With the shift towards an online focus for the Austin event, there will be special attention paid to MMOs, virtual worlds and other server-based experiences . With so many games switching or originating in the free-to-play model, what are your thoughts on specific development challenges or business challenges, as it were?
We definitely have a business track where we cover this in a lot of detail. But I think the biggest challenge for game creators is they need to realize is there isn’t necessarily an independent entity who’s going to help them get their games to the users and help them kind of speak to their users and market their game.
Because I think in the past developers have been used to the developer/publisher relationship, where someone took care of that. You sort of just had to care about the game. And I think, to a certain extent that still exists, but to a certain extent that’s quite an artificial construct.
And I think the developers and the business people who are doing the best right now are those who start to understand things like how much does it cost to acquire a user and how is their long term profitability and things like that. Although that may seem in some cases to be anathema to creative game design. I think it’s actually not. Certainly, there’s no reason you have to do this, but if you want to be in the free-to-play online space in particular, and I think that’s somewhere it’s possible to make a good living, then you really want to look very closely at things like how you’re acquiring users, your content funnel, your user acquisition funnel rather as it’s often called, and how you’re reaching out to them, and how you’re keeping them interested. You can still be very creative within those areas even if it is a bit more for business specifically.
Right. Essentially what you’re saying is, being free is not enough. You gotta have more up your sleeve in terms of an engagement strategy with the player than just that.
I also think for some game designers, business model can be a dirty word. Certainly if you are an indie and you know how you’re going out. People maybe buy a $15 Xbox Live Arcade game or something. Then that’s not necessarily a problem. You can just act as you normally are. But if you want to take advantage of this more microtransaction-based stuff, then you have to re-orient your business and your design in what might be interesting and hopefully wholesome ways.
The other new track debuting online is the 3D stereoscopic development track. I’ll be honest, the first thing that struck me was, is it too soon? Is it too soon to have a whole track dedicated to that? So why don’t you talk a little bit about the thinking there.
Well, it’s interesting. I think, in some ways, it is quite soon. But there’s a specific reason for that, which is that there’s quite a significant lead time on making games. So, if you’re going to be making a game that you’re just starting on now. So, if you’re starting on a game now and it’s going to be finished in a couple of years time, then I think you should actually worry about things like stereoscopic 3D. By doing the 3D stereoscopic game summit, we are not saying, “3D is going to be massive in the market this year!” But what we are saying is that if you’re a game creator, and you look at what’s happened in the movie space, people are spending significant extra dollars to get to watch 3D movies and enjoying it.
And if you look at things like the Nintendo 3DS that’s coming out next year, which I personally believe is going to be a big wake-up call to people that 3D and games is actually extremely cool. Then I think that is the kind of thing that you need to be at least thinking about now even if you’re not in the middle of actually developing something.
That’s an excellent point. I know the conference will be having an online awards ceremony too. Talk about the Audience Award a little bit and where the nominees are coming from there?
Oh yeah, sure. So we are doing have an Audience Award. But, the way we decided to do the audience award is, that it is simply a popularity contest. Because we believe that’s kind of, you know, that’s almost the point. There’s a lot of people who hang out online and play online games. If you’re one of them, as long as you’re using a real email address and you’re a real player, you will get a vote. And we are just interested to see whose community is going to be the most vocal.
Obviously the majority of the rest of our awards are the kind of “by developer, for developer” kind of thing. The special award is for Richard Bartle, who co-created the MUD and who’s also going to be speaking. With the award for the “Ultima Online” guys, we are going to have a speech about that franchise as well.
So, the Audience Award, we thought we would really would open it up very widely. It will be interesting to see what will happen. In fact, in the Independent Games Festival, this year we had an online game that was nominated for the Audience Award, and they may end up winning. Those games seem to marshal their troops particularly well, so we’re interested to see whether similar things will happen this year with the Choice Online Awards.