon’s weakness. You don’t have to be better at everything, you just need to be different in one thing – so you become a legitimate choice.


    Here’s a real-life example. A few months ago, I was strolling through the farmer’s market and passed by a pie salesman. The man was selling blueberry pie. Now I was actually on my way to a stand a few dozen feet away, one I’d been going to for years, that made the best apple pie I’d ever tasted… And I love apple pie.


    Still, the blueberry pie salesman waved me over and asked me if I liked pie. I responded, politely, that I did, but only apple pie – and I was on my way to get a piece right now from the other stand. “Great farm.” He nodded, “They make great apple pie. You want me to tell you what makes mine special?” I shrugged and said, “Sure.”


    He lifted one of the pies from the table. “This pie,” he said, “Is the only pie here made from the freshest, most delicious wild blueberries. There’s nothing else like it. Want to try a slice?”


    I did, and it was great… And I ended up buying a pie, too.


    If the man had tried to offer an apple pie, he never would have been able to beat out my favorite stand – but he didn’t try to fight fire with fire. Instead he offered me something completely different, yet absolutely great in its own right. He knew he couldn’t compete with my favorite stand when it came to apple pies – but they sure couldn’t compete with him when it came to blueberry. Why? Because they didn’t make blueberry pies!


    He changed the battlefield and got me to buy in, and I’ve loved blueberry pie ever since.


    So what about fighting fire with water?


    The key is that the dragon’s got a weak point. Maybe on its flank, or in its co-op mode, but it has one SOMEWHERE. All you have to do is find it and then craft your title to slam through that weak point as powerfully as possible. Just pick something, anything, that the most popular titles don’t do too well (or at all)… And then make it your purpose in life to do it so well that everyone else looks absolutely silly by comparison. You don’t have to beat them with better graphics, you just have to be different – wonderfully, engagingly different. If the battle isn’t about the best graphics and the biggest explosions – then the dragons won’t know what to do.


    After all if the battle’s about teeth vs. teeth, fire vs. fire… The biggest, meanest dragon always wins. But let’s take a look at mermaids. Could a dragon eat a mermaid alive? Oh hell yes. It’s called sushi. But which do you think a sailor would rather spend time with? Well, I’ll let the Flight of the Conchords answer that (via YouTube). 


    So, right from the moment you’re shaping your title, make sure that its strengths hit directly against the dragon’s weaknesses… And don’t you dare do it halfway. A poke at the dragon’s weak point isn’t going to do anything, you need to hit that sucker with a sledgehammer. If the biggest titles have overly complex leveling systems, make yours so simple that a near-sighted goldfish could make it through the game. If everyone’s simple – make yours require a graduate-level course in character customization just to make sense of it! Alright, these are exaggerations but only barely so. In order to avoid comparisons to the dragons, you have to make sure that people can’t compare you to the dragons… Except where your strengths lie. Just make sure the game’s still fun!


    So put your flamethrower back on the shelf and pull out the fire extinguisher. Trust me, you’d rather have the extinguisher when you’re facing down a dragon. Unless it’s trying to twirl its way across a ballet stage that is, but then – you’ve already won.


    Dan Felder


    About Dan Felder: A student at Babson College in Massachusetts, Felder is studying entrepreneurship while building his own indie game studio. He has a passion for storytelling and theater, which is playing out in his studio by giving it a creative vision to advance the conversation about what games can be and how games can touch us, move us, embolden us and strengthen us. He also blogs for Gamasutra, a leading game industry news site.

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  • 'Arena Morte' - A Premortem

    In this 'premortem,' FRONTLINE Studio's Brian Dreyer discusses the in-progress demo and pitch on his company's original console IP Arena Morte.


    I really like postmortems, especially the big-budget, console title ones where there’s commentary from different team members like the Executive Producer, Producer, Lead Designer and so on. There are always things that went well and things that did not. Honestly, I think most people, rightly or wrongly, enjoy the negative part more.


    After all if it’s a great game that’s being dissected, it’s fascinating to know where they screwed up. So, let’s leave the positive and the ‘We got really lucky when…’ comments aside and in the spirit of constant improvement just focus on the negative.


    From a “what went wrong” perspective, the common denominator seems to be surprises. There are always bad things that happen during the development process that were not planned and so all we can ever really do is mitigate the risks.


    Risk mitigation involves everything: people, tech, art, budget, internal processes, leadership, talent, and goals. With that, we should outline the essential early steps in creating a concept and a new title (IP) that addresses what a good postmortem really should look like after the game is done. I call this a “Premortem.” That’s what we’re doing with “Arena Morte.”


    STEP 1 – What’s the Team’s Interest, what games do they like to play and why.


    For us, the studio’s experience and history has been an interesting one. While successfully in business for almost 10 years now, we’ve been stuck doing mainly budget projects to keep the internal workflow steady.


    Obviously not happy what comes with this territory, i.e., there’s never enough time, never enough money, rarely a true focus on quality from the publisher. It doesn’t take an MBA from Harvard to determine that the ROI won’t be good.


    The Team is an entirely different story: talented people, solid technology and art skills, some CVs with AAA credentials and a universal desire to make better, more meaningful and, most importantly, more fun games. So now what? Well, we just need some time, a reasonable advance and something cool to work on. This was my challenge.


    We had some solid concepts, some art and other assets to show, but after endless pitching and good old-fashioned business development it became obvious that we need a demo. For a publishing contract today, the concept demo has become even more important given the cost and competition in the market today.


    The demo has to be polished, successfully showing the new game’s unique and compelling features with a high level of quality. The bottom line here is that the chances of securing a publishing partner are about as likely as winning the State Lottery without a great demo. There’s simply going to have to be a demo that works and we’re going to have to fund it.


    So now that we’re talking about real internal investment, it’s time apply some process. Before spending a dollar, the first high-level question the executives should ask is, “What sort of game should we make?” Traditionally the direction of this conversation usually goes towards what the market needs.


    While this is logical, it can be dangerous to focus too much on a market niche and it’s better to save this sort of discussion for later. My idea was to focus on what the Team thought was most interesting, what kind of game do they want to make and why? After all, they are the ones doing the heavy lifting.


    Much to my disappointment, yet not completely unexpected, the responses were all over the place, from MMOs to Facebook. They were sort of stuck on the marketing thing. One day it occurred to me that during lunch breaks and after hours most of the guys played fighting games. 


    And not just played them, but were virtually obsessed with them, most notably “Street Fighter IV” with all the smack talk and interaction you’d expect. So I did what any good Executive would do… I told them to get back to work! Just kidding obviously, I actually interviewed them a bit and it became obvious that we need to do a fighting game.


    STEP 2 – Get a short list of synopses and include something to convey the feel, usually concept art.


    For us, the prospect of doing “Street Fighter X” is a bit too, shall we say, aggressive? There’s a lot behind the curtain that make this franchise so successful and the loyal followers simply will not tolerate a… western version for lack of better description. But the interviews revealed some interesting takes on the genre of the fighting experience. So next we just let their minds wander a bit.


    Most will tell you to leave the creative people alone, let them create and that’s a unique and subjectively individual thing. I agree with this but the cats eventually need to be herded. Carefully (keyword!) we collected high-level ideas and kept it high-level and fun to encourage more ideas and participation. This also helps to get the group to buy into the overall direction of the game being formed. The herding process sort of ended when we eventually asked for a short list of synopses.


    Our thinking here is that if the game is going to be great, it has to be articulated at a high-level in writing, not just a random collection of thoughts. This is a bit of an oversimplification of a very complex exercise, mainly that there is a human interaction component at work here and there has to be an adult in charge of this cat-herding activity. There are tons of books and theories about this topic and it really is critical, generally speaking, to interact or communicate with individuals in a manner in which they are most comfortable communicating and interacting.


    Arena Morte by Frontline Studios 


    STEP 3 – Focus on game play features.


    Video games are interactive (keyword!) entertainment. Making a great game means emphasizing this interaction, a painfully obvious yet frequently forgotten step in the early development process. The traditional approach to making the interaction better is to make it different.  That is, have the player do something he/she’s never done before, take the player to a new place to do new things, to visit new worlds in a tactical sense.


    I agree with this to a degree but my experience tells me that it’s not very logical or practical to bet too much on the farm here. To me it has almost always made more sense to focus on the new games features which are at the heart of the interaction.


    Given that the player’s interactions in the game are most important, a focus on what the player is actually doing at all times is essential or again focus on features.  Story, characters, environment alone are just not enough. 


    Features basically come down to two different categories; in-game mechanics and generically new content for the game. We looked at all of this early in the concept process but focused more on player-interactive features that have been done before (hacking and slashing) and making them feel brand-new.


    We took a methodical look at past, present, and likely future features in this genre. We looked in detail at other sources such as movies, comics and books to come up with a list of what we think are compellingly new or significantly improved game play features that we’d like to do… after all, we’re gamers.


    STEP 4 – Visualize, get a qualified writer, check the tech and make the “Go/No-go” decision. If no-go, review what likely went wrong and start over.


    By this time we have a generally good idea of what we want to do with this concept, IP and demo, including the work-in-progress name – “Arena Morte” (sometimes having a name early gives a concept a reality on which to build from). The next step was to do some of the nuts-and-bolts stuff.


    That is, with a feature approach list it was time to find that property’s art vision, its soul if you will. We started to put together character and environmental concept art that everyone liked. This, too, helped give the feature list more life, meaning and purpose, and provided a visualization stage. Much like a game is nothing without features, great features are meaningless without characters, substance, and story.


    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, never (dangerous word!) do a video game story that involves characters without someone skilled at writing about characters. Fortunately we found John Zuur Platten through our friends at Union Entertainment. John loved the character look and concept work, as well as the general direction we were going in, and with John, the rest was pure magic.


    In a fairly short period of time he was able to go beat-by-beat through a few stories that will truly captivate the player… I’m not going say any more; you’ll have to play the game when it comes out. I will say, however, that the story and character arcs will be such that the player will want to know more.


    Another core issue is technology. Visualizing the game’s soul can be the most fun part of the development process, but you have to ensure the tech is there to make it come to life.


    We obviously needed to do some work to make sure the features we love are doable in such a way that it works well, gels together and are fun for the player. Technology is a big part of this. That is, it can’t be just good enough, these features make or break the players experience and it has to be 100% verified f-ing (bad word!) cool. We work in a world where anything is possible and sometimes the anything sucks.


    We evaluated every possible tool we could get our hands on and I’d put Krystoff Malinski and Dominic Libek up against anyone in the industry when it comes to evaluating tech. I love these guys and they have a history of making our own tools so I know they’re going to be tough and detailed critics when it comes to picking tools.


    We selected Trinigy’s Vision Engine and were a tad-bit disappointed, so we came back to Unreal 3… this was a premortem moment (picking tools). It’s now go-time.


    STEP 5 – Focus on features and the player.

    Arena Morte by Frontline Studios 

    Now we’re doing a demo project plan so that the demo can achieve a few things; show 90 to 100% of the features we selected, show some art skills (while art is not really important for the demo, we’ve got something to prove here) and maybe most importantly do this in such a way that it does not send us into Chapter 11.

    Regarding art, we believe expressing some art vision in a demo is essential for the pitch process when you consider that publisher executives generally will ‘get it’ quicker with some high-quality eye candy. We have two characters in the demo that will be near complete. The character art decision centers around the fact that the game’s story is one of the key features and it will be much easier to pitch if there’s more than just concept art and visual targets.


    However, the key here (and everywhere I suppose one could argue) is the player’s experience influenced by the demo’s feel. The player is our god. So again, features are key as we will have plenty of suspense and several “WTF” moments.


    Before we hand this off completely to the Lead Designer and Programmer, and while we’re starting the demo’s production, we’re still thinking about the player. That is, we’ve compiled this great list of what could go wrong with tech, tasks and so on, but ‘features and player’ is what the ‘premortem’ is all about. If this is done well the postmortem will be fun.


    STEP 6 – Design with the features to make the game wow the player.


    Ok, the Leads are ready to do their thing but this concept needs some high-level executive direction. These are my basic commandments for designers:


    1.       Features – tattoo these features on the inside of your eyelids, make them beyond cool, this is your most critical objective.


    2.       Don’t ever let technology prevent you from creating what you know needs to be in the game.


    3.       You own getting the art you need to ensure coolness. I don’t care if you use crayons, get feelings from the team and draw them something; anything that resembles a storyboard is good.


    4.       Prototype crazy-stupid ideas, and celebrate them publicly always in a positive (keyword!) way. Stupid is gold.


    5.       Think player rewards and achievements without being too formulaic, not that formulas are bad, just think before you act.


    6.       Money-shots – every ‘level’ or significant game play segment needs at least one “whoa” moment.


    7.       As always, interact with the team in a manner in which they are most comfortable communicating and interacting. 


    8.       Have fun – unlike most people on planet Earth, we get paid for making freakin’ video games!


    Design is probably my favorite part of this process. Maybe because it’s a team sport, or maybe it’s the escape of reality one experiences by putting themselves in the game. Whether the player’s character is the hero or the villain or just fantasying what it would be like and feel like to actually be in the world that’s being created is all just very cool.


    This is where “the rubber meets the sky” and when all cylinders are firing, a good postmortem is sure to follow. With that, I’m going to repeat what I said earlier because it’s so fundamental to success in our business given that making games is a team sport. In design, as in all areas, it is critical we deal with individual team members in a manner in which they are most comfortable communicating and interacting.  This requires a “Coach” that can always be aware of this rule and micromanage this rule.

    Arena Morte by Fronline Studios 


    STEP 7 – This is a business, never forget that and start from day 1 thinking about marketing and value.


    The business side of making games is not to be taken lightly by anyone in the building. While I’m presenting this near the end of this article, it’s really something the executives must do constantly throughout the production process. That is, when the game is being pitched early, having a thorough competitive analysis can and does help guide the creative as well as business development. Also, while some today don’t like to even use the word ‘genre’ if you’re looking for publisher support, the publisher will use the word, so you should too. This is still a good way to eventually guide a publisher discussion and deal with questions such as, “How is this different than Street Fighter?” With the genre discussion comes value proposition. From a business perspective every game needs a value proposition, but prepare to discuss the polar opposite of value which is the ‘R’ word – risk.


    When the publisher conversation has gotten to risk mitigation, you are dealing with an interested publisher. Not only is a development advance risky but the follow-on marketing spend is also painful. Consider always that the publisher is spending today’s dollars for the opportunity to get a return 2-4 years later once the game is released and profitable.


    The marketing aspects here are a normal part of the expense of developing a console title. So, while the publisher owns marketing, today marketing is as much (arguably more) about viral as it is spending money on traditional marketing spends and both are needed. Marketing is an expensive cost, so it’s a risk. If the game’s look and feel lends itself well for traditional and viral marketing, make that case during the pitch process.


    As the developer for “Duke Nukem: Critical Mass,” we were blown away by our publisher’s marketing tactics while at GDC in San Francisco when Deep Silver had put urinal pads in all the men’s rooms with ”Duke-isms” on them.


    Then at the popular watering hole (Jillian’s) across the street, every cocktail napkin and coaster in this fairly large establishment had a Duke-ism on them such as, “When all else fails, I don’t. – Duke.” Now that’s some good stuff and by the end of the event there were even several Urinal Pads… uh… missing.

    Duke Nukem


    Great video games come from great and usually new or improved features that are iterative enhancements to known good game play mechanics. The fact of the matter is we know what these features are. We know the ones gamers love. We know our teams, technology and processes.


    We know the business models. So we should focus more on taking these features and people up a notch or two and not focus too much on reinventing the wheel so often. While today a great demo is everything, balance the business with the Team’s interest, visualization and buy-in so that the postmortem is likely to be a good one.


    I think it’s safe to say we all tend to overthink and overanalyze in this business. After all, we know our business, capabilities, and markets so we naturally should be able to see fairly far down the road. 


    As in all businesses there’s competition and with that the never-ending pressure to continually be successful, to think of and deliver the next big thing for the player. This is the Holy Grail of making great games and the trouble is that the quest for the Holy Grail can lead to some real nonsense without some premortem process.


    Oh… by the way, we’re still building the demo and preparing for pitch round 2 so stay tuned.


    About FRONTLINE Studios: Formed by enterprising and passionately committed people, FRONTLINE is a well organized yet very creative team with offices in Florida and California, and the main studio located in Poland (Bydgoszcz). The company develops games for next-generation entertainment devices (Nintendo Wii, PS3, XB360, PC), as well as handhelds (DS, PSP, and iPhone). Look for FRONTLINE Studios games on in the near future.

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  • Slaying the Dragon: How Indie Game Studios Can Hold Their Own

    This is the second post in our series by independent game developers. Our guest blogger this week, Dan Felder, has his own indie studio and consults other game developers in his spare time.


    It’s the classic boss battle at the end of the game. The enemy is huge, tremendous, seems nigh-indestructible and as old as time… While you stand there with only your sword. The battle seems impossible to win… But you know that it is not, that no enemy is perfect, and that even this leviathan must have some fatal flaw, some weak point through which to drive your blade.


    Welcome, Indie Game Company. Your enemy is Epic Games, EA, Ubisoft, Bioware and many, many more. Your weapon? Your newest, perhaps first, title. But as wondrous as your blade may be, it is useless unless you drive it into the beast’s weak point. Only then may you claim title as the ruler of the realm and live to fight another day.


    But how do you find that chink in their armor?


    First off, you must answer the question, “Why should someone buy our game, instead of any of the most popular titles in existence – ones with heavy marketing and established brands?” Think about that question a moment – and don’t you dare try to argue “we’ll charge less”. If the main argument for your game is that it costs less money… You’re already setting yourself up to fail. Besides, why would you want to spend months of your life making a product designed to be inferior? You wouldn’t – so throw that out with the trash and let’s get back to slaying this dragon.


    So why should someone buy your game instead of Activision’s latest?


    Because you offer something that they don’t.


    You don’t have much budget, so awesome graphics are probably out. This means you offer some part of the experience that is better or at least different than what the most popular titles in your genre do. Sure, you might be making an RPG – but your RPG is funny as hell. Sure you might be making an RTS, but your RTS is more customizable than anything with ‘craft’ in the title… Or maybe you just offer an entirely new way of melding mechanics to create a unique play experience. Try to get the words “first ever” somewhere in your game description – that will go a long, long way. But, no matter how you do it, you need to answer the question “why should someone buy our game instead of the most popular titles out there?”


    If you can’t explain it in one or two sentences, then you’ll never be able to explain it to your customers… And the dragons will eat you alive.


    Dan Felder


    Naturally, this is a huge topic and this entry has barely scratched the first scale of the beast we all seek to tackle. I’ll be delving into it much further in future articles. In the meantime, what are the reasons your games are worth buying over your competitors? Leave a comment below with the name of your game and the reason it is special.


    About Dan Felder: A student at Babson College in Massachusetts, Felder is studying entrepreneurship while building his own indie game studio. He has a passion for storytelling and theater, which is playing out in his studio by giving it a creative vision to advance the conversation about what games can be and how games can touch us, move us, embolden us and strengthen us. He also blogs for Gamasutra, a leading game industry news site.

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