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Stochastic Thought: GDC 2013

Wow — five months since a post, and I have a backlog of notes on the games I’ve played during that time. That’s pretty intimidating, which makes me think there’s no time like the present to write my take on GDC and the themes for games going into 2013. So, without further ado, here are my big takeaways  from the 2013 Game Developers Conference. And if I had to some it up with a sound bite, it would go something like, “We’re HERE, We’re [QUEER/WOMEN/INDIE/NOT TRIPLE-A WHITE MEN], GAMES ARE OURS TOO!!!!!!” That made it the most heartwarming if uncertain GDC I’ve ever been to. Details within.

– Rise of the Indies

The most notable trend this year was that indie was ascendant. There were ways this has been in the cards for a while. The Experimental Gameplay Workshop has been a perennial best-attended session at GDC, and the Indie Games Summit has been a big draw for a while, but this year marked a high-water line for the presence of smaller, independent games. Indie games swept the Choice Awards and small game speakers got some of the best attended sessions. There was in fact a whole unconference in Yerba Buena Park hosted by a bunch of great people that was completely indie focused. Anna Anthropy spoke about a hundred times in different rants and microtalks. Jason Rohrer won the final Game Design Challenge with his phenomenal board game for the End of Humanity, beating industry veterans such as Will Wright and Steve Meretzky. Independent development pervaded everything.

Maybe Andy Schwatz of Pocketwatch Games (Monaco, famous indie game) put it best while hosting the IGF award show when he said that indies were no longer the Clash — they had become Green Day. This got a laugh from the audience, because I think they thought he was joking that indies had sold out a little. Here’s the thing — Green Day have made a number of decisions of questionable taste in the last couple of years and have made a ton of money, but they have also funneled lots of money back into the punk scene and supported a number of newer bands while still making the same kinds of music they always have. If you like old Green Day, you like new Green Day, and the opposite.

The Green Day story is complex: a very good pop-punk outfit makes it big time, and struggles to figure out how to stay true to itself while cashing in on well-deserved success. Is that the indie scene? Maybe. Or maybe it’s Fugazi, making its living by very dedicatedly and publicly never going mainstream. I see a bunch of current indies in that mold. Or maybe it’s Titus Andronicus — making aggressive intellectual statements — or Wild Flag — veterans in new and varied creative explosions –  or Neutral Milk Hotel — making weird little creations of beauty — or tUnE-yArDs — marking out a bold unique voice. You know which designers I’m talking about, right? Or maybe it’s just Wavves — overly ironic jerks who are just talented enough that they can’t be ignored. There are definitely some of those too.

It’s punk and it’s crazy and that’s beautiful and I love it. Indies are now on everyone’s radar, and that energy is going to reshape the whole medium for better and worse and and both and neither. Whatever. All my best friends are metalheads anyway.

– Free-to-Play Has Won! (Right? Right???)

The other big thing at GDC was the Free-to-Play summit. The ambivalence in the air there was so thick you could see it floating in the TWO HUGE ROOMS it took up in the summit. On one hand, there was success story after success story of how much money people were making. Did you know that Puzzles and Dragons made something like $75M a MONTH in Japan?!? That’s INCREDIBLE. The summit was basically a big business conference of how to optimize the earnings you could make from players, and real-money games were at the tips of everyone’s tongues as the next cash cow. There was an ambition there that was impressive in its boldness.

On the other hand, there was an unspoken layer of fear I couldn’t help notice. Everyone knew that Facebook was now completely locked up and that Zynga was hurting from an old formula that no longer worked, see Cityville 2 and other news. Everyone knew that mobile was getting more competitive. My talk this year was on why we should be innovating in free-to-play, and when I told the story of the demise of casual, I could see many in the room nodding. I think people are getting worried the easy money is gone and they are not as certain of the business model longevity as they once were.

Kudos to Steve Meretzky, Dave Rohrl, and Juan Gril for their great year summary where they captured this complex spirit perfectly, and for all the speakers who reminded everyone that respect for players was paramount and that the disdain Zynga expressed for game design years ago was as stupid as everyone always knew it was.

– Where was AAA?

Both of these trends added up to one other factor: triple-A was very weak. Some of that was big news of course, both before and after the conference, but you could feel it at the conference too. Compared to previous years, there were very few design talks about big titles, despite several talks about Walking Dead and Candy Crush Saga. You didn’t really hear much about the PS4 or the WiiU. Console was around, but you could go the whole conference (as I did) without realizing it was there, and that is the first time I ever felt that at a GDC. It’s interesting that I attended many talks this year, but I didn’t sit for one talk that featured a large console title, and almost everyone I knew was out of that space and had no interest working in it. I personally think the reported death of console gaming is very premature, but it was certainly the kid at the party that no one wanted to dance with.

– Every one gets a voice

I think the single most important thing that happened to me at GDC was that I had several conversations about sexual harassment and heard many stories from women about how the industry had been unfair to them or needed to be better about inclusion. That was an excellent thing to witness. The #1 Reason to Be Panel was a breath of fresh air, and in particular Brenda Romero (superstar game designer) gave one of the best talks I have ever seen at a GDC about why E3 needs to stop having booth babes, which was a proxy for why games need to stop objectifying women. Not all of this conversation was particularly profound — there was a lot of cries for more women developers, which is the same cry I’ve heard since I entered the game industry — but it was just great to see women at the conference empowered to give their opinion about this issue that affects them directly. I hope that never stops.

And the inclusiveness didn’t stop there. There were lots of talks about queering games as well. I’ll admit I’m not totally sure what that means beyond the literal sense of having more gay developers and more non-heteronormal story in games, but I’m very happy that the industry is figuring out, in starts and fits, ways of having identity mean something. I’m looking forward to this continuing at the Different Games Conference later this April.

– Other Observations

  • Journey and Cart Life winning in the awards ceremony was a sign that people want games to tackle more serious and artistic material. I have some issues with the awards, which I will discuss in a next blog post, but it’s interesting where the awards were pushing us and much congratulations to Journey, which continues to dominate the story of games in 2012.
  • Spaceteam got lots of love. Collaborative games in general (hooray for my favorite Super Space ______) were very popular, as were more profound narrative experiences such as Kentucky Route Zero and Walking Dead, and gameplay stars such as Super Hexagon and FTL.
  • My God the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. Everything was so amazing. Where is Sound Dodger on the internets?!? Congratulations, Robin, for that panel and the other fifty awards Journey took.
  • Parsons rocks the house yet again. Colleen Macklin was ranked one of the best speakers in 2012, Kaho Abe showed off Hit Me! and Ninja Shadow Warrior in the EGW, and Robert Yang ran Lost Levels. GO DT GAMES!!!! UPDATE: I also need to congratulate Andy Wallace and Jane Friedhoff as well as Kaho again and Ramsey Nasser for being finalists in the Sony Game Jam. Sorry, all. So much Parsons glory that I missed a couple.
  • Thank you Food Court at the Mall behind Bloomingdale’s. I think I would have starved to death if not for your cornucopia of scrumptious lunch options.
  • Lots more of the good people with the good projects and the good meetings. Always fun to catch up, and more fun to argue, which I got to do a lot this year. Stay tuned on the fallout of that with Clara.

So in summary, more people are loud and proud about making games, the independents are alive and well, business models are crazy, and the end of triple-A is nigh. That’s the word on the street — take it for what it’s worth.

What was your GDC like? Did you have a similar take?

Posted in Rant.

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2 Responses

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  1. Matt says

    I actually did not have a GDC, as I didn’t go yet again. Someday, I hope to change that. In the meantime, I have been enjoying hearing about the conference from the people who have gone. Gives me a better overall view of the whole shebang.

  2. Ben says

    Andy and Jane won the Sony Game Jam!

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