Meaningful Play 2014, Day 1

This academic conference on games gets underway in earnest.

The first day of Meaningful Play 2014Meaningful Play 2014 started this morning with a keynote, continued with 3 conference sessions (6 choices each) followed by another keynote, and concluded with a special event where lots of games and research were presented in a social environment of happy, controlled chaos.

(There was actually “continental breakfast” available first thing, for those into waking up that early, but my schedule was not conducive to that.)

The proceedings were (briefly) opened by Johannes Bauer (Michigan State University), who chairs the Department of Media and Information at MSU, which department presented the conference.  (Interestingly, I have known Johannes for about 20 years in a completely non-game context.)  He introduced conference organizers, Brian Winn (Michigan State University), who I have known since before he started the first Meaningful Play, and Casey O’Donnell (Michigan State University).  Casey spoke about the monsters theme as a metaphor for games and game studies, saying, “Monsters aren’t bad, only complicated.”  Brian provided the selected hashtag, #MPlay and some (more grounded) conference numbers: 300 attendees from 17 countries and 23 US states.

The opening keynote was “Computer Game Studies: Moving Forward (?)“, presented by Mia Consalvo (Concordia University), who also had been one of the respondents last night.  She structured her entire talk as a “Dear Espen” (a play on Dear Esther) letter replying to a 2001 commentary by Espen Aarseth.  It helped set up the discussion on game studies, the primary focus of the conference, as well as subtly playing on the theme of diversity in games, which cannot help being an undertone of the discussion, given recent events.  The talk was interesting and engaging but, if I am honest, not terribly enlightening, especially given that I have been a part of the game industry through the entirety of the history she covered and that the talk was targeted at researchers; the only time developers were really addressed was when she entreated us to all work together (i.e., for game developers to listen to scholars).  My (retrospective) takeaway is that the area of “game studies” has to struggle for relevance within the larger industry.

For the first set of sessions, I attended a panel, “The Meaning of Casual: Serious Dialogues about Casual Games“, with presentations by Shira Chess (University of Georgia), Adrienne Shaw (Temple University), and Lauren Cruikshank (University of New Brunswick), with a remote from Maria Cipollone (UX researcher at Zynga).  The panel was (ostensibly) about taking casual games seriously, which I found really intriguing, but there was a large overlap in the genres discussed, completely excluding the types of casual games that my company builds.  Specific points made about nurturing games targeted at young girls do not translate to casual games in general, and where puzzle games or solitaire were mentioned, there seemed (to me) to be a bit of the same air of derision that the panelists were supposedly denouncing.  (I was astounded, too, that discussion of nurturing games never once mentioned the word, “tomagotchi”.)  The remote presentation was the most interesting, but the conclusion was one that we already know well, specifically, that “casual gamers” can be anything but casual about playing.

That panel provided a basis for some interesting observations, however.  The first two presenters (at least) have been called out by name in the #GamerGate controversy, which I suspect is the reason that the group seemed to be a little bit insular.  Whenever I saw one of them throughout the day, the others were always there.  (This is in contrast to my own conference behavior, where I often eschew friends in order to make new acquaintances by talking to other people.)  On that (parenthetical) note, one of my new conference friends went to the workshop, “Make the Course You Want to Take: MSU’s Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse” and she (an educator) raved about how good that session was.

Then, there were two more sessions in the afternoon.  [OK, I admit it: I went home for a few hours, as I was not fully prepared to exhibit tomorrow, and I was also yawning due to “jet lag”, my normal schedule being closer to Pacific Time. 🙂 ]

The afternoon keynote was “Meaningful Leverage: Breaking the System of Ignorance“, presented by Erin Hoffman (Game Design Lead at GlassLab), who is probably best known as being “ea_spouse“, from the exposé on labor practices at Electronic Arts.  This keynote was quite enlightening, and well-presented.  Hoffman began by discussing the concept of systems as known to game developers, with references to game balancing, noting how easy it is (or can be) to “break” a system, which in the context of game design is a Bad Thing.  She then turned the topic on its head, looking at the larger world, making the case that ignorance itself is a system that feeds upon itself, and asking how we could work to break that system (improving education and fighting poverty being two obvious approaches), which would be a Good Thing.  This a fascinating concept, provoking thought and discussion, and seemed to be very well-received among attendees.

One point I found interesting, albeit mostly unrelated to the keynote itself, was when Hoffman dismissed casual games as “meaningless”.  I happened to be directly behind the table occupied by the presenters from the earlier panel on casual games, in a line of sight to the speaker, and it seemed that the whole table had a visceral reaction of discomfort at the statement.  The sentiment (or flinching) must have been somewhat broader, because the speaker immediately attempted to clarify her intent.  However, I do not think that she helped her case any by stating that did not mean they were unimportant, because they must provide something that is otherwise missing in the lives of casual game players.  Wisely, she quickly moved on before digging that hole any deeper; so shall I. 🙂

After a dinner break, there was the Special Event: Conference Reception, Game Exhibition, and Poster Session.  The main event was held in the ballroom, with the posters (and open bar) just outside.  Alas, some of the scheduled posters were not there (and few of the authors), but fortunately, Allen Trammell was there to discuss his most interesting one, Vertiginous Play: Debating “Fun” with the Diplomacy Wives Club, in which he looked into archives of the fan community of Diplomacy (a board game) from the 1960s and found parallels to current debates within the video game community.  After a healthy discussion there, I attempted to introduce myself to the aforementioned casual games micro-group to share my thoughts, was rudely rebuffed (an action rife with opportunities for speculation), and then bumped into Brian Winn, for the first time since his conference started, and had a (no doubt) much more fulfilling conversation with him.

Inside the ballroom, there was all manner of activity, with lots of games, both digital and “analog”, being discussed, demonstrated, and played.  There was bustle everywhere, and the event seemed to be really successful.  Some of the digital games that I saw were Fat Chicken, though Josh Mills was struggling with the seemingly inevitable technical issues when I visited, After the Storm, an interesting educational game for reading and writing in the context of journalism, and Guided Meditation, which was my first direct experience with the Oculus Rift headset (and my first VR headset experience in probably 10 years).  On the board and card game side, after meeting Clay Ewing, I made a point of checking out both Humans vs. Mosquitos and Vanity, the former (in particular) being impressive in its ability to convey a message in the context of an elegant card game that would be welcome at one of our regular game nights.

I also came across the game, The Bone Wars, a game about paleontology in a (narrow) historical context that taught me something with just the description.  What made this most interesting for me, though, was that I got involved in a discussion with the project advisor, Paul Gestwicki (Ball State University), in which we were able to discuss technical aspects of game development in depth.  We talked about tools, and game engines, and the difficulties inherent in creating general Solitaire deal solvers, and all manner of other topics of interest to programmers.  The conversation lasted until the event had technically ended and the ballroom was starting to empty.

Returning to my office at the end of a long day, I am looking forward to more to come.  (I also realize that I parked downtown three different times, in three different cars…)

Meaningful Play 2014, Day 0

A special talk prepares attendees for the conference itself.

Meaningful Play 2014Tonight, prior to the official Meaningful Play 2014 opening, there was a pre-conference Quello Center Lecture Series talk entitled, Racism, Sexism, and Video Games: Social Justice Campaigns and the Struggle for Gamer Identity.

The main presentation was given by Lisa Nakamura (University of Michigan), with respondents Rabidra Ratan (Michigan State University) and Mia Consalvo (Concordia University).

I found the talk quite interesting and informative, and incredibly timely, though there was not much that was actionable  The respondents generally agreed with the premise, merely stating a different perspective.  All of the speakers referred to “stereotype threat“, which (oversimplified) is the tendency for individuals to exhibit negative traits ascribed to groups to which they belong when confronted (subconsciously) with the stereotypes.  One example given was that a purple alien in the midst of many green aliens would tend to behave in a manner attributed to purple aliens generally.  Answering a question, Ratan extended the idea to suggest that this manifests not only within an individual online game, but also in the selection of games played, which provoked a response from an audience member that is probably best described as “vehement (eventual) agreement”. 🙂

At a result of this exchange, I found myself considering the programming team that I (originally) led at Spectrum HoloByte.  I was hired as Senior Software Engineer, and Lead Programmer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, “A Final Unity”, which was developed by an internal division called the “PC Group”.  The other big group was the “Sim Group”, which programmed military simulations, namely the Falcon aircraft simulators.  Our PC Group had been responsible for the line of Tetris games for MS-DOS, while the Sim Group had just finished shipping Falcon 3.0, which by internal accounts (verified by documentation) had been one of the worst death march situations in the industry.

My initial team was five programmers, including myself, but what makes it interesting is that the team was 60% female (back in 1993).  I was, of course, one of the two male programmers, and I had been considered for 3 positions, but in the interview process I made it clear that I was not interested in flight simulators and did not wish to be considered for the Sim Group opening (though the producer insisted that we talk anyway).  The other male programmer had been integral in the Sim Group for the previous product but, for his own reasons (n.b., “death march”), had chosen to switch groups.  On the other side of the building, the Sim Group had exactly zero female programmers.

I have always thought that this arrangement was interesting, but in the context of the talk, it provides some anecdotal evidence that not only is there some gender bias in games played but, to the degree allowed by business, this is also true of games being developed.  In other words, three female programmers gravitated to the group creating puzzle, board, and arcade games, while two male programmers moved away from the war games.  For the record, this was one of the best teams, in terms of atmosphere, I have experienced (until “circumstances” intervened, as they eventually must).

A Note about #GamerGate

This talk took place just one day after the story broke about Anita Sarkeesian receiving terrorist death threats and having to cancel her talk at Utah State University, so despite having been scheduled for months, the topic was almost disturbingly topical.  Aside from an offhand joke on Twitter (below), I had not been following or involved in the #GamerGate controversy, so I was interested to learn that several of the players in the “social justice warrior” (not a pejorative) space were to be speaking at Meaningful Play 2014 (again, having been scheduled many months before the storm even began).  This really sets an underlying theme for the rest of the conference.

My personal take on the controversy is that it is disappointing that there are “sides” and each faction is trying to somehow “win”, despite there being no achievable victory conditions.  At an academic conference, and especially within the audience for this talk, there is unlikely to be any sympathy with those who make threats, but it is not merely the ignorant who are stirring the pot.  As somebody who is not innately a member of any disadvantaged minority group (except “genius” 🙂 ), I still appreciate (and actively support) the push for diversity in the game industry, but cannot support rhetoric which serves to divide and/or supports deliberate disruption of the field in which I have made my career.

So…  New Cooperative Game Rules:

  1. Live and let live.
  2. Stop talking; start doing.
  3. If you say “them”, you lose.
  4. You do not win when others lose.
  5. Objectives:
    1. more games
    2. more diversity
    3. more choices
    4. more prosperity

I am happy with a collaborative effort, so please feel to contribute rule suggestions.

Meaningful Play 2014

This is the International Academic Conference on Meaningful Play.

Meaningful Play 2014 This week, Michigan State University hosts Meaningful Play 2014, the fourth edition of this bi-annual academic conference discussing “games that matter“.

Meaningful Play 2014, running October 16-18, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan, includes numerous keynotes, speakers, panels, roundtables, workshops, papers, and special events, all examining and promoting the idea that games can (and should) have a positive impact.

This year, SophSoft, Incorporated is not only attending the conference but, for the first time, we are sponsoring Meaningful Play.  In addition to sponsoring, we will be exhibiting our games (as Digital Gamecraft) in the Pure Michigan Game Exhibition and Celebration, giving away free copies of Demolish! Pairs, and I will be participating in a panel, Growing the Game Industry in Michigan: 2014 Update.

I have attended Meaningful Play two (of three) previous times, in 2008 and 2010 (missing 2012 only due a scheduling conflict), and I found them to be quite refreshing.  Like other conferences I have attended, I leave filled with inspiration, but as an academic conference, this one also challenges me with many new ideas about games, with scientific studies, unique approaches, and non-commercial products not seen at major industry events.

Over the new few days, I intend to document my experiences and takeaways from Meaningful Play 2014, for which I will link below as articles are published:

 

FTP Design Thwarted

Problems with our free-to-play design emerged.

As we analyze the results of Demolish! Pairs FTP, the free-to-play edition of our fun arcade/puzzle game, Demolish! Pairs, this is good time to review the basic design of the IAP (In-App Purchase) products and other options we provide for continuing play.

The Original Design

The first complete plan included the following four IAP products:

  • Golden Ticket  [$3.99] – This product permanently removes all game restrictions and all advertising, providing the same unlimited experience as the “paid” version.
  • Silver Pass  [$2.99] – This product permanently removes all game restrictions (but leaves the advertising in place).
  • Express Pass  [$1.99] – This product permanently removes all advertising (but leaves the game restrictions in place).
  • Two Day Pass  [$0.99] – This product would offer a 48-hour subscription, or a 48-hour extension to a subscription, with no limits or ads.

As we considered the various views that might be necessary to provide notifications of game limits, as well as how we would offer products to eliminate ads, it became clear that one unified store view, which doubles as a notification message, would serve the purpose nicely.  (We plan to refine this idea further.)

Additionally, we added the idea of a button to extend play, for free, which can only be used once each 12 hours.  In practice, we implemented the countdown timer to only begin at the next restriction notification, to make the idea of “appointment” gaming work for us more clearly.  We also limited the extension to the current game (for each player).

The First Hurdle

In an earlier post, Free-to-Play Take 1: Rejected, I documented the initial rejection of Demolish! Pairs FTP due to the fact that the 48-hour subscription was against App Store guidelines, which require all subscriptions to be at least one week.

The original IAP was designed together, as a unit, so each of the buttons would function in conjunction with the others to create the desired “menu” of offerings.  The most expensive (read: still really inexpensive) option was deliberately the same price as the original (“paid”) edition.  The crucial part was to have a cheap option, at only 99 cents, which provided some value, and then another option at each pricing tier.  Once a player commits (mentally) to spending (less than) a dollar, it is only another buck to reach another level of value, and again and again, up to having it all for only $4.  A customer can purchase a middle level of value (Silver Pass or Express Pass) and then, later, obtain the equivalent of a Golden Ticket by purchasing the other one, but the ultimate price difference ($0.99) is the incentive to go for it all at once.

When the lowest tier caused rejection of the game, we quickly removed it, accepting that this destroyed the carefully considered equilibrium of the menu of purchase options.  Also, because of simple mathematics, we could not drop prices and make it work correctly.  We have now designed a replacement (non-subscription) product to provide that least expensive option, though that will take a little more implementation time.

The iAd Problem

As mentioned my last post, FTP: Early Results, the only thing that was absolutely wrong was that iAd had not started serving any ads, so that completely messed up the IAP design.  The Express Pass was pointless, and even looked like some kind of idiocy, because there were no ads to remove in the first place.  On top of that, of course, that also relegated the Golden Ticket to the same value as the Silver Pass, so essentially our whole menu of IAP products had been reduced to merely one logical choice.

Two or three hours after I posted that article, iAd suddenly began serving some ads.  I actually discovered it while playing the game on my iPad just for fun and, unexpectedly, getting an advertisement for Small Business Saturday, after which I was able to confirm a handful of ad impressions (for thousands of requests).  I had never been so excited to see an online ad, and it briefly looked better.

Unfortunately, though ads are being served occasionally, the fill rate is still far below 4% (i.e., 1 ad for every 25 requests), which is almost worse.  Now, the very irregular ad appearances make them almost novel, so there is no real incentive for an Express Pass (nor for choosing a Golden Ticket over a Silver Pass), and there is no indication that the fill rate is going to improve substantially.  As an unexpected twist, most of the few ads that do show up look fine and unobtrusive; in fact, the blue and gold of the most common banner, from Progressive Insurance, almost matches our menu color scheme exactly.

The Next Step

Our next step will be analyzing customer behaviors to see if we can glean any useful information from the limited number of downloads so far.  We have a custom analytics package (that I developed) built into the app but we were waiting to see how the initial release progressed before “flipping the switch” to begin actual reporting.  It now seems fairly clear that our server will not be overwhelmed…

Lack of Ideas? Really?

Ideas are easy.  Execution really matters.

I somewhat regularly read about “game designers” who are lacking ideas, usually via posts from the individuals themselves seeking good ideas for a game (from others).  Mind you, I cannot lay claim to being the best game designer on the planet, but I can certainly tell you that anyone who says that they have no game ideas is definitely not a game designer.

The truth of the matter is that any real game designer always has too many ideas to be able to execute all of them, or even a significant percentage.  If you do not have this problem, you best not fancy yourself a designer at all; instead, take a job with a game company where you can develop the ideas of somebody else, and maybe add a little design input every once in a while.

Here are a few characteristics of pseudo-designers that I have encountered over the many years I have been in this business:

  • they think that “Quake, only with bigger guns” is an interesting idea;
  • they focus on a single design idea to the exclusion of other approaches;
  • they believe that their one idea is so valuable that others are just waiting to “steal” it;
  • they think that an idea is somehow the same as a game design; and
  • they have no idea how much effort is actually involved in building a game.

Whenever I hear one of these stories now, I just have to shake my head and sigh.  Granted, early in my professional career, I was more likely to be swayed by somebody with a grand idea and (at least) a partial game design but, of course, the conversation usually ended with “you create my game and I will split the profits with you, 50/50.”  Even when groups are formed to pursue a particular game design, unless they are properly funded, it almost always ends in failure.

I can hardly believe that people will claim they are a “good game designer”, but they cannot come up with a good idea to turn into a game design.  When I worked at Quest Software, and we were wrapping up The Legend of Blacksilver (Apple II version, circa 1989), our entire development staff (of 4!) sat down at a local Burger King and brainstormed at least four game ideas to consider before the end of a fast food lunch; I still remember one of the ideas that was not chosen to pursue.  Given that, I am astonished when somebody thinks that my company would bother to take their basic game idea, when we have a backlog of our own designs yet to be done, and could easily devise more when/if necessary.

When I first heard about the One Game A Month challenge, I was intrigued at the idea of trying to start clearing out the backlog of those designs (full and partial) we have wanted to create.  Although I am not officially participating, primarily because after 30+ years, my game development goals are not congruent with the bulk of the “indie scene”, I realized that the way to get this done was to actually think less about game design, and focus on execution: actually getting the projects completed.

Execution is always the most important part of game development, because “wouldn’t it be cool if…” is always much easier to say than to do.  Somebody has to program, somebody has to create artwork (likewise, sounds, music, levels, documentation, etc.), and it all needs to be put together and, most of all, finished.  It is not an exaggeration to say that almost all (i.e., more than 90% of) games are never actually completed.

To give you some numbers on the extent of the Digital Gamecraft backlog, I spent an hour or so simply writing down the names of projects for which some design work had been done, including games that had been partially designed and researched, games which had fully documented designs, and several products in various stages of development.  I stopped when I reached 32 projects, though there are certainly more.

The reason that 32 was a good place to stop was that I wanted to prioritize them using a simple binary selection process (a bracket system, if you will), knowing that all of the higher priority projects would spring immediately to mind.  I went through the pairs of projects to generate a rough priority list, and then I manually tweaked the development and release order to create some variety in our lineup (i.e., not producing two games within the same genre back-to-back).  Now I have a list of projects that, even if we could finish one per month, would take us almost until 2016, and that does not even include any of the four AAA games we pitched at E3 (and CGDC) back in 1997.

Our current project list, as it currently stands, contains 30 games, in 6 different genres, spanning approximately one dozen platforms, plus a productivity application and an information web site.  If we can accomplish even half of that in the next 5 years, I will probably be extremely pleased (or, possibly, cloned 😉 ).

However, if your problem is with finding ideas, rather than actual execution of game designs, then it may be time to give up the concept of being a game designer.

ISVCon 2012: Success!

This conference reboot was the best in years.

You shoulda been there!

We have returned safely from ISVCon 2012, which was presented last week in Reno, Nevada [USA] with a mixture of physical exhaustion and mental exhilaration, as is often the case with great conferences.  ISVCon was a relaunch of the old Software Industry Conference, and the consensus was that this was the most beneficial event in several years.  The content was geared towards microISVs (Independent Software Vendors), software companies with just a few people (often, only one person), and the networking/socializing was with others who are facing the same challenges (as well as those who provide services to help).

 The main question: Why were you not there?

 

Before our departure for Reno, I added the Twitter box [edit: formerly] on the right of this blog, and I was “live tweeting” as much as possible throughout the conference, as well as during our journey (and quasi-vacation).  If you follow my personal account at @GreggSeelhoff, you can still see the updates, as well as more going forward.

In the coming days, I will review the highlights of the conference, and I have it on good authority that the Association of Software Professionals (new conference owners) will be making some or all of the session videos publicly available for viewing.

Prior to all that, however, I must give a HUGE shout out to Susan Pichotta of Alta Web Works, who deserves most of the credit for bringing this fantastic 3.0 version of the long-running conference together, and without whom ISVCon would never have happened.  Plans are already in the works for next year, and I really look forward to being there in 2013.

URGENT: ISVCon 2012 is almost here!

Register NOW and save with our discount code.

ISVCon.orgISVCon 2012 takes place July 13-15, which is only a couple weeks (!) away.  ISVCon is the spiritual successor to (or, in entertainment terms, reboot of) SIC, the Software Industry Conference, which I have attended numerous times, and which has always been a great investment.  This conference brings together scores of independent software publishers (or “vendors”, hence ISV) to discuss and learn about the industry  It is a unique opportunity to meet face-to-face with many other people who share similar business challenges; I now call lots of them “friends”.

ISVCon will be taking place in Reno, Nevada (USA) at the Atlantis Casino Resort.

Here is the catch: Time is running out!

Step 1: Register (at a discount)

First, register for ISVCon before the prices go up.  As an incentive, we at Digital Gamecraft can offer you this 10% discount code: “Gamecraft2012“.  Limited time only; prices increase July 1st.

Step 2: Get your hotel room (at a discount)

Next, make your hotel reservations now (using that link) to receive discount pricing and no resort fee.  Offer ends in only a couple of days!

Step 3: Attend ISVCon 2012

Join us in Reno for the conference.  We will be arriving before the Welcome Reception on Thursday evening, during which we will be able to have a drink or two, socialize with friends and colleagues (both long lost and brand new), and switch from travel mode into conference mode.

The conference sessions take place Friday, July 13, through Sunday, July 15, and specifics can be found on this complete conference schedule.  Note that the Friday sessions are Power Sessions, while the Saturday and Sunday sessions provide a couple of options for each timeslot.  There is so much content at ISVCon that we are sending most of the staff (okay, just two of us) to make sure that we can have full coverage of the relevant topics.  Additionally, the networking value and information exchange between (and sometimes during) sessions is possibly even more valuable than the speakers.

That said, let me draw your attention particularly to Paradise Room A on Saturday from 1:45pm to 2:45pm, for my presentation, Quality Assurance for Small Software Publishers, and on Sunday from 9:00am to 10:00am, where I will serve on a panel of game developers for the session, How Games are Different.  The answer to your question is: I will be there and awake at 9am because, with the time difference, that will be noon back home.  (Also, I never work the B room.)

We will there at the conference through the After Hours MeetUp on Sunday evening, before beginning our (more) lengthy journey back to the office.  From experience, this will involve an odd mixture of being physically spent, but mentally energized, full of plans and ideas.  Honestly, attending ISVCon 2012 is probably one of the best ways to spend a few days improving your business; I strongly recommend it for any ISV.

Follow me on Twitter @GreggSeelhoff for live conference updates.  See you there!

Meaningful Play 2010, Day 3

The premier academic game conference wraps up.

Circumstances conspired to prevent me from attending the first part of the conference on Saturday.  I was disappointed to miss the morning keynote, The Intellectual Life of Online Play, presented by Constance Steinkuehler of Games + Learning + Society, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which could have been fascinating.  I noticed previously that keynote speakers were being videotaped, so I will keep my eye out for this one.  Since I had already missed part of the next session, too, I chose to take a deep breath rather than rush back for a paper session on Ethical Reflection in Games.

Fortunately, I did make it to the conference in time for Zombies vs. Knaves: Playing Games in Cultural Institutions, a panel presentation that demonstrated the (proper) use of games in a variety of museums, plus a college library.  I was impressed with all of the games: Whyville at the (virtual) Getty Museum, Minnesota 150 Challenge at the Minnesota History Center, Human vs. Zombies (ARG) played at the University of Florida Library, Mysteries of Ancient Art at the Getty Villa, Spy in the City from the International Spy Museum (DC), and Pheon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The latter game is actually an extensible framework to which other educational or commercial entities could add their own challenges over the next year.  It is great to see such positive usage of games as a platform for exploring and learning.

A short break for (provided) lunch was next, during which I had a little time to quietly reflect on the conference, and also peek at the score of the Michigan State vs. Northwestern football game.  (MSU won a great game, but the score was looking pretty bleak for them at that early stage.)

The last keynote of the day/conference was Looking Outside In: LEGO and the Evolution of Play, given (primarily) by Helle Winding of LEGO Universe.  Last time, on the second day of Meaningful Play 2008, we played with Play-Doh during a keynote; this time everybody got LEGO, with which we built all manner of ducks (some more abstract than others).  On the day after the European launch of LEGO Universe, and just three days prior to the worldwide launch, the talk centered around the history and philosophy of the LEGO Group, and how it led to this latest online game/world.  It looked like a really cool project but, frankly, there was not much enlightenment to be gleaned, either from the live presentation or the several produced videos that were screened.

I was surprised to learn, during the talk, that LEGO was in serious financial trouble a few years ago, and I was even more surprised to hear that the product is considered “for boys” by the company itself.  For the record, I took my six LEGO blocks to my wife (who is definitely not a boy) and she enjoyed building a duck more than I did.  That may not not hold true for LEGO Universe, which was designed for a specific market, but I do not see anything inherently masculine (nor feminine) about the plastic blocks.  [Suggestive, perhaps, but not gender-specific.]

Anyway, this was followed immediately by the Conference Closing and the announcement of the Game Award winners, based on judging among the 24 selected submissions to the Game Exhibition (on Thursday).  These winners were:

It appears that the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab had a good year, with three games earning multiple awards and mentions.  I also noticed that a couple of the other games could use a little help in the marketing realm.  Here are two quick hints…  First, if you want to have links back to your game (from, say, a blog like this one), establish a canonical web page where the latest and greatest information about the game is published; second, in order for people to actually be able to find said page, try to be consistent with your game title (including punctuation like, you know, hyphens).  A downloadable or online playable game or demo is always appreciated, too.

The conference left me, in a phrase, “emotionally uplifted, physically drained.”  I am really inspired by the thought and effort that goes into all of the different areas of game development, and it is always great to meet so many wonderful people working in the field, either professionally or academically.  At the same time, I am exhausted, having tried to attend the conference while continuing to maintain a degree of business and personal normalcy (all on the weekend with the inaugural F1 Korean Grand Prix running sessions in the middle of our night).

After I get some sleep, I have a number of ideas to try out, and I expect to benefit from a burst of energy achieved via networking with colleagues.  In any event, I now feel safer with my little guard duck (of LEGO) watching over me.