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The PunkLawyer Blog October 2010 - The PunkLawyer Blog

Archive for October, 2010

Adventures in Austin

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

I spent part of last week at Game Developers Conference Online in Austin.  I’ve been trying to fit in one of the GDC conferences for the past few years, so when I lucked out and won a pass in the online scavenger hunt, I jumped at the chance to attend.  In addition to punk rock, an area I am really passionate about is the intersection of new technology and the law, and attending certainly fed right into that.  Tuesday started off with summits on game narrative, iPod game design, and 3-D stereoscopic gaming.  I had noticed that the game narrative summit featured a session on storytelling in the Rock Band games a while back on Twitter, and made a beeline for it Tuesday morning.  It was a great session, Design Director Chris Foster and Senior Writer Helen McWilliams from Harmonix discussed how they developed the narrative of the game, and a big theme was that they wanted to keep the game as true to the dream of being in a band we all have.  If you didn’t know, a lot of the people at Harmonix either are in bands or were in bands, including Ben Carr of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.  The writers capitalized on this treasure trove of anecdotes, and as research recorded the musings of their coworkers one night at a local watering hole.  In addition to designing the game to follow the path a band’s career would take, such as moving on to better transportation and playing bigger venues, the writers also incorporated vignettes that would convey what it would be like to embark on that first trip as a band with a van.  They not only highlighted what was included in the game narrative, but also discussed some of the features that were removed, such as characters that would guide you through the game, as well as a global network of venues.   Narrative was of particular importance in developing the Beatles: Rock Band title, where Chris mentioned that they took great care to not have any virtual Beatles interacting or appearing too close to live footage from their careers.  It was also clear that the writers also took great care to respect the history of the band while creating a game that was fun to play.  Having written and spoken about licensing issues in music video games, it was really cool to get a look behind the scenes at the creative aspects of developing them.

I mostly stuck with the monetization track on Wednesday, and the talk was all about social gaming, virtual goods and how to make money with them.  The numbers on these games are fascinating, one speaker was saying that with a social game, 95 percent of users will not pay for the game, and of the remaining five percent, you really have to focus on the 1 percent who are your ‘whales’ as they say in the casinos.  Forget the 80-20 rule, apparently for social games it’s the 99-1 rule.  If you look at the growth of Zynga in terms of users and dollars, it’s incredible to think that such a small percentage of users is driving it.  Though when you multiply that by the more than 500 million users of Facebook, it’s clear that even a small percentage of such a huge audience can add up to big business.  There was also a lot of discussion of how to keep players engaged and coming back, the strategy and planning that goes into those games is incredible, especially if you consider that the average Facebook game only lasts 45 days.  The quickening pace of game development cycles was also a hot topic at GDC Online, for game apps on the iPhone and iPad the idea is to ship a game every three months.  Given how much time and work goes into programming and developing those games, I cannot imagine how you can turn it around in those short time frames, but companies and individuals are doing it.

Another panel I was excited to attend was the program on legal issues associated with selling virtual goods.  If you didn’t know, I co-edited a book that was released this year on intellectual property issues in computer gaming and virtual worlds that was published earlier this year by the American Bar Association.  Side note, another benefit of the conference was meeting people who responded to that sentence with “that’s awesome” instead of a glazed over look.  I also made a guy’s evening at the kickoff party by saying I liked his “Misfits/Danzig-y’ look.  Hey he did have that look going on.  Getting back to legal matters, Greg Boyd gave a great presentation on the veritable minefield of issues that can arise from selling virtual goods in games, from potentially violating state lottery and sweepstakes laws to SEC and banking regulations.  And that’s in addition to the additional layer of regulations game developers are subject to if their game is targeted at children.  Having recently spoken about some of these issues as part of a presentation on keeping kids safe in virtual worlds for Social Media Club Southwest Florida, I was certainly interested in hearing the presentation.  There were a lot of interesting questions from the audience, which I think there will continue to be as the virtual goods and social gaming areas grow.  Look for more posts on issues with virtual goods and other techie issues to come.     What a week, after GDC Online I was off to an entertainment law meeting, definitely left me feeling like some of my touring musician friends with all this travel.  Or George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’.  Austin was a blast, I was definitely tempted to stay for the Austin City Limits Festival to see Muse and some of the other great bands on the lineup.