Paul Evans is a senior programmer in Austin, TX that loves to build great things. Before moving from the UK he worked for Lionhead Studios on tools for the Fable Franchise, Milo and other unreleased titles. He is currently freelancing in Austin after spending some time at Portalarium. You can find him on Linkedin, see other things he has written on his personal blog and AltDevBlogADay.org. You can also follow him on twitter @PaulECoyote. Everything in this article is Paul's opinion alone and does not necessarily reflect his employers views, nor constitute a legal relationship. Contact Paul if you are working on anything interesting!
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This is a quick write up of my thoughts about the micro talk format, its use in Lionhead's "Creative Day" and the talks organized by IGDA Austin held at historic Studio 6A (home of Austin City Limits show).

The "Micro Talk" format

Every participant is given ten minutes to talk. A time keeper near the front of the stage flashes up cards when the speaker is near the end of their session so they can wrap up the talk. There is also a longer message for when a speaker goes over that limit.

There are variations where the time limit is less strict.  Sometimes there is a defined period of time for Q&A that may be filled. I recall as part of my Bachelors degree we had strict time limits and a QA for presentations on projects; so those from an academic background may be familiar with this style already.

Ten minutes is time enough to cover a large subject at a very high level or a very specific topic in detail. This forces focus and sets the pace for all the talks.

For the speaker ten minutes should be relatively easy to fill about something they know about. If anything, reducing things down to ten minutes may be an issue.

For the audience ten minute bite-sized chunks of content should be digestible even if it is something individual members have little interest in.

Creative Day 2011 at Lionhead Studios

A similar format was used for Creative Day at Lionhead Studios.  We did not use the term “micro talks” but that is what the format was at the core (though without the very strict time keeping). Everyone who participated was given a short time to introduce their project and demonstrate it. Some ran under and some ran over but every presentation got part or all of the audience interested. Each team was given a couple of days of studio time to complete their own project (and as much of their own time as they wanted of course).

The Lionhead event has been quite well covered in the industry press. The project I worked on was one of the lower profile ones that just gets a mention in Edge. I worked with developer Pete Coward and musician Kai Chi Chan on a reimplementation of Populous in HTML5, which used a multiplayer server implemented using node.js.  Our proof of concept was implemented in a few days.

The demo itself had a few technical problems due to us trying to improvise a wireless network.  It got a bit overwhelmed by a cinema full of developers trying to connect to it with laptops, iPads and mobile phones… but overall the presentation was well received and the multiplayer capability was demonstrated. We kept things going long enough to show Peter drowning little people by lowering some land in to the ocean, which got a good laugh.

It was an emotionally charged experience presenting to all the talent of the studio - especially considering some of the mind blowing things that were demoed before we were up.  Keep in mind that most of the people presenting were not at all used to being in the public eye. In the relatively safe environment of that cinema full of colleagues, everyone shone. Every single presentation had something interesting to give and add to the day. People really got to know each other better that day.

If IGDA Guildford ever gets going again – meetings in this format should happen.  There are enough people working there to support it!

IGDA Austin Micro Talks (2011-06-25)

My first IGDA Austin meeting was in the micro talk format and provided a great introduction for me to some of the people in the chapter.  The talks took place in a television studio and were recorded – so should end up on YouTube at some point in the future.  See the austingamedevs.org website for further details.

John Henderson acted as master of ceremonies, introducing each speaker and announcing breaks between the speakers. At the end of the breaks he took the opportunity to introduce some of the volunteers around the hall that were running the event.

Jon Jones opened up the evening with a talk about making yourself more attractive on the job market by differentiating yourself. His example used a character artist portfolio with a few stereotypes that got laughs from the audience. The drive of the talk was to be a little different by thinking creatively and to actively network. Many of his own career advances had come from networking and he said that he pushed himself to get out there. He made special note to try not and make enemies, as you never know how that will come back to bite you later.

Denis Loubet made a presentation about how much luck there is involved in creating a profitable iPhone game. He made his presentation without aid of slides. The message I took away from that was that it was better to prototype an idea and ship early before investing too much, as you can never be quite sure where lightening will strike. Rovio made a few games before their success with Angry Birds.

Sara Jensen Schubert’s session was about using a spreadsheet to balance progression in an RPG. Consistency was highlighted as an imported factor in progression. Second to that was modeling enemy stats close to that of the player to make things easier to manage later on. It immediately reminded me of systems I had seen used around Lionhead that our tools supported. I think Sara and my friends back in the UK, Mike West and Kalev Tait - would have a good talk about their various ideas for balancing.

Fred Schmidt made the case for how awesome Austin is, the history of the area and how the creative industry fuels the economy. There needs to be more engagement across the educational, public and private sectors to better support the many small companies doing amazing things in the area.

Damion Schubert spoke about the power of innovation - where it is useful and when it should be reined in. Innovation can take many forms, from simplification of an idea to something completely new. An innovative game should be explainable in a sentence and have true resonance with the audience. Swing big, make sure the players get to use your innovation and support it through every other element of game play. Remember that an idea is only innovative if it is better, and that it should be less expensive than making a "me-too" product.

"From Startup to Survival" by Quoc Tran was an interesting study in what can make the difference between success and failure in a start up. It boiled down to focus, underdo the competition and release early. Remember that resources are limited and that if cash is a problem, ship sooner. The feedback generated and market position achieved by shipping sooner is more important than a complete feature set.

Carl Canga made a presentation about how important investing for retirement is. Despite the presentation slides not working, Carl went on to make a well rehearsed presentation. It was certainly a sobering talk for me and something I will make a priority as soon as my means allow it.

Conclusion

Presenting and demonstrating things in front of an audience even just for ten minutes may seem daunting but there is no doubt in my mind it is worth it. It is a great introduction to public speaking and one I personally intend to try again. I encourage you to try it out - either at your studio, an IGDA meeting or wherever you can.

The conversations during the breaks at events like these are also invaluable. It is a great way to make friends and eventually introduce people who can help each other out. Get yourself out there!

Never under estimate how important it is to communicate the knowledge you have to other people. What you write or present will never be useful to everyone - but even if you help a few people out, it is worth it.  Why not try writing for #AltDevBlogADay?

About this article

I wrote this in Star Coffee in Round Rock, TX while slowly drinking an iced mocha. It is written from my own notes made in OneNote last night and some others that Danni (my wife) made. While writing this I'm listening to a Blue Grass jam session. I've only been in the Austin area for a few weeks - and although I am still adjusting to the baking hot weather it has been a good experience so far. I have no doubt that this place is another great creative hub.