Looking to get on my List? Tell me the International Game Developers Association is irrelevant. That you don’t see the point in it. That if the IGDA did something for you, you’d join. Those on the List will not live to see the golden future of my reign, and it’s their loss.
But such statements have a glimmer of truth. The IGDA is no poster child for decorum or excellence in representation. Board members are elected based on unvetted, single-paragraph statements and resign in disgrace while others engage in puerile flame wars on the Association’s own forums. The group’s crushingly apathetic membership is composed of thousands who, in many cases, don’t even realize they’re members. Many perceive it as a mouthpiece for big-money interests rather than the working developers for whom it was founded to speak. A “toothless masturbatory body” is how one developer described it.
Criticizing the IGDA doesn’t get you on the List; doing so and then doing nothing will. Because here’s a fact: The industry needs the IGDA. Someone needs to unify the disparate voices, to offer protection when threats rear and to provide tools for community and professional development. The IGDA is necessary, but so is significant reform.
Ernest Adams founded the organization in 1994, merging with the nascent Computer Entertainment Developers Association. (Erin Hoffman’s excellent article covers the history, so I’m going to skip it.) Adams wanted “a professional society, not a trade association, nor a guild, nor a union. It would be about advancing the state of the art, fighting for creative freedom, improving working conditions, providing continuing education, and (perhaps, later) such things as small business medical insurance and legal assistance.”
Disclosure: I’ve written the Culture Clash column for the IGDA website since 2003, and I’m loyal to the organization and its people. I want to talk about legitimate opportunities for change, not snipe from the sidelines. The possibilities are vast, so to keep focus we’ll zero in on three imperative reforms: member services, membership structure and Board responsibilities and election procedures.
What Have You Done for Me Lately?
“I recognize that there are many who look for that dollar-to-dollar relationship between what they pay in dues and what they get for their membership,” says IGDA Executive Director Joshua Caulfield, addressing the accusation that the Association doesn’t do anything for its participants. “However, associations require more than just dues – they require participation to present their full benefit.”
“The IGDA gets a lot done!” argues former Executive Director Jason Della Rocca. “Over 500 dedicated volunteers work their asses off day in and day out. From SIG whitepapers, to committee standards, to chapter meetings around the globe, to the 2,000-person party at GDC, co-publishing books, etc. Stuff gets done. The greater challenge has been effectively communicating all that.”
There’s also the website, with its forums and columns, the organization’s sponsorship of various events, its presence at conferences and more mainstream media activity. Oh yes, the IGDA does things. But aside from the GDC party, none of it is membership based. Everything offered now should be available to all, but the first step in reform is providing tangible services available to members only. Caulfield notes the organization is rolling out new services like targeted webinars; we’ll see if the membership finds them helpful.
I suspect IGDA members would most value genuine professional services, like legal guidance, a lifetime @igda.org email address, career placement and relocation assistance, conflict mediation, small studio spotlight opportunities and contract writing. But those services cost money, and that’s why the IGDA has had difficulty offering them so far. As Adams says, it’s the classic deadlock: “You need money to supply these services; you need members to provide the money; you need services to attract the members.” At $48 for an individual annual membership, the Association can’t possibly provide the wealth of solutions it should.
These services need not be free, however; simple subsidization through a member discount is enough. I suspect many developers would pay significantly higher dues for access to such tools. And as the value becomes apparent, membership would grow to the point that dues could come down. Think of how many small developers would spring at the chance for subsidized access to an attorney for contract or IP advice, or a trademark search. And while globalism is a factor (Japanese developers would have no interest in help from a French attorney), it need not eliminate the opportunity. The IGDA has a responsibility to maintain a network of contacts – lawyers, regional alliances for medical insurance, etc. – and can roll them out as they become viable, focusing on the most membership-heavy regions first.
Chocolate and Peanut Butter
The model and perception of membership must also change for true reform to become a reality. Some in the association business argue that membership is a dying model, Della Rocca among them. “IGDA needs to think of a model that can succeed with the primary member as a free member,” he says. “[A] ‘freemium’ model, or free membership plus paid services. Think free-to-play style games.” That’s a possibility, but personally, I see membership as an unrestricted revenue lifeline – provided members have exclusive and premium access to benefits.
More relevant to the IGDA is the structure of membership, most significantly, doing away with so-called “studio affiliations,” in which studios or publishers purchase bulk memberships for their entire staff. This can be very, very risky, Adams points out. “There was no concept of publishers as members when I set [IGDA] up, and the idea of corporate members is complete wrongthink for a professional society.” Can we get a “hell yes”?
The idea of bulk memberships is well meaning; as Caulfield notes, it’s “a way for studios to show they care about the professional lives of their team. … I have to commend studio heads willing to support their staff with membership.” According to the bylaws, no corporation can be a member of the IGDA – only “natural persons” – but since the company hands over the check for an entire bloc, that’s basically the reality. Many natural persons within these groups never know they have a membership, and thus are never educated about what is available to them as members. Group affiliation is harmful to the Association, reducing the need for individuals to join and giving rise to suspicion about corporate control over IGDA objectives.
Some have argued that non-developers, or at least anyone in publishing, should be excluded entirely. That’s also wrongthink. Individuals working on the publishing side should be welcome to join, as should journalists, analysts, scholars and others who are part of the games industry. Many developers are famously xenophobic and fiercely opposed on principle to anyone who hasn’t “shipped a game,” often dismissing out of hand the views of such people. It’s time we recognize game development is an ecosystem, not an isolated job description, and many who don’t directly make games nonetheless have value to contribute. The industry will be stronger as a self-supportive, collaborative entity than as a factionalized pissing contest.
Finally, we come to the Board of Directors. IGDA reform begins at the top, and it would be impossible to discuss the Association without referring to the recent furor over former Board member Tim Langdell, who resigned on August 31 after a firestorm regarding his trademark battle with indie developer Mobigame.
You don’t take an oath when you take a seat on the Board, and you shouldn’t. But any Director must also recognize that there is inherent risk of conflict when serving two or more masters, one of whom is an association with the stated mission of “improving developers’ lives through community, professional development and advocacy.” Langdell’s opponents didn’t care whether his claim was legally valid; they viewed his actions against Mobigame as inappropriate in the context of his role as a Director. Had Langdell resigned from the Board before pursuing Mobigame, there would have been no justification for complaint.
The Board dictates the IGDA’s agenda, and that agenda is then carried out by the Executive Director. Unfortunately, strong evidence exists that the Board isn’t particularly interested in defending its stated mission. After all, where was the IGDA when Activision/Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick advocated an “atmosphere of skepticism, pessimism and fear” as the ideal state for his developers? That should have evoked a blistering condemnation, and did from pretty much every corner of the industry… except the IGDA. If the Association is to be the empowered guardian of the industry’s people, then its Board members have a responsibility to act accordingly, even if it means acting against their personal best interests. If they cannot, they should resign, or not run in the first place.
The Board election process is inherently broken. Members barely know who they’re voting for or what candidates believe. Historically, individuals run for the Board by announcing their intention to do so and providing a statement and photo for the website. Then some fraction of the membership votes, setting the direction of the IGDA based on a blurry picture and 200 words. In some cases, including Langdell’s, candidate statements have included dramatic hyperbole or out-and-out falsehoods regarding previous accomplishments.
Orbus Gameworks President Darius Kazemi is trying something new: The unapologetic reformer is aggressively campaigning for the Board with podcasts, videos and a regularly updated blog. His goal, aside from getting elected, is to educate the membership about his views and what he feels the IGDA needs to do to become relevant for the rank and file. While Kazemi’s approach need not be a mandate, candidacy communication requirements should surely be reevaluated and made far more stringent.
Beyond the campaign trail, technology can enhance Board transparency. All but closed-door meetings should be distributed via podcasts, and Board-hosted webinars, including Q&A sessions with members, should be held monthly. Compared to the pricey reforms and services I proposed earlier, this stuff is practically free, and it’s frankly embarrassing that such a high-tech society doesn’t already employ it.
I often say that this industry is a business in the business of staying in business. But it is also a creative and dedicated community of passionate artists and equally passionate external support systems. Its people deserve representation and encouragement. Reform can be fractious, but when considered against the alternative – taking no action and allowing the IGDA to flounder, unable to achieve the dream of its own purpose – change is the only way to go.
Matthew Sakey is a freelance games writer and analyst. He has written the monthly Culture Clash column for the IGDA website since 2003, and also maintains the gaming and entertainment website Tap-Repeatedly, where he will continue this article with further thoughts on IGDA reform. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.