Move over Austin Game Developers Conference – there’s a new show in town. In this case, our town: Raleigh, North Carolina, home to world-class tobacco growers, research universities and, for the last decade and a half, some of the most respected game developers in the industry. The inaugural Triangle Game Conference, which kicked off early this morning at the Raleigh Marriott City Center, is giving local game industry professionals a chance to share knowledge, interact with fans and show off their hard work to the public. And as the official media partner of the conference, we’re covering TGC from the show floor, reporting on panels, keynotes and random conversations with local developers. In case you didn’t get a chance to attend, here are some of our highlights of the conference so far.
“Gamespot and IGN are white noise.”
That was how Vicious Cycle’s Eric Peterson categorized certain game sites’ approach to doing reviews. Peterson was just one member of the panel “Teaching to the Test: The Impact of Reviews on Game Development,” moderated by The Escapist’s own Julianne Greer. He was joined by Epic Games’ Dana Cowley, Juan Benito from Atomic, and Insomniac’s Shaun McCabe, who all agreed that some sites and reviewers simply try to do too much by reviewing every game possible as fast as possible, resulting in them not doing justice either to the games or the people who play them. “Focus on quality, not quantity,” said Peterson. The panelists were pretty universal in their frustration that reviewers all too frequently play games they don’t care about, don’t play games enough to have any clue what they’re really talking about, and that reviewers all too frequently seem out of touch with the actual playing audience. In other words, they see the exact same flaws in the current system that you do.
Fixing the system is problematic, though, because as much as developers want reviewers to take their time with a game, they still need those reviews to appear in a timely manner if they want the game to do well. “You cannot sell games without good marketing,” said Cowley, and good reviews can be an integral part of that marketing. A good review, even a great review, that comes too late may as well not come at all. “By then you’ve missed the boat. It’s not news,” she said.
As someone who’s spent the majority of the past ten years reviewing videogames, it was somewhat heartening to hear that the folks who make the games are just as frustrated as I am with the way the industry currently handles reviews. The machine is flawed as hell, but has so much momentum at this point that sometimes it seems like we’ll never be able to shift it off its current course. But we keep trying anyway.
“Silicon hillbillies” was the phrase Juan Benito, Creative Director of Atomic games (of Six Days in Fallujah fame) used to describe the North Carolina game development community 15 years ago, when he had just joined Virtus Studios, the tech start-up that would eventually lead to Red Storm and their break-out hit Rainbox Six. Cut off from the personnel and knowledge base of the West Coast, the handful of game developers that called the Triangle their home in the mid-’90s instead drew talent and inspiration from local research institutions, which conveniently excelled in the fields of 3-D graphics and computer interface designs. Since those early years, the local game development community has grown from a couple of small shops with a handful of employees to a multi-billion-dollar industry that employs over 1,000 individuals. Benito’s talk focused on the conditions that led to that explosive growth, but it was also an occasion to let the community pat itself on the back. In other words, we’ve come a long way, baby.
There was a tinge of frustration amid the celebration, however: Only a few days prior, Six Days in Fallujah publisher Konami announced they were quietly backing away from the project. Apparently the controversy over whether it was “too soon” to depict scenes from an ongoing military in a videogame was enough to dissuade Konami’s top brass from following through with the project. While no one in the gaming press endorses censorship, many game journalists were on the fence about the project – myself included. But after learning about Benito’s experience in the industry and listening to him speak about the challenges of making games more culturally relevant, I’m more convinced than ever that the team at Atomic Games could pull it off. Benito was Executive Producer of Rainbox Six, one of the original first-person shooters that favored carefully thought-out tactics over pure twitch reflexes. And with Atomic’s background in military and law enforcement training simulators (and the close ties with actual servicemen that these simulators rely upon), it’s hard to imagine the team ditching realism in favor of mindless run-and-gun gameplay.
Perhaps Benito’s modesty may have prevented him from saying so directly, but Six Days in Fallujah is a golden opportunity to prove to the world that games can say something meaningful about the war in Iraq when traditional media is content to simply report the latest IED attack. Unfortunately, it seems many aren’t yet willing to listen.
There were a lot of cool things I saw on this first day of the inaugural Triangle Game Conference. I listened to a bunch of intelligent people speak, I saw some cool peeks into the behind-the-scenes framework of popular games, and I heard some interesting theories about the future and evolution of gaming. But none of them blew my mind like Achron.
For those of you not in-the-know, Achron is a RTS that officially made its public debut at this year’s Game Developers’ Conference, a game that sets itself apart from the rest by having time itself as a resource. You get outnumbered in a skirmish and have your forces routed? Build more troops in the future and send them back to fight alongside your already-existing ones so you end up winning that conflict. Send your forces into the future to ward off an attack that hasn’t happened yet. Fake your opponent out by changing your troop movements so that he orders an attack on a place that your forces never went to in the first place.
There is so much going on in Achron that I find difficult to wrap my mind around – whether the sort of tactical planning that seems to be necessary to actually function in a match against another player, or the reality-warping technology that goes on behind the scenes… and yet, creator Chris Hazard just spoke about it effortlessly. I swear, this man’s brain functions on a higher plane of existence from the rest of us.
It was also cool how he’d studied different kinds of time travel, both as gameplay mechanics and story mechanics. For gameplay, you have localized levels that you can jump between (Chrono Trigger), you can rewind time (Braid, Prince of Persia), you can slow down time (any game with Bullet-Time). In stories, you have instances of overlapping “layered” time travel (where you can go back in time, and then go back in time again and you’d see yourself), you have time travel where you change the past and then create a new future, you have time loops (Groundhog Day), or you have seamlessly merging timelines (Back to the Future, where McFly notices the picture of his parents fading).
It’s some really cool stuff. I’m not convinced Chris Hazard isn’t an alien in disguise, really.
(Also, Chris Hazard? Dude should team up with Epic’s Grayson Edge. “Hazard and Edge. They Fight Crime. Developer Style.”)
Perhaps I’ve been living in a core gaming bubble, but the prevailing theme of several panels I attended was that casual is the new black. We’ve been hearing this for awhile, but it was hard to tell if the proclivities of some bored office workers playing solitaire was skewing our view. John O’Neill, founder of Spark Plug Games, would say otherwise as he admitted that much of his company’s success could be attributed to their decision to focus on casual games, despite the extensive console development experience many of the company’s employees have. Tina Tyndal, a marketing consultant pointed towards the same trend, citing her observations with Forrester research data over the past two years that points to an increasing parity between the male and female gaming demographics, which is driven largely by casual games.
While neither of the panels was filled with individual awe inspiring moments, the earnest and pragmatic nature of both panels allowed them to act as a bellwether for the mood in the games industry at large. Large pronouncements and bold proclamations have been replaced by honest videogame industry realities. By the end of their presentations two things were clear: The iPhone has arrived in a big way and as a game developer you better realize that your audience is rapidly changing. Or to put it another way, the industry is thriving, but business is not usual. So while it may not have been, pound for pound, the coolest thing at TGC, John O’Neill and Tina Tyndal served as a moment of clarity beyond the videogame hype machine that often overshadows the working reality.
Come back tomorrow for our coverage of Day Two of the Triangle Game Conference, including a keynote by Atomic Games President Peter Tamte.