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10 things that I'm going to be thinking hard about following GDC Online 2011

10 things that I'm going to be thinking hard about following GDC Online 2011
Familiarity can breed contempt, but with GDC Online being one of the few game conferences I've never previously visited, its 2011 offering was viewed through relative newborn eyes.

Of course, it's nothing like the scale of the main San Francisco behemoth in March. Even at the Austin Convention Center, it had competition with a similarly-sized Dell event.

Still, as PopCap's John Vechey called it, 'I've never been cool, but I look at all those blue button-downed shirts, and I know that's changed."

And change has also happened to GDC Online.

It used to be a hardcore show for the large MMOG development community that had grown up around Austin. There are plenty of dev houses in the area, but key companies such as NCsoft are long gone, with more nimble startups - such as mobile MMOG outfit Spacetime Studios - now defining the locale.

According to survey company FreeCause, this was reflected with the largest proportion - 33 percent - of respondents to its onsite GDC Online survey citing mobile platforms as having the biggest impact on the games industry over the next five years.

So, within that context, here are the top 10 things that hooked into my brain during the show.

1. Who will be the first billion dollar mobile-social gaming company?

For a panel talk about social mobile, it doesn't get any better than having senior executives from Storm8, Pocket Gems, TinyCo and Funzio signed up.

Okay, so maybe you're missing Zynga, which is still yet to really convince on mobile - Capcom Mobile and The Playforge would have also been nice - but in terms of pure play social-mobile publishers who are generating tens/hundreds of millions of dollars a year from freemium, it's a stellar grouping.

Of course, with that sort of build up, little if anything noteworthy was said, despite the best efforts of moderator Kim-Mai Cutler from Inside Mobile Apps.

Still, one question got Funzio's president and COO Anil Dharni - the panel's most openly talkative member - to hoist a challenge up the flagpole.

Who will be the first billion dollar mobile social gaming company?

You'd think Storm8 (which includes the female-oriented Team Lava games) would be well in the lead, given its proposed billion dollar-rated funding round, but as CEO Perry Tam kept deferring to Ben Liu, COO of Pocket Gems, for its top grossing domination with Tap Zoo, maybe it's a more open race than we think.

2. Two prophets arise

According to Biblical exhortation, God raised prophets to tell the Israelites to repent their sins lest judgment fall upon them. Perhaps, the same is true for the games industry.

Or not. Back in GDC 2005 when Greg Costikyan asked that if Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata had the heart of a gamer, what poor bastard's chest he'd carved it from - it when on to become the most valuable games company in the world.

At GDC Online 2011, the two prophets warning of future demise were much better known than Costikyan (for all his seminal design work).

Graeme Devine has worked on games such as The 7th Guest, Quake III and Halo Wars, as well as being employed by Apple as its games guru.

Similarly, Raph Koster has worked on Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest II, now VP, creative design at Playdom.

And both have beef...

Devine's take was the more prosaic. He said the conference was too focused on metrics and monetisation - subjects he felt had taken over from 'fun' when designers now started thinking about new games.

"The word monetisation is a bad, bad word, and it shouldn't be in a game designer's vocabulary," he ranted, as part of the mobile developers' rant session

"We're killing mobile games," he stated. "We have to have the gall to make games that could fail and be happy about it. We've failed our gaming audience. We don't deserve to be called game designers any more."

Koster's view was more general, but more nuanced.

From the heyday of MMOG development, he tracked how that initial, and somewhat innocent, social philosophy had mutated into a combination of metric-focused, walled gardened channels.

'I'm going to doomcast indies. Facebook, iOS, Android and Amazon are running the same businesses as console OEMs," he said; just the tiny part of his excellent talk that related to mobile platforms. His point was that as the console business killed indies, forcing higher quality and budgets, the same thing will happen in mobile.

Although not actually referring to it, the thrust of his session mirrored the main complaint of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World - that is, when everything about our individuality can be qualified, where's the space for the human spirit or soul?

Or, in the words of Baudelaire; "What man, worthy of the name of artist, what genuine lover of art, has ever confused industry with art?"

3. But numbers are power and money

The responses to such warnings were not provided in anything like as eloquent a manner as they were raised.

Still, as someone who ended up moderating a panel entitled The Future of Monetisation - one sponsored by one such company Tap.Me - I can say the clear conclusion is metrics and monetisation is where the industry is headed in the short term, even at the cost of fun, and art.

As described by Ryan Morel, CEO of developer PressOK, 'We had one hit iPhone game at 99c and then three failures'. The company has since gone on to launch its own monetisation platform, starting with geo-location leaderboards, which eventually will be a full blown mobile ad network.

When the question is survival, developers will take any coherent and profitable answer and worry about the morals later - preferably over a good single malt and cigar.

4. Follow the money

Taking a step back from the actions, ethics and cashflow of individual developers, you get a much better picture of how the industry has radically changed during 2011 by studying the new wave of advertising, promotion, discovery and monetisation companies.

I've been writing seriously about the sector for the past 10 months, and I'm amazed at its vitality.

For example, at GDC Online, I meet up with Will Kassoy, the new CEO of AdColony. Previously head of global brand management at Activision Blizzard, he's incredibly bullish about its video ad network.

The company's just launched a new self-service Express feature for developers to create their own simple campaigns, while the number of videos it serviced grew 20 times between March and June to over 100 million.

Applifier, the click-share network, which has fueled 100 million Facebook game installs, is pushing hard into mobile, with its Beta access to its Android product now available, CEO Jussi Laakkonen told me.

And that's not to mention the likes of Tapjoy, Flurry, W3i, PlayHaven, Tap.Me, SponsorPay etc - who have strong plans for future growth - plus more traditional ad networks like iAd, AdMob, InMobi and madvertise, which announced it had raised a further $10 million this week.

We're starting to see these networks integrated into middleware such as Unity, Marmalade and GameSalad too, which is going to increase the number of games running them, and the cash generated.

If the mobile games business is selling its soul, at least it's getting a decent financial return on the deal.

(And, in respondence to Baudelaire, check out Kurt Vonnegut's short story $10,000 a year, Easy - it's about the balance between art (opera) and commerce (doughnut retailing).)

5. I am Spartacus

There is one dark cloud on the horizon, however.

In its typically own sweet way, Apple has redacted UDIDs for iOS 5. No one seems to know why - privacy, competitive advantage for iAd, whim? - or what this means for the industry.

Clearly, for advertisers and analytics companies, the ability to track an individual iOS device is massively important in terms of targetting an audience. Hence one thing everyone agrees on is that its redaction is a bad thing.

Well, almost everyone. Tap.Me executive veep Joshua Hernandez told me "UDIDs make it easy to be lazy," his point being that UDIDs aren't ideal markers.

But you have to replace them with something, so all companies will be attempting their own homebrew solutions. No doubt, we'll be hearing plenty about how this will give them a competitive advantage over the coming months.

6. Tax and spend

In a world of national deficits and economic disquiet, taxes are constantly in the news. In the US, Godfather's Pizza founder Herman Cain has propelled himself into the lead of the Republicans' presidential candidates race with his catchy if economically crazy '9-9-9' plan.

The mobile apps ecosystem has a catchy '70-30' tax or revenue split rate too; something that's previously seemed sacrosanct but for how long?

At GDC Online, it was challenged by several speakers. Mainly these came from the web, online or HTML5 folks, pointing to the openness of their approach. Mobile social gaming portal MocoSpace was big on this, as was Raph Koster, if more philosophically.

The most surprising proponent, though, was ngmoco executive producer Caryl Shaw. Highlighting it as a personal opinion as part of the mobile developers' rant (one of many issues she raised), nevertheless, her discussion of the 'Apple tax' demonstrates even those working in large, well financed outfits are rethinking the balance between content creators and platform holders.

After all, '70-30' isn't a sacrosanct as we think: Japanese carrier DoCoMo made a massive success out of its i-mode platform on the back of a '90-10' business model.

7. What goes up, must come down, even if it's flapping angrily

Conferences are formalised through the official speakers and sessions. The real action, however, is after hours, where a robust liver and good memory are required to make the most of scoop opportunities.

We've already reported that DAUs on the original iOS version of Angry Birds has peaked and is now declining.

To be honest, that's not a big deal. Rovio's focus has been elsewhere for a while, and the original game - despite its 288 levels - is almost two years old.

What is more important is Rovio's deterministically upward view on its own trajectory; something that is bound to come under pressure the closer it gets to its desired $1+ billion IPO.

As companies such as Groupon and Zynga have experienced, transparency is key if you want to be publicly owned, especially so if you're a non-US company floating on a US exchange.

8. Will Facebook will eat entire industry for breakfast?

PocketGamer.biz has been as guilty as anyone in terms of hyping Facebook's Project Spartan HTML5 platform - which was quietly rolled out during (although not at) GDC Online.

In its initial phase, however, it's looking like a damp squib.

Sure, companies such as Storm8 and Wooga had games available at launch but restrictions such as the use of Facebook Credits and the underlying immaturity of HTML5 means it will be some time before Facebook's mobile push has can a significant impact for thirdparty developers and publishers.

Yet, when the world's default social network decides it's strategically moving into the mobile content discovery and distribution business, it shouldn't be ignored.

For example, when combined with Apple's steady expansion of features in Game Center, it will certainly be interesting to see how companies such as DeNA-ngmoco and GREE-OpenFeint react as they get squeezed by Apple on iOS, and Facebook everywhere else.

In that context, the news that DeNA's Mobage platform hasn't been enthusiastically received on Android Market couldn't have come at a worst time.

9. Everyone loves mobile game developers

It won't last forever, but the fragmented scale of the mobile content industry means the concept of 'Content is King' is very strong, even if there's not a focus on specific content - aside from the likes of Infinity Blade and Angry Birds.

It's the antithesis of the console world, where funding from the three manufacturers and the big publishers control access to the entire market.

Mobile game developers can have their projects funded by publishers, aggregators, OEMs, carriers, monetisation ad networks and social gaming platforms.

And, business is currently so good, it seems the standard model of the size of a developer fund is rising too. It used to be that $1-2 million was the minimum, while $5 million was seen as being a proper amount, either for encouraging pure development, cross platform porting or advertising and promotion.

Now, however, on the back of similar moves from CrowdStar and Gamevil, we're hearing rumours of another $10 million fund that will be announced before too long.

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare your submission forms.

10. No call Microsoft

Perhaps it's just a question of timing. Nokia World at the end of October is expected to provide a wave of news about the Finnish company's commitment to Windows Phone and what that means in terms of handsets.

But Nokia's longterm failure in the US, combined with the incredible success of iOS and Android, means it's unlikely to be shifting a lot of devices in North America any time soon.

Certainly, there was little interest in the platform shown at GDC Online.

"We've not had a single request for Windows Phone support," one large gaming platform vendor told me.
Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

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