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What Games Are: My Three GDC Themes

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The Game Developer’s Conference was, as expected, a whirlwind. Folks from all across the games industry and associated media came together, ate, drank, talked, queued, played, partied and even danced with wild abandon, and everyone’s takeaways from the event were different.

GDC is so big that nobody is able to objectively summarize what it is, but the separation between the talk and the business sides is palpable. If you mostly hung around in Moscone West and North then your GDC was probably all about education and big ideas. If you stayed more in the Expo, Moscone South or around the W hotel, it was more likely a sea of business cards. Depending on where you spent your time, there were whole parts of GDC you’d never see, news that you heard indirectly, rumors and issues which emerged on one side that the other either misunderstood or was completely unaware of.

This year I found myself straddling the divide, with many meetings and talks filling my calendar to bursting. I saw some things, learned some stuff and met some people, and some themes emerged for me. No doubt others who attended had a completely different experience.

My first theme was the increasing voice of women in games. The role, perception and treatment of women in the industry has been a long-standing issue. The most visible sign of this is the use of booth babes at trade shows to promote games, but it goes way beyond that. Female game makers have long felt that they have to struggle twice as hard to be taken seriously. They also feel woefully underrepresented by the industry’s output – even though women make up the majority market for casual and social games, for example, representations of women are often anodyne at best.

As a result of the #1reasonwhy meme of last year (which saw many female game makers express their frustrations on Twitter) this issue of women in games was the subject of the #1reasontobe talk. It also featured heavily in the “microtalks” and “rants” sessions, with Leigh Alexander talking about the tone-deaf practises of game marketing and Anna Anthropy advocating that male conference panelists should refuse to participate on a panel that doesn’t feature at least one woman. (As someone who participated on an all-male panel this year, this talk in particular has made me think hard about the unconscious culture in which I participate.)

Yet these noble expressions were undermined by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) party, which featured skimpily dressed female dancers. A catastrophic misjudgment of sentiment, the party – sponsored by Yetizen – led to many outbursts on Twitter and the subsequent resignations in protest of many high-profile IGDA members. Most notable was Brenda Romero, who only hours previously had been the leading light of the #1reason talk. It seems that the issue of women-in-games has gained much (rightful) traction on the Moscone West side of the conference. However it has yet to permeate through to the Expo side, the people who run marketing departments and PR events. Calls such as Anthropy’s are a start, but there is still a great deal to do to get those who aren’t really aware of the issue to care about it.

My second theme was microconsoles. There were two parties, one for OUYA and another for GameStick, where unveilings and announcements were made. Perhaps most impressively, Julie Uhrman announced that OUYA had shipped in March as the original Kickstarter had promised, that a much larger network of retail partnerships have been formed than most industry insiders expect, and that there are around 100 games available at launch (including a mix of vintage titles like Canabalt along with brand-new games). The GameStick event was also apparently very interesting (I wasn’t there) and it too is set to ship very soon (June, by all accounts). And there are other microconsoles in the pipeline.

However the resistance from the main industry to an app-style console that costs little and runs free, free-to-play and cheap games is very high. Many really don’t see what the fuss is about, comparing the microconsole to the console in a like-for-like comparison. Many question who the devices are for exactly, and what they are supposed to achieve. Personally I think this resistance comes from the same mindset that led many game developers to misunderstand the importance of social games, netbooks, tablets and a whole host of similar left-field market movements. It will probably take a year for a Supercell, Zynga or Rovio to emerge on microconsoles for game developers to suddenly realise that they’ve missed the boat.

The more relevant question is whether any of the existing microconsole contenders will be the ones to ultimately win. A rumour surfaced, for example, that Apple is almost ready to release a dedicated iOS game controller – which led some tweeters to tell me that this means microconsoles are already dead when it actually validates the idea. There is also the haunting feeling that Samsung and some of the other big Android handset makers are eyeing the space. Could Amazon get in on it? It’s entirely possible.

My final theme was the idea that real-money gaming is becoming respectable. This is a time when many publishers are facing up to the hard reality of making money in online gaming (and many are still advancing deals that will likely lead to game-a-day or vertical operations down the road), while retail games are capable of selling 3.4 million copies and still not meeting expectations. Real-money wagering, betting and the like were prevalent in back-channel talk at the conference. There is the expectation that at some point the United States will legalize real-money gaming in the form of small wagering, sports betting and similar, and various companies are poised to provide solutions when it does.

What surprises me is how less stygmatized that idea has become. There was a time, perhaps five years ago, when the games industry considered itself entirely separate from real money, but not quite so much any more. Perhaps as a result of free-to-play gaming starting to go indie (such as through games from Nimblebit and Spry Fox, both of whom talked about their experiences), sensitivity to the very idea of real-money seemed a little more confined to sensitivity about predatory practises. Provided the model is well-managed and controlled, some game makers seem quietly open to the idea. Personally I’m not sure how I feel about that yet, but the sentiment on the Expo side was palpable.

I wonder whether the ethics, morality and practise of real-money gaming will be next year’s hot button issue in Moscone West.

(PS: if there’s one GDC game that I recommend you look at Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine.)