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Critical Smack GDC Roundup: Ain’t We Lucky We Got ‘Em

I realize I’ve been out of touch recently because of travel, and I figure I owe you all a blog post, so I’ve decided to do a quick roundup of my impressions of my last trip, the annual Game Developers’ Conference. For those of you who don’t know, the GDC is the most important event of the year for game developers – a social, professional, and intellectual download that’s a can’t miss if you’re serious about gaming. This was personally one of the best GDCs I’ve ever, and there was lots to see and hear. What follows is my quick and totally subjective review of the conference. Details within.

So this was my 10th GDC by my guess, and as mentioned above, one of my best. A lot of that was for business reasons that I can’t go into here, but let’s say that my company had a lot of good meetings with a lot of smart people. And thanks to those of you who are readers of my tiny, tiny blog out there. Much love.

As for my other impressions, there’s a lot to cover, so I’m going to take this in bullets:

Emergent Theme

Every GDC has an official theme. This year’s was 25 years of games, and that meant a lot of interesting postmortems of old games that I unfortunately didn’t get to hear. (I was told the Populous talk by Molyneux was excellent.) But there is also always an undercurrent of what the industry is interested in for this year. Here’s what I saw:

– Android and Tablet: Everyone is looking for the next great wave after social games, and the crowdsourced bet was to Android and Tablets. Every Android talk was filled to the brim. That’s in part because Google gives away free stuff (this year a Motorola Xoom or a Nexus S, both Verizon tethered, depending on what draw you got) but it was also the talk of the town. There’s still some skepticism about the market and its willingness to buy apps, but there was definitely developer hunger and engagement here.

– Unity: Unity has fully come into its own as a platform. As with Android, every Unity talk was filled to the brim. This was more unexpected to me, as I wasn’t sure the word had gotten out this far. But I’m happy — Unity is playing their cards very well, and as a studio doing Unity work, I like their technology. We also know a lot of people who work there, and they are teh OSSIM.

– Social is the New Empire: Social is no longer controversial. In the socio-casual-online space, it’s the only game in town; all of the talks in the “Social and Online Game Summit” were about social games but two, and one of the outliers was mine. In the rest of gaming, it’s largely perceived as one of the very big dogs in the room, implied reference to Zynga intended. Nintendo’s Iwata made a very Japanese roundabout insult to social games in his keynote, which should give you a clue to their importance. As one of  the big dogs, Zynga and to a lesser but still significant extent Playdom got the standard set of reactions: fawning interest from would-be employees, open respect from business types, scorn from indies and purists. I think social is a very complex world and I know a number of cool people (including several friends) at both companies. But there was a joke at a dinner I was at that soon all of your game designers would belong to Social, and it was funny because it was only a slight exaggeration.

– Gamification Not So Much: For all the recent controversy, there was surprisingly little stuff about gamification at the conference. There was only one talk I saw in the Serious Game Summit (interesting choice there) that addressed it, but I should point out that talk was nearly full. But you didn’t hear much about it in the halls, and the knee-jerk scorn it generally gets in game design circles was curiously quiet.

– Indie Ascendant: The Independent Games Festival was better than it has ever been this year. The Student Categories held their levels from last year, but the Main Festival was incredible. So many good games it was hard to believe. And Limbo was nominated for Game of the Year in the REGULAR GDC awards, so Indie has come a long way. Mad props to Brandon Boyer for bringing that festival to the next level.

– Ain’t We Lucky We Got ‘Em: The mood of hope and possibility is back. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not dot-com madness and bursting optimism. But there’s enthusiasm again in a way I haven’t seen in the last couple of years.  That’s why the quote: things are looking up from a BAD place they were in.


This is just what I saw and heard rumors about. Im not beginning to imply that this is comprehensive. There were many, many more talks I didn’t attend. But this is what I saw between many meetings, parties, and random hallway encounters.

– Dynamics: The State of the Art (Clint Hocking)

Clint is always an awesome thinker and speaker about games, and this talk was no exception. Clint gave one of the most succinct descriptions of LaBlanc, Zubec and Hunicke’s M.D.A. (mechanics/dynamics/aesthetics) method of game design I’ve heard, and then offered the fascinating question of whether games should create meaning (a.k.a. aesthetics) in their mechanics or their dynamics. He didn’t answer the question, which upset me; I would rather a speaker take a side I disagree with than not answer. Still, given that his later games lean very dynamic, I think his choice is clear. Overall, a must see talk with terrific anecdotes and examples.

– The Great Gamification Debate (Noah Falstein, Margaret Wallace, Ian Bogost, Jane McGonigal, Jesse Schell, Margaret Robertson, Eric Marcoullier, Ross Smith)

The speakers in the debate were all brilliant, notably Margaret Wallace (my business partner, but still), Ian, Jane, Jesse, and Margaret Robertson. They had smart clever things to say and if they had been able to take their sides, it would have been brilliant. But the format gave them no preparation and forced them to adopt sides they didn’t necessarily believe. The lack of organization caused the whole thing to descend into chaos. Next time, pick two of the brilliant people I named above and let them duke it out for an hour. That would be incredible.

– Life, Death, and the Middle Pair: Go, Poker and the Sublime (Frank Lantz)

Full disclosure that I used to work with Frank, but I think he’s one of the greatest game designers alive. He’s also a great speaker, and this is no exception. It’s an analysis of Go and Poker with an eye towards their non-obvious similarities. The analysis of Poker is particular keen, especially in its discussion of tilt and discipline and the focused part of the game. An excellent way of thinking about the meditative quality of serious play.

– An Apology for Roger Ebert (Brian Moriarty)

A very well delivered argument that I couldn’t disagree with more. As a piece of sophistry, it was incredibly powerful, and Moriarty had very good references. However, his whole argument hinged on weak assumptions. The core was basically that Art needs to be sublime and transcendent, and that games because of their active component cannot achieve the stillness necessary for those emotions, and can thus only be Kitsch, which he doesn’t denigrate but also argues cannot be art. You need to see the talk to get the full take, but go watch it when it’s available on the Vault to do it justice and then read my thoughts in white:  If you assume intersubjectivity is the source of taste, you do realize that’s culture, right Brian? And if it’s culture, you do realize that culture has changed its mind about what’s art like a bazillion times? Like the hundreds of years when people though Shakespeare’s Sonnets were his weak work? Or all the centuries that readers thought the Canterbury Tales where a sad experiment next to the genius of Chaucer’s masterwork Troilus and Criseyde? Or maybe all the people who screamed that Rodin wasn’t making art because his figures were in non-traditional poses? Oh, and by the way, saying that you need to turn your computer off to find the sublime is maybe the single best way to date yourself as totally irrelevant. Yeah, and I wish that I could still have an authentic experience with a malt, or a hoop-and-stick. The world moves, Brian. Get on the bus or get out of the way.

– Experimental Gameplay Workshop

A chance to see a random selection of fringe-ish games of all kinds, and great as always. I think Robin Hunicke, Richard LeMarchand, and Ben Chris ran the best Workshop yet. Jason Rohrer’s new game looks quite cool, as does Increpare’s Opera Omnia. Lots of other good stuff too.

– Game Design Challenge (Eric Zimmerman, Jason Rohrer, John Romero, Jenova Chen):

The challenge this year was to design a game that could be a religion. John Romero played to the format with a fun and funny real world game involving a handful of  “apostles” chosen from a twitter feed giving out post-it notes to audience members who chose to be followers. Jenova Chen gave an interestingly themed but too long talk about his religious upbringing in China to then wipe out on the challenge with a gamification of the TED website as his offering. So weak. And Jason Rohrer destroyed with a description of religion as a method to examine the unknown elements of the past and then an offering of a Minecraft mod in which you get to play the game for one life, and then you save and pass the game without word, image, or message (no signs!) to another person to play. As a fusion of the experience of the sublime that Minecraft naturally offers and a tie to his religious message, it was a home run. The fact that he actually had it working on a USB stick that he gave to the audience was the icing on the cake.

– Other

I heard Scott Siegal’s rant was OSSIM and Trip Hawkins’ was Glenn Beck-ishly fascinating. I also heard that the Microtalks were great and Jon Sharp gave his usual excellent art history style analysis of games in his lecture.  I’m sure there’s lots of other great stuff, but that’s what I saw.

Juan Gril and I also gave our traditional Year in Online (used to be Casual) Games talk, and it seemed to be well-received. For the record, I did not make up the work “masocore” as I’ve heard from some afterward. You can see an accurate reporting on Gamasutra. I’ll post the slides later this week.


Parsons was in full force this year, with a wonderful entry in the mobile competition and about ten students at the conference. Go Parsons games!

Oh the parties. So many good dinners with people, moments to dance, and networking networking networking. A special thanks to the absolutely classy dev who, after I joked with him that he could ignore me for the Zynga friends I was talking with if he was opportunistically looking for work, immediately asked the Zynga person next to me for a job. Shamelessness that bold I have no response to.

That’s basically my summary. Again, thanks to all the cool people with all the cool projects for all the cool conversations. I look forward to seeing you at the next conference. And now, it’s (FINALLY!) back to games for me.

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