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GDC 2010 Pt. 3 - and the Rest

One more GDC post, a quick roundup of the remaining talks which I found significant and some other general folderol.

Writer’s Roundtable

Every year I attend GDC, I go to the Writer’s Roundtable at least one of the days. Every year I walk away disappointed. I think this year I realized why — it’s because it’s the Writer’s Roundtable, rather than the Writing Roundtable. I’d love to have a greater focus on the craft, but it seems like just a lot of whinging about the plight of writers in the games industry. Questions like “how do you unify tone across seven writers” are just met with blank stares when most people are struggling to get their studios to hire one full-time writer.

<shrug> I’d love this session to be more relevant, but I don’t know how to accomplish that. Getting people to listen to each other and stay more on topic would be a start.

(Also: writers complain that they’re not respected in every creative industry. Not unique to game writers. Try talking to screenwriters sometime about “possessive credits.”)


The Game Design Challenge this year was an odd one for me, the first time I’ve felt truly at odds with the prevailing opinion of the crowd. While I appreciated how he was able to infuse the scenario with humor, Jenova Chen’s Facebook game built around real people’s deaths really struck me as distasteful and borderline offensive. Assigning numeric value to human life (even as part of a game to help memorialize those lives) is just something I find inherently slimy, and I grew increasingly uncomfortable as he went on.

I thought Kim Swift, on the other hand, presented a thoughtful, reasoned game that had the potential to actually do some good. A prescription game to help people come to terms with their impending death and put positive energy into the world is the kind of thing we could use more of. All games teach, whether we want them to or not, and the lessons she proposed are some of the most important we can learn as humans. Should make us all think about what lessons our own games are teaching. I had some design quibbles, but she was tackling an incredibly hard subject as a solo designer, so I didn’t mind it.

The crowd, however, seemed to have the exact opposite reaction to the one I did — humor wins the day, as usual. That’s OK. Kim Swift, I salute you, and you win the official Shane Liesegang Game Design Challenge Award.

Overhead SMASH

My old creative director from EALA, Randy Smith, gave a talk about how he founded and runs Tiger Style. It could essentially be called “how to run a studio without becoming a business douchebag.” I’m not looking to start my own studio (at least not in the foreseeable future), but it seemed like there were lots of indie aspirationals in the audience who were inspired. As always, Randy gave an engaging, understandable, practical talk — the kind of nuts-and-bolts affair that I think GDC should do more often.

Building Open Worlds

Nate Fox, from Sucker Punch (a studio on which I have an eternal crush), gave a superlative talk on how they built their open world city for inFAMOUS. It was just chock-full of little pragmatic nuggets of useful techniques. Sightlines, weenies (the Disney kind, not the hot dogs or the dirty kind), hex-grids, border alignment, etc. Made some good points about cutting corners on the in-between stuff so they can spend more time on “evil lairs,” or the parts that the players remember and care about more. Probably the most useful session I attended this year.

(My notes say “slides available on the internet,” but I can’t seem to find them now, which makes me sad.)


Brenda Brathwaite’s talk has been well covered elsewhere so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say, I was shocked by how emotionally affected I was — I think due to Brenda’s honesty in portraying and discussing her own emotional journey while creating it.

She repeated the assertion that “games don’t have to be fun” that I’ve heard before, citing Schindler’s List as an example from another medium. I agree with the assertion, and that’s obviously a great movie, but I also wonder how that fits in with the different place games occupy in our culture. Everyone in our society watches movies. Everyone. To be considered a literate adult citizen, you are simply expected to have seen movies like Schindler’s List. If you are involved in filmmaking, you would be actively shunned for not having seen it.

Games don’t occupy that same station — even among game developers, I don’t think there are games you are expected to have played. (Sure, we all assume you know Tetris, Civilization, Super Mario Bros., etc., but they’re more as a foundation to the medium than as “something you simply must experience.” [I would say Heavy Rain comes close to that category, but obviously it falls short of Schindler’s List in execution. {No shame in that.}])

I wonder if we can do non-fun games without having that sense of compulsory consumption. Or rather, if they would gain as wide consumption as non-fun works do in other media.

(Definitely don’t think we should stop trying to make non-fun, serious, affecting work — just wondering if it’s futile to try and get them to a wider audience. To her credit, Brenda Brathwaite is unconcerned with audience size for these particular games, and so my bringing this up is a bit of an unfair tangent.)

In any event, her talk is the kind that makes you look at your own work and wonder if you could elevate it to a more substantial level.

Gender Breakdown

One final observation. We hear constantly about the gender breakdown in the industry, how more women developers would be good for the industry. I agree with this wholeheartedly; more perspectives will help up make better games. The boys’ club is a self-reinforcing environment, and breaking down those walls will help us create more relevant art.

I noticed that there was a pretty high number of female conference associates at GDC, though. CAs, to my understanding, are predominantly aspiring developers, though there are some full-timers among them as well. On the other hand, the non-yellow shirts at the conference were the expected ratio of men to women (about 20:1) for a games conference.

This is clearly not scientific data in the slightest, but it would seem to indicate that there are a healthy number of women who would like to work in the industry, but they don’t seem to make it in. Why is there such a disparity of gender ratio between aspiring game developers and actual game developers? I’m not sure we can use the “girls don’t want in to our industry” excuse anymore (and it was always pretty weak). Now we need to figure out why that next step is missing.

There are lots of potentially confounding variables here: CA selection could be weighted towards women; professional women may be less likely to attend GDC than their male counterparts; etc. In any case, it makes you wonder.

I think this is one of the biggest problems facing our industry. I often wonder if, 20 years from now, games are like movies (everyone participates) or like comic books (small but devoted fanbase). If we stay predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly immature, the answer is obvious.


Once more, I’ve got to clarify something from my first GDC post. I’ve updated the original article, but wanted to apologize for not giving credit for the initial idea of post-rant group confession to Darren Torpey. We had a good discussion at GDC that was the impetus for that post, and I was remiss to have not given him a shout-out.

9 archived comments Why no more comments?
  1. Nathan Piazza wrote:

    Great to hear your thoughts, Shane. A couple of responses.

    “writers complain that they’re not respected in every creative industry”

    The focus needs to shift away from the fact of complaining and towards the structural and cultural factors that make the situation of game writers much more demoralizing in the game industry than others. I don’t know if you intended it, but this comment sounded like excuse-making and the implication of an equivalency between the difficulties writers have in the game industry and other media. If such an equivalency was intended, we should be aware that that’s misleading. Especially when you note in the same post that most game companies are struggling to hire “one” writer, it hardly seems like such a situation is comparable to what goes on in film and television. We should focus on the particular challenges writers in the game industry face, because they ARE different, both in quality and degree. The first principle of such a recognition must be that writing is fare MORE marginalized and far LESS understood and respected than in almost any other medium. This should be an unmitigated source of SHAME for the game industry, one that shouldn’t be lessened by any false happy talk or false equivalencies. Because only when everyone in the industry, from financiers to project leads share that sense of shame, will anything change.

    This relates to your other point about “must see” movies, or movies as cultural literacy. Film didn’t reach this point by accident, because people suddenly decided to think of them as culturally important. Film has reached this point because thousands of working artists decided, against their financial, psychological, and sometimes even physical self-interest, put the art of filmmaking and screenwriting FIRST, above all other concerns. Until there are such similar massive acts of heroism and selflessness in the game industry, driven by the integrity and self-respect of game designers who believe in an ethic of game design, no one in the game industry, at any level, in any position, has any right to either complain about the relative low cultural status of games.

    What’s more, I think your logic inverts things. Game designers can’t WAIT until games are respected as culturally important to take risks in making games that aren’t FUN. It is ONLY the taking of those risks that have a chance of ever elevating the cultural importance of games.

    The risks come first. Then the respect.

    Instead what we get from today’s game industry is a constant and stultifying effort to manage and minimze risk, combined with complaining about people’s relative lack of respect for games as some kind of “prejudice” or unfair snobbery.

    That’s just not the way it works. If the game industry has the self-respect to make culturally important games, then the public consciousness WILL change. The question is, then, not “When will games be respected?” The question is, when will the game industry begin to care enough and become mature enough to empower those artists who have the will and creative vision to make games WORTHY of respect.

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:08PM
  2. sjml wrote:

    I’m not quite sure how to respond to this — I think I specifically said that games’ current stature is not an excuse and shouldn’t be a reason not to try hard things. I was just pointing out that the someone overly simple assertion “other media get to have serious works that aren’t pigeonholed” comes from real market forces.

    In other words, I agree with you, but perhaps not as forcefully. :-)

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:22PM
  3. Nathan Hoobler wrote:

    Games aren’t art because they aren’t created by artists! Game makers aren’t artists because their games aren’t culturally relevant!

    Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:27PM
  4. Nathan Piazza wrote:

    If you think that words like “art” and “artists” are simply semantics and have no meaning, or that they are provisionally defined and entirely subjective, then you simply don’t know anything about art or the history of art, Hoob.

    I’m so tired of game developers whining about the judgments made of their work without taking up any inquiry into what the history of art is or has meant to artists, critics, and cultures.

    It’s called simple ignorance. Talk about ad nauseam.

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:48PM
  5. sjml wrote:

    Hey guys — remember the #1 rule of commenting on Shane’s blog. It’s called the Bill & Ted Rule.

    Be excellent to each other!

    A really important and fascinating topic, but let’s remember that one. :-)

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 6:06PM
  6. Nathan Piazza wrote:

    “I was just pointing out that the someone overly simple assertion ‘other media get to have serious works that aren’t pigeonholed’ comes from real market forces.”

    But I was trying to point out that what appears to be an effect of contemporary market forces is the outcome of a historical tradition that constantly fought for craft and cultural values against the market.

    That history is important.

    The market is not an inevitability. We can allow it or not allow it to determine everything that games can be.

    But very few game designers – indie or industry – seem to have a belief in or a desire to make games directly outside the market, or to create or change markets.

    Other media have also been affected by this larger trend, but to a lesser extent than the game industry.

    It used to be kids formed a band because they were pissed off and wanted to emulate their heroes. Then one day they became aware of the possibility of making money.

    Now kids have MySpace pages for their band before they even write one song. They’re promoting themselves before they’ve even played a show.

    However, video games really got off the ground when Nolan Bushnell decided he could make a lot of money off of Ralph Baer and Steve Graetz’s games. Almost from the very beginning, then, they have been all about the market.

    Now, there were a few other things going on in the early-to-mid-70s. Role-players playing “D&D” before they’d even bought one of TSR’s little white books. Hackers putting up “Dungeon” games almost before they’d even played D&D. Wargamers have always had a tiny niche based on love and not dollars.

    In germany, Hasbro and Park Bros. hadn’t cornered the market on board games and colonized our understanding of what board games could be, so a thriving community and game design ethic was born there that could arguably never have emerged in America.

    But what little independent spirit the game industry ever had has been so totally cannibalized by market forces at this point, that it remains to be seen whether an ethic of game design can ever emerge that isn’t always taking dollars and cents into account.

    So yes, I guess we agree about market forces, but do we agree that finding a way to find and embrace values that have nothing to do with markets is the only way for video games to grow?

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 6:10PM
  7. sjml wrote:

    Like I said, this is a really interesting topic, but likely not the best forum for discussion of it. I have some disagreements with your historical interpretation and don’t think the modern situation is quite as bad as you paint it, but then I tend to be an optimist. <shrug>

    Intelligent people can disagree on such matters. Perhaps we should just leave it at that. :-)

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 6:16PM
  8. Nathan Piazza wrote:

    Don’t worry, Shane. Hoob and I have insulted each other before, and probably will again. :-)

    And I appreciate your desire to keep things civil.

    But I’m totally serious when I say that one thing that has made movies great is that people have been willing to risk job security and a little impolitness for the sake of the form. In fact, as I already mentioned, in many cases they’ve been willing to risk a lot more than that.

    Intelligent people can and will disagree about a lot of things, but intelligent people who aren’t willing to fight for what they believe in are sheep like any other.

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 6:40PM
  9. Conner! wrote:

    If someone asked me to write in a tone similar to 6 other writers (all of whom I’d assume are perfectly talented and all that) I think what I’d want to work from is a starter text, so I know what tone to establish and the sorts of language I’d be using.

    If you’re ever interested in talking about writing, I am totally game. It’s my job!

    Posted March 21, 2010 at 9:00PM