GDC Europe -impressions

We left Cologne just when the Gamescom spectacle was getting started. We were there for the Game Developers Conference. We did take a stroll through the fair but were not impressed. It was just a lot of big, fancy and loud booths advertising videogames that are half-broken, outdated and badly designed. Last year’s Independent Games Festival winner Petri Purho made the depressing observation that you could fund development of 20 indy games for the price of one of those booths. Indeed. For the price of one booth at Gamescom, you could revolutionize the entire games industry! But who cares?

While there were not many independent developers presenting at the conference, the few that were there quickly found each other. It’s nice to know that there is a little underground group of people who all resist the big games machine. Together we can look down on the suits with a big grin while they are desperately trying to keep their multi-million Dollar enterprises afloat.

We had a little booth at the GDC, thanks to the efforts of Elfya van Muylem at IBBT, where we were showing The Path (on the iMac, by the way, that also stored all of the production files of our upcoming project Fatale -but nobody saw it). Lots of people came up to us. Players of the game, people who had read about it, students, journalists, game developers, business people. It was fun to talk to them. Made us feel our work really means something to some. So thanks to all of you, in case you’re reading this (leave a comment here! :) ).

As a result, we didn’t see a lot of lectures. But of the few we saw, David Cage’s sermon about the future of videogames probably made the biggest impression. If only because he was almost saying word for word, the kind of things we have been talking about on this blog for years. But in a “for dummies” kind of style, which wasn’t to the liking of all attendees, but still managed to irritate a few sufficiently to make them leave the room.

Basically, Mr Cage was pointing out that the games industry is on a crossroads. Depending on the choices we make now, it will continue to be a successful children’s toy production industry or it could become a mature medium on the level and with the diversity of cinema. His references to cinema were perhaps a bit excessive (personally, I think, we can surpass cinema with a medium that is much more adequate to talk about complex contemporary issues). But in the light of his own work, this is understandable. And his continuous praise of thatgamecompany‘s Flower made it clear that he is broad-minded enough to recognize applications of the theory that are very different of his own.

Speaking of Flower, we also attended Kellee Santiago’s post-mortem presentation of the PSN game, which had drawn quite a decent crowd. She showed several prototypes of the game, made in Processing, Flash, XNA and on the Playstation 3 itself. And she finally explained why Flower changes so drastically half way through -something that had always mystified me.

We had a hell of time hanging out with her in a typical German brewery/restaurant with fellow indies (where the Koelsch beer eternally flows) and on the roof of Microsoft’s fancy new building (witnessing the joint attempts of suits and nerds to combine coolness with opportunism) where we met Steven -Slow Gaming- Poole too. That was nice! :)

The next day, Miss Santiago reappeared in a panel awkwardly called “Designing Women”, also featuring Tracy Fullerton and Sheri Graner Ray. It’s quite sad that women in games (both as players and as creators) continues to be an issue, even if most of the women on the panel do see it in a broader context of lack of diversity, both in development teams as in the games being produced. Which connects the issue quite neatly with David Cage’s plea for greater variety as a requirement for maturity. Ergo: more femininity in games equals more maturity.

It remain a question if anyone in the games industry even listens to these voices. We have heard the same comments and ideas for years now, and if there has been any evolution, it seems to be an evolution further away from diversification, and deeper into the niche of games for 16 year old boys (or grown men pretending to be). The few exceptions that exist (Wii & DS, independent games, casual games, iPhone games) always clearly manifest themselves as different, as a break with the industry to some extent, as an alternative, while the “mainstream” continues to dig a deeper and deeper hole. Perhaps GDC-founder Chris Crawford will finally be proven right. He has always maintained that the realisation of the potential of the interactive medium will happen outside of the games industry.

The last session we attended was Peter Molyneux’s presentation about choice in (Lionhead’s) games. The thing that bothered me about his otherwise amusing presentation, was that he focussed so much on the formal aspects of game design. Which was confirmed by him calling choice a mechanic. He doesn’t seem to be interested in the meaning and content of the particular choices presented in his games, but only in their emotional effect. Seeing choice as a mechanic does nothing to change one of the major flaws of videogames (and one of the major elements that reduces the target audience to teenage boys): the fact that games are power fantasies where apparently insecure humans can get the illusion of control. I can’t help but find that a sad situation.

Which reminds me of the pathetic display that is grown-ups pretending to play music to the antique tunes of the Beatles on plastic toy guitars. Instead of learning an actual instrument and experiencing the pure joy of interpretation, we can now happily be reduced to sacks of skin and bones that can pretend to be a star with no need to learn any useful skill whatsoever.

This is what the games industry seems to have become: a pacifier for the powerless. No inspiration is required, no imagination is desired. You don’t need to be able to do anything, be anyone. Just connect to the machine and it will make you feel like you are a hero, in control of an empire, on top of the world. You and the legions of pathetic nerds, too lazy or timid to actually do something with their lives, content to just sit there and pretend it all away, proud of the billions upon billions that the industry spends on keeping them sedated.

19 thoughts on “GDC Europe -impressions”

  1. Personally, I think you’re worrying too much about the future of an entire artistic medium being controlled by what the factories and assembly lines output. Has any artistic medium fallen to that fate before?

  2. I’m not just worrying about a medium. I’m worrying about the entire world and everything in it. Bad things have happened in the world before, for sure. And they are happening right now. I’m not saying the interactive medium can solve all problems. But I am convinced it offers some potential to help.

    With you, I do not want to believe that this medium can be destroyed by the consumerist/capitalist machine. But to answer your question: yes, it happened very recently. To the world wide web. I guess what happened to has left scars on my soul.

    But I’m an optimist. It’s still quite possible to develop new channels, new products next to this industry, even partially using this industry. I think we should all focus more on that, and ignore the commercial production.

  3. Reading of Peter Molyneux, I actually visibly cringed and growled with revulsion. I used to think of him as an idol of the industry’s creativity and imagination – many, many years ago – but after so many broken promises, perverted ideals and bland games it’s become clear he is a plain and, yes, mechanistic developer.

    I would like to suggest that femininity is less a direct source of maturity in games and more a contributing factor. And of course everyone – teenagers, adults, men, women – is capable of producing both standard ‘populist’ fair and intelligent, novel independent-style games. People make the games they enjoy and games people will buy and I don’t believe you can blame them for that.

    People may play games to make them feel powerful and in-control and this, actually, isn’t a bad thing. It’s a sad reality that, no matter how much one works, they may never attain control of their lives or be satisfied with every element of their existence. These games allow people to experience a semblance of what it is like to obtain mastery over different areas of life – you may have spent decades becoming a brilliant painter but still want to pretend to be a rock star every now and then.

    Games also allow us to experience the impossible. Would you suggest that those who play action-packed first-person shooters would really prefer to sign up with a military force and go to war instead? Would you suggest I should (or could ever be capable of) raising an army and crushing entire continents under foot instead of playing a strategy game?

    “… Too lazy or timid to actually do something with their lives, content to just sit there and pretend it all away.” Does that describe you, Michaël? I don’t think it accurately describes even a tiny fraction of the people that are likely to read this blog post. It’s not fair to your fans to suggest that the entire games-playing population are so mindless.

  4. I wasn’t really talking about the entire “games-playing population”. It was actually more a criticism aimed at designers: that their games seem to be designed to stimulate such passive behaviour. I can’t fairly blame gamers for playing the games that are available. I just hope that in the future more designers will take up their responsibility and offer games that are not so simple and easy and instantly gratifying/pacifying. Rather than giving us the illusion of control, they could teach us how to accept the fact that control is an illusion and help us explore other aspects of life. I want a game that makes me feel good about not being a hero.

  5. Forgive me if I offend you – trying my best to be civil here:

    “Which reminds me of the pathetic display that is grown-ups pretending to play music to the antique tunes of the Beatles on plastic toy guitars. Instead of learning an actual instrument and experiencing the pure joy of interpretation, we can now happily be reduced to sacks of skin and bones that can pretend to be a star with no need to learn any useful skill whatsoever.”

    Is this intentional satire, or are you serious? I honestly can’t tell.

  6. While I agree that there should be more variety/maturity, I think the last paragraph was a bit harsh. I’m not going to go into the whole “wanting power from videogames is sad” thing again, I can see where you’re coming from, but I think that using phrases like “pathetic nerds” and “too lazy or timid to actually do something with their lives” (I know those two were together, but they’re seperate in my mind) takes it from a critique of the medium to a personal attack on its users.

    While there’s certainly some truth in the statements, I think it’s a bit of an exageration and I think that “proud of the billions upon billions that the industry spends on keeping them sedated” is completely inaccurate in the majority of cases. Especially as the majority of people who follow your blog aren’t the people who don’t like games, these have never even heard of you, but generally people who either used to play games and have since become disillusioned with the industry, or just gamers looking for something different (there’s probably quite a bit of overlap).
    This means that your main audience is, or used to be, a sub-set of the group you’re insulting. I know you may be exaggerating (or not) to prove your point, but it seems a bit unnecessary when, I would imagine, the majority who read this blog agree with your ideas to some extent.

    Though I still don’t think that playing video games to experience power is the world’s greatest evil either =)

  7. ….And about Rock Band, it may not be as sophisticated as playing a real instrument, but it’s great for just picking up and playing when you need a break from intellectuallity, as we all do sometimes.

    I’ve played Guitar Hero and I play real guitar. They’re both good, just in different ways

  8. Didn’t you say before that the whole “indie vs. industry” antagonism is nonexistent, and the games independent developers make suffer from the same flaws as the big guys’ work?
    Something changed?

  9. Hm… while many of the indie games do indeed seem very similar as such, the attitudes with which they are made differ a lot. Indie developers seem to be a lot more sincere about their work. They really believe in what they are doing and their main motivation is creation. I respect that tremendously.

    While I may not particularly like indie games much more than commercial games, I do tend to feel a lot more comfortable in the company of indie developers. I guess the independence as such makes all the difference. I have a lot of respect for people who do what they believe in.

  10. Similar to the cinema industry, the games industry will have two sides – the film festival / indie side, which is more of an art. And the other side – the big production blockbusters, that exist more to sell a lunchbox than to actually make a good film. I would like to note that in the film there exists a median zone, I believe one can exist in Interactive Entertainment as well.

  11. Good point. I also believe that cinema can only retain its central place in culture thanks to the independent productions because they legitimize the medium as an art form. Without art films, cinema would not have become the phenomenon it is today. All the more reason to stimulate the independent scene in games (which happens far too little).

  12. QXD-me said:

    ….And about Rock Band, it may not be as sophisticated as playing a real instrument, but it’s great for just picking up and playing when you need a break from intellectuallity, as we all do sometimes.

    I just wish the games industry put as much effort (and money) into products that stimulate our intellect as it does into products that require us to turn it off. At this point, for me as well, the only reason to play games has become to turn off my brain and have some stupid fun/relaxation. As you say, we all need that, once in a while. But only once in a while! Not all the time. As it is now, we read a book or watch a movie if we want to be stimulated and inspired. And we play a game if we want to turn ourselves off and zone out on zero brain activity. I find that a waste of a perfectly fine medium. There’s no reason why games couldn’t offer stimulating and inspiring entertainment as well.

  13. Maybe that’s why you’re bad at most games, Michaël? Because you think that they require zero brain activity?
    Say what you want about Guitar Hero, but how else would you translate the icons on the screen into button presses but by using your brain? Of course, hardcore players won’t even look at the screen – because the sequence is already there, in the head. Not the ass, not the fingers, not the spinal cord.
    I think I know what you want to say, but the terminology you use is confusing.

  14. Hello
    A little offtopic because i don’t know where to ask.I need a support email or someone to ask about some crashing bug in The Path steam version.I posted in the forums and noone answered to my post for sometime.I can’t continue the game :(

  15. You could be right, Ilia. Obviously we need to use part of our brain to play games. But it’s a part that can almost function autonomously. Almost all videogames are pattern-based puzzles and human brains can solve these things in their sleep. At least that’s how it feels. Games hardly ever require the creative parts of the brain at all.

    I didn’t mean to say that playing games requires me to turn off my brain. But enjoying them does! Maybe that’s why I suck at games: I need to turn my brain off to enjoy them, but I would need to turn it on to solve a puzzle and then when it is on, I realize how I don’t enjoy it and I turn it off again. And endless cycle of failure and self-protection. 😉

  16. Hello michael… thx for the response.You guys were at GDC..Now i made the connection.I really think it was worth the trip and someone was right.Like in space tourism not BIG milionaire companies made the “best” ship.”garrage-guys” made the jump.No birocracy, no goverment, no dozens of offices to sign papers and look over them..No publisher’s like stupid heads(me pointing at EA in gaming industry)..
    About the email..Is it like this: ?

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