Austin GDC Recap

Austin GDC was last week and it was great. I haven’t been  to a conference in 2 years and I have never been to Austin so I was very much looking forward to the trip.


The longer you go to conferences, the less sessions you go to. At least that’s how most people approach it but I try to go to sessions as much as I can. Here are the sessions I went to and my biggest takeaways.

Strategies for Acquiring and Retaining Player (Mike Goslin) – This was a great talk. My biggest takeaway was that teasing content can actually be more effective for retaining players during expected drop-offs (back to school, etc.) than just the content. Tease the content at the drop-off time, then release the content a bit later.

Economic Decision Making in Game Design (Nickolaus Davidson) – This was easily the talk of the show for me. The general idea is player make “bad” economic decisions due to emotional drivers. However, these bad decisions are predictable and make your player feel better. If you know how the player makes these decisions, you can design your game around them.

Gaming for Kids: The Evolving Landscape (Richard Weil, Rebecca Newton) – Things are changing, COPPA restrictions are up for review this year so  the rules for kids content could change.

Playground Chatter: Getting Kids to Talk about Your Game (Matthew Schwartz) – This was a great roundtable. Cartoon, Nick and Disney were all there sharing stories. My biggest takeway was that when parents drop your content (due to back to school, etc,) they will not respond to financial incentives. You have to be prepared for that loss and make the most of the beginning of Summer and Christmas.

Bears and Snakes! The Wild Frontier of Social Game Design (Brian Reynolds) – This was a keynote from Zynga. While this talk was met with derision by a lot of people, my take was Zynga knows they have been getting away with it. They have been making shallow grinds and it’s time to make their game contain real design mechanics. They are hiring real designers (like Mr. Reynolds) to ensure their games mature with the market.

How Online Gaming Has Adopted the Grind (Damion Schubert) – The grind just keeps coming up. Damion’s definition was “Making the player do something they don’t want to do so they can do something they do want to do.” I find definitions of grinds, extrinsic motivators, etc. can be applied to everything in games. If a player just wants to win, is the entire game a grind? The act of playing the game is keeping them from winning right? There are just many gray areas. Damion gave loads of great tips such as avoid “hell levels,” avoiding sticker shock (e.g. kill 5000 goblins), staggering grindy content with hand-crafted content, highlighting near-to-completion tasks and overlapping grinds. This was great to hear as a system I am working on now focuses on highlighting nearly completed tasks and numerous concurrent tasks.

Rock-Paper-Scissors on Steroids: Leveraging Game Theory in Games (Dave Mark) – This was exactly what I feared it would be. Starcraft has RPS, guessing games are prisoner’s dilemma. This would be a great talk for college students in design programs.

Sporadic-Play Game Update – The Latest Developments in Games for Busy People (Jeremy Gibson, Bryan Cash) – I have been working on a sporadic design for years! It was good to see I am doing some things right. Biggest takeaway? Using “velocity” of player progression for leaderboards instead of straight measurement of progress.

Building Social Flash Games with an Open Source Engine: PushButton Engine 101 (Ben Garney) – For a personal project I am using PBE but the talk was mostly all the videos I have already watched online. It was nice to meet Ben and thank him for all this help on the forums 🙂

I also got to meet a lot of people. I was very fortunate to be able to talk to veteran designers like Damion Schubert, Sam Lewis and others. Austin GDC was great for learning from sessions and networking. I hope I can go next year as well.

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