Austin Game Conference: Thursday, Part 1: J. arrives, Mark Jacobs gives history lesson rss

It was about damned time that Austin got its own game conference.

“That’s what I said,” Chris Sherman gushed when I told him that. But Chris didn’t just say that, he actually went and took some initiative, then went and put the thing on at the Austin Convention Center.

He made it look easy. As it turned out, most of the big-name titles coming out of Austin in the past few years have all been massively-multiplayer, so it wasn’t hard to attract local luminaries like “Lord British” Richard Garriott (who is pretty much responsible for making Austin a game city, if any one person is, by moving Origin Systems there in 1989) as speakers.

But that the emerging genre doesn’t have a conference of its own, at least not per se. Given that, and that more than a few comments were made in Austin about how cons like GDC were becoming more about unwashed wanna-bes begging for a touch than as a place for useful communion of ideas, other names from “the industry” (a phrase I’d hear a lot, because it’s used a lot) would make a pilgrimage from all across the continent. A few came farther.

So it turned out to be fun for most. Yeah, there were still bottom-feeders looking for a hookup, and people begging for others to take business cards. But for those who came to learn and shake hands with those they called fellows and friends, it was well worth the trip. I’m told they were expecting 250, but something like 800 registered. Thankfully, the ACC is a big place, so there was more than enough room.

Be advised that my reports here are going to include personal observations and opinions (the latter used sparingly and pointed out for the reader,) quotes both direct, paraphrased and unattributed (to protect those who have jobs and want to keep them,) and might be updated irregularly. I do have photographs, but they’ll have to wait until later.

It’s going to be a challenge of mine just to get them all out by the end of the week. So let’s see.

You need to understand that I was operating on no sleep at all Thursday. The night before, I had to finish two stories for the newspaper where I work on the two-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, so they would be ready for editing even though I wouldn’t be there. I put it off to the last minute (I work best on deadline,) which basically meant that I puttered around until 11 p.m., decided I wasn’t going to get much work done and went home to sleep. I lay in bed an hour, then went back to work. Wrote the stories by 3:30, and got on the road for the five-hour drive to Austin.

Besides a brief stop in a rest area to rest my eyes, I made it down the second most treacherous stretch of I-35 in Texas (the first continuing south to Houston) without wrecking. I came prepared with a cooler full of Bawls and Green Day’s “Insomniac.” Hooray, we’re gonna die, blessed unto our extinction.

I wanted to make it in time to catch the keynote speech by Mark Jacobs, CEO of Mythic Entertainment, scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Decision moment: Should I go check in at my hotel, just a few blocks away, or park close and rush in? I chose the former, not wanting to pay parking when I’d just have to drive back again, and walked to the center.

Wolfpack Studios artist Jeff “Ashton Kai” Toney was the first familiar face at the check-in counter, followed after the keynote by Mythic programmer Scott Jennings, forever to be known as Lum the Mad. Lum won the prize for recognizing that I was wearing my Fallen Age shirt. I’d never worn it in public, and probably won’t again — the joke was lost on everyone else. The keynote speech had been delayed, so I thankfully hadn’t missed much other than introductions.

Jacobs was brief about blowing his own company’s horn. He had little to say about Imperator Online, Mythic’s second major project, other than it’s still in early development, will be “evolutionary as well as revolutionary,” will hopefully be out by 2005 and that he’s written a screenplay based on its story. He also heaped praise on Vivendi/Universal, Mythic’s distribution partner for Dark Age of Camelot. “Every publisher in the industry rejected Camelot,” Jacobs said, but VU came through. (I remember being surprised to hear such praise for an outfit that lately has only been generating news about who might buy it, or how the French water utility that went heavily into debt to buy up entertainment properties might unload it. Maybe it’s really that good a commodity.)

The rest of Jacobs’ speech was about what he described as the “triple D theory” about the history of online computer gaming: that everything leading up to now can be separated into three “ages,” Discovery, Delight and Disappointment.

Discovery was the seminal time when the idea that having fun on a computer was still novel, so pretty much all game development was done in garage and basement outfits. (He didn’t say exactly when this was, but given that he gave deference to Raph Koster’s Online Worlds Timeline in his speech, I’ll venture that he meant between 1969, when Spacewar! was playable on PLATO, the proto-BBS system developed at the University of Illinois that no one but people like Jacobs talk about, all the way to the mid-1990s.) Those developing at this time Discovered that playing games with other people was fun — and the idea of getting paid to make games sounded like even more fun. “There’s nothing quite like turning a hobby into something that actually makes you money,” Jacobs declared.

The problem about how to make money was the hardest discovery to make, he said. Few companies with a compatible business model existed at a time when “publishing” what barely qualified as a medium was still mostly just a concept, and fewer still were executives in a position to give online games a shot. Though he suggested there were “many more,” Jacobs named only two who “shared the vision” — former CompuServe executive Bill Louden who helped create the pre-Internet commercial BBS GEnie — and Jessica Mulligan, who wrote many white papers pushing America Online to support gaming and whom Louden hired to run GEnie’s game division with carte-blanche support to sign up more online games.

Without this early leadership, Jacobs asserted, money to drive the machine would not have been there, and online gaming would have been much more difficult if not infeasible. This was still a time when technology companies being run into the ground by frauds and criminals was common, he said. “In other words, not much has changed,” he quipped.

Jacobs then listed some of the developers who led the way. Alas, poor PLATO shut down well before it could be enjoyed by a major audience, he said, but Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw’s MUD would lend its name to a whole new genre of games. Kesmai, who was one of the developer companies hired to make games like Air Warrior for play on GEnie, can’t be thanked enough, Jacobs said. “No other company is as important,” he said, giving only passing mention to another early developer, AUSI, without pointing out that it was the precursor to his own company.

Credit is also due to firsts like A-maze-ing, which Jacobs recognized as the first online first-person shooter; John Weaver’s programming work to build “graphical front-ends on everything,” Neverwinter Nights, developed by Stormfront and played on AOL, fondly recalled by many as the first graphical MUD, and Meridian 59, which Jacobs showed that such games could be sold in a box, and thus represented the end of the Age of Discovery.

The heralds of the Age of Delight included several companies that Jacobs said were trying to solve the wrong problems and spending lots of cash in the process. TEN, MPath, Dwango and SegaNet were among those who advertised things like “solving lag,” and advertising the service for “baskets” of games that weren’t much fun individually. Jacobs said a few publishers, now established in other aspects of the game industry, were willing to give online gaming a try, but many others refused to acknowledge the early successes. (He didn’t say so, but this sounded to me like another “little has changed” moment.)

But then in the late 1990s came the “holy trinity” of widely-accepted games in the “massively multiplayer” or “persistent world” genre: Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron’s Call. Their marks of success became recognizable — subscriber bases in the hundreds of thousands and even higher retail sales, high conversion rates of purchasers to subscribers and long-term retention of subscribers. The main awkwardness was the critics trying to second-guess how many more subscribers the new genre could take before the market became saturated, Jacobs said. Each MMO made after UO has faced the same question, he said.

Meanwhile, behind everyone’s back (everyone but Asia’s, that is,) Lineage exploded in South Korea, demanding attention. Now, Jacobs said, the question wasn’t just whether a game would sell in the West, it was whether there was a gateway to the East.

It was around the time of EQ’s release that Mythic started pushing the “little idea” of giving graphics and sound to updates of game mechanics proven to work in older Mythic-made games, Jacobs said. “No room at the inn” was his summary description of what most publishers told him — at least those who would listen. Nowadays, he said, he’s commonly insulted by optimism that begins, “If Mythic can do it…”

Only now, Jacobs said, are many large publishers actively seeking out MMO projects to publish. But, he said, the market has already seen major MMO projects fail, the mark of the Age of Disappointment. He dodged naming any titles, declaring that “history will determine what began this age,” but the message was clear.

Even though the desire and the potential for money are still there, desire and dollars do not add up to delight, he said. Making games is hard. So is making a game based on a well-known license, and solving the mystery of how to make money in Asia, he said. But these are the questions that persist, even while the “trinity” of early successes continue and everyone wonders whether the market really is beginning to saturate.

Jacobs didn’t pretend to know what lay ahead as he rushed through the last few minutes of his speech. And if some of the readers here who are already well-versed in the state of the MMO industry wonder why such an analysis was useful, consider that most of the people in the audience only knew bits and pieces, if anything at all. As I would learn later, quite a few were looking to approach the market but only had a superficial idea about what it was all about. This unfortunately included some seasoned game developers.

It was worth the reminder.

Next: Mulligan.


4 Comments

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  1. The problem with most developers is that they view the current MMOG market as a limited supply sponge that can only support limited growth. Thus each new extension into this realm is viewed with increasing skepticism that invariably hampers progress. It seems that the ďhistory lessonĒ inherent in most speeches as the one described above are a result of the view that success comes only in succession, replacing the current king of the hill. While in itself true this is only a byproduct of the unoriginality of the current game market. If the MMOG medium winds down to another cookie-cutter concept with flashy new graphics then of course you will see this trend propagate. It is past time to do away with D&D realm twisting and dive off the cliff of originality. I make a case with Simís Online and A tale in the desert. These games create new markets instead of competing directly with the established. You donít have to make a complete break with time honored tradition but if you come up to the table with nothing to offer but another way to graphically display melee combat and spellcasting then its time to go ask for a refund of that pricy education. Thatís my 2 cents. You know where to putíem if you donít like it.

    Comment by Kadin — September 16, 2003 #

  2. Your example of Sims Online is a horrible one, because while it MIGHT have created a new market, it’s going to be remembered as one of the biggest, most overhyped game failures of all time. Otherwise, your point is well taken.

    I’ll probably end up heaping a lot of praise on Mythic in these reports, but frankly, they deserve it. They had to work for what they have, and they did it the right way. This will be apparent later on. I don’t think Jacobs views the market as a ‘limited supply sponge,’ but he’s realistic enough to recognize that you can’t just keep milking the same people over and over again.

    Comment by J. — September 16, 2003 #

  3. I do happen to think that there -is- a finite market for online subscription play. There are only so many houses in the world in which to have internet accounts, computers, and keyboards. Once they all have them, the expansion is complete. The replacement of the King of the Hill however, isn’t what the industry is dealing with right now – its the fact that at least one fourth to one third of the PSW game players are presently “uncommitted” to any game, and just float from launch to launch, trying each game and ultimately quitting after a month or two – the game isn’t kicking the king off the hill, but winning the support of the large group of “uncommitted” players, and getting their roots to dig deep and fast.

    Comment by Arcadian Del Sol — September 16, 2003 #

  4. There’s a finite market for everything, of course. Word processors, even, but I’m not betting against Office 2004. Cannibalization of existing markets (”steal your community” – Koster) is an appealing path, especially for an industry that’s still trying to nail down a solid business model, because you’re dealing with qualified leads who already buy a product similar to yours — every month!

    The East has a lot of promise, but I think Eastern developers will have a huge advantage there as games mature: as game experiences become more socially/politically/personally/emotionally involving, cultural attunement will make a much bigger difference than it does today.

    Mike

    Comment by shaver — September 16, 2003 #

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