It was announced today that Dungeon Runners won't see 2010. Obviously, this is a project I haven't been involved with for a year... but while I was there, I did everything I could. I crossed a lot of bridges trying to make that game everything it could be; gaps everyone knows about like the one between developers and players, and gaps that are harder to see like the one between live staff and development staff.
I've seen a lot of discussion around the game industry that developers should never talk directly to players; it's probably a good rule of thumb. However, if you want your developers to know exactly what's wrong with the game, so they can fix it, they have to play the game. If you want your players to know that this is happening, they have to see developers in the game. If there's any one thing I think we got right on Dungeon Runners, it was being open and honest with players, and listening to them.
The other divide is interesting; it's broadly true, not just a part of games. Customer support, NOC, server administration... there is often a very large gap between the people who make the product and the people who keep customers happy. Talking with these other teams about what they needed, what problems they were seeing, and what they wanted is actually really important, sort of like having programmers and designers talking to each other. Obvious, but it still seems to get lost in the day-to-day.
But... that's not really enough. Making a fun game isn't enough. What I've come to believe is that to reliably make a successful game, everything has to be in place. You can't make a perfect product, but at every step if you accept "good enough" you are accepting a potential point of failure. Business plan, marketing, game design, user interface, operations, customer service... better is better.
That kind of leads toward the attitude of a control freak; everything is your job, and if someone tells you that some aspect isn't part of your job description, a red flag goes up. On the other hand, it goes the other way too: if anyone is concerned about your contributions to the project, and thinks that you are doing something wrong, you have to listen. They might just be right. If they are right, getting called out by a co-worker is infinitely better than being called out by players or reviewers; the earlier you can correct a mistake - yours or someone else's - the easier it is, and the sooner you can move past it.
I'm grateful to everyone I worked with on Dungeon Runners, because they helped me learn these lessons in a positive light; the layoffs, and now its ungracious end, have emphasized the danger of letting anything slide.
I missed attending PAX this year, because we've been pretty busy at work... perhaps that's a good thing. I've been hemming and hawing about the extent to which I want to participate at the conference in my own backyard, but now... well, a lot of people I missed seeing at PAX will be there. Possibly with the flu.
I will try to see at least a few people coming into town for AGDC, but preferably outside the context of the conference itself :-)
I know I'm not the best at maintaining a constant stream of new content up here, and I know that's important for really making this blog widely read. I try, but I also try to stay focused on interesting technical topics, and that just doesn't permit the kind of post volume required.
Through some roundabout way, I heard about this AI competition today; I can't tell exactly how long the competition has been going on, but according to the mailing list the cash prizes were announced today so that's probably why it showed up on my radar.
The basic gist, if you didn't follow (or have not yet followed) the link, is pretty simple: write an AI that plays Super Mario World-era Mario well, on random levels. Also, the cash prizes are restricted to conference attendees (the IEEE Games Innovation Conference in London, and the IEEE Symposium on Computational Intelligence and Games in Milan). So the contest aspect of it as a whole seems a bit uninteresting to me. Admittedly, it might be a bit more interesting to students who, cash prizes or no, would like to get their name out to the wider world.
On the other hand, it's also a platform for learning AI, regardless of contests or prizes: the game engine, the graphics, and simple examples already done and presented for you to tinker with. Whether your day job is in the game industry or completely outside it, AI is a hard thing to fall into on the job; this seems like a great opportunity to learn and demonstrate proficiency outside concerns of job performance. :-)