What Games Are: ‘Twas The Night Before GDC

gdc13_logo1Editor’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.

According to the Internet, Theodore Zeldin said this:

Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.

And that sounds like a great place to start talking about the Game Developers Conference, which is on all next week in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Although at first it seems like just another of many events on the gaming calendar, GDC is the one that people travel from halfway around the world to attend. The folks who can’t afford it or can’t convince their companies to send them look on wistfully. To those of us going, on the other hand, it’s game-dev Christmas.

There are several reasons the event is considered so special. One is the people. Games are a far-flung kind of industry where you make a lot of friends at various companies but don’t actually see them very often, so the conference is a great place to reconnect, share war stories and celebrate. Aside from catch-ups you also meet people whom you admire from afar and those who likewise admire you.

Another reason is the lack of a specific agenda and the high degree of cross-pollination. Most industry events tend to either center around one topic (such as social, monetization, gambling, casual, education, etc.) or function as consumer shows like E3 in LA or Gamescom in Cologne. However, at GDC you can float from talks about monetizing on the Kongregate platform to round tables about the successes and failures of AI design, and on to something else. It’s a big tent full of ideas and game makers who want to share them.

And while the industry certainly loves to get together and party, there’s more going on at GDC than just drinks, schmoozing and biz-dev (of which there is a lot). For example this year one of the big summits (mini-collections of talks) is about narrative. There are also panels covering issues, such as the #1reasonwhy meme regarding women in the games industry, and less serious sessions, including the Experimental Gameplay Workshop.

GDC talks are also often very open and forthright. At many games events the talks tend to be more about advancing agendas or essentially doing PR by pivoting every question back to how awesome your company is. Not so much at GDC though. One example that really stood out for me was a talk about a game called Shadow Physics, which had been highly anticipated in the community for a startling concept but then fell apart as a project. The talk was blunt, honest and open rather than suave or trying to manage a message.

Finally there is the sensation of being on the frontline of the future. GDC tends to be less the place where ideas crystalize into marketing stories. Considering how many of the major gaming news outfits are present at the event, and the quality of the content, GDC tends to be the launch point for new movements in the industry. Streaming cloud games from Onlive are one example, as was the genesis of the book Reality is Broken.

As Zeldin said, it’s all about creating new cards.

This year’s GDC will perhaps be more important than those of the last five years. While last year’s centered around ideas of general transition, few could say what the shape of the next phase of the industry might be. Kickstarter had only just started to be influential thanks to Double Fine, and new console platforms were still mostly ideas rather than emerging realities. Social games had yet to have Draw Something rise and fall, Retina display iPads were announced over the course of the show and gamification had yet to be told that it was 85 percent unsuccessful. Nobody had ever heard of Supercell, seen a local game like Spaceteam or really realized how big Skylanders would become.

A year later, so much has changed. Where platform transition was more an idea last year, this year it’s becoming and bruising reality. For many big game publishers, 2012 was not a good year and sales of even some of the biggest franchises were markedly down. One publisher (THQ) has already gone into total meltdown, and another (EA) has just seen its CEO resign over poor performance. With Sony having recently announced their PS4 and Wii U having launched and then gone through a very tough patch, many eyes are on Microsoft to see what (if anything) they’ll have to say. Many are wondering whether social games are tapping out, what future directions they may take and even whether the PC will survive in the wake of Windows 8.

However it could also be a conference where the biggest idea of the year starts to take wing and fly. Microconsoles, those small, mostly Android-powered consoles that want to turn your TV into an app platform, are likely to make a strong showing. I remain very hopeful that microconsoles are going to shape the future for the next five years. Whether it’s Ouya, Gamestick, Steamboxes or some other as-yet unannounced entrant, there is something very disruptive about the idea of the console that costs $99 and distributes free-to-play or cheaply priced games. Many in the industry are dubious, but then again many in the industry were dubious about the whole Facebook gaming thing and then ended up scrambling to try and get their piece.

Either way, the future is coming to the Moscone Center very soon. Sleep tight.