March 24, 2006

GDC 2006: “We Own the Future and It’s Ours Not to F*** Up”

by Andrew Stern · , 3:51 pm

Articles covering the still-ongoing Game Developers Conference are flowing in: The Birth And Growth Of Independent Game Studios, Zimmerman on Self-Published Games, What’s Next? panel, reactions to Will Wright’s astro-flying lecture (1 2) (who’s on the cover of Wired this month), You Can (Not) Be Serious, What’s Wrong With Serious Games? (written by a fellow PAGDIG member), Peace-oriented Game Design Challenge, GDC: Write Club — as well familiar material from presentations by Juul, Isbister. Update: Chaim Gingold and Chris Hecker talking about prototyping Spore.

Like last year, perhaps the most interesting GDC reportage to comment on is the now-annual IGDA rant session (proficiently transcribed again by Alice at Wonderland), organized by Gamelab’s Eric Zimmerman and this year starring ex-Gamelab now area/code developer Frank Lantz, experimental gameplay workshop organizer Jon Blow, ex-XBox evangelist now CAA Seamus Blackley, resident curmudgeon Chris Crawford, and special appearances by Robin Hunicke, Jane Pinckard, Chris Hecker and Jason della Rocca. Reactions below:

Frank Lantz said,

Alright so I’m going to rant about the “immersive fallacy”. … I think there is a widespread and largely unexamined belief in this community that computer games are evolving towards an infinitely detailed and utterly seamless simulation. That this is their destiny. To evolve to a star trek holodeck, a seamless simulation indistinguishable from real experience. So what’s wrong with this? Why does the phrase ‘the player will be able to go anywhere and do anything’ sound like nails on a chalkboard to me? It’s based on a very naïve and unsophisticated understanding of how simulation, how representation works. …

The Holodeck is a vision for the future of interactive entertainment that we often point to, as the easiest shorthand for what character-centric experiences could become. (Versus, say, Second Life’s targeting of the Metaverse.) My understanding of the Holodeck, and I believe the way was portrayed in Star Trek, is as a dramatic world, where exciting events are always happening, a place where you don’t have to bother with the mundane. So lumping the Holodeck into this rant seems incorrect. Further, I’m not sure who the folks are he’s speaking about that seem to want a perfect simulation of the real world, with all the boring bits left in.

Seamus Blackley said,

[Y]ou hear a whole bunch of people bitching and moaning about how their awesome games aren’t getting published by those jackass publishers who wouldn’t know a good game if it smacked them in the head. I used to really be into this. Now all I can say is let’s just stop fucking ourselves and realise what’s happening here. We don’t HAVE a good business around most of the ideas we wanna make. We can’t go to guys like EA who, incidentally, are really smart – and present them a business case for some of these ideas.

This is probably the best nugget of wisdom from the rant. A big reason, for example, we don’t see advanced interactive stories being commercially made is because there’s no urgent reason to invest there — games as they exist (running, jumping, shooting, strategy) are selling quite well, to mostly young or almost-young men — and the market for something more interesting has yet to be proven. (Another big reason: it’s technically difficult to innovate into high agency interactive stories. But you know this.)

Gamelab’s move to self-publishing is a reflection of Seamus’ concerns; a project funding model as such is what we’re actively pursuing as well.

Further reality check from Seamus:

You guys are the future, and it’s a beautiful future if you open your mind and actually think about business a bit more. Maybe even fucking read something about business a bit more, hey? Those poor fuckers giving you millions of bucks for an idea they’re not really sure about, their jobs are on the line. Think about that.

Jon Blow suggests that maybe it’ll be up to the next generation of game developers to lead the way:

What if innovation is like a fossil fuel in the sense that it’s a finite expendable resource? How many times can you think up wacky stuff that no one else has thought about? It can’t be infinite right? Are we going to run out of innovation? So .. why do we.. feel like games need game play innovation in order to be good? Innovation acts like a shiny thing that distracts us from the fact that most games at the core .. just.. aren’t very good. If you’re old and you’ve played lots of games, every game is the same thing and just not very interesting. How important is it that you kill the Nazis and get the blue card key? It’s not. … Maybe we need to become fossil fuel for the next generation to come along and show us how it’s done.

The current breed of game designers should quit their corporate jobs and go indie, and self-publish. While a sacrifice in terms of salary and security, that would certainly be a boost to innovation.

Chris Crawford was predictable:

I have to tell ya, there’s nothing better that can be done because the games industry is d.e.a.d. Now when I say dead, I don’t mean totally dead, I mean brain dead. The product is going out the door, money is coming in. But what’s up here? Nothing. There’s no creativity. There’s no creative life in this industry at all. It’s just a dead creature. We put food in, shit comes out. … I’ll just mention that I’m going down the corridor to the maternity room where there’s an infant that has a better future than the games business and it’s called interactive storytelling.

I agree in sentiment, of course, but I don’t paint things as black and white as Chris. There are some amazing game-games out there, excellent entertainment, no doubt about it. The game industry isn’t dead, it’s just stuck in an infantile phase.

Jane Pinckard has constructive advice, the kind of advice I give and live by:

No more ranting! Let’s go do stuff. For every problem that you see go out there and do something about it. The internet is full of rants, don’t just write about it! Who cares! Read any games forum and you see the same things year after year after year. No innovation. We need this, we need that. It’s about what you DO that counts.

Seamus ended it with:

We own the future and it’s ours not to fuck up.

14 Responses to “GDC 2006: “We Own the Future and It’s Ours Not to F*** Up””

  1. nick Says:

    Well, GDC 06 certainly had more obscenities than did E-FEST 2006.

    Thanks for the report, Andrew!

  2. Chris Crawford Says:

    A few comments: first, the transcription was spotty. There were a couple of places where I am absolutely certain that what I said was truncated. Although the gist of the comments were preserved, there are a few places that make no sense because the transcriber missed some crucial words or sentences.

    My greatest objection was to Seamus Blackley, whose argument I totally reject. What he fails to address is the difference between industry profitability and project profitability. Hollywood understands this difference clearly: you fund ten risky projects, nine bomb, and one pays off for the other nine. What Seamus argued was the very thing that has the games biz in such a deep rut: the insistence that there be a solid business case for each and every game. As soon as you start thinking this way, you lock yourself down to “sure things” — which of course are nothing more than yesterday’s hits warmed over. This is small-time, cowardly thinking by middle-managers. Executives should be able to think on a larger time scale, but most games decision-makers are mousy wimps unwilling to gamble. Unless you gamble, you’ll never fail big and you’ll never win big.

    I was also dismayed by the comments rejecting innovation as a limited resource. The games industry is creatively constipated, and here’s this guy rationalizing the absence of creativity on the grounds that creativity must somehow be a limited resource. Well, yes, it’s limited when you have blinders on. But an entertainment industry that tells itself that innovation is ancient history is already in an advanced stage of decay.

  3. Water Cooler Games Says:

    GDC 2006 Rundown

    For the last week I’ve been at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Jose. I spent the first two days at the Serious Games Summit, giving two talks on Monday. Then I gave two more talks on Friday during traditional…

  4. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    Hollywood understands this difference clearly: you fund ten risky projects, nine bomb, and one pays off for the other nine.

    That wouldn’t work, Chris; nobvody could be making movies using this formula. An estimate I got from a bank manager who specializes in movie financing is: out of ten movies that get made

    – one is a hit

    – two break even at the box office, generating profits through subsequent sales channels (DVD, TV, &c.)

    – two break even over time (using the whole exploitation chain to get there)

    – five don’t recoup their cost.

    So half of the movies that get made loose money. Is this very different from how things work out in the videogame industry?

  5. Chris Crawford Says:

    Dick, thanks for filling in the details on the financial results. I knew about the “one in ten works” datum but was unaware of the finer details.

    You suggest that there’s little difference between the games industry and the movie industry in their results. I think that your comparison is incomplete. There are two gigantic differences between the two industries.

    The first difference is difficult to pin down; it’s the degree of risk-taking on the part of the two industries. The best way to figure it is to look for the frequency of magnificent flops. Is there anything in the games industry comparable to “Heavens Gate” or “Waterworld”? Hollywood is willing to roll the dice with risky films; the games industry is not.

    Here’s another way to look at it: how many huge ROI games get made? A huge ROI indicates a long shot that paid off. A good example is “Pulp Fiction”, with an ROI way over 1000%. These kinds of things happen all the time in Hollywood. How many games can you think of that had this kind of ROI? In other words, how many long shots does the games industry take?

    Here’s a third way to look at it: support for the creative base. Hollywood spends millions of dollars on creative pump-priming. They pour money into schools — the games industry is astoundingly chintzy in this regard. The sole such expenditure that I am aware of is EA’s purchase of a vanity chair for Bing Gordon for $5 million at USC — in return for all rights to student work there. That’s not investing in the future, that’s just another sharp deal. And EA made it very clear that this was a one-time deal.

    Hollywood spends oodles of money supporting all sorts of young talent. They have a strong creative base of talent that is able to work its way up the pyramid to the very top. A Quentin Tarantino can start at the very bottom and work his way up to the top. Can you honestly say that the games biz is as consistent a meritocracy as the film biz?

    Here’s another difference: talent really means something in Hollywood, but it is secondary in the games biz. Yes, we have talented people, but we don’t run on talent. Look at the game credits: they include an army of faceless people. You can put one or more names behind any given Hollywood hit, but that’s not true of games. We have the publishers to blame for this. They honestly think that people will buy an EA game or a Microsoft game. Whoever went to see a Universal picture? Whoever walked into the bookstore looking for a Simon & Schuster book? The games publishers are idiots for trying to hide their creative talent.

    There are huge differences between these two industries. Hollywood has been running on creative energy from the beginning. Games have been running on marketing and technology.

  6. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    Chris, movies like “Heaven’s Gate” and “Waterworld” are outliers: projects that went loco because because the personal hubris of a previously successful egomaniac (Cimino, Kostner) was not met by an ample controlling mechanism. The movie industry tries to avoid failures like this like the plague, and it learns from its mistakes. If you think you’ll find a lot of risk-takers in this business, you’ve obviously never talked to any bankers in an effort to fund your movie projects :-)

    Heres the bigger picture, the powers-of-ten-rule of movie financing:

    10 movie ideas => 1 treatment
    10 treatments => 1 first draft script
    10 first draft scripts => 1 final draft script
    10 final draft scripts => 1 greenlighted movie
    10 greenlighted movies => 1 movie that gets made
    10 movies that get made => 1 hit
    1,000,000 movie ideas => 1 hit

    The reason why I’m working on interactive characters is that I couldn’t find the money to produce my scripts, and figured that I wouldn’t have to talk to bank managers if all I needed for production was a computer. And I’d be the last one who’d try to say that there are lots of similarities between the film industry and the videogame industry. From what I could see so far, they seem to be fairly different, which is why I’m surprised about the frequency and intensity with which game developers try to compare them. I don’t know any film people who compare their products with games in such a way, so, to me, that’s one of the differences.

    So I didn’t want to suggest anything; I just wanted to ask a question. The rule-of-thumb for the movie industry is: For every one movie that gets made which does not loose money, one gets made that does. What would that ration be for videogames?

  7. Chris Crawford Says:

    I don’t know the current ratio of hits/misses in the games biz; what I do know is that the distribution of financial results is very narrow. There are few big losers and even fewer big hits; most games are close to the median. I’m not arguing that the standard deviation is zero, only that it is lower than what we see in the movie industry.

    Obviously, nobody sets out to lose money, and lots of people try to guarantee success. But in the final analysis, NO entertainment product is a sure thing; every project has risk. My point here is that Hollywood understands this and engages in rational risk-taking, while the games business does not understand this is and refuses to take any risks, ensuring the continuing blandness of its products.

  8. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    Hey, box office takings are stagnant – in some markets even diminishing – today, and the percieved blandness of contemporary Hollywood fare is a huge theme in the movie press and during film festivals at the mo. Accusations of “fear of risk-taking” abound, so you might make a swell movie critic :-)

  9. Patrick Dugan Says:

    Well, look at the Oscars this year. Dominated by titles which seem interesting and varied from one perspective (they all handle a variety of intense personal dilemmas, from being a dissenter against Mcarthyism to being a gay cowboy) but from another perspective they are blandly similar in their political similarities. Personally, I think Hollywood has “jumped the shark,” to borrow a term from TV criticism, it may produce amazing films, but it’ll never return to the brillaince of the 70’s autuer-driven studio pics or the radical energy of the mid-90s indie scence. Hollywood is awarding films primarily made to be viewed by people within its own industry, or people of the “Hollywood persuasion”, not nessecarily homosexuals, but the sort of people who think, “you know, a love story about two cowboys is worth my time and money”. Likewise, the game industry should avoid making games that appeal to people of the “gamer persuasion”, not nessecarily introverts, but people who think, “you know, a sequel to one of eleven WWII fps franchises is worth my time and money.”

    With games, however, there is an even deeper difference: the hit potential of a game can be gauged by the experience of its interactivity rather than the experience of its images. You can’t really tell if a film is good or not until its been made and you watch it and have that visceral, visual, cinematic experience, producing those images at all requires lost of money. Games, on the other hand, can be prototyped at varying degress of cost, and such prototyping enables a refinement and gauging of the potential quality of the title before the full team comes on to burn millions in production. Its different from revising a film script, sure, both frameworks involve being filled out with images in production, but a film’s images is, in a basic sense, the film itself, while a game’s images are extraneous to the eye of a designer on a play-test quest for the right confluence of mechanics.

    Chris Bateman and Richard Boon make a great point very early in their book, 21st Century Game Design, when they state that the first rule of game design is that games are designed to meet audience needs. Its the player that plays these games, after all is said and shipped.

    Marketing starts before pre-production, it starts in the design. You have to be able to dream up an context and the verbs that fill out that context and then take a step back and think, “who primarily is going to want to play in these ways in this context?” When you can answer that with “probably just a niche hardcore” then its best to go that route, build the thing as scratchware and sell it on Moondance or Manifesto. If your answer is “predominatly females ages 8-15” then you go make Nintendogs. Thats what Seamus was getting at.

    However, for Chris’ purposes, the industry model is more prudent than the project model, since you’ve designed Storytron, which could be called a meta-game upon which many storyworlds can be authored. You’ve got to think of the needs of an audience of storybuilders (which is tough, since its a first generation drama engine) and more to your immediate concerns, you’ve got to think about encouraging a varied portfolio of storyworld content, so that a wider audience will not only be drawn to subscribe to the service, but be compelled to stay a subscribed, entreated by a rotation of divergent dramas to interact with.

    In addition to Storytron prototyping, I’m currently considering doing an indie game for the DS. When the concept came to me on tuesday, the first thing I thought of was the nature of the challenge (social) the primary verb (gestural symbology) the setting (a magic school) and THEN I thought of the target audience (predomiantly females ages 8-15). We know from Animal Crossing and Nintendogs that thats an audience that the DS can sell to, so theres a reasonable chance my game might get made. The innovative aspects of it are not merely co-incidental.

  10. andrew Says:

    Chris, I now understand your objection to Seamus’ suggestion, the idea that each and every game would need to have a solid business case. I see your suggestion as an alternate business model: build 10 cheaper games to find the hit. Yeah, I agree that could work.

    Dirk, those ballpark numbers on movie development are informative, thanks.

    Patrick wrote, Hollywood … will never return to the brillaince of the 70’s autuer-driven studio pics or the radical energy of the mid-90s indie scene

    Once self-published digital distribution of indie films becomes viable, maybe we’ll see a new wave? Just as we’re anticipating for games? Both waves could happen at the same time, in fact, once your average joe can effortlessly download a multi-gigabyte media file.


    My take is, when it’s all said and done, what’s really going to make or break a game is quality. If we’re looking for solutions, the questions we should be asking are, how are we going to pull off making high quality innovative games? We can make indie games until the cows come home, but if they suck, there’ll be no progress.

    I suppose we can break that down into several subquestions, including:
    – under what conditions does innovation happen?
    – how do we create environments for such innovation?
    – how do we educate game developers to be better equipped for innovation?

    See, while I appreciate Jon and Jane’s suggestions about what we need to be doing on a high level — “We need to make games that people care about so much that people can’t not play them,” “No more ranting! Let’s go do stuff. … Do something positive, make something produce something, create something, otherwise we’re sitting around talking about this forever. It’s about pushing things out to everyone else.” — there’s no talk about how to do that. (Other than “go off to the mountains for 14 years”, which I agree is sometimes necessary.)

    I was trying to get at the how to questions with my GDC panel last year, but apparently it wasn’t a situation conducive for productive answers.

    In a future post I’m going to propose a particular model for fostering innovation, a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time.

  11. michael Says:

    One challenge for game innovation is that sometimes game innovation can’t be done incrementally. And since indy game development can’t suppport significant research, then certain regions of game design space just can’t be explored. There are only three places that innovation that requires significant long-term research can happen: really big players who have the money to take the risk and a designer with enough cred to establish a business case (ie. Spore, which is pretty much a one-off in this category), academia, as long as a place can be found in academia for building real things (not just writing papers and making little prototypes), and weirdos willing to put their lives on hold for anywhere from 5 to 14 years to make an insane, often lonely push; the challenge in this last category is to eventually, finally ship something, even if you only reach a small portion of your initial goal. An example of work that requires this kind of long-term research focus is work on games that have a large verb space; contemporary approaches to player interfaces for games just can’t scale up to large verb spaces.

    Yes, unfortunately the GDC game/story panel last year didn’t lead to productive answers.

  12. Jesper Juul Says:

    Not that it matters, but …

    “familiar material from presentations by Juul”

    Come on, I haven’t written anything about games without goals before, and I took great care to remove all slides that I had previously presented!

  13. andrew Says:

    Jesper, sorry, you’re right, that is new scholarship from you; I guess I think about games without specific goals often enough that the theme felt familiar, that’s all. (Same goes for Isbister re: emotional characters.) Wish I had been there to hear the devil in the details, I’ll be sure to check out your slides/text when you post them.

  14. andrew Says:

    Bootleg video highlights of the rant!

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