|October 31, 2005|
|Austin Game Conference 2005 Wrap-Up|
I have come to the conclusion that the Austin Game Conference (AGC) is an infection. Now, I don’t mean that in a bad way. The AGC doesn’t itch, swell, and doesn’t require medicated ointments to treat either. It’s actually an addictive, enjoyable sort of infection, kind of like, say, many massively multiplayer games can be -- which happens to be what the conference is largely about. For industry folks interested in multiplayer online games and related interests, the Austin Game Conference has arguably become the go-to event.
The AGC, located squarely in the midst of Austin as reason would dictate, was held from October 26-28. In its third year, and as it has every year since the event’s inception in 2003, the event has continued to grow further into areas including casual and mobile gaming. The exhibition area dominated the entire hall for the first time, and over 2,000 attendees were expected, among a long list of expansions and changes. The AGC itself is the main attraction as a two-day event, from the 27th-28th, but the satellite conferences, the Women’s Game Conference and the first Game Writer’s Conference, both held on the 26th and 27th draw audiences of their own.
With the curious exception of Blizzard and their juggernaut World of Warcraft, almost every developer of note, such as Sony Online Entertainment, Turbine, the Microsoft Xbox 360 team and NCSoft, in the industry made an appearance on the show floor or in the sessions. So without any further ado, let’s jump into the mix and see what ingredients defined the Austin Game Conference this year.
The keynote addresses, delivered by John Smedley, President of Sony Online Entertainment, and Dr. Richard Bartle, co-developer in 1978 of the first networked multiplayer game, MUD, delivered the first and second day keynotes respectively. Smedley’s keynote addressed the future of MMO game development, the challenges and demands needed to succeed, crediting if not always directly IGE and the Korean and Chinese market for the changes developers will need to make to succeed at a global level.
In contrast, Bartle's keynote took on a more introspective tone about how past multiplayer online games have shaped what MMOGs are today, and the developers who design them. Bartle referred frequently to classic hacker sub-culture and Dungeons and Dragons terminology to define the qualities it takes for a developer to make an MMO game they can be proud of. The fact his keynote ran almost half an hour over the allotted time definitely suggested he struck a few chords with developers with his philosophical reflections.
So, past, present and future – it’s not quite time for Christmas stories yet, folks, but that was the broad view of the keynotes just before Halloween.
With 50 sessions and then some, it would be superhuman to be able to attend all the sessions, which I can safely say I am not – and did not. What I can say, however, is that I sampled several from the Business, Design and Games in Asia tracks, and observed several consistent themes:
Item-buying and auctions are coming as part of a future business model, in one form or another; digital distribution will become the primary means to circulate online game product very soon; entry-level companies – quite possible from Asia -- will be the innovators in game design and unique business models before major, established companies will.
On a down note, because of the occasional basic-ness and repetition of many themes in the sessions, especially when several topics are carry-overs from previous years, it knocked down a few notches the value of time spent in that part of the Austin Convention Center. It’s the only real Achilles’ heel in this event. Of course, that’s in the eye of the beholder as well.
The exhibition floor, or Technology Pavilion as the powers that be prefer to call it, as was mentioned earlier filled the entirety of the main hall this year. Many heavy-hitters, like Sony, THQ and Activision were also on the floor, primarily for job hunters and as magnets for swag hunters. With 50-plus booth babe-less exhibitors, the hall was still left with plenty of space for attendees to leisurely explore their booths of choice and chat at the same time. That sort of elbow room has always been a positive mark for the Austin Game Conference, making it feel more like an intimate town square than a mosh pit. So what did the exhibitors have to shamelessly flaunt this year? Let’s take a quick look at a few of them:
GameTrust: Primarily, GameTrust will probably be known as the “white gorilla dudes” or the “Yeti guys” from the show. This would be the case because their booth was dominated by an inflated albino gorilla casting its benevolently grinning god-like shadow over the floor. And, you can’t forget its strikingly similar-looking yet more rationally proportioned high priest in a furry monkey costume spreading the word about GameTrust here and there. Last but not least you can’t forget the oversized gold dollar-sign pendant and silver bar pendant fake bling-bling. Good times.
Oh yes, before I move on, there’s the little matter of what these fellas are all about and what they were showcasing – GameTrust develops an infrastructure engine to make community, persistency and premium (pay-for-play) features possible on casual games. At the show, aside from promoting their engine, they were backing a sponsored track at the AGC called, the “Casual Games Evolution Summit”.
Online Game Services, Inc.: Middleman and middleware services like GameTrust were more visible at this year’s AGC; Online Game Services was another one of such services pitched. OGSi had stacks of rack servers on display, to illustrate in visual terms who they are and what they do – that is, to offer a rapid-deployment, virtual IT department-styled MMOG server hosting and billing/community management solution. Try saying the last dozen or so words three times fast.
Of equal interest one of their clients nestled in their booth area, Gala-Net and the flying/fantasy PC MMOG game, Flyff (pronounced “fliff”) available for beta download through Gala-Net’s portal GPotato. Flyff qualified as one of the more unique titles at the Austin Game Conference, with a unique free flight-oriented theme. Expect to see more about this title on MPOGD.
Microsoft Casual Game Group: Mostly this booth may be known for its never-ending supply of swag, from clocks to flashlights to key rings to baseball caps. The Microsoft Casual Games Group broadly covers MSN, MSN Messenger, Windows, Windows Mobile and Xbox Live arcade games But, given the increased focus on casual gaming at the AGC this year, they were present primarily to show off casual and MSN Messenger-based games, whose current versions currently permit 2-player play – but soon will allow the fuller multiplayer experience of 4-player gaming.
Daegu Metropolitan City, Korea: This mysterious and ominously titled booth is actually no more complicated than an “Invest in our city/state/country” government-sponsored sort of booth you see at almost convention. Daegu is the fourth-largest city in South Korea, and the games they presented were developed in – you guessed it – Daegu.
In a nice, neat paragraph the games on parade included Grand Chase a richly-illustrated 2D world where multiple players can engage in real-time hand-to-hand combat, including combos, across platforms a la Super Mario Brothers; Tales Runner is a fairy tale-styled 3D world involving running races against your competition, so as to accomplish various goals; and the 3D overhead MMORPG Ran. All games are in various depths of Korean and haven’t been localized just yet.
PowerVR: File this under “interesting and cool”. Imagination Technologies, the parent company of PowerPR, showcased just how far mobile video technology has come, with their demo of what their video chipset could accomplish on a Dell Axim51v pocket PC. A single-player version of shareware Quake Mobile running at about 25 FPS on standard VGA (640x480) resolution was quite impressive. By no means would it replace a desktop experience running on a PC from even five years back, but for what it is, it was eye-catching and quite playable. Even more tantalizingly, a multiplayer version is expected soon. Quake Mobile is published by Pulse Interactive.
And even better, though I did not get to see it, is a version of Quake III Arena CE running on the Dell Axim51v. Not really in a playable and optimized state, the development shows how far and fast mobile technology has come. Who knows, in a couple years, you may be playing Doom 3 on a pocket PC.
To find out about the rest of the exhibitors, visit the official Tech Pavilion page here.
The Austin Game Conference remains the gold standard, as far as an event focusing on online multiplayer gaming goes, because of its friendly, intimate feel it hasn’t yet lost as some larger events have. Students, women in the industry, veteran and junior developers alike all have reasons to attend – the networking value alone is considerable. While not perfect – the heavily overlapping themes and familiarity of many of the sessions come to mind -- the Austin Game Conference has a lot to be proud of. I only have one phrase to sign off with: see you in 2006!
Written by Paul Philleo
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