Okay, a bit of backstory. Austin Game Developers was a group that held monthly meetings for game developers in Austin, and I went to those meetings whenever possible for years. That’s where I heard that excellent talk by Phil Steinmeyer about his work on the Heroes of Might and Magic games and the Railroad Tycoon series and the subsequent creation of PopTop.

But about a year ago AGD lost it sponsor and could no longer hold meetings. Things looked bad for a while, but Austin Game Developers finally managed to respawn as the Austin chapter of the International Game Developers Association. And they just held their first meeting a month ago.

Unfortunately I didn’t know about it, so I missed a talk by one of my favorite programmers, Mike McShaffry. Grrr….

But the grapevine did its job and I heard about this month’s meeting, which would feature a three-person panel talking about how to make video games fun. The panel? Richard Garriott of NC Soft, Harvey Smith of Midway, and Chris Cao of Sony Online Entertainment.

(Yes, yes, I know, go ahead and make your “Sony Online? What the heck do they know about making games fun?” crack.)

The meeting was held at Midway’s Austin studio. Just getting to the front door of Midway is an epic-level challenge, as construction has turned the parking lot into a maze. But once inside I was greeted by a very nice-looking game development space. Clean and well-laid-out, with lots of big conference rooms (one of which sports a beautiful projection TV). Big lounge and kitchen space, big offices. But it doesn’t feel too corporate – it definitely feels like a game studio, with Xbox 360s in practically every room you visit and posters, concept art and toys all over the freakin’ place. The only exception – tiny, tiny cubes. It seems that Midway Austin is growing.

When I arrived the Mingling Period was well under way. I saw several friends of mine whom I hadn’t seen since…well, the last AGD meeting. One of them was the Fat Man; it was great seeing him again. And I discovered that several of my friends whose fate I lamented in one of my video blogs ended up at Midway and seem to be doing just fine.

Then they fed us. The food was good but too spicy for me. I got a free alcoholic beverage and asked for a rum-and-Coke, then I put another can of Coke into it and it was drinkable. (Not trying to slight the bartender; please recall that alcohol doesn’t taste very good to me.)

So there I was, drink in hand, listening to some very good game developers speak. Frankly it was the most fun I’ve had in months, and I’d forgotten how much I missed going to those meetings because I always feel recharged and excited about game development afterwards.

Each person on the panel gave a short presentation on what they thought “fun in games” meant and then the panel took questions from the audience. It was fascinating to see how different these three guys were in their philosophies.

Chris Cao was first. His presentation was shortest and highest-level. His basic message was that you can make fun games by having fun making games and fostering an environment where crazy thinking can happen. He said that one of the imagination-building exercises he used was having every member of his team – no matter what their actual duties – make a board or card game so that they all understood the entire game-making process.

Richard Garriott was next. His presentation could not have been more different than Cao’s; the first slide Richard presented said, “Research, research, research!” Richard’s point was that “fun” is hard to define and a real “lightning in a bottle” quality, so the best thing to do was use rigorous procedures and follow basic rules of software design so that the fun could come out unmarred, if it were there. He talked a lot about things like not obscuring what would have been a fun game by making the actual software too hard to use. He also talked about the tropes that gamers tend to respond well to and understand, like numerology and symbolism.

Harvey Smith was last. His talk was closer to Garriott’s than Cao’s, but he had some unique things to say. He didn’t shy completely away from defining “fun” like Garriott did. Instead he presented a concept by Marc LeBlanc, another designer, called The Eight Kinds of Fun. Harvey seems to definitely subscribe to this philosophy and says that the first step to making games fun is to define which of the eight types you’re going to try to provide for your player.

Once all the presentations were over, they took questions from the audience. Some questions drifted away from the topic but nobody seemed to mind. Richard Garriott got the biggest laugh of the night when he responded to a question about game development funding and return-on-investment by saying, “I made Akalabeth in six weeks after school. The cost of development was zero. It made me about $150,000. That’s effectively an infinite return-on-investment, and somehow it’s all been downhill from there.”

Afterwards we retired to the large conference room with the beautiful projection TV I mentioned earlier to play some Guitar Hero II. The Midway guys had completed the experience by decking the room out with disco balls and strobe lights. It was awesome. Fat challenged me to play a song competitively against him; I accepted, sure that I was going to go down to ignominous defeat. We played “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, and to my great surprise I kicked his ass even though I’d never played the song before.

And he calls himself a musician…:)

Final note: the official wrap-up of this meeting on the IGDA Austin site is here, and you can download the slides for all three of the presentations from that page. You can also see me if you really really want to; I’m in the third picture. I’m sitting in the front row and wearing a black shirt. I am apparently amusing my friend Jamal Blackwell by doing the hand jive.