When I arrived at San Francisco's Game Developers Conference last Tuesday, I had no idea what to expect. Closest I'd gotten to an event like this was Seattle's PAX, but that's a "gamer" fest, full of things to play and do. This was the domain of the game maker: the developer, the coder, the bump-mapper, and the other technical geniuses. I like to think I can keep up with them.

Well, I can't. I walked into one Microsoft-hosted panel to try and find a local angle, only to see a screen full of the differences between C+ computer language and Microsoft's ".Net" (dot-net) platform, which the host liked to call C-sharp. I didn't even know something called C-sharp existed. I pretended to take a very important phone call as I showed myself out of the room.

Over my few days in San Francisco, the technical cloud evaporated, and I saw that developers weren't just learning better techniques. Outsiderism was the dominant theme at this year's GDC, presumably set in motion by the new players in the market who've been attracted by Facebook games, the iPhone, and the Wii. How should people design games specifically for women? For families? Players in China? People who can't afford game systems?

A Different Kind of Farmville

The company OnLive was trying to suspend disbelief—or at least skepticism—about its upcoming, peculiar game system (which, coincidentally, debuted at last year's GDC). Unlike the Xbox or PlayStation 3, OnLive has no disc drive. In fact, it has no high-end video card or expensive processor. So how did its games look so slick?

Plug OnLive into the Internet, and a huge roster of games pops up on your TV, each of which you can rent or buy a la carte. But it's not just an app store. Once you pick your game, a farm of super-computers loads the game for you, making it look as good as if you owned a $2,000+ PC. The box in your living room simply streams your game's video. OnLive's pitch: If you want the most advanced games, it's cheaper to log into their super-computers via monthly fees—currently set at $15 a month, and launching this July—than to go to Fry's and geek out with a new PC every 9 months.

Is this the future of games? Yes, though future is the operative word. The games OnLive demonstrated, a shooter and a car game, looked a bit too wonky—little stutters in the video feed, for example—to be superior to my Xbox. OnLive will be as good as both its computer farm and whatever Internet connection users have, so this still isn't a service for, say, working-class families who lack crazy-fast FiOS Internet. In five years, once broadband gets cheaper and fans further across the country... watch out.

What about families playing together today? Jesse Schell from Schell Games, makers of online games like ToonTown Online and Pixie Hollow, dedicated a panel to that parent-child connection—because typically, "children's" games do very little to involve the parents in active gameplay. Schell would rather have parents participate than stand by as passive chaperones. He described the central conflict of ToonTown Online: battle corporate goons in goofy ways, like throwing cream pies.

He laid out a list of ten strategies to make successful family games, particularly in encouraging his shared-play archetype. Facebook games, for example, could have separate goals or mini-games that families could divy up to reach a common goal, co-opting existing family roles like leadership, navigation, and exploration for teamwork.

Schell also pointed out the huge challenges in targeting families. "Our culture is designed to tear our families to pieces," he said at one point while a slide showed an unhappy family, each member staring at a gizmo. His point was to encourage parents and kids to play together, not separately, but his image reinforced the widely held notion that games are divisive, time-sink toys, not shared family experiences.

Schell went the creepy route when stressing the importance of safety in family video games. "Safety is not about cuss words or about meeting a basic set of standards. As a designer, you have to worry about abduction." The crowd was taken aback by his abruptness, and the silence grew more awkward as Schell flashed disturbing images on the screen: a child's Amber Alert photo, then a shot of the torture chamber to which her online kidnapper eventually took her. Though I get the point he was trying to make, Schell was just validating the fears that tend to keep moms and dads from letting their kids play online, no matter how safe the game in question is.

"The Games I Wanted"

"Forty-five-year-old women apparently don't like kidnapping stories in their games," game designer Erin Robinson told me when I recounted Schell's odd story. "But they do like murder mysteries. Go figure."

Robinson (photo above) didn't originally have designer aspirations. She did grow up with a fondness for point-and-click computer adventure games, like Maniac Mansion, but the habit didn't keep up, because "nobody was making the games I wanted."

Her curiosity led her to online forums that showed how easy it'd be to make her own games, and five years later, she's on the indie gaming scene's center stage, co-hosting the Game Developers Conference indie award ceremony on the strength of her forthcoming point-and-click adventure Puzzle Bots.

In that game, players control miniature robots who solve puzzles that resemble Toy Story—push a thermometer over a table that the robots can use as a bridge, and so on. Those little actions impact the robots' human inventors, putting the cute, funny plot in motion, complete with character development, dialogue, and jokes.

I thought a lot about Puzzle Bots while reflecting on the women-focused panels I attended at GDC. One of these was hosted by Chris Williams from PlayFirst, the makers of the popular Diner Dash and Cooking Dash games for computer and iPhone. Acknowledging his gender, he said he would avoid making any assumptions on women's perspectives, saying instead, "I'm going to give you the data." Over two million female game buyers' worth. What Williams found was that his customers played Dash games for an average of 30 minutes at a time—not the super-brief, three-to-five-minute bursts that iPhone designers often target—and only played between one and three times a week.

"This is 'me' time, not 'bus' time," Williams said. But then, he pointed to a 1,000-strong survey of female players who listed time-investment games, like adventures and RPGs, as their least favorite. How to make sense of that seemingly contradictory data? "You want to create the expectation of a short time commitment," he said, by creating lasting engagement through short-term, gratifying, and mind-clearing actions.

Sadly, he followed that analysis up with this bummer of an stereotype: "Games should have themes women relate to, like cooking, waiting tables, and weddings, not spaceships."

Robinson's Puzzle Bots, honestly, seems a better fit for the woman-friendly criteria that Williams listed—full of relatable, aspirational characters, and ripe with short-term, gratifying actions that add up to a greater goal. And it's all done in refreshingly gender-neutral fashion.

"A Lot of People Do That"

Perhaps the toughest "outsider" audience to penetrate, at least for Western developers, is the booming Chinese market. Flush with cash and computer literacy, Chinese people have begun pumping money into digital entertainment—so much money, in fact, that PopCap Games' James Gwertzman (photo above) left the company's Seattle home base two years ago to found the company's Shanghai office. The biggest takeaway from his stay, according to his GDC panel, has been China's social games boom—games played on Chinese equivalents of Facebook. Thanks to rampant Chinese piracy of console games, China's many Facebook clones lead the sales charts.

These networks each target different audiences, and thus, so do their most popular games. A white-collar network, for example, has a lot of games that mock and humiliate office boss characters (and come complete with buttons that you can press to hide your games while at work). Another site, QQ, is the "1,000-pound-gorilla in China," meeting halfway between Facebook and MySpace andmaking tons of money simply by charging users to customize their portal pages.

The top-selling games at Renren, a Chinese general-interest network, are comparable to those in the States: farming, running restaurants, and so on. But that network's local, internal game makers dominate its charts; PopCap barely pokes out at No. 41. "You can't just pop a good game into a network and assume it'll crack a Chinese top ten," Gwertzman said.

Gwertzman touched on a flood of odd details about Chinese games. Popular games allow players to be mean to each other, for example--something you won't find on Facebook's biggest games--while others allow for Survivor-esque votes "off the island." In the case of a few games he described, like a card collection game that awarded clothes and rewards for completing virtual card sets, Gwertzman admitted that he "didn't quite understand it yet."
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