[Having returned from the online-centric Austin GDC, Gamasutra publisher and GSW editor Simon Carless takes a close look at the event and the top ten lessons he personally discovered about the state of MMOs, free-to-play games, writing, and the local scene - the good, the bad, and the ugly.]

This week's Austin Game Developers Conference (organized by Think Services, which also created this website - I helped AGDC out by helping pick the IGF Showcase winners and some Worlds In Motion Summit content) was the first that I'd attended, somewhat surprisingly.

So it was a great opportunity for me to take a look at the state of online games in 2008 -- as well as the other diverse submarkets that AGDC services, spanning writing and audio professionals through virtual worlds creators and game students/neophytes.

The show, which took place at the Austin Convention Center (pictured below), had as many as 8 or 9 lectures and roundtables simultaneously. These were split across the central Online Game Summit alongside Writing and Audio Summits and the Game Career Seminar for aspiring developers. But it still had a somewhat intimate feel, certainly compared to the frenetic grandeur of San Francisco's GDC.

The organizers seem to have split up the thousands of attendees fairly well. The top keynotes were still attended by a good 750-plus people, even while the show floor and other informal get-togethers went on.

In addition, my experience of Austin is that it really is an interesting, Neapolitan town. The various AGDC parties -- from official bashes through Sony Online and Valve parties -- were well integrated into the 6th Street experience.

Heck, I even did some retro game shopping at Game Over after the show ended, and it's a more impressive classic-focused game store than anything in the Bay Area right now. It's a hipster thing, apparently.

In any case, in a somewhat gimmick-laden, but nonetheless punchy attempt not to rehash the mountains of Gamasutra coverage that we've already provided to you, I figured I'd try to sum up what I learned from Austin GDC in ten key points. They'll be numbered, too - so I guess that means it's a 'Top Ten', whatever that is.

1. World Of Warcraft Is Still AGDC's Elephant
Not really surprising, but Blizzard's MMO not only makes $1 billion a year, it's successful worldwide, a tremendous rarity in the space. ZeniMax's Matt Firor was probably the most eloquent of the speakers I saw on this subject.

Overall, I think he's right - there will be a million-subscriber MMO every couple of years or so in addition to WoW, and there's no reason why there shouldn't be multiple companies vying for that spot. Even a partial miss can be profitable over time, after all (see EVE Online). But it's very, very tough to get it right.

2. It's Fun To Be Mysterious About Monetization
The fact that there's still a 'subscription vs.free' battle is due to one reason - the 'free to play' business folks being incredibly slippery about how they monetize their online games. There's probably a couple of reasons for that. There's competitive advantage, and the complexity of multiple revenue streams, for starters.

Nonetheless, I do think there are a number of the companies in the space -- at least one of which I saw in a panel -- who are being needlessly obfuscatory about it. Maybe it's because they're just not making that much cash?

3. Some People Are Not Being Mysterious About Monetization!
On the flip side of the previous point, it was good to see Nexon's Min Kim come out and reveal 2007 U.S. revenues -- an impressive $29.334 million. One does wonder if getting in early on the 'pre-paid cards in Target' boom helped that a little, but it's clear that MapleStory is still a stand-out for well-monetized microtransaction games in the West.

The key metric here, and one that should be burned onto the foreheads of VCs funding this type of thing, is that most free-to-play MMOs see $1-$2 monthly from active users. That's good, but to make good money you will need a lot of users (and/or a large media company wanting to buy you out, I guess.)

4. Infrastructure Is An Important Thing
Something we're definitely seeing in both the subscription and free to play online game space is the rise of service companies. Gamasutra actually ran an interview with the online billing folks at Vindicia recently which helps explain the complexities of dealing with financial fraud online.

There are also networking, engine, virtual currency, advertising and other companies all helping to power today's online games. All this modular tech is going to make the space a lot easier to enter - which is both a boon and a crowding factor.

5. The Local Scene Is Still A Powerful One
Although I think it's fair to say that the Austin game scene is a little bruised up right now, post-Midway and NCSoft shifts, the legacy of Origin and its myriad of spinoffs keeps things ticking over.

Heck, even the folks at Armature, subject of our feature interview today, are from Austin. The Chamber Of Commerce's Tony Schum helped explain some of the positives, and I was really pleased to help pick local Southern indie developers for the Austin IGF Showcase (pictured above).

6. Keynotes Are Key
I confess that I was a little initially skeptical of the AGDC keynotes, because they weren't, in conventional terms, 'big industry names'. But not only does this fit the conference's vibe, all three of them were genuinely entertaining and provocative. In particular, Lane Merrifield's Club Penguin-related keynote (below) was incredibly genuine, particularly in his pleas to focus on the customer. This is likely the single overriding facet that got his kids online world to a multi-hundred million dollar Disney acquisition.

But also, Bruce Sterling's 'solo spoken word performance', now available online in written form, was delightfully difficult -- especially when he started smoking onstage and gave the AGDC show director a minor fire marshal-related heart attack. Also, Jason Page's keynote on audio? Perceptive and grumpy, all at once.

7. Writing Is Hard, Talking About It Is Harder
The Writer's Summit has been an important part of AGDC for some time, shepherded by Susan O'Connor and compadres -- and again, from what my Gamasutra colleagues and I saw, there was an excellent mix of the practical and the aspirational. We had the writers behind Tomb Raider: Underworld discussing their advanced storytelling techniques. There was even a talk from Six To Start's Adrian Hon on the v.interesting We Tell Stories multimedia storytelling project.

To be sure, there were many of the obvious writer/game integration pains, also exemplified in a crossover audio track session which extended the pain proclamations to voice actors. But I think integration _is_ improving - and hey, how about more indie games showcasing storytelling, writers?

8. The Spaces Between Are Some Of The Most Interesting
The aforementioned Adrian Hon talk on We Tell Stories, a collaboration with UK book publisher Penguin, was a great example of the kind of crossmedia projects which bring game-like elements into other social media -- and are absolutely key to games' wider social relevance.

Other prime examples? Both Area/Code's Frank Lantz, discussing Parking Wars for Facebook and his other multimedia projects, and the Bunchball/NBC.com duo on making DunderMifflinInfinity.com as a social site with significant game/leveling aspects. Sometimes the industry may ignore this type of thing, because it's not what they're expecting from a conventional definition of a 'game'. That's a major shame.

9. MMO Gold Rush? Not Entirely
Actually, one of the things that I felt strongly about AGDC was that it focused on the practical and the tested in terms of making money with online games - companies like Blizzard and Nexon are living proof that it can work.

Nonetheless, one of the quirks of the MMO/online game market is that (possibly because you only want to play one of these games at once) it's possible for one product to capture a disproportionate amount of the market. But with much of the world's population still only just getting into broader-skewing, web-based online games - there's a long way up.

10. Things Prevail, Even When The Surreal Happens.
As Brenda Brathwaite blogged during the conference: "I got my speaker badge for the Austin Game Developers conference, and met a woman and her dog over coffee. She and her family - like hundreds of other families - had lost everything in Hurricane Ike and are presently sleeping here in the Austin Convention Center. They’re on the other side behind the pink curtains. The game developers occupy the rest."

But as J. noted at Broken Toys, there was some nod to the tragedy of the situation, even as the conference continued -- with Austin itself unaffected by Ike: "They have little boxes out on some of the [AGDC] expo booths so attendees can donate to the Red Cross." And that's as it should be.