Notes From The Game Developers Conference

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) is a technical educational conference, a recruiting event, an opportunity for technology vendors to hawk their wares and a business-development event. Much like many tech conferences, in other words. However unlike many other conferences GDC is also quite arty. It’s a place to talk about the issues facing the games industry, to voice new ideas in design or the philosophy of making games. It’s an arts festival for the industry to the industry (rather than consumer events like PAX or media events like E3) wherein many developers from all across the spectrum gather and share. It’s a place of advocacy for the medium of games as well as the meat and potatoes of how they’re made and make money.

Indeed GDC is the only event where all those things merge under one banner. This is why what first began in 1988 in game designer Chris Crawford’s house has grown into the most significant event on the game maker’s calendar. Of course every year tends to be different. Some are great, some not so great. Some years have a clear theme whereas others are more of a mixed bag. In many ways this year was more mixed than most.

For me one unexpected aspect of this year’s GDC was that it felt quiet. Although far from empty, the conference was comparatively easy to get around rather than the usual heaving morass. Offsite venues like the W hotel and the View bar at the top of the Marriott Marquis weren’t rammed as they normally would be. In part this was because while GDC is normally held in mid- or late-March, this year’s was a little early. This meant that it had significant scheduling conflicts with other conferences, especially PAX East in Boston and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The PAX conflict meant that many indie developers couldn’t attend for the full week, while the MWC conflict meant some mobile developers and publishers did not attend in force as they had in prior years.

This schedule conflict also manifested in another way. Probably the biggest piece of gaming news last week (Valve and HTC’s Vive VR system) was not announced at GDC. This kind of coup is very unusual, as the conference is typically where developer-facing news breaks. Instead Valve took it to MWC, and while Oculus Rift’s John Carmack did announce a partner product with Samsung at GDC, its reception was muted compared to Valve’s. In other news both Unity and Epic’s Unreal announced new versions of their game engines with competing pricing structures, but neither was hot-of-the-presses exciting.

Speaking of virtual reality, I kept encountering two distinct opinions around its present and future all through GDC week. On the one the enthusiasm among developers was palpable. Many of the technology issues to do with movement and dizziness were regularly claimed to be getting better, with many devs saying that it’s now “the real deal” whose time has come. There were several units and projects on display including Collider, shown at the annual Experimental Gameplay Workshop, which combined VR with the LEAP motion to allow the user to both see and do in the virtual space.

And yet I didn’t hear a single person on the business side express anything other than wariness. Studio managers, bizdevs and various others I spoke with invariably said that they weren’t convinced that the market was real. How many people could realistically be expected to buy the units? How much production effort would be required to make games that worked well with it? Where were the signature games that proved the model? How many players would really want to play something so solitary? Who would really want to connect a Gear VR to their phone on the BART and play a game? And so on.

With the mold of VR essentially being an expensive peripheral for existing devices (PCs primarily) there’s a fear among the business that its market might look more like the Thrustmaster joystick business than the next big thing. That it’ll be great for the true enthusiast but never have mass market appeal. Such skepticism may be to do with “just one more platform” fatigue. It’s only a few years since the number of available platforms for games expanded into mobile, media streamers, tablets, microconsoles, social networks, wearables and more – and those expansions have proved short lived. Seasoned game makers might be right to want to take the long view. Or it might be founded more in a pragmatic assessment of what VR promises to be.

Away from the technology speculation, the other major theme running through this year’s GDC was the fallout from Gamergate.

One strand of this was the discussion of issues of safety and self-protection. In a panel session MMO developers Raph Koster, Gordon Walton and Rich Vogel spoke about their experience in dealing with online communities and strategies that managers needed to take to protect themselves in this age of doxxing and brigading. Similarly in the #1ReasonToBe panel (which I sadly missed) in which women from across the industry talked about their experiences. Reportedly the most devastating moment was when Brenda Romero placed an empty chair in front of the audience and then showed written of women who harassed or silenced by recent events.

More encouragingly, however, was a notable increase in progressivism. Writer Leigh Alexander, for example, announced a new project named Offworld specifically to focus on women and minorities and promote their efforts. It’s never been more noticeable that GDC is the center of much of this kind of thinking, with experimental games and independent thinking using it as a place to find community.

Another example was the premiere of the movie Gameloading: Rise of the Indies (disclosure: I interviewed for this film). Like Indie Game: The Movie, this Kickstarter-funded project tracked the life and struggles of experimental game makers like Robin Arnott and told the story of people on the fringes of game development trying to make weird and wonderful things. A third example was Parable of the Polygons (a project that used game rules to discuss self-segregation) being featured at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. A fourth was the game That Dragon Cancer, which earned a tearful standing ovation.

Mostly at dinners, drinks and parties it was roll-eyed discussions about the linkbait populism of new voices in the gaming media. This has been the year when fan coverage of gaming deeply trended consumerist, cynical and conservative (YouTubers such as TotalBiscuit are a prime example) and among game makers there’s a real sense that this is not a positive development. Games as an industry, art form and culture wants to include as many people as possible and not only on a self-described core, but for many it seemed that last year had really beaten them in terms of their faith for the future.

And so perhaps the open question at the end of this year’s GDC is this: It may surprise some to learn, but most of us don’t dream of only making Call of Duty or Clash of Clans. There are both eager game makers who want to do exciting things, and eager players who want to play those games. By this time next year hopefully we’ll find a way to connect them once again.