Very brief notes from the first day of the 2006 Austin Game Conference:

Blizzard’s Rob Pardo gave a good keynote for a conference that focuses on online gaming, saying lots of interesting things about the way World of Warcraft has been designed. The one big takeaway is probably that Blizzard does depth-first design, saving accessibility until they’ve figured out how to keep people playing for a long time. Accessibility is still a priority, though, and they try to make sure that players of all inclinations feel like they’re included and making progress in the game.

One thing that jumped out at me was how much the world and story design seemed to be influenced by gameplay concerns, especially with regards to pacing. I’m sure that if the lead writer or the art director had been giving the keynote, the story would have been very different, but hearing about WoW from the lead designer’s perspective gave my very Explorer self a different perspective on the way the world is put together.

The first talk I went to was a roundtable with a bunch of casual game designers talking about making the transition from other formats (console, edutainment, etc.) to casual games. For a lot of these designers, the appeal lies in being able to get away from heavy requirements and hellish asset management headaches, and being able to focus on distilled gameplay with short development cycles and lots of user feedback.

The flipside to the casual game designers’ panel was the one by a bunch of producers and managers. The atmosphere here was surprisingly different than the one in the designers’ talk, and reminded me more than anything of the mood around Web developers, circa 1998. Whether talking about demographics, monetization ideas, or user-generated content, it felt like the endgame for a lot of developers is acquisition by a bigger player. That’s not a bad thing to hope for; it was just a very different atmosphere than the idealistic, gameplay-for-gameplay’s-sake mood in the designers’ panel.

Speaking of user-generated content, the things that players make are a big part of the future of virtual worlds, according to folks like Raph Koster and Cory Ondrejka. Koster’s assertion that WoW is the last, best case of a straight-up leveling-oriented, fantasy-themed MMORPG is all over the conference (despite the fact that his talk on the subject isn’t until tomorrow). Ondrejka, the lead on Second Life, is all about letting the user community do as much of the work as it possibly can: content creation, economics, policing, etc.

Ondrejka even stepped into another talk, one on designing with community management in mind, to reiterate his point, that communities will take care of themselves. This led to a bit of a standoff between him and some of the panelists in that session, who were more of the mind that players play better with some kind of management. The main thrust of the discussion was that game designers and community managers need to work together more closely, to make sure that the mechanisms and practices for working with players (i.e., making sure that user-generated content isn’t all genitalia-themed) are built into the game from the beginning, rather than continuing the “separation of church and state” that too often places the teams far apart.

(I’m trying to decide if it’s worth mentioning that the only all-female panel at the conference is the one on community management in virtual worlds. I guess I’ve mentioned it now, though. I’m not sure if it does or should mean anything.)

I learned one other thing today: Bars in downtown Austin are frighteningly dead between 8 and 11.