I’ve been wanting to attend Austin GDC ever since it launched, especially as it is the Mecca of multiplayer games, and I must say my expectations were met and exceeded. One reason was the handiwork of Rich Vogel (now at Bioware), who I ran into in the Speakers’ Lounge, and who was behind the two excellent keynotes that took place on Thursday and Friday morning. Rich told me that he wanted to shake up the audience by showing them two online games that rival or surpass World of Warcraft, games that most people at the conference had never heard of. The two sleeper titles in question? Habbo Hotel and Maple Story. I have been aware of both of these games/virtual worlds for some time, mostly through my exposure to teenagers, who seem to know way more about what’s hot in online games than most industry “experts.”
For those still left out in the cold, Habbo Hotel is a kids’ online community that emerged from nowhere out of Finland and became the de rigeur among the ‘tween and teen set in the U.S. and elsewhere a couple of years ago. Using a delightful “retro-pixel” look, Habbo Hotel currently has 7.5 million unique players, slightly less than WoW. They have a free subscription/micro-transaction program that yields $50 million a year in virtual property and items. The open play format allows players to have their own “rooms” in the virtual hotel, where they do everything from open up discos to make elaborate pyramids, gardens, and wacky emergent games. Employing an almost Lego-like isometric kit of parts, kids develop a wide range of creative experiences to entertain each other. Much effort goes into identity creation, with a wide variety of customization for avatars, even with the limited isometric style. One interesting point made by keynote speaker Sulka Haro is that today’s teens, who were born at around the same time as the World Wide Web, have the ability to “see beyond the pixel.” They are very creative even with limited affordances, and often find inventive ways to get the most out of the raw materials of the world. He also points out that user-created content is a big plus because players can make a lot of content and kids are on the cutting edge of trends. As a result, a number of cultural memes have extended both in and out of Habbo. Anyway, I won’t say more, but instead direct you to Sulka's Home Page where he’s posted an edited version of his PowerPoint. The part that’s edited out, however, is probably the most interesting aspect of the talk: the study the company did of 42,000 players to ascertain various play and social styles of their constituents, 50% of whom, by the way, are “people of gender.” (You can get a copy be sending an e-mail to the address indicated on the blog.)
The second keynote, on Friday, was Minho Kim, of Nexon America, who talked about the newest sleeper online game. I spent most of this past summer in L.A. staying with Jacki Morie and her family in Koreaton. MapleStory was the most popular common topic of dinnertime conversation and by far the most popular summertime activity. The kids would talk about their experiences in the game in that strange gamer pidgin English, which I’d say I’m not entirely fluent in, but which I mostly recognize. MapleStory is a pretty amazing game in that it’s a multiplayer SIDE SCROLLER. Yes, you heard me right. A SIDE SCROLLER. Korea has a high tolerance for these kinds of constructs, but it also really echoed Haro Sulka’s point that kids like modern with a retro flair. MapleStory certainly doesn’t look like an old arcade game, but if 2007’s indie hits are any indication (exemplified by some of our offerings at the Indiecade Indie Game Showcase which I helped curate for E3) then “old with a new twist” is definitely in.
MapleStory has 72 million users worldwide, vs. WoW’s measly 9 million. Now if it can get anywhere near Monopoly’s 300 million, then we can safely say we’ve gone mainstream! That may seem like an outlandish figure, but consider this startling statistic from Kim’s talk: After tackling a serious credit card fraud problem, Nexon realized they had to create a better way for their core constituency, teens who generally don’t have access go plastic, to get in on their astonishingly successful micro-transaction system. So they pioneered game cards, which they were eventually able to get sold in the U.S. at Target stores, and later 7-11. Nexon game cards (which can be used for all their games) are now the second best-selling content cards in the U.S….after iTunes!!!!! Considering that iTunes has the most ubiquitous advertising and PR campaign in history, and Nexon has NO advertising, this is a pretty astonishing feat. Kim said that this year they are going to “try” advertising. Watch out America.
There were two other sessions I particularly enjoyed. One was Raph Koster’s, which I will briefly summarize as follows, although it was much more complex and sophisticated than my synopsis can possibly capture. (For audio and PowerPoint, see Raph’s Web Site.) I’m a big Koster fan, but I must say this was by far the most brilliant talk I’ve heard him give. The basic premise of “Designing for Everywhere” was that it is possible design games whose core mechanic is entirely independent of platform, and even representation. Not only is this a smart idea, as media grow increasingly divergent and evolve at a rapid pace, it will become a necessity. Our games have become too dependent on idiosyncratic platform capabilities, when they should be thought of like web and CSS…you should be able to re-skin or change the front-end without harming the game’s basic integrity. I love this point and I think even if you don’t HAVE to do this, it’s a fantastic design constraint, especially for teaching game design. If our students can do what Raph is proposing they will be unstoppable. Raph also took game designers to task for creating overly complicated interfaces. He had the audience in stitches was an image of a ridiculously cluttered WoW screen to support his point that “the players most of us design for have to do complex mathematical, statistical and spatial calculations to play our games.” So he promoted not only designing for everywhere, but also designing for everyone, and making games easier to learn, with interface devices which (like the Wii) did not require people to have Ph.D.-level math and spatial rotation skills.
My other favorite session was, well…ours! Ron, myself and Craig Sherman of Gaia Online did a session on Designing to Inspire and Engage Your Community. What I really liked about this session was that it really framed this issue as a dialog between design and community management. We all talked about emergent cultures, and what sorts of specific design features can be used to help facilitate player inspiration, creativity and emergent play. I don’t know about anyone else, but I came away from our discussion very inspired!
One that did not come up in any of the talks about online teen worlds that I think is important is a point made by Henry Jenkins in his foundational paper, (Complete Freedom of Movement From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, MIT, 1995). Jenkins points out that many modern Western kids, housed in urban or suburban areas, do not have the opportunity to go outside. Both Craig Shepherd and Sulka Haro characterized their worlds as virtual malls. When I was a kid, I used to go out to the Venice Boardwalk, malls, and later coffee shops. We actually had physical places where we could hang out and socialize, meet people and make friends. My sister’s kids, like most kids today, are entrapped in a suburban compound that they seldom leave to partake in unstructured social activities. So perhaps these “virtual hangouts,” as Sulka and Shepherd describe them, are having such a huge impact because teenagers need a place to meet and develop their social lives and identities, and other than school, they have fewer and fewer places to do this.
That’s all for now!