Sitting at a long table. Finished my lunch. At this table are Dave Perry (Earthworm Jim), Kristian Segerstrale (Playfish), Rich Hilleman (Made the first Madden), Warren Spector (Epic Mickey), Mark Cerny (Lots of stuff).
(There are reporters here too, like me. And one of the bigwigs behind IGN is among these luminaries.)
Segerstrale sets the tone early, noting that Facebook has 400 million unique users each month, half of whom play games on Facebook. This is the big force in gaming.
Hilleman talks about how slot machines may the most wide-audience-friendly gaming device ever made - and that ideas in that market are overlapping with the ideas that are propelling Facebook games.
Spector says he had wanted to try to make some small games when he was looking to step away from big-budget games several years ago. But people thought he was crazy. And, while he sees Facebook social gaming as a giant force, he notes: "I hope there's still room for the singleplayer experience because that's what I like."
But! Perry worries that people might be so connected in social games that they might take their friends with them when they get sick of them. The Playfish man isn't worried because his games are being updated all the time. You combat the threat of losing people by making the games feel as if they are "alive".
Playfish man: "Facebook is a utility." Like electricity. Like it's not going away.
IGN man: "Reviewing a social game makes no sense."
Spector: "Is there no place for game criticism anymore?"
IGN man on defence about his social-game review resistance. Says IGN's editors are mostly super-gamers, not exactly the people for social games.
Hilleman says that EA tried to use Metacritic analysis to correlate quality and sales. Worked with most platforms, but not the Wii. Then they filtered out all reviewers except newspaper critics and found that the newspaper reviewers actually lauded the Wii games that wound up selling well - a possible sign that they were the ones best receptive to the best Wii games - as opposed to the more hardcore press from gaming outlets.
Spector the dreamer: "In the social media world, is there a visionary who says I have to make this game or is it it all about reaching an audience which sounds vaguely evil?"
Playfish man says some social games are made by visionaries. Tries to elaborate, but Spector cuts in: "I make games for myself."
Perry retorts: "Those days are over."
So ensues a conversation about whether, if the user-data showed that gamers didn't want a button to be orange, the game company of today wouldn't make the button orange. But Spector says he'll make the button orange.
(No one is eating lunch at this lunch!)
Topic throwback... no one has mentioned Facebook in several minutes. They're now talking motion-control and wondering if anything is going to be lost. Cerny chimes in, reminding people that gaming evolved from being run by two-button controllers to 14-button controllers. But he made Sonic 2, which he describes as a one-button game on a five-button controller. He lauds Nintendo having made essentially a no-button controller.
Spector is about to talk Epic Mickey controls, but then he clams up. Epic Mickey secret almost revealed.
Back on the Facebook thing, Hilleman says that Facebook has stolen audience, but not from the gamers we usually look at. Look at Vegas, he said. Attendance there is down.
Spector is advocating for shorter games, a 10-hour game with satisfying 15-minute chunks. That's what he has room for in his life.
Conversation jumps to MMOs, with EA's Hilleman noting: "To me, World of Warcraft, shows all the signs of being Myst.. a category of one."
Spector chimes in that, given the lack of success of other MMOs, maybe that's why the one he was making for EA never came out. (Did we know Warren Spector had been making an MMO for EA at some point?
While my Wi-Fi has been blinking in and out, Mark Cerny has been scolding the room. Why all this talk about metrics and games? Don't you guys make games? He says to Perry: You used to make games. He says to Hilleman: You used to make games. Let's talk about making games.
Spector vows to retire before ever making a game for analytics' sake. He'd rather open a bookstore.
Perry is sceptical that new games can be greenlit without having some sort of virtual world or social-networking component. Like Uncharted 2. Cerny challenges him, saying Uncharted 2 had online and surely should count. Perry says he means more of a virtual world thing and wants to know how consoles will react — or if things will be "business as usual". Cerny: "You just haven't seen it yet." (What does he know that he's not saying?)
Discussion about whether the gaming world would be better off with a unified console. After all, aren't consoles slicing up friend groups? Moderator (I forgot to tell you, there's a moderator) suggests that Facebook might show the absurdity of split platforms. On Facebook, everyone is unified. The luminaries are mixed as to whether audiences are divided or not, whether there are really separate player populations.
Hilleman: "I think our game consoles are getting to be like our cars — we use 60 to 70 per cent of the power for the air conditioning and the radio." He's saying that the power of consoles aren't being used for all the most interesting things.
Spector's talking about the need for developers to "recharge their batteries", to not just go from one game that takes two years to make to another. He can see himself wanting to make a small game with four people next and thinks game publishers would support that - letting a team dabble between big projects.
Cerny plays devil's advocate: You're saying there's no expertise making iPhone games? That anyone can make them?
Spector: It would be better than laying the team off and then bringing them back six months later.
And... it's over!