GDC 2019 Key Takeaways and Further Thoughts

Common themes from the Game Developers Conference 2019

With another GDC under my belt, I thought I’d put together a list of key takeaways and themes that surfaced as I sat in on various sessions and tutorials. I found myself hearing familiar patterns and themes throughout the week and I’d like to summarize my notes and thoughts on one page.
First I will start with a caveat: As I do not own a Time-Turner ™, it is impossible for me to experience many of the amazing sessions as there are always multiple sessions overlapping at once. Personally, I went to many of the sessions that were not intended for audiences of a particular proficiency ie. animator, programmer, etc. Instead I focused on anything that was intended for a general audience, or sessions that catered to small or solo teams that were familiar with “wearing many hats”. I did also attend sessions that were postmortems about particular games if they interested me. I will also continually post updates once I have access to this year’s GDC Vault for even more takeaways.
Now on to what I thought were some recurring themes this year.
Feelings and Experiences™
This isn’t really a topic that’s relevant to the current state of gaming, so I’ll get this out of the way first. There were small mentions here and there in various talks that highlighted the importance of feelings and experiences.
Particularly in Dana Trebella and Derek Lieu’s talk “More Feelings, Fewer Features: Showcasing Your Indie Game Through Messaging and Video”, they stressed that feelings stay with viewers longer than facts and so we should focus on showing what we want players to experience from our games rather than focusing on a features list. The tone and voice and setting of the game may prove to be more compelling.
Likewise in Hideaki Itsuno’s (amazing) talk “’Devil May Cry 5’: Creating a Standout Action Game”, Itsuno goes over laborious detail about how his past experiences — and his expectations of those experiences — set him up for building out how he wanted to make players feel when they reached a certain part of his game. Itsuno mentions how he was able to motivate certain emotions by playing on DMC5’s core theme: Setback & Awakening. He carefully crafted one particular scene to the point where a character’s hair was only designed to be super long because he wanted us to feel the flow of it!
There was a great talk called “Rules of the Game 2019: Five New Techniques from Especially Astute Designers” where Brian Upton spoke a lot about creating stillness in our games to invoke emotion. Where mechanics are what players can do, we need to also craft situations which are things player’s can consider. He mentions that stillness can create tension, emotion, or a narrative beat. It can also be used as a way for players to pause and think where there is often a time pressure like before a boss battle. This tied in pretty nicely with another of Itsuno’s points which is that we must have a clear emotional objective for each scene in our games in order to have real impact.
There was also a great art direction talk from Dan Cox called “Creating Captivating and Simple Visuals: The Power of Intentional Design” which was really just a primer in design principles but I’d never really applied that thinking to game compositions like he did. All of the design principles he mentioned evoked some sort of feeling or meaning to the art and it was really eye opening.
Don’t ignore China.
This seems like somewhat of a no-brainer but there were several instances where Chinese players made a significant portion of sales for a game. In both the “’Slay the Spire’: Success through Marketability” and “Decorticating ’Dead Cells’: A Business and Marketing Deep Dive“, both explicitly mentioned that China was a significant portion of their 1M+ in sales and continues to be. Both teams also mentioned that localization was imperative for these efforts. In Slay the Spire’s case, a mid-sized Chinese streamer was given a key to the game and when he streamed it, the team got a huge bump in sales. That in turn satisfied the “Algorithm Gods ™” (heard that one a lot) which in turn led to even more sales and it eventually became an endless cycle. This leads handedly into my next point...
You get more than one launch...
Also known as “Learning to Appease the Algorithm Gods ™”
Discoverability was a huge topic during GDC this year. Tuesday had an entire track dedicated to game discoverability and was named Game Discoverability Day. But even beyond Tuesday, I was constantly picking up on how these devs marketed their way to success. In Jason Rohrer’s “2014 vs. 2018: The Shape of Financial Success Before And After the Indiepocalypse” talk, he points out that the press is not as effective now as it was before. He even went on to suggest that successful indie games get noticed if they have some element of unique situation generation (which he coined) so as to make the game infinitely shareable as players discover new things. Using his own game as an example, he theorized using sales graphs that games these days don’t have the same performance curve as they once did. In previous releases, sales often peaked at launch, then long-tailed to infinity for the rest of time. With his latest release, the launch was much slower getting to the peak and once it did, the long tail even had its own additional spikes often attributed to Twitch and Youtube content.
Coincidently, this is also a very similar thing I heard at Casey Yano’s (Slay the Spire) and in Steve Filby’s (Dead Cells) talks. Both of these games launched in Early Access to very little success until in some way or another the game picked up over Youtube videos and Twitch streams, accumulating several millions of minutes in video content between the two of them. Each increase in minutes of video contributed to some bump in sales and were very huge contributors to their massive success.
...but staying relevant is up to you.
It is one thing to have successful launches, but it is another to continue staying relevant. This is perhaps easier to do for some types of games than others but whether you are in early access or full release you will always be in a battle for attention in hopes to gain more sales and cultural relevancy. One method that was discussed a lot — especially during Discoverability Day — is the idea of building and maintaining a community surrounding your game. There was one standout talk in this area, “Game Discoverability Day: Building a Community for Your Game from Scratch” by Mike Rose who discussed techniques to keep communities engaged using Discord. His strategy involved setting up entry point channels to give new members a bit of an ice breaker, as well as setting up Discord bots that allowed him to create community games for the fans to play while they waited for new content. He theorized that the Discord games had the community so invested in the game itself that they couldn’t not buy it when it finally released. Some even became champions for the game, increasing community and sales.
Twitch and Youtube were also common themes on giving a game its “second wind”. Yano (Slay the Spire) and Filby (Dead Cells) in particular mentioned using the Keymailer service to find mid-sized streamers who might be likely to play their game based on their previous history. Even starting by giving keys out to smaller streamers meant their friends or larger streamers would potentially see the game and want to play it as well, appeasing the Algorithm Gods ™. This strategy worked really well for Dead Cells.
A few other talks also mentioned how community helped them in various ways such as QA and localization (Slay the Spire) or by allowing community creation and discussion as mentioned in “Making Games That Stand Out and Survive” by Nick Popovich (Slime Rancher). Ultimately the key to staying relevant is to keep players wanting more.
Basically, GIFs are king.
I’m not entirely sure why, but GIFs were mentioned in at least 10 of the sessions I attended this year. It seems as though GIFs were the base litmus test EVERYBODY used for the marketing of their game. Even David Wehle in “No Time, No Budget, No Problem: Finishing ’The First Tree’”, he mentioned spending 30% on his time doing GIF marketing on Imgur and Reddit which had quite a bit of success. In “Making Games That Stand Out and Survive”, Popovich suggested we ask ourselves if our gameplay loop can be shown in the form of a GIF or better yet if we could teach viewers how to play our game in a GIF.
It related very nicely to the thesis of Casey Yano’s talk “’Slay the Spire’: Success through Marketability” where Slay the Spire had many mechanics and UI techniques that let the game basically sell itself, especially in GIF form. Similar conclusions were echoed by Patrick Corrieri in “Community Driven Discoverability for Indies” where he asks how our game’s mechanics lend themselves to be discoverable on places like Reddit. He provided a few examples from his own game Poly Bridge as well as other games. Corrieri, Rohrer (“2014 vs. 2018: The Shape of Financial Success Before and After the Indiepocalypse”), and Rohrer mentioned that creating games that have unique experiences for each player is key to having a memorable or noticable game.
So where does that leave me?
I wanted to include this section because the post began to feel like a regurgitation of facts and I’d like to think that I’m smart enough to apply some critical thinking to add more sustenance and self reflection.
Unique Situation Generators and Narrative
I was a little worried during the first few days when a lot of speakers talked about concepts that seemed to apply only to unique situation generators and that building this kind of game was the only way to find success. Off the top of my head the following indies were mentioned in Discoverability talks: Slay the Spire, Dead Cells, One Hour One Life, Poly Bridge, Slime Rancher. All of these games have little or no narrative leading it, which is the exact opposite of what I’m currently building. So is there space in people’s attention spans for narrative games anymore? Do narrative games have marketability in any way?
After a few more days to digest and hear other perspectives and other topics, I came to an epiphany. There is no reason why narrative games can’t also have some semblance of “unique situation generators”. Sure, narrative games are somewhat finite in the unique situations they can produce but there isn’t a finite way for those situations to be experienced and — as we’ve learned — the player’s experience and what we want them to feel is part of building a successful game. I am excited to prototype this concept out of my brain and perhaps will have something to share at a later date.
GIFs in a Sea of GIFs
Another question I find myself asking at the end of this week is how on Earth do you fight for eyeballs even if you have a GIF strategy? My twitter feed is filled with nothing but images, GIFs, and videos these days that it’s hard for me to even look at all of them. Is there another avenue? Another way to get attention? Perhaps a way to subliminally create interest? I keep thinking back to Fyre Festival’s instagram strategy of a Burnt Orange tile. The festival itself may have been a disaster, but it proved to be an utter masterclass in marketing.
On China
This will be the toughest hurdle. It is plainly obvious to me that China and its sheer population is imperative to success, but actually getting there will take a lot of time. Unlike most unique situation generators like roguelikes and survival games, story-driven games have far more text and therefore take so much more time. Looks like I’ll need to set aside some budget for proper localization in order for China to happen, but it is clear that I will have to do it.
Start Community Building Now
As of this moment I have zero people interested in my game. And why should they? I haven’t built anything yet. However that puts me in a decent position because at least I’m not starting community building and marketing too late. But I need to build something real, even if it doesn’t work in the end. I’d been focusing too much on documentation and trying to build the right thing and really what I need to do is prototype a bunch of wrong things. So, I will commit to posting prototype GIFs to my Discord channel so feel free to join there (this will also let me know who actually reads my posts until the end, thanks!)
I hope the post is useful, it certainly was for me. It helped me see clear patterns of the industry and helped me focus on where I need to go next.
Posted Mar 22 2019
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