Meaningful Play 2008, Day 1

International Academic Conference on Meaningful Play

This was the first day of Meaningful Play 2008, and armed with my name tag and program schedule, I went to the Student Union at Michigan State University. I left behind the “goodie bag” itself which was, in fact, a cool laptop bag, the rest of the contents, including a 1G USB drive/pen, and the conference shirt (in black). I guess that “regular attendee” conveys some tangible benefits.

The first keynote, The Game Designer as Change Agent, was given by Richard Hilleman, Chief Creative Officer for Electronic Arts. Honestly, it was not what I expected based on the title, but rather was more about some internal EA processes for identifying and training executive producers (or perhaps for developing lists of confusing and pointless acronyms). Nothing inspired me to yearn for such a position. However, the talk did yield three noteworthy facts:

  1. Larry Probst still holds the EA record for largest hotel repair bill;
  2. Pogo “casual” gamers are predominantly women aged 30-40 and average 20 hours/week of play; and
  3. Flash (“a ubiquitous platform”) has recently surpassed 1 billion installations.

The first actual session I attended was the presentation of three academic papers on Emergent Gameplay. All three were interesting, but the paper by Felan Parker, The Significance of Jeep Tag: On Player-Imposed Rules in Video Games (PDF), was the most interesting presentation. The other two papers were on UML diagrams of game play interaction (a different way to look at games), and using games to generate new game ideas (of which I already have more than I can use).

After lunch, I went to the Talent, Incentives, and Infrastructure: Growing the Game Industry in Michigan panel, with Gjon Camaj (Image Space), Matt Toschlog (Reactor Zero), Tony Wenson (Michigan Film Office), and Brian Winn (moderator). The verdict is, quite simply, that this state is a great place to do business as a game developer: we have the development talent, we have the infrastructure, and now (since April), we have tax credits of up to 42% of expenses for building games here in Michigan.

I stayed in the same room for the next presentation, The Emerging Flash Game Industry and the Opportunities for Meaningful Play, given by Jared Riley of Hero Interactive. This talk was the most practical and directly relevant to our company and future plans. In his PowerPoint presentation he discussed the revenue sources and business models for Flash game developers, which was particularly interesting. The use of an example figure of $50K as a potential maximum income of a hit game, however, did hammer home the point that profitability in this area requires fast turnaround of product.

The second/final keynote of the day, The Unknown Possibilities of Existence, was given by Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games). In the talk, he attempted to define a term for which he admitted dislike, “artgame”, and then explored which games, in his opinion, fall close to this category. I found it interesting, although some of the initial discussion was lost on me, as it built on understanding of certain traditional artwork concepts/genres with which I am unfamiliar.

After the completion of daytime activities (plus enough of a break to return home for a bit), there was a conference reception at the brand new East Lansing Technology Innovation Center (ELTIC). There were poster presentations as well as software exhibitions, which included several interesting titles. Among these were Brain Powered Games, a suite of games designed to “energize your mind”, including Headline Clues, an original word game with puzzles generated dynamically from RSS feeds from news sites, Two Men and a Truck Game, sponsored by the eponymous moving company, which helps children deal with the stress of relocating, and Pebble It, an abstract puzzle game which seeks to harness the innate ability of the human brain to solve graph pebbling problems better than existing computer algorithms.

The conference organizers, Brian Winn, Ethan Watrall, and Carrie Heeter, are to be commended on a very well-organized show. Everything (including registration) has run smoothly and on time, and the content so far has been first rate.

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