DemoCampVancouver06 Gets Its Game On

It was an elite crowd Thursday night for DemoCampVancouver06 at the always accommodating Workspace (link love for you!). Unlike previous gatherings, this session focused on only one topic, one that is close to the hearts of a significant percentage of the Vancouver software development community: gaming! The usual elevator pitches, BattleDecks, and impromptu demos were replaced by a more targeted panel discussing gaming and three presentations on the trials and tribulations of independent game development.

The panel, comprised of Dustin Sacks (Sillysoft Games), Jamie Cheng (Klei Entertainment), and Parveen Kaler, (Smartful Studios) and moderated by Boris Mann, kicked off with a quick philosophical discussion of the implications of the increasing mainstream popularity of gaming. The rise of the “casual gaming” moniker appears to continue to inspire industry disdain (allusions to 40-year old soccer moms and casual sex were batted about for inexplicable reasons).

Ahem. Where was I?

Oh yes…

Discussion quickly turned to the challenges for independent gamers to gain visibility, distribution, and the need for the video game industry to evolve new revenue models to support life-work balance. It would appear that the Electronic Arts overtime fiasco sparked by the EA Widow story from a few years ago remains fresh in the minds of the gaming community, despite the eventual settlement that resulted. Little has changed, however, as much of the industry is still hostage to the need to drive product into the retail channel by Black Thursday. Finally, the panel lamented the relative invisibility of the gaming industry in Vancouver to the world at large, and the lack of a major gaming conference in Vancouver (possibly due to concerns of the big game houses losing their precious brainiacs to poachers).

Following on from the panel, Parveen discussed iPhone development for indie developers. From his perspective, the iPhone is targeted at a fundamentally different audience and thus requires developers to create a completely different type of game. The device’s touchscreen, built-in camera and microphone, accelerometer, Wi-Fi connectivity, and access to the user’s contacts and emails offers developers the opportunity to define entirely new genres of games. However, it was Parveen’s passionate rallying call to the game industry to “stop making bullshit” that was most interesting. Parveen postulated that the iPhone’s capabilities could allow game developers to design new experiences whose artistic merits are on par with that traditional films. In addition, these experiences might immerse the user to the point where they interact with the games in new, and unexpected ways, such as caressing, titillating, or even (gasp!) kissing the screen.

Lonely, awkward fourteen year-old geeks everywhere rejoiced at the prospect.

Next up, Jamie Cheng gave an eye-opening, if not downright depressing, overview of the rapacious nature of the revenue sharing agreements that are standard in the game industry. Distributors, such as Xbox LIVE Arcade and the PlayStation Network, take between a 60% and 70% cut, with the remainder going to the game developer – a grim reminder of the often overlooked fact that the Long Tail only really benefits content distributors, not content creators. That said, Jamie echoed Parveen’s call to action to start a new type of gaming company, noting that it is far easier to do so than it was three years ago. The free-to-play approach that Klei is using (from Nexon) not only pays better, it also allows the game developer to avoid the tribulations of the traditional retail development cycle that plagues the industry as a major cause of work-life imbalance and burnout in the industry.

Finally, Dustin Sacks provided a fun-filled demonstration of Lux Delux, a Risk-like turn-based strategy game. The game is one of a number of competitors in the genre, but Sillysoft has built a sustainable company by creating and nurturing a very loyal community that not only pays to upgrade from the free version of the game, but even develops game maps, plugins, and translation packs to enhance the game! To top it off, as a completely independent game developer, Sillysoft gets to keep all the revenue and maintain a direct connection with its customer base.  While funny and modest, Dustin is apparently an evil mastermind – take notes people, his company is a model to be emulated.

DemoCampVancouver07 is yet to be announced, but details will appear here. But in the meantime, there’s always SocialCamp (OpenWeb Edition), SemanticCamp, Third Tuesday, Vancouver Games Summit, and DrupalCampVancouver coming up, so why you check them out? We’ll talk, have coffee, no big whoop. Besides, you’re looking really pasty from sitting in front of that game console all day. And so does your friend, so why not invite them too?(And for those who want more DemoCampVancouver06 details, Miss604 captured the play-by-play liveblog, and Roland Tanglao captured some sexy, sexy video)