Smile and Nod: What I learned at GDC


It’s always entertaining to spend a week with the entire game development community. For one thing, those guys like to party. I mean really, really like to party. And for some reason, the hardiest partiers are from places where water spends most of its time in frozen form.

Early reports from the Nordic Game Program’s official party suggest it was the place to be Wednesday night, if for no other reason than they hired 90s rock sensation Skid Row to play the event. (“Eighteen and Life”? You got it.) Icelandic MMO developer CCP, as usual, outdid everyone, hiring dominatrixes and midgets to abuse the crowd, who’d lined up around the block for the privilege. One of our team members had the welts to prove it. He displayed them while smiling. Perhaps there’s something he’s not telling us.

And speaking of blocks, Sony pulled the same trick for their Block Party, which, it turns out, was more of a party out in the street, around the block, than inside the Mezzanine. I’m not sure what strange portent of the apocalypse this is that people send out “exclusive” invitations to parties and then expect you to wait in line for hours just to get in. Where I grew up, we considered that rude. I declined to wait and had burgers with Yahtzee and crew at the diner near the Moscone.

As for what I learned personally at GDC (aside from the fact the conference’s Executive Director, Jamil Moledina, sounds like the guys you call on the phone to find out when movies are playing), the most important thing was that everyone seems to think everyone can make games. At almost every conference I’ve been to in the last two years, there’s been a buzzword. This year at GDC, that buzzword was “democratizing.”

“I can’t help but be nostalgic for the days when all you needed [to make a game] was your father’s computer and a modem,” said Microsoft’s new Peter Moore (Corporate VP of Everything Related to Xbox), John Schappert, introducing the upgrades to XNA, the cross-platform (Windows, Xbox, Zune) development tools introduced a few years ago. XNA, in the spirit of democratization, now allows creators to make games and upload them to the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Granted, as with all democracies, it’s a bit more complicated than simply making games and getting them out to people. Just like with America’s Electoral College, the XNA developer community will exist as a buffer between the people and their right to vote (in this case, with their wallets). Members of the XNA developer community have been able to upload and share games with each other for some time. Starting this year, these members will be able to select, through a peer review process, which games make it to the larger Xbox Live community.

In theory, this should keep the channel from filling up with crap, and serve as a gateway to only the best new games. In practice it could mean only those with the right amount of influence ever get the nod. Again, like the American electoral system. Only time will tell if the developer community can handle that much power.

But Microsoft wasn’t alone in their call for democratization. Rod Humble, head of the studio at EA responsible for The Sims, thinks everyone should be a game developer. And he’s put his money (EA’s anyway) where his mouth is. Humble was at GDC to announce The Sims Carnival, a website where practically anyone can make a game.

“Game developers have shared values,” he said, pointing out the pasty, white faces of the gathered developers, and gently mocking them for all being middle-class suburbanites. He then brought up a few pictures of working class folks, the type you’d never see at GDC, asking what games would be like if “normal” people made them. But unlike other panelists, he wasn’t just idly musing. “It might become something dangerous.”

The Sims Carnival is a browser-based game studio and indie game community rolled into one. A month before coming to GDC, Humble and his team distributed the tools to 100 people, in a sort of closed beta test. Those 100 people, in one month, made 500 games. Granted, some of those were simple, jabs at Space Invaders, for example, with pictures of political candidates pasted over the invaders from space, but other belied their simplicity with an exquisite eye for design, rivaling many of the so-called “professional” designs.

According to Humble, who’s something of an intellectual on the subject of games, The Sims Carnival, will “make the art form a little larger, a little broader.” At the very least it will make the world a little more interesting. Never a bad thing.

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And speaking of indie developers, they, too, were out in full force at GDC. First at the Independent Game Festival itself and the accompanying awards ceremony, then at Thursday’s Experimental Game Sessions (which, one attendee caustically pointed out, used to be called the Experimental Game Workshop). Jonathan Blow, the erstwhile MC of the Sessions, pointed at the free games on display, saying they’d given him “more pleasure than a lot of $60 games.” He then amended his statement to suggest one could do away with $60 games entirely.

And then there’s Portal. A lot of people have made a lot of noise about Portal starting life as the student project of a couple of young women called Narbacular Drop. Many of these glasses-pushed-up comic collector types were at Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw’s post mortem on Friday. One such attendee questioned the team’s decision to change the color of the portals between the indie and retail versions of the game. But most people seem genuinely pleased a game started by two college students and finished by a team of fewer than 10 was more inherently satisfying than the rest of the big-budget titles accompanying it on The Orange Box disk, and many other games released this year. Especially Gabe Newell, who can pat himself on the back for the foresight to hire those young ladies.

But what does all of this mean for the industry in general, and is the democratization of development really a good thing? One has to wonder what the audience of hundreds of thousands of folks who make their bones contributing to the old guard publishing system think about the idea their entire operating procedure may be obsolete. If 10 people can make an award-winning game, bringing home millions, why, exactly, do we need teams of 100 people or more? The people paying the bills have to be asking themselves the same question.

Considering Microsoft, and everyone else, have been asking themselves how they can continue to make games when development costs are exceeding hundreds of millions of dollars, and retail prices above $60 equal market death, cutting payroll from 300 to 10 sounds like an awfully sweet proposition. Especially when the lion’s share of the industry’s $19 billion in sales rests on the shoulders of a handful of giants. Halo 3, we’re looking at you.

Now that videogames have trounced the music industry in terms of dollars spent, it’s time for them to take another page out of that industry’s book. I’m talking now about talent scouting. While some legendary acts were assembled from remnants of bands already in the spotlight (Led Zeppelin anyone), a great many are “discovered” in the bars and amateur performance venues that dot the great music cities of this nation. But when it takes hundreds of millions of dollars and upwards of 100 people to make a videogame, how do you scout for talent? By putting the tools for development in as many hands as possible.

2007 can rightly be considered the year of the big-budget blockbuster game, with Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Half Life 2: Episode 2, BioShock, Ratchet & Clank, Uncharted and a great many more taking home awards and glorious cash prizes in the form of landslide retail receipts. But in the years to come, don’t be surprised if those big-budget extravaganzas start sharing the stage with lesser acts.

Will 2008 be “The Year of the Indie?” Perhaps not, but it’s coming. And probably sooner than you think.

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