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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.