On the way back to the parking garage from the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, we saw a street vendor selling knitted Angry Birds hats and thought, “Well, that’s one way to make money from mobile apps.”
Whether turning mobile and social media apps into pots of gold was on the minds of all 19,000 show attendees, monetization was the name of the game at GDC 2012. Not that any of the attendees were crowding the more than two dozen banker booths where one or two bored-looking people sat behind big signs that read something like “Easy Gaming, Easy Money.”
The buzz happened in the talks, the hallways, the off-site meetings, on the show floor, after 4:30, when the pop-up bars opened, and at Tuesday night’s Autodesk party in the company’s spectacular Galleria filled with art, design, and a view of San Francisco Bay. For its part, Autodesk announced new versions of its Gameware products, including an enhanced solution for, yes, mobile game development as well as an expanded artificial intelligence (AI) tool set.
“Man, it was buzzing,” says Wanda Meloni, senior analyst with M2 Research. “And, it’s because of mobile. Inexpensive, even free, powerful development tools are in the hands of anyone, and the distribution model is upside down. It’s not retail, it’s digital. That means it’s a developer’s market right now. It’s really exciting to see.”
That doesn’t mean the console market is dead; the market potential is just smaller. “The graphics-intensive games were really for the hard-core gamers who would spend a lot of money for equipment and want an experience for a long time,” Meloni says. “There will always be a place for the higher game experience, but with mobile games, we have every single demographic. Women, seniors, kids.”
Hard-core gamers, though, got excited about Quantic Dream’s short film “Kara.” Created using performance capture and a prototype graphic engine running on a PlayStation 3, the film starred an android in the making that was realistically rendered in real time. It was Kara’s heartbreaking request toward the end of the film in which she begs her maker to let her live that was the most groundbreaking: It showed that a character in a game can have an emotional impact on a player. Also, Maxis’ new SimCity, which uses a new “GlassBox” engine to create a more physical approach to simulating city building. And, Ubisoft showed a sneak preview of “Assassin’s Creed III” to a select few, with promises of more info on March 26.
Sony also showed several titles for its PlayStation 3 console, including “Scorcery,” which uses Sony’s input device, the PlayStation Move, a glowing wand. Flick your wrist and cast a spell. But Sony’s major effort centered on its PlayStation Vita, demonstrating a prototype augmented-reality game that creates its own markers, which means—if developers buy into the idea—that gamers wouldn’t have to carry marker cards. Users hold the gadget above a texture or pattern, pick “interest points” in the video image, and then can poke and push the texture into, for example, three-dimensional hills and valleys, creating a terrain that could be part of a game.
Microsoft demonstrated an even more futuristic input device: a Wearable Multitouch Projector (WMP), which is a shoulder-based Kinect device that projects games on a wall. In Google’s future, if the company achieves its vision, are “Google games,” that is, a simple way for developers to create games across its various gaming services: Android, Google+, and so forth.
Android’s biggest competitor, is iOS, of course, and during GDC, Apple announced its iPad don’t-say-3 designed to give touch screen games a brighter, faster future. One of the most popular games for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod, the free-to-play “Jetpack Joyride,” now boasts more than 16 million downloads. An update scheduled for April will give players gadgets they can buy using in-game currency or with in-app purchases. And that brings us back to monetization.
“I think the developers that will be most successful in terms of monetization will be the ones who use analytics to build a better experience, not just those who get consumers to pay 50 more cents for something,” Meloni says. Meloni was especially impressed with the approach advocated at GDC by Ben Cousins, general manager of ngmoco, who suggests developers look at why people pay to go to movies.
“Ben said that if you reach a level in a game and the only way you can proceed is to buy a tool, that becomes a negative experience,” Meloni says. “You pay because you’re stuck. But, you pay to go to a movie because you want to be entertained. You pay for a creative, positive experience. You aren’t exactly sure what you will see, and that’s part of the discovery. Ben thinks that we’re going into monetization where pay will have to be tied to a fun component.”
And, after all, that’s what gaming is all about.
Meanwhile, GDC is also known for its awards, particularly those recognizing achievements in design and gameplay. This year’s winners included: Game of the Year – “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” (Bethesda), Best Mobile Handheld Game – “Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery” (Superbrothers and Capy), Best Downloadable Game – “Bastion” (Supergiant), Best Game Design – “Portal 2” (Valve), and Best Visual Arts – “Uncharted 3” (Naughty Dog). IGF winners included: Seumas McNally Grand Prize – “Fez” (Polytron), Audience Award – “Frozen Synapse” (Mode 7 Games), Best Mobile Game – “Beat Sneak Bandit” (Simogo), and Best Student Game – “Way” (Carnegie Mellon University, Entertainment Technology Center).