Pushing ideas to different parts of your brain

A couple of months ago The New Yorker published a profile of Hilary Mantel by Larissa MacFarquhar. I found this paragraph particularly interesting:

When she’s starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions. She tried this for the first time when she was writing “The Giant, O’Brien”: the giant came in, but, before sitting down in the chair, he bent down and tested it, to see if it would take his weight. On that occasion, she never got any further, because she was so excited that she punched the air and shouted “Yes!” But from then on she could imagine herself in the giant’s body.

This reminds me of the Rubber Duck debugging technique:

The name is a reference to a likely apocryphal story in which an unnamed expert programmer would keep a rubber duck by his desk at all times, and debug his code by forcing himself to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck.

Peter Reiterer, a programmer I work with, occasionally uses this technique. (I myself have used a similar technique but using a graphic artist instead of a rubber duck. I have not compared the two approaches but my method is also quite effective, if perhaps more boring and confusing for the participant.)

The way he explained it to me, or rather the way I remember his explanation, is that this technique forces you to express thoughts and then absorb them again through a different part of your brain, and this allows you to see them in a new way.

I always thought the mere act of expressing your thoughts to someone (or something, I guess) forces you to reorganize them and in the process discover new insights. A bit like learning by teaching, and incidentally the reason why I do public speaking or write blog posts. The difference is subtle and I can’t think of a way to test which explanation is better.

But the interesting thing, to me, is seeing two techniques to unblock yourself, to get a new perspective on things, that involve forcing a different part of your brain to interpret something. Of course it’s just me saying that is what’s happening in Hillary Mantel’s head, and I am not a neuroscientist. I don’t know for sure if she is using two different parts of her brain: this is just my intuition.

After discussing this with my wife it struck me that prototyping is similar to these techniques. It is easy to imagine a logical, abstract structure for a user interface, but once you visualize using it in your head, or, even better, prototype it on paper, you see it in a different way and can perceive things you couldn’t in your abstract model.

Of course, this raises the question: does prototyping work because you’re perceiving something using a different part of your brain? Or ‘merely’ because you’re seeing an approximation of the real thing? It is unlikely that I can better understand a game design idea by using, say, interpretative dance.

Food for thought, perhaps. Can this approach be generalized? Can we express, transform, and re-experience our ideas in other ways?

Game definitions and the designer’s toolbox

When you hear someone say “that’s not a game,” they usually mean “this is not what I was expecting from a game”.

Game definitions are like tools. You need to get something done, so you open your toolbox, pick the right tool, and then use it. As a craftsman, you care about your tools, you polish and clean them, you try to make better use of the ones you have, and judiciously add new ones to your toolbox, all in service of the craft.

A game definition based on Huizinga’s magic circle allows me to do different things than a game definition based on Crawford’s toy/puzzle/game taxonomy or Costikyan’s resource-based definition. All of them are useful, they all make sense and are ‘true’. But each operates in completely different perspectives.

And this is the value of a varied and well-selected set of tools. They allow you to look at things from different angles. When you have a screwdriver, you look for screws, for things to open.

Similarly, when you’re using the magic circle perspective, you might be thinking of how playing relates to non-playing, how people can be drawn into a magic circle, how their behavior can be changed, or how you can draw attention to their behavior by manipulating the magic circle.

When you’re using the toy/puzzle/game perspective, you might be thinking of player goals and replayability. Do you give explicit goals to the player, or do you let them select their own goals? Is the game about figuring out a problem and then moving to the next one, or is it about dealing with an opponent or a complex system?

Costikyan’s definition of game draws your attention to resources and allows you to design independent of whether you’re working with cardboard and tokens or on a computer. It makes economics applicable to games.

A final perspective – I hesitate to call it a definition – is that of ‘it’s a computer game because it looks like a computer game’. Here we get games like Proteus or Dear Esther. They are sold and discussed alongside other games. They contain 3D worlds we can navigate through. They don’t have a ‘serious’ purpose – they’re not email clients. Note how none of the previous definitions of games said anything about navigation in 3D worlds, or any kind of navigation or worlds at all. Yet the representation of and navigation in worlds is an unspoken assumption underneath a lot of people’s idea of what a game is.

The toy/puzzle/game taxonomy is the clearest about games like Proteus and Dear Esther. In this system, seen from this perspective, these games are toys. This helps me understand them. It makes them tractable, understandable, ‘known’, even before I play them. This doesn’t mean they’re boring or predictable: just that I can recognize them from a certain perspective.

Game definitions are tools, and knowing your tools well, understanding their differences and their strengths and weaknesses makes you a better designer. In the case of mental tools, knowing exactly which tool you’re using is perhaps one of the most useful things to learn.

Game definitions can also be used in a rhetorical way, as a form of argument. This is always about power, and thus political. I define games this way, therefore your game is not a game and thus you lose power. I define games this other way, therefore games become more worthy than your medium and thus you lose power. I define games like so, therefore it should not be a part of your department and I get to raise my own funds.

There is nothing inherently wrong with rhetorics, politics and the use of power. But it’s important to distinguish between politics and the truth inside your toolbox.

Andy and Jurie are looking for jobs

TL;DR: Game designer Andy Schmoll (profile) and grizzled veteran developer Jurie Horneman (profile) are looking to move to an English-speaking country in the near future. Hire us while we’re hot!

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The Stagconf budget

I thought it might be educational, both for you, dear reader, and for myself, to write a blog post about the budget for Stagconf, the conference on storytelling and games I co-organized last year.

Here is our final budget:

Income Expenses
Ticket sales € 6380.25 Location € 3726.00
Sponsoring € 4450.00 Speaker hotel € 1545.00
Other € 300.00 Speaker flights € 3666.60
Catering € 1739.85
Speaker dinner € 750.00
Recording € 1150.00
Taxis € 275.00
Other € 564.21
Total € 11,130.25 Total € 13,416.66
Budget for the 2011 Stagconf conference

So what can we tell from this?

Final score

We made a loss of € 2286.41. This wasn’t a catastrophe. We didn’t expect to make a profit. On the other hand, the conference was not part of some larger enterprise where the loss becomes an investment. It wasn’t a marketing activity, for instance. And while we didn’t end up living under bridges, we can’t afford to lose this amount of money on a regular basis. This is one of the reasons why we haven’t made any concrete decisions for a Stagconf in 2012.

Speakers

Over 40% of our budget went to the speakers. We treated them very well. Not every conference pays for travel, hotel, taxis, dinner, etc. Our U.S. speakers brought their partners: we didn’t pay for their flights, but we did pay for the double room for 3 nights.

Was this necessary? Yes, I think so.

At academic conferences, speakers are typically expected to not only pay for their own travel, but even for their own entry tickets. This makes sense because speaking at a conference is important for academic careers.

I’ve never attended any open source or web conferences, but if EuroPython is typical, then there it is also expected that speakers pay for their own travel and entry. This fits the open source spirit, plus there is a sharing with peers aspect that not every conference has.

At industry conferences, such as GDC, speakers typically get in for free. The value of attending and of being a speaker are high enough that it makes sense to expect speakers to pay for their own travel costs. Plus, speaker supply is very high.

I think there was no strong case for speakers at this conference to invest more than their time, which is already valuable. This should not be underestimated. In my work on the advisory board of Game Forum Germany I have seen speakers turn down an all expenses paid trip to Germany simply because they couldn’t justify the time cost, and I myself have also turned down speaking invitations for this reason.

In the end it’s simple: we wanted to have the best speakers we could imagine, and the way to achieve that is to pay their travel costs. And it worked: everyone we contacted said yes right away.

Food

Our food wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it! Feedback on the food was unanimously positive. Paolo’s did a great job.

The location

The cost of the location made up almost 28% of the budget. I’ve been told this price was low for a conference location, and the Museum of Natural History definitely has a charm that added to the experience. Still, we’ve since come across options that might be even cheaper while still being very nice.

Ticket sales

This is a big topic that involves marketing, PR and pricing. I will save it for a future blog post.

Sponsors

We are immensely grateful to our sponsors. Without them, Stagconf would have been financially ruinous and/or less cool. (For instance, everyone loved the notebooks from Scout Books and the after party at Grande cocktail bar.)

Having said that: finding sponsors, especially financial sponsors, wasn’t easy. Not just because it’s never easy to get people to open their wallets, or because we had never handled sponsoring before, or because we were an unproven event. I think the business case for sponsoring Stagconf is a bit different from other games conferences. If you focus on graphics, you can talk to Nvidia or Autodesk. If you focus on AI (for instance), there are AI middleware providers that have marketing budgets. But who do you talk to for storytelling in games? We pretty much stumbled across Nevigo by accident in early August 2011, and were very glad we could convince them to sponsor us. But apart from that it’s difficult.

One target I had in mind was the HR departments of big developers. I tried quite hard to get in touch with Ubisoft HR, because I think it would have been a great fit: they’re looking for people all over the world, and most of their games involve storytelling. But despite all of the people I know there, I wasn’t able to reach the right people in time. And it might have been tough simply because HR departments might not have sponsoring budgets. Still, I’d want to try this again in the future.

The future

Speaking of which: what about the future? As I mentioned before, organizing Stagconf was fun but also incredibly exhausting. So if we do another one, we won’t do it the same we did it last year. What does that mean exactly? We don’t know. We have been talking to people and discussing various options (different formats, different locations, partnering with other events), but we haven’t made any concrete decisions so far.

But you can help! If you have feedback on our budget, let us know. If you have tips on organizing conferences, talk to us. If you know sponsors, definitely get in touch.

Meanwhile, I hope you found this informative.

Good food in Paris

Paris is a huge place that caters to a lot of different tastes, and there’s an entire industry listing the best places to eat. Here I am just going to list some places that I have personally been to or that I have heard good things about from people I trust, plus some resources to find more.

Let’s start with Jeu de Quilles, a great little restaurant with excellent organic wines. My wife and I had one of the best meals of our lives there in 2010 (thanks again Camille!). Very good ingredients – they’re next door to the butcher shop that provides meat to the Palais Élysée. Very good quality for the price, meaning they’re not cheap but the food is really, really good. (If you watch the 100th episode of No Reservations, you can see Anthony Bourdain eating there.)

Nearby there is Le Cornichon, recommended to me by the same friend who took us to Jeu de Quilles.

If you like sweet stuff, I have been told by Noah Falstein that Angelina is a must, although sadly I haven’t been there myself yet.

I have never gone wrong following the advice of David Lebovitz, at least where food is concerned. David knows his stuff regarding chocolate and sweets, and he has lived in Paris for a long time. Paris Pastry Guide is an ebook and iPhone app listing his favorite pastry places in Paris.

Although it’s a chain, I have a weakness for Boulangerie Paul, which can be found pretty much everywhere in Paris. I love their pain au raisins.

When I’m in Paris, I am often near Les Halles, and I like to eat at Le Père Fouettard. It’s not mind-blowing, but it’s good French food.

I also like the Crêperie Beaubourg because it has decent crêpes and it’s right next to the Centre Pompidou.

Opposite the Centre Pompidou is Amorino, a very good ice cream place. There’s also one in Le Marais.

Completely by accident my wife and I had the best burger we’ve ever tasted in Les Têtes Brûlées. Or, rather, she had the burger, and I had a mediocre salad. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Anyway, not something to go out of your way for, but boy that was a great burger.

After dinner I can recommend La Rhumerie. They have great rums, plus the best virgin mojito I’ve ever tasted. Once again, it was my wife’s. She just has great taste.

Marketing/PR vs Product development: A false dichotomy

(This is a quick blog post to reply to a conversation on Twitter about marketing, PR and product development. It was started by Dylan Cuthbert based on a quote from the Steve Jobs biography. Very quickly Javier Arevalo, Mike Acton and Thaddaeus Frogley got involved, and I dragged in poor Adam Saltsman for perhaps no good reason. Anyway, see this tweet if you want to try and make sense of it.)

So I claimed somewhere somehow that I think it is a good thing if developers not only understand but actively participate in marketing, PR and other non-development activities (sales, tech support, biz dev, etc.). This goes way beyond including functionality to allow PR people to make nice screenshots (useful as that is, hi Thad). I see this as exactly equivalent to programmers understanding how game designers and artists work – or rather, what game designers and artists do. (And vice versa of course: it helps when artists understand programming, etc.). A programmer who understands game design can achieve things another programmer cannot, simply because she doesn’t have to spend as much (or, sometimes, any) effort coordinating and communicating with someone else.

Naturally I would say this since knowing just enough about most disciplines is my thing. I am not saying it is bad for people to focus on one discipline. But game development is the most multidisciplinary art form – more so than film or opera in my opinion – and so it logically follows that dealing with the synthesis of all of these disciplines is key to getting the most out of the medium. And multi- or inter-disciplinarity is a really great way of doing that.

Anyway. Over the last couple of years I’ve come to the conclusion that this goes for disciplines outside of pure game development as well, in other words: PR, marketing, sales and biz dev (and tech support and IT but I’ll leave those out for now). Classically, as a developer, you would outsource PR, marketing and sales to a publisher or it would be taken care of by different people in a different department and floor. Biz dev was this thing your boss’s boss did and the result was someone coming in and telling you what game you were going to make next. I’ve worked like this and I think this attitude is still prevalent.

But the rise of the internet has changed all this in a mere 5-10 years. You need fewer permissions, fewer gatekeepers, fewer middlemen, less capital. You can do more with a much smaller company. But that means you need to pay attention to, and take care of, those aforementioned disciplines that are not development.

I think it is imperative that developers see their work as part of a larger whole. The odds are that, in one way or another, you are trying to bring interactive joy to people and somehow be compensated for it. (I would argue that this is the case even if you make art games, but let’s not derail this by arguing about edge cases.) ‘Compensated’ typically means making a living and staying in business. (If you’ve taken money from investors, you also need to produce a return on investment, or *shudder* achieve growth.) Anyway, to do so you need to reach people, then convince them to play your game and give you money. And that is marketing, PR and sales.

These days, as a game designer, your work has already been impacted by marketing and sales, if you’re making free to play games. (Right now, I can think of only two development companies in Austria that are not working on free to play games. Crazy.) But beyond that: what about accessibility, in the sense of people quickly grasping what your game is about? This starts way before the moment the player starts your game. It starts when they hear about it. And what do they hear? The title, and the story. Not the story in your game, but the story about your game – hopefully the one you wrote, in a press release. They read what other people are saying about it, be that press or just someone on the internet (a distinction that’s rapidly fading anyway). Then they see a logo and some screenshots. Then perhaps they read a description and some user reviews in an app store. Then maybe they download and install it.

What is that if not game development? Game design (setting, title, core concept), art (logo, style, screenshots, videos), programming (writing installers, getting the downloadable size below 50 megabytes). What are things like user testing and closed betas if not looking for market fit? And I didn’t even get into analytics.

(For years I resented being asked to explain my game in one sentence. After 21 years I finally get it. A topic for some other time.)

Somewhat paradoxically, indie developers, despite often having a certain ‘we’re not part of the industry’ vibe, are often the most savvy about marketing and sales. At least the successful ones. They run blogs and have multiple Twitter accounts (content marketing), distribute their game through multiple distribution channels (Steam, Flash portals, app stores), participate in special sales (e.g. the Humble Indie Bundles). Super Meat Boy had excellent marketing. Sword & Sworcery’s in-game tweet functionality was great for viral marketing. Etc.

To come back to the original discussion: How should a company divide its priorities between marketing/PR or product development? My answer is that a company should try to eliminate (or at least keep a concerned eye on) internal divisions, and make decisions based on something beyond this the false marketing/development dichotomy. Apple had its way of doing this (I haven’t finished the biography yet but Jobs was a master at marketing and sales. Your company needs to find its own way. As always, remember Basho: Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

Relevant blog posts by other people:

Previous blog posts by me that may be of interest:

The Million Dollar Question

I occasionally get asked what game I would make if I had a million dollars or some other large sum of money. This is one of those questions (like “Where are you from?”) that irritate me because I can’t really answer them.

I have a ton of ideas for things I’d like to do and that might turn into something. If I had a million dollars, I’d develop a lot of those ideas as cheaply as I could and then pick one to expand, polish and release. Or I’d get a bunch of super-creative people together for a couple of days and see what happens. I don’t have this one dream concept lying in a desk drawer, and I’d worry if I did.

But back in 2001 I was asked that question in an interview for a job at Ion Storm Austin, and instead of explaining why I didn’t like the question I told this group, about 10 people from one of the hottest development teams back then, about this crazy game idea I had. (TL;DR: I didn’t get the job.)

A guy I worked with once remarked that Lara Croft’s view of the world in the original Tomb Raider resembled that of a psychotic character: everything is grim and trying to attack you. This goes for a lot of games, not just Tomb Raider, but I thought it was an interesting point. And it led me to the following idea:

Imagine the US, anytime between the last ten years and the near future. Society has a problem. People are frequently running amok and killing others indiscriminately. (I mean more than in our world.) Nobody knows why, but the FBI has an elite squad of agents who can sense these attacks a short time before they happen, and then rush in to prevent it from happening, or at least to limit the damage. And you are one of those agents.

In between missions you’re in your elite squad base, watching TV. Then you or someone else gets a hunch, and you run off to some mall or square or public building to find and stop some man or woman about to snap and go crazy. Then you go back to your base to watch TV, and you’ll see an anchorperson reporting about some incident, a terrorist tried to attack, brave officers saved the day, etc.

But then, over time, something starts to change. Little things you see in the corner of your eye. Little flashes. Monstrous shapes that turn back into normal people. This happens more and more. Your colleagues start asking if you’re OK, but you insist on you’re fine and continue to go on missions. And then you realize you understand what those people, the people who snap and need to be taken out, are screaming about. You realize you can sometimes see what they are seeing. A grim world, all brown and grey, populated by monsters. (A world from mid-90s Quake-likes.)

Pretty soon you see this world all the time. And the monsters are coming for you. And you have to defend yourself.

And then you’re not in your base, watching TV. You’re skulking through alleyways, cradling your gun, catching glimpses of the news through the windows of bars. Some madman is on the loose, they say. A rogue officer.

And you know you’re former colleagues aren’t far behind.

So in the end you get shot because you’re crazy (OR ARE YOU). Basically it’s an elaborate joke to say something about how first-person shooters used to be. The setting doesn’t fully make sense and I don’t know if the game would even work as a game. Ironically, the chances of this getting made are not bad these days, and there might even be an audience for it if you did a good job. In 2001, in a commercial context, it was not the best answer, and I didn’t get the job. Over 10 years later, it’s at least an amusing anecdote.

Goodbye Steve

This morning I woke up hearing that Steve Jobs had died. It has hit me surprisingly hard.

Why grieve over the death of someone I never met? Someone who had his dark sides? Who made products that are not perfect? Someone who we all knew was not doing well, health-wise? Why grieve over the death of a rich white man who made expensive gadgets, while many things that are much worse happen every day?

Because I find Steve Jobs inspiring. He was a creative person who cared about quality and details, and who won. He pulled it off, he was successful both creatively and financially. His success was not something only insiders could appreciate. It is measurable in crass numbers.

As someone who is creative and who cares about quality and details, it is immensely inspiring to know that it is possible. It is possible to be uncompromising, to care, and to succeed. That doesn’t mean I can do so, but knowing that it’s possible makes me at least want to try.

And I love using Apple products. I don’t consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool, hard-core Apple fan. I’ve never used an Apple II. I used Macs at work in the 90s, but I was indifferent about them.

I bought my first Mac in 2003, a second-hand white G3 iBook, after my Windows PC, the only one I ever bought, started getting too long in the tooth. Then I bought a G4 iBook. And an iMac. Then I got a G5 PowerMac for free (long story). Then I bought my current machine, an Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. And now I’m considering buying a new Mac.

I won’t bore you with the details of my iPods and iPhones.

But I’ve obviously become a fanboy. I drank the Kool-Aid. I buy the line about control and integration leading to a better user experience. I care about user experience, and nothing is as nice to use as Apple products. They may be imperfect, but that doesn’t mean they’re not miles better than the rest. By now I have trouble understanding why anyone would not want to get an iPhone if they could afford one. Or use Windows, except for hard-core gaming or because you’re forced to, by work. It’s a mystery to me. (And I realize this might offend some people. Sorry!)

Sounds cultish? It gets worse. One reason why I’m sad that Steve Jobs has died is that, while he was alive, I knew there was someone who was actively making my life better. Who was bringing me the future, in a way that had a real impact on my life.

And now he’s gone.

This morning I started watching the 2007 iPhone presentation on my MacBook Pro. I had never watched it before. (Because I had all the time in the world. Right?) While I was watching, the screen started flickering and glitching. And then it turned black. I closed the lid, opened it again. It stayed black.

So I realized I had a MacBook Pro, that when opened would show a black screen and Steve Jobs’s voice would come out.

Anyway.

Jason Kottke has an excellent summary of what people wrote today about Jobs’s passing, as well as the same question I’ve been asking myself:

I am incredibly sad this morning. Why am I, why are we, feeling this so intensely?

Marco Arment, maker of the excellent Instapaper, puts it nicely:

But it feels like someone close to me has died. He was so intimately involved in his company and its products (which have become critical parts of my career and hobby life), and he has publicly injected so much vision, personality, and care into our entire industry for so long, that I do feel like I knew him, even though I really didn’t.

Panic are an excellent example of the kind of software developers that make software you just don’t get on Windows. Here they explain why (although it might be gone by the time you read this).

Be sure to watch (or read) Jobs’s 2005 Stanford commencement speech:

One more thing has been going through my head today. Jobs was 56. I’m 40. What have I been doing with my life?

Lazy Sunday

Today is my first day off in what feels like a very long time.

As you may or may not know, I co-organized Stagconf, a one-day conference on storytelling and games, together with my wonderful wife Andy Schmoll and our good friend Harald Eckmueller.

Like the best of adventures, it seemed like a good idea at the time, turned out to require much more work and energy than we naively expected, involved a lot of drama and excitement, and had a happy ending.

It took place last Tuesday, September 27th. So far, the positive feedback has been very, very positive, and the negative feedback was along the lines of “I didn’t get a chance to eat one of the donuts and they looked yummy”.

I didn’t write much about it here. Apart from the fact that I don’t blog much anymore in general, the main reason was fear. Fear of announcing something that might turn out to fail. Fear that my terror of this whole thing becoming a spectacular and costly failure would be obvious, and would jinx things. Conquering this fear was a wonderful experience, one that I’m very glad to have had. Despite it being terrifying.

At some point it became clear to me that we were effectively running a little startup on the side, next to our day jobs. A day job which in my case involved working at another startup. If you’ve been in a startup, you know it’s an emotional roller coaster. Being on two emotional roller coasters at the same time was stressful to say the least, especially in late July and August when we had just started selling tickets and had not closed any sponsorship deals.

This stress also lead to, ironically, me not wanting to deal with games or storytelling in games or any other side projects. And in the final weeks, it lead to my wife and me not wanting to deal with cooking, cleaning or having a social life.

But now the conference is over. The last speaker is flying back to the US. I still have to organize some feedback surveys, and we’ve started thinking about next year’s conference. But today, I can sleep in, catch up on my reading, think of new adventures, and enjoy the beautiful weather.

Back from Game Forum Germany 2011

My wife and I just got back from Game Forum Germany (GFG), a small game developers’ conference that takes place once a year in Hannover, Germany. Just like last year, it was an amazing experience.

Sadly, I missed the opening keynote by Martin Schwiezer on AAA development in Germany, but I was able to squeeze into the completely packed room for Ron Gilbert’s presentation on the making of Maniac Mansion. It was great to see how that game was made, and one of his key points was that not knowing things (such as “making a game with 3 main characters out of a possible 7, with custom puzzles and endings for each combination is really hard”) can be very liberating.

Ron was followed by Mike Acton from Insomniac, with a talk based on his recent blog post It doesn’t have to suck, which was reposted on Gamasutra. Mike used a very simple presentation structure combined with a lot of interaction with the audience. This worked very well for this topic, because he challenged the audience to think about how to decrease the suckage in game development in their daily lives.

After the lunch break Ryan Challinor from Harmonix Music Systems explained how the the gesture-based UI navigation approach in Dance Central was developed. I, like many others in the audience, haven’t played Dance Central, so hearing about all the dead ends was actually quite suspenseful, and I was glad to hear that they found something that worked well in the end.

Mary-Margaret Walker then talked about how to nurture your career and why you should keep your resumé updated, even if you’re happy in your job. It was great to get tips from someone who’s seen as many resumés as she has.

I missed the panel discussion on recruiting talent, partially because of the amazing apple pie that was served during the coffee break and for which I must get the recipe, but I was back in time to see Benedikt Grindel and Christopher Schmitz’s presentation on how Blue Byte took the Settlers brand to online and social games. It was very interesting to hear how they were able to cut costs by reusing assets, and how these games fit into the larger Ubisoft strategy. (It was also somehow touching to me since I worked at Blue Byte a long time ago.)

The first day ended with a great party in the Sol y Mar, where I got to catch up with old friends from the German games industry and talk to new ones.

The second day started with David Hellman’s presentation on the art of Braid. It was amazing to hear how much thought and effort had gone into creating the look of that game, and it made me want to start up my industrial vacuum cleaner Xbox and play it again, and maybe finish it this time.

Andrew Walker then gave an overview of the publisher-developer relationship ten years ago versus now. Working at a small developer, this is a subject I have a lot of interest in, so it was great to hear what someone who’s worked at a very high level at a top publisher had to say about it.

Mary Bihr from LucasArts Entertainment talked about the history of games based on movies, specifically based on Lucasfilm movies, going back to the very first Star Wars games and the humble beginnings of LucasArts. She also gave away prizes (sadly, I was not eligible), which greatly increased audience participation.

After lunch, Richard Dansky gave a really good talk on genre stories in video games and why they are so common. The audience responded very well to his talk and there were a lot of questions, including the dreaded question-that’s-not-a-question, in this case about Heavy Rain being the savior of interactive storytelling. Hmmm….. no. Although I have nothing against Heavy Rain, I wasn’t convinced before, and certainly not after Richard’s comments on it, which were of course blithely ignored by the questioner.

Jeff Ward gave the final presentation on pitfalls and best practices in data-driven development. He had shown me some of what he’s done in AngelXNA and it’s definitely a cool system.

The conference ended with a discussion by Mary, Ron and Noah Falstein on the history of LucasArts. I missed that for no good reason, but I hope I can catch it on video.

The presentations were great, but for my wife and me, being involved in the organization, the real treat was hanging out with the speakers. Just like last year we had a really great little group, all passionate about video games, and we had a ton of very interesting discussions. We spent Saturday walking around Hannover and visiting the Wilhelm Busch museum, finally ending up in a great steak restaurant. Today my wife and I flew back to Vienna, exhausted, but also energized and inspired. I’m already looking forward to next year.