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The event unfolded like a miniature version of the long-running Game Developers Conference.

The room at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, on the morning of Friday, Oct. 27 was church-quiet. Warren Spector was about to open the first ever Madison Game Development Conference with an a.m. keynote, and it’s safe to say that if the talk had started at 5 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., the same 350-some-odd collection of UW students, amateur and professional developers and Chicago day trippers would have assembled anyway, bleary-eyed. Spector is probably the most distinguished computer game designer there is, and his credits are almost embarrassing: Ultima 6-7, Wing Commander, Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief (although he downplays his involvement in it) and Deus Ex. Somewhere in that lineup you’d expect a newer generation would have taken over – and certainly that happened with System Shock 2 – but he himself kept scaling higher, culminating with Deus Ex in 2000, a long, complex, genre-blending adventure that has almost become a symbol of dread in the following decades, as so few games have lived up to its legacy as, more or less, the Sistine Chapel of gaming.

Spector, who is generally down-to-earth and generous, described his criteria for a successful game and reiterated his philosophy that the medium is based on choice and not a slightly more interactive way of watching a movie. Unfortunately, he said, too many big budget titles are falling short in what is a hugely powerful medium still in its infancy. (More than once during the conference, a presenter called on the industry to set its sights higher.) “Thank God for the indies,” Spector said, referring to independent developers.

Tommy Palm, one of the developers of Candy Crush.

A lot of interesting things get said at game development conferences, such as, “What if we simulated real space in simulated space that exists in simulated real space?” They are also the place to wonder if that might just be possible. And they’re the place for companies that do voice acting and motion capture work to hold down a booth, or five, next to an extremely well-staffed wargaming.net table. In between these tables there were some young designers, some bright and shiny, others a bit overwhelmed, demoing the early state of their games. One young man had only a paper version of his in-development puzzle game – a grid with beige squares, a black paper circle and a red one. When a guy stepped up to play, the designer moved the pieces around, playing the role of the computer.

He quickly rearranged the pieces.

“That’s a neat mechanic,” the player said.

At the table next door, Gabe Schaal, CEO of Arctic Game Studios, sat behind a laptop showing an early prototype of the company’s game. He and a group of friends who had met at Herzing University had formed the small company to create an action roleplaying game they hoped to later turn into an MMO, a massively multiplayer online game. The prototype so far consisted of a blue human figure running through a forest on a lighted path, moving stiffly forward past low hillsides and wooden crates. The group had switched from Unreal Engine 4, a powerhouse graphics engine, to Unity, which is tailored to independent developers – UE4 had better lighting for the game’s minimalist flat-shaded style, but ultimately Unity made more sense.

Both engines have helped to make game development more accessible. The days of an isolated Ken Silverman writing assembly code to speed up a 3D engine are pretty much over. Still, there’s more to these projects than popping open Photoshop and moving a few things around. Games are burdened by all they incorporate: art, sound, writing, design, physics, code, artificial intelligence, level design, user interface.

MGDEV was presented by the Wisconsin Games Alliance and sponsored in part by Wisconsin developers Human Head Studios (Madison), Guild Software (Milwaukee), Gear Learning (Madison), Filament Games (Madison), Perblue (Madison) and Lost Boys Interactive (Madison). Total attendance was about 430 people.

 

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