I had the chance this past week to sit down and chat with BioWare Austin heads Richard Vogel and Gordon Walton on all things GDC Online. Being the cofounders of GDC some eight years ago now, the guys are understandably excited about this year’s show. It’s got a whole new branding (it was formerly known merely as GDC Austin) reflecting its presence as the industry’s main show centered on MMO and online game development. As we began our conversation, they both stated that these days “online is a requirement” for just about any game and that what an online game is has grown and gestated into something much more complex than the MUDs and MMOs of old.
The first thing we touched on was the meteoric rise of Facebook and social gaming. Both Rich and Gordon were quick to defend the movement, stating that for game developers it’s a great thing. It means more money for more jobs for more people to keep doing what they love. And while they understand the feelings of unease and wariness drawn from the core gaming audience, they insist that it’s probably unwarranted. Much like the argument surrounding the Wii’s release and how it was bound to bring the downfall of hardcore gaming, the BioWare guys see casual and Facebook gaming as simply a new sect of gaming.
The online scope of today in terms of gaming is far different than what it used to be. Rich and Gorden said that there are two reasons people play games: for fantasy and for the actual gameplay, and in that order. When asked what they thought of the sentiment that Facebook and casual games are “ruining it” for the core gamers, they said that how much time a player has to actually play something is an important factor for the Facebook games. They’re not designed to take anything away from titles like BioWare’s own The Old Republic, but rather they are designed to serve a different type of gamer who wants or needs something “bite-sized”. Of course they both acknowledged the fact that there are plenty of people who play Farmville for hours on end, but then those are the kinds of players Rich and Gordon believe could easily be led to something like TOR or Guild Wars 2 or any other primetime MMO.
One of the topics at this year’s GDC Online is the budget for making a successful game. I asked the guys, who know a little something about having a big budget with The Old Republic, whether they believed spending oodles of money is necessary in today’s marketplace. I expected their answer to sort of defend their own in-development title, but I was surprised when both chimed in unison, “Not at all.” They believe that each game must be looked at differently when planning out the budget, and while it may make sense to devote a large amount of money to something with a Star Wars IP, when you look at smaller games like FrontierVille on Facebook you can see that you don’t need a huge budget to have a successful game. It all depends on the audience and type of game you’re making.
Another topic we ventured into was the rise of iPad and iPhone gaming and where the two see the online space for these headed in the near future. Both gentlemen freely admitted that there’s a huge online market developing for the iPhone and especially the iPad in terms of online gaming. They don’t think it will be long before someone takes the inherent talents of the iPad and applies them to an MMO from the ground up. They do however seem to agree that the iPhone is perhaps best suited for the smaller less complex titles. When asked if they saw BioWare headed more and more in the iPhone/iPad direction, both couldn’t give specifics. They were sure to add however that BioWare doesn’t develop for just one platform and that they’ve long since been a developer who wants to go where the players are. So take into account that there are plenty of people with both iPads and iPhones out there, and that BioWare goes where the players are, and I’m pretty sure you can draw your own conclusion. But we’ll just have to wait and see what comes of that.
New to this year’s GDC Online is the Developer Awards which is sort of an Academy Awards for GDC. The process is pretty simple: nominations are sent in from the industry to the board members of GDC Online, they’re reviewed and voted on. Then at the actual show they’ll be passed out. It’s pretty interesting, more so that the Spike Awards to me anyway, as the Developer Awards are nominated and voted on by people within the industry. It’ll be interested to see who the people that make our games think are deserving of special praise. Additionally there is an Audience Award which allows fans to vote for their favorite game annually.
Lastly, one of the big topics at this year’s GDC is the evolution of story-telling in MMOs and with good reason. With titles like SWTOR and Guild Wars 2 among others on the horizon and poised to change the way in which players experience stories in MMOs, it seems like as good a time as any to delve into how developers can further put the story into the players’ hands. Rich and Gordon obviously know a little something about storytelling in their work for BioWare. They said that their own goal with SWTOR is to bring over the participation and experience part of the story that BioWare has long been known for into an MMO format. They added that the stressing of giving players more story and participation in the emotion and narrative of online games seems to be the direction in which MMO design is headed. Gordon added that BioWare hopes to change MMOs like “Talkies changed movies.”
By then my brief time with these two industry luminaries was coming to a close. To cap it off Gordon and Rich said that GDC Online is all about sharing knowledge between developers so that everyone can come away and go on to make bigger and better games for the player. This year’s show has a much broader focus from the casual all the way to the hardest of the core, because they believe that they all have a lot they can learn from each other. The spirit of the show is education and sharing all while having a damned good time playing and talking games. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like an okay time to me.