GDC 2008

GDC 2008: The Game Developers' Rant

Russ Pitts | 26 Feb 2008 14:28
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"I think there are a lot of positive things we feel about this industry. ... But there are a lot of things wrong." Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman provided the introduction to this year's developer's rant, saying everyone in the industry had grievances, from long hours to bad bosses. And since we were all talking about the problems anyway, why not bring everyone to the same place to do it together. "We need a place where we can air those grievances. The purpose of the rant session is to make those gripes public."

Clint Hocking, a Creative Director at UbiSoft, went first. He said when he was asked to do the rant, his first thought was about doing something on creative stagnation, but soon realized the videogame industry was "The most creative industry in the history of the world."

"Being creative is easy," Hocking said. "The courage to create something that challenges people ... that's hard." He said he was talking to a friend, a programmer, about games who said to him "Dude ... it's code. We can do anything."

Hocking asked why there aren't any AAA survival horror games in which you have an actual relationship with someone, where you feel for them, protect them, and hurt when they hurt. "Why isn't Call of Duty about duty? Why isn't Medal of Honor about honor? What if we could put duty in a box and sell it?"

He cited The Lord of the Rings, asking if the themes that really struck readers had anything to do with the glowing swords, the armor and a +5 rope, suggested it was, instead, the relationship between Frodo and Sam, and Frodo's willingness to sacrifice himself to save the world. The redemption of Gollum. The return of the king. And yet in the Lord of the Rings games, few of those elements survive, instead replaced with hundreds of weapons, pieces of armor and rope. "With this object fetishism, it's no surprise the most meaningful relationship in a AAA title this year is with a fucking cube."

"We lack the courage to risk ourselves for our art. That is the difference between an immature medium and the mature art form we will be. ... Fuck, dude, it's code. We can do anything."

Up next was Jane McGonigal, the ARG luminary responsible for I Love Bees. She's currently studying the subject of happiness, and how we can make more of it.

"Our industry kicks ass," said McGonigal. "[But] reality is broken. Why aren't game developers trying to fix it?"

She asked the assembled developers why they don't devote their energy to making sure life works as well as their games work. Nothing we do in real life makes us feel as competent and capable as we feel when playing games. Why not?

"Is happiness a warm puppy? No, it's not," she said, going on to define happiness as a set of objectives and circumstances (spending time with friends and family, feeling successful), all of which games achieve. Happiness is not a warm puppy. But games can make people happy by creating in our minds the requirements for happiness. If happiness was a warm puppy, games would make warm puppies. "We are making happiness engines."

"Why should we care about games?" she asked. "Because life is crap."

But the most moving rant at the session wasn't really a rant at all, more of a free-form expression of joy, courtesy of Everyday Shooter's Jonathan Mak. At a word from the podium, a couple of folks distributed balloons to the audience, all of whom immediately began lofting them toward the rafters. The balloons passed from hand to hand, all but a few never touching the ground. This lasted for about 10 minutes.

But that wasn't the most spectacular part. If you've never been to a conference like GDC, you may not have a clear picture of the mental state of the audience at a panel like that. They tend to be, for the most part, passive. As if watching a film. Only they seem to be having less fun. And they're concentrating. And most of them were out drinking last night, and are tired, hungry, hot, cramped and are just enduring their physical discomfort to get the most out of the presentation. So when a standing-room-only crowd like that break into spontaneous glee ... it's quite a sight. It was a subtle, spontaneous demonstration of the power of play.

I spent the better part of the 10-minute balloon fight standing still, eyes agog and with a huge grin on my face. The ease with which this crowd transitioned from passive observer mode to active participant was boggling. And the game itself took no explanation. We were presented with balloons, so we tossed them in the air, and we enjoyed it. A room full of game designers could do worse than take a lesson from this.

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