When an industry is as big as videogames, a whole host of supporting organizations grows up around it. Some of these are regulatory, many are specifically technology oriented, and some, like the International Game Developers Association, exist in support of the individuals who work in the business.
The IGDA exists in a tenuous space, relying on the industry for its bread and butter, but also looking out for its greater well-being. An almost entirely volunteer-driven organization, it exists in service to game developers, but with hard-won knowledge that immediate temptations aren’t always good for the long haul. I spoke with two guys positioned to know that better than anyone: Ernest Adams, independent game designer and founder of the IGDA; and Jason Della Rocca, first Program Director of the organization in 2000, now Executive Director since 2003.
“I got into the game industry in 1989, after seven years as a software engineer in a Silicon Valley company that made CAD tools for the electronics industry,” Adams says. “What I found rather shocked me. The game industry was positively backward in many respects. Proper software engineering techniques, such as technical documentation, revision control and maintainable code were sneered at as ivory-tower wastes of time. Nobody used e-mail or seemed to have heard of the arpanet. (The internet was only just beginning to be wired up.) Many games were still written in assembly language. Furthermore, there was no concept of a professional society or any other formal association. I was amazed by this, as I had been a member of the Association for Computing Machinery for some years.
“You can’t understand the founding of the IGDA without knowing about the CGDC and its role. A couple of years after Electronic Arts was founded, Trip Hawkins invited all EA’s developers … to a two-day event called the Artists’ Symposium. This was a big success and the first time that any developers had come together in a group, pretty much anywhere. I believe they held two of them. However, eventually the developers began comparing notes on their contracts and royalty rates, and those who were getting less than others began to object. Trip says he wasn’t going to fund an event that enabled his developers to band together against him, so there were no more Artists’ Symposiums. … So Chris Crawford (who was one of the EA artists) invited 15 people to get together for a day in his own home. 26 people showed up, and it was so successful that he decided to set up a company and put on a proper conference in a hotel. That was in 1988 and was the founding of the Computer Game Developers’ Conference.
“When I joined the CGDC board in 1991 … all of the other members at the time were developers with several years’ experience who were used to this. I was a sort of Johnny-come-lately, with these rather peculiar ideas. However, none of that really mattered until the Congressional investigations that started up after Mortal Kombat came out. At that point it became clear to me that the game development community needed a voice.”
As the proliferation of videogame legislation has increased in the last five years, this sounded an awful lot like what the industry is facing today. Adams says, in its infancy, the early IGDA couldn’t do much for those first congressional hearings, but broader, further-reaching changes had already begun: Game developers would have an official professional organization.
“In the summer of 1994 I went to the CGDC board and asked them to let me create the CGDA as a department of the conference itself – an association within the business. I promised it wouldn’t cost too much, and their response was, ‘Fine – if you do all the work.’ So I did. I recruited some people from the outside to be a board of directors, but remember at this point it had no formal existence. The first directors were me, Jon Freeman, Kevin Gliner, Dave Walker” – founder of the Computer Entertainment Developers Association, which Dave agreed to merge with the CGDA in its early years – “and Susan Lee-Merrow. Soon thereafter, Anne Westfall replaced Jon Freeman. I used the CGDC’s mailing list to put out a call, and several hundred people signed up. We were off and running. In the spring of 1995, we spun off the CGDA as a fully-incorporated 501 (c) 6 nonprofit member-owned organization.
“My goals for the CGDA were always modeled on what I knew of the Association for Computing Machinery. Its primary function was, and is, to support the careers and interests of developers as individuals (not companies),” Adams says. At the IGDA’s founding, he made it clear that the organization would not be a trade union, because labor issues were not at that time a primary or even secondary threat, and he knew game developers to be highly independent and entrepreneurial. “I wanted to do other kinds of things as well – support for people starting small businesses (insurance, mostly), continuing education and perhaps a journal. … Again, all based on the ACM’s model.”
Wanted: Professional Cat Herder
Though the CGDA was under the auspices of the CGDC and therefore Miller Freeman/CMP (who had purchased the CGDC), it was its own organization and eventually required its own administrator. Previously, Jennifer Pahlka had managed the CGDA as its Executive Director; in 2000, the call went out for a director from the outside of the organization, specifically dedicated to the CGDA, now calling itself the IGDA.
Jason Della Rocca answered. “I’ve got the standard passionate gamer back story, from Pong and the Atari 2600, through the various generations of consoles and PC gaming, all the way to finishing BioShock last week.” But his path to Executive Director of the primary game developer professional organization did not come directly through game development itself, but through another of the support industries – specifically, 3-D graphics technology.
“I was always good with numbers,” he says. “So, I started off majoring in accounting at Concordia University (the big business oriented school in Montreal). But, after a summer internship doing auditing, I realized it was way too boring/lame and switched my major to IT.
“Like all hardcore gamers, I always had the dream of one day working in games. But since there was not much of a game industry in Montreal at the time … I figured doing something internet oriented was the next best thing. So I taught myself HTML, etc. and devoured Wired magazine and eventually parlayed my way into a gig at Silicon Graphics (the Montreal satellite office) doing web and VRML graphics type work. It was fun. And I remember the day we got an N64 (which had an SGI chip powering the graphics), but it still wasn’t games.
“My role at Matrox [in Developer Relations] was my first real foray into the game industry. I was attending all the big events – GDC, E3, etc. – working with developers, providing feedback on developments to DirectX.”
When he was looking for another job, he touched base with some of those developers he worked with at Matrox. “I emailed around to my industry contacts,” he says. “Chris Hecker passed that email on to his girlfriend, Jennifer Pahlka (now they’re married), saying, ‘Hey, Jason knows the industry, maybe he’d be a good fit for the IGDA.’ As it turns out, the IGDA was looking to hire a program director. I spoke to Jennifer and was intrigued by the opportunity and challenge of getting involved in this IGDA thing. The diversity of the work was very appealing as was the idea of having purely altruistic intentions. The gig was in [San Francisco], where the IGDA was based, but I convinced them to let me work remotely from Montreal.”
Tuning the Choir
Since its inception in 1994, the IGDA has grown from an initial membership of approximately 350 to over 12,000. So what is it that Della Rocca does in the service of this now gigantic membership?
“The textbook definition for an Executive Director is that I execute on the policy set by the board. The board governs and directs the [organization]; I make sure things actually get done. Though, the line is blurry as I’m on the board as well (i.e., I govern too), and board members also get involved in volunteering on other aspects of the org (i.e., they ‘do’ stuff too). That said, working with the board is an ongoing challenge. It is a group of super smart and talented and passionate people. And, I don’t have ‘executive’ power like, say, a CEO/president has at a normal corporation. Instead, I have ‘legislative’ power, and have to work hard to influence the decisions of board members.
“My job is also about building institutional memory. In the early years, each new board member would want to re-craft the purpose/mission of the org based on their personal priorities/perceptions. Though, we quickly moved away from that and have done our best to hold to a single vision. The challenge was that we never articulated,” Della Rocca says.
Its initial vision of a unified defense against regulation and censorship still lives on in the IGDA’s anti-censorship committee, but its interests and initiatives have greatly diversified. The organization manages the Game Developers Choice Awards, and its volunteer-run Special Interest Groups span an even wider variety of topics.
To Infinity …
As with any professional organization, there is always work to do, and Della Rocca believes the IGDA’s mandate is clearer now than ever. “Now we need to line up that [vision] and get it all written down. This will help guide my work and the directions the board sets. And it will allow developers at large to better understand what the core purpose of the IGDA actually is [and] what our core values are.
“To this day, I’m amazed [by] how fast we’ve grown. … And I’m amazed at the extent by which developers have gambled on the IGDA – as much as we do, there really is still so much more we could/should be doing.
“The faith that developers have in the IGDA (or more precisely in themselves using the IGDA as a tool) to improve the industry and themselves is truly phenomenal. Hopefully we won’t squander that faith, and we’ll continue to grow and mature and evolve as needed. But, given the nature of our work and the game industry’s rate of change, I simply cannot see the day when we get to kick up our feet and say, ‘OK, now we’re done.'”