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.