GDC 2008: Jamil Moledina: Probing the Mind of GDC, Part Two


Yesterday we ran part one of our exclusive interview with Jamil Moledina, Executive Director of the Game Developer Conference, the five-day convention in San Francisco celebrating and serving the game industry.

In Part Two of our interview, Moledina waxes philosophical on GDC’s move from San Jose, the maturation of the industry, media convergence and why anyone should care what Ray Kurzweil has to say.


The Escapist: This is going to be the GDC’s 2nd year, I believe, in San Francisco … on a personal note, do you still regret the move from San Jose, or is it just, at this point, kind of inevitable, and San Francisco is maybe offering more opportunities?

Jamil Moledina: Well, there are two parts to this. And actually it’s the third year we’ve been in San Francisco … we did an experiment a couple years ago and went back to San Jose for one year.

But the two sides of it are … the first side is that it was purely a pragmatic decision. So the city of San Jose is too small for the GDC; the convention center is too small, there are not enough hotels in San Jose to accommodate the attendees of GDC. I was booking hotels in Santa Clara and bussing attendees in from there to get to San Jose. So it was really untenable for us to continue to have the show there, even though, of course, there’s a strong nostalgic connection to that city. We pretty much took it over, and the Fairmont bar was a major hub of deal-making right there.

Having said that, moving to San Francisco and occupying most of the Moscone complex, we have, to a certain extent, replicated the feel of the GDC campus; there’s a lot of people walking between the buildings, the hotels right around the Moscone complex are buzzing with GDC deal-making happening in their lobbies, there’s a lot more nightlife and activity, a lot of different opportunities for developers and publishers to have their own get-togethers. And San Francisco is a world-class city, it is a metropolis, something that lends credibility to the game industry to have its largest professionals-only industry event situated here. Plus, the mayor and the mayor’s office are very supportive of the GDC, and kind of see San Francisco as the Hollywood of the game industry.

TE: Coincidentally, I have, and I know other folks have always kind of looked at the GDC as the adult version of the game convention. Do you think the current growth of the conference, and certainly the attention devoted to it, is a result of the industry as a whole maturing somewhat?

JM: I think that’s a fair comment. A lot of people in the business started out as very enthusiastic teenagers tinkering away in their garage, creating very simple games, and are now running businesses. So there’s a life cycle of game creation that takes place on an individual level that is now reflected in the event for those individuals.

Similarly, GDC has started out with a massive amount of programming content, and now we have one of the key clusters of our attendees is what we call the Maverick group, of people that have moved through the game development cycle of being kind of a grunt designer and working their way up to creating a game, then running a division and then kind of going out on their own and starting an indie label, and then getting their game on PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade. So, this type of life cycle is definitely reflected in the type of offerings that we have at GDC, and it’s very perceptive that you should bring that up. It’s something that we keep a very close eye on.

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TE: Do you think the industry … obviously this has been a banner year … according to the NPD, 19 billion or so odd dollars spent at retail, which is the biggest year yet for games. As an observer of [the industry] for such a long time, do you feel like we’re at a peak, or perhaps a bubble … and do you feel like the industry’s going to continue to grow? Do you have any concerns of that nature at all?

JM: I try not to predict the future … it’s never a clean exercise.

However, from what we see at GDC, there are over a thousand submissions to talk at the show, and it gives us a way to kind of see into the future the next six to 12 months of what’s happening in the industry. And based on that, we do have a sense that we are poised for tremendous expansion in the types of games that we are making, and with that I think we are well positioned to be recognized by the greater audience of people that are out there who don’t consider themselves gamers.

Nintendo has been kind of pioneering the latest surge here by creating games for people who are five to 95. Sid Meier has been at this for a couple of decades, which is why we’re showcasing an interview with him to kind of give us a sense of how this has been down and how everyone can kind of get on the bandwagon.

But, considering that our billions have been kind of incrementally growing year on year by appealing to a core audience, I think we have a very good position to springboard that to appeal to everybody who enjoys entertainment, because essentially, film, television, radio, Facebook – if I can make that a category all by itself – and the game industry are all competing for the same attention span of the same people. And at the end of the day, there’s – as you pointed out with SXSW – a growing appreciation and growing recognition of what these various entertainment forms can do. And I honestly do feel optimistic about the growth of our industry, especially considering the potential recognition among those who aren’t gamers yet.

TE: I know a lot of people have, at various times, predicted a sort of amalgamation of entertainment forms: TVs becoming more like games, games becoming more like movies, etc … is that something you can imagine at this point, or do you think the future is something else?

JM: Well, I’m inclined to think the future is something else, because that sort of talk has been around for a long time, and not to say that that isn’t been happening on some level … for example, Jesse Alexander is doing a talk at GDC about using videogame writing-thinking in writing the show Heroes. And Flint Dille is doing a transmedia talk … he was the original creator of the television shows G.I. Joe and Transformers … Flint actually killed Optimus Prime; you can give him a hard time about that if you’re so inclined. And he’s been doing a lot of game writing and game creation now, too.

So this does happen, but not to the extent that I think people would imagine it to have happened. People are much more interested in creating a property at kind of an abstracted level, and then seeing what are the best places for it to live. There are a couple of examples of this: Jason Rubin, who’s hosting our choice awards, has created a comic book called Iron and the Maiden. There’s also an additional linear content thing attached to that. Jesse Alexander is a great person to talk to about this because they’ve got a lot of different things living under the Heroes umbrella like a web community and upcoming games.

So I do see there being much more of a sense of what the ultimate incarnation of that story is going to be at the creative phase. For example, with Heroes, you have all of these alternate universes that are created at any given time. That is potential for a game world; it is potential for an entire game. And it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the narrative of the main story, it just provides an additional outlet for people to experience that part of the story. I would say we will be seeing more and more of the uniquely created experiences. I could kind of go on but I’m not sure if you’d want me to …


TE: It’s a fascinating subject to me … I’m curious, if I can ask you to expand a little bit on that, what do you see as the driver of that? Obviously with something like Heroes it’s the Heroes storyline or perhaps the characters or perhaps the universe, or perhaps, you know, a combination of all of those. But what do you think is that one single thread that runs through all of that even if we don’t ever see that kind of amalgamated game/movie/television show?

JM: If I may kind of tackle the meta-point, I’m not sure it’s a single thread. I think it’s a perfect storm of different factors coming together. So there’s the creative element like Jesse Alexander, like Flint Dille, like Brett Freedman who is creating Afterworld, so there’s this creative element, but there’s also a technological capability of, for example, Flash being able to be used for linear content as well as interactive content. There’s the use of game engines, for example the Unreal Engine 3 is being used to create commercials, television shows as well as complete feature animation, and we have a couple of sessions on that. Digital Domain is doing a talk on that at GDC.

And also, there’s a lot more opportunity to create if you have an idea for a game. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of gamer-created content at GDC. And so there’s the ability for people to – clearly I’m talking about consumers, but also there’s kind of this middle level of developers and also filmmakers that have an opportunity to come together and create something on a mid-level scale. In the past, it’s been about creating your $60 shrink-wrapped game, and you need $20 million to do it. And in the last couple years we’re seeing a lot more steps up to that giant step, so that people have the ability to create indie games on PC and distribute over Steam or over Xbox Live Arcade and so forth.

So there’s a lot more of these business, technology and creative options that are coming together to enable people to be very creative on what they’re ultimately producing. I’m sort of losing my voice here … but Brett Freedman spoke at our “Hollywood and Games” summit last year, and he’s someone who has a lot of insight into this particular area. Jesse Alexander is working on something along these lines as well. He’s speaking at the show this year, and I would definitely try to nail him down if you could.

TE: I’m actually going to his presentation so I will definitely try to corner him. Well, before you completely lose your voice, let me ask you another question. Actually, to tie back to what you were saying about the life cycle of the industry and the people working in it, would the continuous rapid evolution of the industry, the industry’s tools and methodology … what do you see as the main contribution from someone who has perhaps been through the ringer, or even retired … let’s project to future years when we have all these retirees from the game industry … what can they really say to folks just getting into the industry that is going to be relevant?

JM: They’d have a lot to say. These are guys that have the ability to capture millions of eyeballs. The person who created Pong … these are guys that are pioneers in our industry. They’re speaking at GDC, this year. For the first time ever, we have the creator of the videogame industry, Ralph Bayer, talking at the show. And how did he capture all of these people’s interest?

The thing that the game industry has had locked, and has had practice over decades, is the user interface, and the ability to promote fun through leveling up … through the game experience, people are essentially learning new skills, and they’re inclined to do it because it’s fun to do it.

So we have people that are experts in creating a world that is easy to get into and fun to live in. Take a look at Raph Koster: he’s someone that developed Star Wars: Galaxies, and now he’s gone off to do his own indie thing based on that understanding of what a player finds interesting. So, no matter how old you are, if you have successfully captured eyeballs, that’s going to be the bomb to a young developer, to a venture capitalist, to a film producer, anyone looking to kind of bootstrap their way into creating a game that will capture the hearts and minds of millions.


TE: I guess kind of on a related note, I also wanted to ask you: How hard is it to get these creative minds together to share, perhaps, you know, what they’re working on or new ideas when we all know the companies they are representing and working for are very secretive of what they’re working on, the new methodologies and things they’re developing? How do you draw that line or balance that edge?

JM: Well, it’s two things. One is that we benefit from the GDC having been originally created by game developers, so it has this built-in sense of trust. And what comes with it is our secret weapon, which is our advisory board of 20 top industry luminaries. So, they’re already out in the community, they’re talking to their own staff, they’re talking to their colleagues, they are working on our behalf to ensure these creative developers that GDC is a safe place, and it has a history of being a safe place.

And on the other hand, our GDC management team is out there doing a lot of ambassador work with a lot of these folks. For example, I spent a lot of time just traveling around the world talking to developers. I spent a lot of time in Japan talking to the folks at the top publishers over there, and sometimes it means having just a one-hour sit-down meeting and expressing, “we would love to see your games explained at the GDC, and this is the benefit of why it might work.” And understandably, you are sharing your secrets, but essentially they’re the secrets you had six months to two years ago and you’ve advanced from there. And wouldn’t you say it’s your staff’s execution that makes your games so great?

So it’s a balancing act, and the more that we can kind of personally reassure them that we have this editorial outlook, that we want to promote this 1960s of free love and free sharing, and present it in a way that shows that by participating, you are also standing to gain, because it encourages other people to share. And we have this amazing kind of chain reaction then, where you see all of the top developers sharing the information that they have. And it is so unbelievably satisfying and rewarding from an editorial standpoint to see this. It really makes it all worthwhile.

TE: I suppose another part of it may be … I don’t know, you tell me … the relationship between the conference and the various press arms coming out. I mean, how do you … what do you see right now as kind of the state of the GDC’s relationship with the game press, particularly considering what an eventful year it has been for the game press?

JM: It’s been an eventful year for the game press meaning … ?

TE: Well, we’ve seen a number of conventions, in fact just most recently DICE had taken an … I don’t want to call it an adversarial stance, but they were severely restricting certain sites. It’s kind of this feeling that game press is maybe not the place people want to be talking to anymore. Since the industry is becoming more mainstream, maybe some of these enthusiast magazines that had been getting a lot of attention before aren’t anymore. Do you feel that at all at GDC or is that just not even something that you guys deal with?

JM: There’s a lot of people that … let me see how I should say this … we are actually restricting what we classify as press at GDC, so this year, the total number of people receiving a press badge is going down. And I think that’s due more to the phenomenon of people starting a blog and saying a few words on their website and then trying to classify themselves as press.

So we’ve had to just kind of upgrade our press credentialing to make sure that it is people who are professional members of the press who are being accredited. And that’s really fair to professional journalists as well as professional developers, who are all paying a fairly high pass rate to get into GDC, and the professional journalists need to be respected for the work that they do as well.

So our response is more to that side of things, rather than anything else. We have a strong and ongoing relationship with the enthusiast press … these are the folks that have loved us first, and they will love us last.

TE: I want to finish with one question I asked Brian, and I’m asking everyone … what do you think the party to be at is going to be this year at GDC?

JM: Oh, that’s tricky. I would say that the Independent Games Festival and the Game Developers Choice Awards will be the evening event. That is our main event at GDC, it’s the place where, you know, the whole week we’re seeing developers onstage with a spotlight talking about what they’ve learned and the ideas they have, but this is the one night where they’ll be on stage being recognized for their accomplishments. I mean, everywhere else in the industry, it’s Mario or Master Chief or a company name gets recognition. I mean, let’s look at this seriously: this is the 21st century art form, games. And we love these games, and we ought to respect the individuals that make them, and this is the one night where we do this, and it’s so emotional. People say what’s actually in their hearts, because they’re recognized by their peers. It’s a magical night. I love it and I recommend it highly for everyone to attend.

GDC begins today and will run through Friday, February 22nd. The Escapist will be there providing exclusive coverage of panels, events and parties.

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