GDC Online Q&A Part 1: Gordon Walton, Matt Firor

GDC Online will be held in Austin from Oct. 5-8, so we sat down with these two industry veterans to discuss the convention and the past, present and future of online gaming.

Many of you may be familiar with Game Developers Conference Austin, a major game trade show that's been predominantly themed around online gaming during its 8-year run. This spring, GDC Austin was renamed GDC Online to reflect its focus on online game development. MMO fans rejoice!

Of course, online gaming has taken many different forms over the years. From triple-A MMOs like World of Warcraft to Zynga's social games on Facebook, the Internet keeps all players connected. GDC Online will cover this theme and more during its run from Oct. 5-8 at the Austin Convention Center, so we decided to sit down with two members of the convention's advisory board to talk about all the topics that will be discussed at the conference.

We got the chance to talk with Gordon Walton, the vice president and co-studio general manager of Bioware Austin, and Matt Firor, the president of ZeniMax Online Studios, about the past, present and future of online gaming. These two veterans of the industry had so much to say that we're splitting the interview into two pieces. Enjoy the first part today, and then come back to tomorrow for the second half to celebrate the first day of GDC Online! Also, be sure to check out live streaming coverage of the convention featuring ZAM's Mike B. aka Fony. (Update: The second half of the interview has been posted.)

ZAM: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us about GDC Online! Please introduce yourselves to our readers.

Gordon Walton: I've been on the board since the beginning of the show when we first started in Austin. I think that we just wanted to have a show that was more focused on the online space from the get go. While the main GDC covers online, it's just one thing among many that gets covered. We wanted something where we could focus not only on the content, but on the audience as well. We wanted to bring together an audience that includes developers who work in the online space, regardless of what areas of the online space they're in. At the time, about 8 years ago, the hot thing was MMOs, but we knew there was more than that coming. And now it's much broader, which is exciting. Oh, and I work for BioWare.

Matt Firor: I'm Matt Firor, the president of ZeniMax Online. I was on the board of the original show, and then I took a hiatus for a year or two, and I started back about three years ago or so. I've seen the show grow from its pretty hardcore MMO roots to, as Gordon was saying, a new interconnected philosophy where there are a lot more online games out there now than when we started. The show's grown along with the industry and now it represents a bunch of different types of games and projects across the entire spectrum from Zynga games on Facebook to huge, high budget triple-A MMOs.

ZAM: As you mentioned, GDC Austin is now known as GDC Online. You're both veterans of the industry. How has online gaming evolved since you started working in the industry?

Matt: Well they have graphics now! My first online game was 1988 which was text-based. It wasn't a MUD, but it was a text-based roleplaying game. So it fits the generic term of MUD, but it wasn't a literal MUD. Obviously the industry has changed hugely since then. It's been in the past five to six years that it's really taken off, especially in the past two to three years, with the lower budget, more casual social media-type games have really blown the lid off the industry. I'm more in the traditional triple-A MMO field with Dark Age of Camelot and the Camelot games and so forth, but I've really seen the industry change from essentially nothing to retail box, subscription-based triple-A MMOs, to a mix of all the casual social media games along with the high-budget MMOs.

Gordon: When I first got started in the business I actually started online because I was playing on the PLATO terminals, playing multiplayer games in the '70s. We didn't have the connectivity when it moved to micro-computers, and for me it's just come full circle. Now it's back to what gaming should have been in the first place, which is always connected to each other. I think that, like Matt, I started working on online games exclusively in the mid-'90s and from there I just didn't think fundamentally that single-player games were all that interesting to build anymore. I've just been waiting, frankly, for it to branch even further out. Now this huge social gaming thing is just awesome. Basically online is no longer a feature, it's a requirement.

ZAM: That actually branches into my next question. The keynote is by Brian Reynolds, the chief game designer at Zynga. There appears to be a big social gaming push at GDC this year. How do you feel games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars tie into the MMO world as a whole?

Gordon: Anything that makes the audience bigger is awesome. One type of player may enjoy one type of entertainment, but it doesn't invalidate different types of play for different types of players. A lot of people don't have the time or energy for the more intensive games.

Matt: A few years ago, the term MMO gamer kind of went away and was replaced by gamer. Really, people just play games, and since most games have some sort of online component the distinction is kind of lost on whether you're playing Star Wars: The Old Republic or FrontierVille. They're games. They're fun games. Yes, they're online. They have different revenue models. They're really just playing a game. And I think that's where it's going. The distinctions are starting to be lost on gamers as to what genre they're actually playing.

ZAM: In a similar vein, iPhone and iPad apps and games are also a major topic of discussion at GDC. How do you see gaming branching out into this specific mobile format?

Gordon: Sure, the mobile platforms are getting much more capable, and it's part of people's lifestyles. They're going to use items in their lifestyles to do stuff. Whenever they have free time, they're going to be playing.

Matt: When it comes down to it, it's just another platform. It just so happens that the ones you described, the iPhone, iPod and iPad, are by their nature online devices. It just naturally progresses that the games that are on there tend to be online fun, casual games. It's just another platform for people to play games on.

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