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FlyingLabs At AGC

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The Producer of Pirates of the Burning Sea gives us a developer's perspective on AGC

Eight of us from Flying Lab packed up and flew to Austin, Texas, last week for the Austin Game Conference. This is a fairly young event that has become the unofficial rally point for the entire MMORPG field. Although some of our staff have gone in recent years, this was my first time at the conference. I had a blast.

The AGC is very different from E3 -- or at least, from the E3 That Was. It really is a conference, meaning it's nothing but panels, roundtables, and lectures. There is a small exhibit hall but it's full of companies selling middleware and services to developers and studios. No one is in the exhibit hall showing off games in any real way. In fact, the only booth I saw where you could pick up a joystick and play was the Microsoft Casual Games booth, so if you want to fly to Austin to play Geometry Wars, go for it!

This focus on theory and practice rather than promotion and sales means that AGC is a very small event and it's very focused on the nuts and bolts of producing games. This also means it's easy to meet leading practitioners in the field and exhange notes on what you're doing. We had a great time talking to people working on City of Heroes, Stargate Worlds, and many other games. We learned a lot from our colleagues at other companies and we told them all about what we're up to. This kind of knowledge sharing is vital to keep your mind open and willing to test your own assumptions about what works and what doesn't. It's very much like an academic conference in this respect.

I went to a bunch of panels and many were fascinating. The keynote by Blizzard's Rob Pardo about game design in World of Warcraft was terrific, and I particularly respected his portrayal of hard design decisions as choices between two roughly equal sets of trade-offs rather than clear right-and-wrong decisions. In many areas of game design, that really is the case -- both options present reasonable outcomes and neither will make everyone happy. Pardo's contention was that you should really consider making those choices and living with them, rather than trying to achieve a compromise between choices that waters down the best in favor of the most broadly acceptable.

Another good panel was about Sam & Max: Freelance Police, the episodic comedy game from Telltale and GameTap. They explained how they're doing a project in which they will release six installments in seven months, each with about 4-5 hours of gameplay. I really think that's what episodic content should be like. The approach we're seeing with Half-Life 2 and Sin episodes seems wrong to me -- spacing them apart by half a year or more doesn't actually feel episodic in any meaningful way. Sam & Max's timetable of about a month between episodes feels natural and fun. Of course, the production level that HL2 and Sin have set make this very difficult for them, but that's their decision. I don't think episodic content is going to have much impact until we can turn it around quickly. This panel was interesting to me because we're doing episodic content in Pirates of the Burning Sea. After launch, we have a major storyline that will be released in chapters of new missions on a regular schedule.

I also saw an interesting panel on the demographics of U.S. MMORPG players. Two different research firms who do all kinds of surveys and statistical analysis on consumers in many different fields have been looking at online games. Based on their scientific studies, they estimate about 1.8 - 2.2 million people in the U.S. are paying monthly subscription fees for online PC games circa 2006, up from about 1.4 million in 2005. They also estimate that about a fifth of that population has two different concurrent subscriptions, but the number of people with three or more subscriptions is statistically insignificant. Online games are the only segment of the entire electronic gaming market -- including PC and console software and hardware -- that have had any growth in the last four years. Anyway, it was a really great week and Austin has some amazing restaurants and bars. We had a great time, learned a whole lot, and look forward to doing it again in a year!

-John Scott Tynes - Producer, Pirates of the Burning Sea

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