Friday, April 3, 2009

Spreading the Spirit of GDC

It is late March in San Francisco. The fog has has relinquished its near-absolute grip on the city, perhaps by chance, but perhaps out of pity. Regardless of the reason, the sun has stepped in to make sure city puts its best foot forward as a group of visitors arrive. It has been a rough twelve months for this group. They have felt the sting of a vicious economic downturn, and struggle to define themselves, even though their craft is in its infancy. Yet, this week, all the woes seem a bit distant, all the problems a bit smaller, and some of the grievances lose their impact. This is Game Developers Conference, and they are video game journalists.

To be sure, game developers are experiencing tough times as well: the bleak economy, rampant piracy, soaring development costs, and securing a good publisher make every release a minor miracle. However, what strikes me most about GDC is the mood it inspires in the game journalism establishment.

Game writing as we have known it is struggling as the meaning and form of its existence changes. With the fall of print magazines and the struggle to maintain solvent web operations, the business side of journalism is grim. On the philosophical side, there are a plethora of erudite folks like Leigh Alexander and N'Gai Croal (the latter now a former games journalist) who are actively searching for a new way to write about games. Despite their efforts, one gets the impression that most days we "serious," "brainy," and "critical" game writers are shouting into the wind.

For professional games writers, it seems the gloomiest aspect of their work is dealing with PR. I do not wish to single out people who work in public relations as bad people. The inane spouting of corporate gibberish and the relentless game of "cover your own ass" is more a demonstration of the Arendt's "banality of evil" than it is of any particular character flaw. Anyone who has ever worked in a large organization should both realize and accept this (as they have most certainly been participants). Of course, the reasons and means by which the bull-shit is justified are little comfort for those charged with dealing with the ends.

"Press release quotes are the emptiest, most meaningless examples of human communication," laments Chris Remo. I agree, and am saddened that they account for the lion's share of what journalists wade through on a daily basis.

GDC provides happiness via contrast. For one week, news from the gaming world comes from people who make the create the games, rather than "the brand." Instead of hearing a Sony spokesperson spout a cliche line about how happy they are to work with Keita Takahashi, reporters tell stories about his philosophical approach to games. We listen to the genre's visionaries have real discussions about the direction of games, openly debating their differing views without being spirited away by a handler sent to make sure they tow the party line. GDC provides the journalist and the reader with a novel situation: a week when "gaming news" is not driven solely by new title releases and sales numbers. Even the people who make little to negative profit have a moment in the spotlight.

It is refreshing to see folks that can hardly contain how happy they are to be doing what they do. Be it spontaneous marriage proposals or enjoying the company of fellow writers, the week fosters a sense of community and warmth rarely seen throughout the year.

So why can't things be like this the other fifty one weeks a year? Is the PR machine truly necessary for quality games? Are journalists and critics so dangerous that companies need to wall off eccentric creators and mete out the generic company tag-lines? Do players really care more about sales numbers than design philosophies?

Of course, there may be something to that old adage "familiarity breeds contempt." Perhaps a world where developers and journalists have direct communication is world in which the two groups grow tired of each other. Could it be that the marketing tactics and PR lines are necessary to get us hyped about games we should not really be excited about? Would the conference itself be special, or even necessary, if its spirit was the norm, rather than the exception?

I prefer not to believe this. The excitement, enthusiasm, and downright happiness flowing out of the convention suggests to me we need to evaluate the industry's very structure. Without enormous hype machines, there may not be as much money for huge budget games, endless preview features, and ten-second sound bites. If it means more thoughtful discussions with developers, more time for reflection in between releases, the space for smaller, less profit driven developers to release games, and the development of a more inspired culture around video game writing, I argue the sacrifice is worth it.

Let's try to bring hang on to a little of the GDC spirit for the rest of the year.


  1. I'd argue that such a wall is harmful to games sales in the long run. The average person doesn't know brands. They don't know companies. They do know Call of Duty or Rock Band. They don't know the corporate history behind those two franchises. They see the title and go for that. I can't see having developers speak for themselves as being harmful in anyway. The PR departments are scared that the developers might be too honest about a project and might just say what they're working on sucks. Though I can't really imagine any developer saying that in reference to any AAA title. To me having the designers talk about their own games can do nothing but help them. Like the movie industry, do you think most people know who directed this movie or that movie. No, but for the people that do, know the creators behind the film gets them wanting to see the movie. Personally I don't care what it is, I will see whatever Scorseese puts out next, because I know his work. I feel that it can be the same for games.

  2. GameCritique,

    Have you read the Keita Takahashi talk from GDC? He had some very funny and interesting things to say about game design, much of which would have probably been scrubbed by PR.

    He mused that perhaps people spend too much time playing games, and joked about being happy that not too many people are playing Noby Noby Boy. While this just makes the game more interesting to me, I can just imagine some Sony guy sweating off stage. :-)