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Asian Game Developers Summit 2005, Day One
by Er Lern Loh


11th October 2005
Cititel Mid Valley
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Drat! That was my first thought when I saw the breakfast served at the hallway. I should have known that there would have been at least some sort of breakfast, and immediately regretted having my breakie at a local 'mamak' restaurant in SS2. Registration was easy and fast. Signs were clearly shown and there were people aplenty that were more than willing to guide you to the main conference area (which was composed of two adequately sized rooms, which could fit around 40-50 people).

The game development industry is still in its infant stage in Malaysia (and most ASEAN [Association of Southeastern Asian Nations – Ed] countries for that matter), and it was with some surprise that I noted the sizable crowd (around 30? excluding the AGDS staff) already chatting and exchanging cards at 9:30 AM.

At 10 AM sharp (more or less... an amazing accomplishment in Malaysia, I am sure) we had our honored speaker from Valve.

Talk 1: Valve's Digital Distribution
Mike Dunkle - Director of Cafe Operations, Valve

The focus of the presentation was more on Valve's Steam Powered distribution system, which essentially provides content directly to their customers over the internet. The main thrust of this form of distribution is mainly to capture the indie development scene and motivated to revive the enthusiasm that comes out of that scene.

Steam is actually a main part of Valve’s business platform. Its embedded nature within the platform provides excellent support to its other core business components. With Steam in place, Valve can now support games faster and unobtrusively, as any patches are done when the customer logs into Steam. This is in contrast to the traditional file patch distribution that is commonly used to address bugs and fixes. The other benefit is the scalable framework of the distribution architecture available.

Currently Steam is running off 200 servers. Valve purchases bandwidth with multiple vendors to ensure that the Steam infrastructure is in order and in place. They pay $15/$20 per 1 Mbit of bandwidth. The cost is high to ensure that the user will not feel disadvantaged in their usage of Steam. Mike notes the need for servers to be set up in Malaysia to handle the poor connectivity to Steam from his previous night's experience. These high bandwidth costs are partially recouped through adverts from other companies. (I wanted to ask about the potential of building a similar distribution system using P2P, like Bittorrent, but forgot. Not that the "full game" is hosted on Bittorrent, but maybe a partial or 3/4 shared P2P distribution would be more logical.)

The obvious benefit of using Steam was the successful dampening of the piracy effect (I disagree with his assertion that piracy was successfully prevented via examples such as the fact that the new cracks on Half-Life 2 does not even require a person to log into Steam). Surprisingly, piracy was their least concern.

Online cheating is their main concern, as this was a driver to reduction in customer base as customers would leave the game altogether if they had bad experiences within the game environment. Mike reminded the audience at this point that we need to keep in mind that the end users are not the average young adult male, but is the 13-year old male to the 65-year old person. Steam thus needs to provide sufficient flexibility to ensure that the experiences of these end users will not be ignored.

The topic then shifted to how Steam distribution is better in giving the end user instant gratification of the game when compared to the installation through traditional CD/DVD media formats. According to him, Half-Life 2 was built (under Source which has Steam embedded within the code) with the ability for the gamer to start playing using 70MB of data. Instead of waiting for the whole game to be installed from the DVD, gamers can now start playing with the first 70MB while the rest of the data is installed in the background gaming environment.

Mike also explained Valve's commitment in building an online community that drives the content through SDKs. Valve has a 5-step plan that would help modders to distribute their own mods on the internet. Valve provides time, guidance and feedback on the mods that are released. These online modders would create a stronger support for the engine itself.

The Q&A session brought to fore the following:

  • Valve is not ditching the retail system, as 75% of their business still comes through them.
  • Revenue sharing with developers under the Steam system is 60/40 (developer/Valve).
  • Developers will not need to use Source in order to use Steam.
  • Mike encouraged developers to separate their retail distribution contract from the digital distribution contract/rights. Hold on to them separately and not together. Control in your distribution is essential in maintaining good profit margins.
  • Valve also experienced problem with returns using Steam. But these are only less than 1% of the sales received. The problems are commonly in the form of charge backs from banks upon rejecting certain transactions upon the customer's request. This will need to be addressed when the number grows more significantly.
  • The cost structure of Valve's game is roughly 3% for customer support, 10% for bandwidth, 1% for payment charges and the rest is the profit margin. Reasonably good margins.
  • Steam distribution's success is shifting Valve into trying out episodic gaming distribution next.
  • Marketing function should be kept within your own company, essential as it helps create identity. This identity will be specific to your company and therefore, must be guarded.

Talk 2 - Breakout Session: Multiplatform Game Engine Development
Brett Bibby - CEO of GameBrains Sdn. Bhd.

This is a fairly technical guide for programmers who are in or are considering venturing into cross-platform development. The salient points of Brett's session are as follows:

Naming Conventions are extremely important. Avoid the use of spaces. [We presume he means in paths, which are treated differently on different platforms, not whitespace in code, which improves legibility – Ed.] Good conventions will help in the development of content heavy games. He prefers camelCase over underscores.

Folder Structure: Use naming conventions (e.g. singular not plural). Organize code into sub-folders. Very practical advice, which is not usually practiced by programmers. Need to be enforced as it helps in debugging.

For file naming, it is good to use your own extensions. Will enable you to perform multi-phase parsing. Create your own.

API Standards: Brett uses (Scope - Module - Feature - Property - Action) convention instead of the opposite which is commonly advocated.

There are two models in managing your filing structure:

Driver Model - which is better for experienced, or mature teams;
Module Model - which is better for newer developers as they will need to re-arrange and re-write the codes once again for other platforms.

There two problems in implementations:

  • There are many features that are specific to only one platform
  • There is a need to create something that fits all

Brett covered a few more:

  • PIMPL - Good for hiding information.
  • Modified PIMPL.
  • Use Unicode strings, avoid char.
  • Do not use multiple inheritance.
  • Do not use factory pattern asset loader.
  • Brett heard recently that Sony will drop games that have more than 30-second load times.

Brett concluded with explaining that good structure and tidy workspace will increase the productivity of any developer team and must never be underestimated. About 20 people attended this session.

Talk 3 - Breakout Session: Programming Stickiness in Games
Allan Simonsen - Managing Director of startup game development company Paradise Isles Ptd Ltd

Sorry, I did not take any notes from this, as the after-lunch effect was kicking in. There were about 20+ people in the room.

The main topic dealt with lessons learnt from casual games and MMOGs in engaging users and encouraging long-term playability. Allan made it clear that the word "addictiveness" was purposely avoided in dealing with this subject as it gives off the wrong connotations.

Pokémon was used in understanding the user's obsessive compulsive behavior in "catching 'em all." He dealt also with the concept of the need for players to have "bragging rights" which is translated into the game in terms of global ranking and replays.

Allan also emphasized getting good customer/player feedback and where and what to avoid in getting them. The dangers of online forums were also highlighted, as a minority of the gamers are involved in these forums and they usually exaggerate their intention and feelings online. Focus groups seem to be the better way in which to extract information about your product.

Free labor, the concept of allowing user-created content to create hardcore fans, was briefly touched also. One of the highlights of this talk was Allan's explanation of how developers/designers should know SQL and other analytical skills. He focused specifically on data mining for user online behavior and how to leverage these into improving your product content.

Customers love it when you have addressed their grouses.

Talk 4 - Breakout Session: "Auteur Theory" for Interactive Storytelling
Sarah Fay Krom - Director at Ideaforia Pte. Ltd.

Sarah started her presentation with a background of the approaches to storytelling, namely the visual approach (which uses the left side of the brain) and the interactive approach (which uses the right side of the brain). She introduced us to e-fiction, Eisenstein and Japanese Ideograms in the introduction.

Games can be categorized into

  • Text adventure (Zork!)
  • Premise & cutscenes in-game (redefined by Half-Life 2)
  • Emergent narrative (story defined by player)

The objective in a game is clear: You have to WIN the game.

  • Story is thus: context & relationship - a chronology to events that has meaning
  • Conflicts need to be resolved
  • Story is context enriched by emotion

Auteur Theory:
Stage setting, principle vehicle by which a film's "meaning" is conveyed. The use of strong visual language.

Auteurs leave overriding fingerprints through their use of mise en scene, and a distinctive style that is developed over a series of films, a consistency in look, feel and behavior.

It encourages non-linear storytelling. This was fleshed out by Chris Crawford (Erasmatron, Façade), free from the traditional plot line which moves in a linear manner. Instead, a new concept emerged called Plot Pool, where the plot may take a variety of combinations within the pool. This creates relative differences in user/gamer experiences.

Sarah defined interactivity as "what we get to do" and interface as "how we get to do it." A few examples were given to show powerful usage of Auteur Theory in films: The Triplets of Belleville by Sylvain Chomet, The Neverhood by Dreamworks Interactive, Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The practical part of implementing this theory in games is seen in the need for developers to provide adequate authoring tools (systems) that would support such a design. There are two parts to this authoring tool/system, namely: Visualization (the creation of art, smart game objects & characters, etc.) and Behavior (which covers Artificial Intelligence and hardware considerations of the system). This Authoring Tools/System would interact with the User who is in the Runtime Environment.

The conclusion of the session was that an Auteur's "Story World" would necessitate the creation of a dynamic system. The end result would be stories that are created by the Auteur and the User together.

*Note: I spoke briefly with Sarah on the possibility of incorporating role-playing to minimize the technical/infrastructure requirement which forms the Behavior component within the Visualization needed in an Auteur Story World. She believes that there is a great opportunity that can be tapped from role-playing, and how closely the concept of role-playing fits with Auteur Theory.

Talk 5: Funding Game Companies - Business Roundtable
Josh Galloway - President of Dragonback Media Interactive; Brett Bibby - CEO of GameBrains Sdn. Bhd.; James Chong - Vice President of Business Building for Malaysia Debt Ventures Bhd.

This open discussion dealt with many issues pertaining to funding. The following are the main topics covered.

The main challenges in Malaysia & other ASEAN countries are:

  1. Staffing - there is a need to be local and not rely on foreign workers as duration commitment (how long the foreigner would be able to stay within your workforce) would be an issue. This becomes significant as you are trying to grow your own skill sets, which takes a long time.
  2. Lack of confidence in the company applying for funds. Companies need to focus on building investors' trust in them. GameBrains do this by focusing on building a professional game development team (e.g. ensuring that they start work at 7:30 AM, and that they are able to deal with their foreign counterparts by taking into consideration the time differences). They go one step further by providing webcam view of their office, in order to let people "see" how real things are within the office (an open concept).
  3. Cost is not a big enough problem for foreign publishers to consider outsourcing their work to locals. We need to understand that more often than not, the budget for a particular project has already been approved and there is no incentive for them to come all the way to Asia to make the project. Thus, local companies must go out of their way to lure and give these foreign companies a reason to invest in local resources. Cost saving should not be the only point to persuade them.
  4. The need to address the lack of skill sets, as there are not enough experienced people in Malaysia that are able to handle next-generation console gaming on the Xbox360 and PS3. There is also clearly a problem in local project management. The way to address this is to get a foreign project manager to oversee the project till its completion.

In Malaysia

Malaysia provides plenty of incentives for game companies to be set up here. For example, under the Multimedia Super Corridor Scheme, companies are given 10 years tax exemption, and also they may qualify for MSC's Grant Scheme which essentially reimburses 70 cents per dollar spent. This has enabled GameBrains to purchase their development kits that would have been impossible to be financed without the grant.

In getting funding, a game developer should firstly concentrate on "educating" the potential investors. This is important as most investors do not know much about the gaming industry. Be comprehensive by providing lots of information. The next step is to provide "risk assessments." Be thorough on this, as investors need to know the type of risk that they will be facing. GameBrains' proposal involved a 450-page document. Ensure that the proposal is done internally and not through consultants, as your employees are the one who will need to provide the explanations to the investors. Always relate yourself to the investors to cover all potential areas of concern.

The best learning method for staff is on-the-job training. The common gripes with local workers are their lack of actually knowing algorithms. Most are only equipped with an academic knowledge of programming languages that is good only on paper. Good skills are only detected through practical tests.

Malaysian Debt Ventures (MDV) has yet to finance a game developer. The reason is because they are a bank, which is set up to address the needs within the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector in Malaysia. Therefore, they do not provide risk capital like Venture Capitalists. Previously, game developers could only receive funding from banks through guarantors. The main source of funding comes through grants, angel investors and venture capitalists.

MDV will only provide funding after the game development company has secured a contract with a publisher. They will involve themselves based upon the publisher's contract with the game developer. What they offer to publishers is the benefit of not having to provide advances to the game developer until after the game has gone retail. This could be up to 6 months after the game has gone retail. Instead, MDV will provide the advance to the game developers. In this way, the publisher will need fulfill its contract after that period, reducing their cash flow risk.

According to James Chong, MDV seeks to address two main concerns within the Malaysian game development industry:

  • Getting the best people/skill sets;
  • Promoting and getting recognition from foreign publishers.

He believes that the local developers are, at the moment, concentrating on the former concern. For MDV, they are starting with the latter. Currently, they are getting in the midst of getting a foreign top-class publisher to set up a division locally, which would attract and create a name in Malaysia. This will be announced in January 2006.

The issue of the gap between getting the initial seed money and getting the publisher's contract was raised. The panel agreed that there is a gap there as the seed money will not last indefinitely, and the publisher's contract is not easily attainable. A viable funding mechanism is needed to breach the gap. This is solved, for the moment, through the incubator projects/setup that is provided by Malaysian Development Corporation (MDC). These incubators are places where offices are provided, along with basic equipment, to get the prototype and necessary components up and running which would help in securing a publisher's contract.

Similarly, GameBrains is also offering guidance and help to setup incubators of their own. This is seen in their advertisement distributed within the summit, which indicated their desire to work with other contractors on projects. Collaborative effort is needed to grow the local scene.

The speakers concluded the session with the following points:

  1. We (most ASEAN countries) have already arrived in terms of having a good current team and facilities. However, we must not overlook the need to look forward and identify the future workers. Education is thus essential to ensure that graduates are properly equipped with skill sets that are needed.
  2. The education syllabus needs to conform to the market needs and not merely be academic in focus.
  3. Financing is still a delicate issue for most developers, especially in getting a publisher's contract.
  4. The public needs to realize the game industry is a "real" industry. There should not be any apprehension of its potential and future.
  5. Business and project management skills must be properly cultivated in all game development companies.

The session ended at 5:15 PM, where the attendees were invited to join in the drinks that were on GameBrains and dinner at a nearby hotel. I was pooped and went home right after the last talk.

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Date this article was posted to 10/13/2005
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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