Dragon Con 2014

Posted August 31, 2014 by Mike Sellers
Categories: Uncategorized


dragoncon logo

DragonCon ends tomorrow. It’s been terrific and honestly, somewhat eye-opening for me. It’s enormous (60,000+ people), with an unending number of talks and panels on anything connected to games, movies, fiction, and a ton of other topics. I spoke on a panel on Friday on “making awesome video games,” which was fun and easy duty.

It’s also sort of a concentrated geek Mardi Gras that takes over downtown Atlanta (the locals love it too, which is nice — they say it “makes Labor Day into Atlanta’s favorite holiday”). The lobbies of the Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and other hotels downtown are packed (and I mean packed, several floors deep) with people just about 24 hours a day. I’ve been to big conventions before, but nothing as concentrated as this.

There are people in costumes (“cosplay”), many stunningly elaborate, as far as the eye can see. They’re all made by fans of just about anything you can imagine. Some are sly jokes, but most are just unadulterated and un-self-conscious love for some character — or “property” as those of us on my side of the industry looking-glass tend to say.

On that note I have to say that being here has been a useful re-education for me: It’s helped me regain an understanding of the real joy people derive from fiction, shows, and games (my own little “Sullivan’s Travels” moment). Sure it’s all froth, but everyone knows that and they jump in anyway. People “like liking things,” as one TV character said, and being able to share that with others brings its own form of joy.

For my part, and at the behest of two of my daughters, both veterans of the convention, I put on a tux and a small arc reactor I made over the past few weeks, resulting in an older (but I’m told creditable) Tony Stark — or as one person said, “oh, you’re ‘The Most Interesting (iron)Man in the World!'” There will, I’m sure, be pictures.

And with any luck at all, I’ll be back next year.


Posted November 6, 2013 by Mike Sellers
Categories: Uncategorized

I realize, for those few who check this blog, that I never mentioned where I am now.

Still in the SF Bay Area, geographically, but I’ve moved to Rumble Entertainment, where I’m now Creative Director. Rumble’s current game is KingsRoad, a very cool free-to-play fantasy RPG with excellent gameplay, graphics, and multiplayer. We’re working hard on expanding the features and world of KingsRoad. Of course, we have some other things in the works as well. Rumble has a terrific team of game veterans who, I’m happy to say, really get game design, supporting strong production values, and the importance of providing increasing depth in their games.

I’m continuing to work on my AI as well, and it looks like may be teaching again this winter. More on that soon.

One other thing: if you happen to see an ad below this post, well, it’s not mine, it’s from WordPress. They make their software freely available, so now and again we get to see ads. It’s the 21st Century.


Onward and Upward, Once Again

Posted June 28, 2013 by Mike Sellers
Categories: AI, corporate, games, social games

It may be fitting that it’s been over two years since I’ve posted here. That time was my tenure at social/mobile game developer Kabam. I started there in April of 2011 and ended my time there this week.

In those two-plus years we’ve seen the indie social game market be swallowed by the Big Developers (which is one of the reasons I went to Kabam), seen the apex and initial decline of the Facebook game ecology (arguably after Facebook poisoned the well with a 30% “tax” on sales on their platform), and seen the fast rise of games on mobile phones and tablets.

The span of time when indies were making viable games on phones and tablets was even shorter than it was for web-based social games; successful phone/tablet games are now approaching AAA/console quality, and budgets and schedules are once again skyrocketing, leaving all but the most resourceful developers behind. Free-to-play is no longer an anomaly; there is still a lot to be learned, but companies are reliably making hundreds of millions of dollars in very profitable revenue using this model.

Discoverability is now the big problem for developers: players have to know about your game among the hundreds or thousands coming out every single week, or all your work is for nothing. And this has put Apple and Google in the position of kingmakers more than any publisher or retailer was back in the days of retail-box games.

The big question for many of us is, where does game design fit in this back-to-the-future world of visual polish and revenue-creating pinch-points? I think it’s still an open question. It’s entirely possible to make good games that spread their ability to bring in revenue over a wide range of payment opportunities… but I have yet to see a design (even of my own) where this business model didn’t affect and to some degree twist the design off of its natural course.

I don’t know that this is inevitable, or that better designs necessarily need to avoid various forms of “pay to win,” but I think we will have to explore a lot more to figure this out. And meanwhile, the market moves on, rewarding companies with astounding riches if they manage to strike a balance between accessibility, visual fidelity, and some degree of fun.

In the past two years I’ve worked on some terrific projects and gotten to know a lot of great people. I also learned a ton by being on the front lines of social and mobile game design, development, and operations. But, as always the game market zigs and zags, and companies have to act fast and be nimble just to keep up.

I’ll let Kabam’s strategy speak for itself as it emerges over the coming months. For myself, I’m looking back to my roots as much as possible: real, deep game design and (in some combination) social AI.

I’ve managed to keep up some amount of AI work, even publishing a couple of papers (see the paper “Toward a comprehensive theory of emotions for biological and artificial agents“). I’m now in the process of stripping down and re-architecting the AI “People Engine” itself. I’m going to do my best to chronicle this re-development here, focusing on the more difficult questions I’m facing.

And oh yeah: I am looking for my next opportunity in games. I still believe that games are the vanguard of technology development and adoption. This is the place to be, in one form or another.

Where I’ve Been and Where I’m Going

Posted April 11, 2011 by Mike Sellers
Categories: AI, corporate, games, social games

“Some people try to turn back their odometers. Not me. I want people to know why I look this way. I’ve traveled a long way and some of the roads weren’t paved.”  – Will Rogers

A lot has happened since I last posted here.  We had one major project slowly grind to a halt, abandoned by the publisher. Not a fun story, even if we did learn a lot.  And we had another flash briefly, just long enough to prove out the design and technology, if not long enough to make back its production costs.

Social games have continued their astonishing fast-forward pace.  The game industry changes faster than any I know of, and I have never seen things change this fast.  One of my new mottos is

If you don’t have whiplash, you’re not paying attention.

What was a wide open blue-ocean part of the games industry a year ago is quickly consolidating and stratifying into Huge Players, Big Players, and Everyone Else.  There are good games and money to be made at each level, but on different scales and with different difficulties. And game designs or production practices that worked less than a year ago have to be discarded now to stay current with the market.

For myself and my company, Online Alchemy, the latest blows we endured were too much.  I’ve rebooted the company before — after a triple-play debacle in 2007 (DARPA project killed by world events, development contract pulled at the last moment, and the long-lamented demise of the Firefly MMO at the hands of Fox and Universal), so I know how to do it.  And I have an amazing team of people to work with.  But the costs of rebooting again now seemed too high and too risky.

So, time for a pivot: I have joined Kabam as an Executive Producer.  This is a terrific company with a clear focus and top-notch talent all around. I’ve been very impressed with the blend of agility and process I’ve found there. I can’t yet say what I’m working on, but as with everything in this part of the industry, all will be clear soon enough.

Online Alchemy will be sticking around, but will be returning to its focus on “social AI” research and development.  This is definitely an area for research, building on the company’s existing work in artificial emotions, relationships, and reputation, but as yet no real consumer market has appeared for such AI.  I still believe one will, but it may be ten or twenty years before it happens.  I’m content to be patient, and persistent.

So, what’s next?


Virtual Characters and Real Emotions

Posted November 16, 2010 by Mike Sellers
Categories: AI, games, psychology

Jesse Schell is one of the most articulate, insightful people developing games and talking about their future.    At a recent keynote at a Unity3D conference, he talked about virtual characters  as a crucial part of the future of games and other online experiences.  As usual he makes a lot of excellent points about virtual characters remembering you and conversing with you, but on one — how we interact emotionally with virtual characters — I have to disagree with him:

“Emotions are easily recognized by humans, but computers must be part of that, said Schell. “Once we can do that we can sense your emotions,” said Schell, developers can create “a game where you actually have to act, or feel emotions. A game where someone tells you where there dog just died and if you can’t manage to cry then no, you’re not getting to the next level!”” (as covered by Gamasutra)

First, I appreciate Jesse stepping up with concrete predictions and other musings — as he says, this is a great way to predict (and create) the future.  That said, this one is exactly backwards: the emotional connection with virtual characters doesn’t come because we emote effectively, but because the characters themselves have and display emotions that we then relate to.  Their emotions make them more real to us, and allow us to feel something similar. Read the rest of this post »


Posted November 10, 2010 by Mike Sellers
Categories: practice, social games

Recently when talking about an upcoming project, I was asked whether we were going to put “Beta” on it.

I’m not even sure what that means now.  What does it mean to say your game or app is “in beta” these days? Read the rest of this post »

Wait for It…

Posted November 5, 2010 by Mike Sellers
Categories: Facebook, games, social games

Tags: ,

More news coming soon (no, I haven’t died or lost the keys to this place).  We’ve been working hard on a couple of very spiffy things and we’ll be saying a lot more about them  shortly. Sometimes not saying something too soon about what you’re working on is one of the most difficult things about this business.

In the meantime, have a look at this terrific image from an upcoming app of ours, or read this very insightful article by Trip Hawkins, CEO of Digital Chocolate, about using the wealth of publicly available information we have to assess the health of social games and social games companies.

We really do live in a time of unprecedented change in the games industry: faster development cycles, much closer relationship with the customers, much more resilient revenue models, incredible metrics and marketing tools, and — I hope — the ability to create new kinds of games on that foundation.



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