Gamasutra Podcast Transcript: Interview with IGDA Executive Director Jason Della Rocca

Gamasutra Podcast host Tom Kim interviews the ever-alluring IGDA executive director Jason Della Rocca about quality of life, legislation, censorship and more, in this transcript of our original Gamasutra Podcast.

Jason Della Rocca is the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association, a professional society committed to advancing the careers and enhancing the lives of game developers. Jason and the IGDA focus on connecting developers with their peers, promoting professional development, and advocating on issues that affect the developer community such as quality of life, creative freedoms, work force diversity, and credit standards.

As a spokesperson for the IGDA Jason has appeared on countless news outlets such as Wired Magazine, Nightline, the L.A. Times, National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal and G4 TV. He's also spoken at conferences around the world such as Game Developers Conference, E3, the Tokyo Game Show, SIGGRAPH, China Joy, and DiGRA. Jason's been a member of the game development community for over a decade and has spent time at Matrox Graphics,Quazal, and Silicon Graphics.

He is presenting at this year's Game Developers Choice Awards, which are voted on by members of the IGDA, at the 2007 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next week.

Gamasutra: Thanks a lot for joining me today. I happen to be a member of the IGDA and I contribute a bit to the game education special interest group.

Jason Della Rocca: Excellent.

Tom: I'm very much looking forward to this year's Game Developers Conference because I think this is a really interesting year for the industry. It's gone through a lot of changes recently, several of them having to do with the launch of new game consoles.

Jason: Sure, I mean, every year seems to be an interesting year. It's never boring in the game industry.

Tom: There also appear to be some changes on the horizon with regard to game legislation and how that's being treated with the failure of a lot of these proposed game bills and some of the new approaches being taken with that. Well, maybe we can start with that legislation issue. It's an area that I know you're quite familiar with given you advocacy work as the Executive Director of the IGDA.

dellarocca.jpg Jason: This is a question of creative freedom of expression for developers that, although day to day this may not affect most developers as they're sitting at their desk coding or doing their art or what not. But this is one of those issues that if it were ever to break through, that it could cause massive, massive issues with the industry in terms of the types of games that we're allowed to create, the types of ideas we're allowed to express.

Right now we do enjoy a lot of freedom on the same level as film and television and other forms of creative expression. And really the work we've been doing as an organization and the efforts we've been supporting is really about maintaining that parity, maintaining creative expression and rights of developers so that we're not treated as second class citizens versus other forms of art and expression.

At sort of a general level, that's really what we've been at and so that has kept us busy in terms of participating on panels or doing media interviews or helping, in some cases, in some of the actual court cases and such and it's really again about defending games as a medium of expression and defending the freedom of expression rights of developers.

Tom: It would appear that the federal judges side with your position on the issue of free speech. We've seen recent attempts to legislate the sale of games in DC, Minnesota, and my own home state of Illinois all fail to pass constitutional muster. In the case of the Illinois ruling, the Federal judge went as far as to stipulate that the state has to pay back the legal fees involved in trying the case. Ostensibly, because such legislation was viewed as irresponsible by the court.

Jason: Exactly. No anti-game legislation has succeeded at this point. There's many factors there. One is that, yes, the federal court judges do view games as a valid form of expression, and so are conveying the same level of rigor, same level of rights that they would to film or music or again other mediums of expression so that's certainly encouraging.

In terms of the state by state efforts, I mean in large part the people drafting these bills really don't understand games. Obviously they're not gamers or part of our community. And so they're sort of passing or attempting to pass judges that are really influenced potentially by a small vocal minority of outraged local critics or something like that. Or they view this as an ability to get a lot of media attention as sort of part of their political campaign, and so it becomes a soap box issue, or a sort of vote winning issue as opposed to a real attempt to benefit the local community. In fact, what we're starting to see is a negative kickback now from this.

You gave the example of Illinois, where they had to pay what I believe was close to $400,000 or $500,000 worth of legal fees. That's half a million dollars going in to fight a case that had no merit to begin with, and that a half dozen similar cases before it were also thrown out and proved invalid, and yet the Governor and the politicians in Illinois continued to push it and in the end they end up wasting a half million taxpayer dollars. And those are dollars that could have gone into real tangible efforts to improve the lives of children, whether medical research or foster care home support or educational resources or support for better parenting, and all these kinds of things which have massive, massive repercussions in terms of quality of life and the quality of society.

Yet these guys are putting bills through that are getting rejected. They're paying massive bills and there really is no direct repercussion outside from negative perceptions from the community at large.

Tom: And yet we still see some states trying to enact such bills. In an attempt to pass the constitutional test they seem to approaching their proposed legislation from a slightly different tact, having more to do with the enforcement of game ratings on the retail level.

Jason: Yeah. Admittedly, I have not studied the granularity of every single one of these bills. They are upwards of a hundred pages each. But each time you see a press release or announcement for one of these legislators that think they've got the secret sauce or the special twist that's going to pass muster. And time and time again they just get kicked back, and it comes from a lack of understanding of the medium, a lack of understanding of freedom of expression and the issues around that.

They have no hope of ever really making one of these pass, and no sort of little twist or rewording really has succeeded to any extent. A lot of the legislative efforts have been more so toward to the retail side of things. By penalizing retailers, enforcing the ratings aspect or mandating ratings, or putting government control over ratings, and stuff like that. It's been less about direct censorship of content. Meaning, that I'm aware of, there has not been a bill to say, "Okay game creators can no longer create x, y, and z and if you are a game creator and you start programming this you'll get put in jail."

There's not been any attempt to specifically control the speech of games creators, but what we do have is more of what we might call the chilling effect, that by attempting to control things at retail and censor or control what is or is not allowed on shelves, etc., that that in turn via splash damage will affect what games get funded, what games get produced, what games get developed.

Although the legislation wasn't specifically trying to control the creation of the games, by limiting the channels of distribution that in effect does change the strategies and funding of development considerations on the part of game development and publishing community.

Tom: Being a parent myself, I can't say that all the concerns on the table are unfounded. I don't have a problem with people being concerned about something they might not understand. But I have a big problem with the nature of the proposed solutions in many of these bills. It seems that the primary problem is one of maybe raising public awareness about the facts about the game industry and the products it creates.

Jason: Education's always a good thing, and there's so many aspects of this particular
question. One is that again, in the courts, no judge has found the research that the states present to be convincing. So all of these reports about the effects of violence and media effects and so on, sure we can discuss those ad nauseum, but they've not held water in the court system. That doesn't mean necessarily that the research is completely invalid. It's just not convincing enough to affect the decisions of judges, or mixed in with all the other factors isn't enough to remove the rights of game creators and such.

So that's one thing. And the other thing is education, that we've seen some positive developments in particular with Hillary Clinton and Lieberman getting in behind the ESRB and working to educate parents on the rating system. Obviously many parents do know and understand the rating system, but many don't. So you have a kid that goes shopping with Mom and says, "Hey Mom, here's a racing game I want you to buy for me," and it's Grand Theft Auto. And the Mom just says "Okay." And she goes and buys it and even though let's say the clerk says "Well ma'am, this is an M-rated game. It's inappropriate for your ten year old son." She's like, "Oh, whatever, it's just a game."

So there's some education that needs to be done, some awareness. Not so much in the specifics of the rating system, but more so in terms of games being a diverse medium.

If as a parent or a politician, or anyone out there in society, you games solely as toys for children, then why would you even fathom the concept of a rating system? For example, if all movies were Disney and Pixar movies, would you ever consider that those would be rated? Right? Your world view of what a movie is is Disney. So this is kind of the issue we're ending up with, with certain parents and aspects of society where they just view games as toys for children.

If we can do more as an industry to let folks know that like television, like film, even like music or literature, games do represent a very diverse range of content and do appeal to a very diverse range of audiences. And because of that, you should look for the rating to see what's in this box or what's in this game and what is or is not appropriate.

It's so frustrating on so many levels! If you look at the retail sales, something like 90% of game purchases are made by adults anyway. Now adult could mean an 18-year-old buying for him or herself, a mom, a grandma buying for a son or a grandson, whatever. So we're talking about 10% of purchases are made by minors anyways. It's not like kids are running around, buying up all the games.

Now, further, if you look at sales volume, less than 15% of all games sold at retail are rated M. Of all the games sold, only fifteen of them are M, which are the ones that this legislation is really concerned about. And of all people making purchases, less than 10% are minors. I'm not sure if the math works out, but do you do 10% of 12%?

Tom: What about the question of volume? Those figures represent a number of specific titles, but maybe not necessarily the number of units of each that are sold.

Jason: Sales volume is less than 15%. That's only one element of the overall puzzle, but it's not like we're talking about all games are M and all games are being bought by kids. In the end it comes down to this miniscule fraction, and I don't have all the numbers on the movie side of things, but films, over 55% of films are rated R. So just from a numbers/volume point of view, it's so miniscule.

This is the irony, that games are actually put toward higher levels of scrutiny. That wht you would see in an R-rated movie, whether it be violence or sexual content, oftentimes would not even be allowed anywhere in a game. Not M-rated, even. It really comes down to this sort of lack of understanding of games as really a diverse medium, that is able to address more than just a kid audience.

Tom: So we're talking about a difference in parity between other media and games. Let's talk about recent events at the Slamdance Guerilla Games competition, regarding the dropping of Danny Ledonne's entry Super Columbine Massacre RPG by Slamdance founder Peter Baxter.

Of course the subject matter in itself is pretty emotionally charged and by its very nature controversial, but certainly this is a subject that's been explored in other media such as film, like in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine. There was also Gus Van Sant's movie Elephant, which won the Palme d'Or award at Cannes. Both of these explored the factors that may have led to the tragic events at Columbine.

Jason: Super Columbine Massacre, the uproar usually takes place just in hearing that it exists. You know, without understanding that the person who created it is from Colorado. I don't know if Danny actually went to the school, or was it sort of a neighboring school, and dealt with some of the similar issues and knew some of the people involved.

Tom: Well, whatever the reasons, the removal of the game from the competition seem to be a double standard when it comes to an open evaluation of this work by nature of the chosen media of expression. Which is, admittedly, a rather primitive 16-bit Japanese-style role playing game created, I believe, in RPG Maker.

Jason: They don't understand that it's kind of, like you say, the 16-bit SNES type of RPG, very cartoony, very primitive, very blocky and that it's like a turn-based RPG, not a first person shooter. I mean, the most important thing is that he created this game as a way for him to get his thoughts out into a game environment. This was his way to sort of explore his emotions on the issue.

So this really speaks to games as a medium of expression. Whether or not you enjoy the game or you think the game is a piece of junk, or the graphics are too blocky, you can't criticize an artist's desire to express themselves. No one would question that, as you sort of said earlier, if I was a filmmaker and decided to express that via film or if I was a writer and did that via a novel or if I was a musician and wrote a song about these horrors. Again, it comes down to the fact that it's in the medium of a game with the sort of issues that are wound up in that.

Tom: I understand that you have an active role in this year's Game Developers Choice Awards.

Jason: Yeah, I'm on what we call the Awards Advisory Committee. That committee has two roles. One is to make the selection for the special award recipients, so the awards like the Lifetime Achievement and the Community Contribution awards. And then also they serve as a final selection jury.

We have an open nomination process where thousands of developers come to the IGDA website and they submit their nominations for Game of the Year and Best Design and Best Art and Tech and all that kind of stuff, and then we have a sort of filtering and parsing process where this Advisory Committee looks over those results and picks the five finalists in each of the categories that then go out to the membership for voting for the winner.

Tom: Yeah, I voted on my picks for the Developers Choice Awards myself recently, so I just would like to ask, how does the awards process work? Is it purely democratic with a small "d" or do you exercise any oversight with regards to the judging process?

Jason: It is a mix of both. It is sort of a wisdom of crowd thing going on here, where the initial stage is a numbers game. So, if a thousand developers nominate Gears of War for Best Technology, then what the committee does is that it looks at all the nominations in the various categories. Then it looks at the top seven. There is a whole bunch of debate and discussion of the merit of these different games and what we are looking for. What is deserving. Etcetera, etcetera.

There are other things where the jury can write in games that didn't make it onto the list. Then from all of that process, the output is five games in each category that are the finalists. Then those finalists go to the members and those members vote.

So, the committee is kind of the human brain that is in between these kind of open, democratic, crowd-driven processes. In part you need that so it just doesn't become a popularity contest. And, also, we also put that in there just as a safeguard against ballot stuffing type tactics.

Tom: So, other than the satisfaction of winning the accolades of one's peers, what is the significance of winning a Developers Choice Award?

Jason: At this point, it is kind of intrinsic value. It really is the accolades and adulations and the value of receiving that recognition on a personal level. Having done really good work and getting a pat on the back for that.

There are a few elements to this in terms of why it is not yet more more meaningful in from a market, sort of business point of view. Because there is no secondary market for games, you don't really have the sales push that you would get via the Oscars. Research has shown that the nominees for winning different Oscars, like the next day, DVD sales will go through the roof. Crash, last year, is a great example. It did something like five million at the box office, but when it won the Best Movie, DVD sales went through the roof. So, there is a lot of motivation beyond the adulation from the studios that winning an Oscar has massive impact in terms of the ongoing revenue stream for a particular film. Games don't really have that, and in some cases many of the games that are going to win awards this year, may not even be on the shelf.

Potentially, a game that has been released at the beginning of 2006, you may have a hard time even finding that at retail, let alone in the bargain bin. It is not like a company is going to re-release a game because it just doesn't have the same effect. We do kind of get Game of the Year editions, and stuff like that. But, that is driven somewhat more by the magazine awards.

So, in that sense there hasn't been a lot of momentum behind industry awards like this, because of that sort of lack of knock on effect. As an individual, it is a different story. If you're the guy who won the Best Design for this year, and then you're looking for either a raise or a promotion within or sort of going to another studio or start a new studio or project, you can say "Hey, listen, have faith in me, I won a game design award from the Choice Awards." So, that should have some currency within the industry itself.

That actually points to one of the important distinctions of the Choice Awards; we have mandatory attributions. Every single award that we give out names the specific people responsible for the work and the effort. So, for the Game Design awards, we will list out specifically the Lead Designer, the Game Designer, Creative Director, etc. So, in all the press material, on the website, on the trophy, on the videos during the ceremony, the people who get up to get the trophies, and give the acceptance speeches are the actual people. Whether it is the designer, or the lead programmer or the lead artist, depending on what category they might be receiving for.

As opposed to what we've traditionally seen in all other industry awards, which is the company CEO comes to pick up trophies or the PR rep grabs the trophies and stuff. Or, the game itself is what is being recognized, not the people who are actually responsible for the game. So, that is a really important distinction. To this day, we are the only industry award that do that, which plays into the whole mission of the IGDA to advance careers and all that good stuff.

Tom: Of course, there is always going to be some of that popularity contest to the proceedings. But given the nature of the balloting, and the fact really that the winners are nominated by one's peer in the industry, there perhaps can be a little more rigor applied to the decision as to what wins and what doesn't win, particularly with regards to the Developers Choice Awards. There are other industry awards, but they are run quite differently.

Jason: Right. Also, to a large extent, we are very much craft oriented. We don't have a best XBox Shooter of the Year and the best PlayStation RPG of the Year. We're not producing a buyer's guide. We're recognizing and celebrating the various aesthetic attributes of the games. You know, the writing, the character design, game design, the audio, the technology, etc. Although we have a Best Game, we don't break down any further by genre or platform or delivery medium or anything like that. Which is totally counter to every other game awards on the planet, which are really based on Best Console and Best PC and Best RPG and Best RTS and that kind of stuff.

Tom: So, it is fairly safe to say at the Developers Choice Awards, you won't see a Sexiest Heroine category.

Jason: No, not at all. Those are all Bad Ass Villain, Biggest Gun, and whatever. That is marketing fluff.

Tom: Back to the point of positive potential of being recognized for one's work in this field. You were saying that some of the games that are recognized can't easily be found in retail anymore. It seems that one thing the industry would benefit from is some kind of aftermarket. Especially one that is partially contributory to the developers, as opposed to used game sales, where all the money goes to the reseller. There is no compensation at all to the developer.

Jason: You want a sort of perpetual market. That once something is released, that it's always available. And, that based on buzz or hype or word of mouth, the sales kind of go up and down. But that the content of the game is always there to those that want it. And, that plays into Chris Anderson's whole Long Tail theory that with everything being on line; with the bomb being as accessible as the hit, that you get the long tail effect. Things can move up and down that tail. But, you can't do that when you're bound by the physical world.

So, if the game is online, then it gets nominated and wins. Then everyone goes to that website and says wow, are we going to check it out now? Being that it is right there and available, a click away, you just sort of put in your credit card and you pay the five, ten, twenty bucks to grab it. That is usually powerful. With everything on line it changes everything dramatically. Awards can have a greater impact in terms of accessing content.

Tom: So, let's transition again to our last topic. I'd like to ask you about a subject which is relevant to your work toward fulfilling the IGDA's mandate and mission. Let's talk about the maturation of production processes in game development.

Jason: This is kind of a trial by fire time. We, as an industry, need to work for more mature production methodologies. The rooting of the industry, the history of the industry, has really been from a hacker mentality; open up your compiler and start coding and see what comes out the back end and just kind iterate like that. That approach has served the industry well for many years. Once you hit projects that require 100, 200 people on staff, that are super complex, that span the globe in terms of interactions of different teams, are millions of dollars in terms of budget and resources, this kind of hacker mode of creation doesn't scale to that level.

What we're starting to see is that smart studios are looking towards whether there's sort of a proprietary methodology. We're adopting other methodologies like Scrum or different Agile approaches. Or even the Carnegie Mellon Software Institute, they have the different software processes. They're called the TSP and PSP, team software process and personal software process. They really provides a formalized and rigorous approach to scheduling and time estimation and project management. Some of these might not be applicable to the iterative and kind of creative nature of game development. Whereas others do seem quite adaptable and have lent a great deal of success to those who have adopted them.

That's kind of what we're looking at now, is that folks are saying, wait a second, we have serious logistical and managerial issues ahead of us. Rather than just come up with some ideas and how to handle it, let's look towards other industries that have been around much longer than us and have developed approaches and methodologies and processes to handle large scale production projects. While this is not yet pervasive in the industry, where you still have many companies that are kind of taking the hacker approach to things, we are seeing progress being made by many studios in this direction. Which is absolutely encouraging.

Tom: I think that adopting more efficient production processes has to move outside the realm of theoretical approaches to more practical application. Especially with the increasing complexity of production for today's games.

Jason: This really is a survival thing. It is related to the whole quality of life agenda that we have, that if you're taking a more formalized approach to project management, your schedules will be more sane, you won't get as much crunch, you won't burn out your staff. And so there's a positive angle there just from the whole quality of life, humanitarian perspective.

The reality is that this is cold hard cash we're talking about. This is a business, this is bottom line. If you're a studio executive it doesn't matter how cold blooded you are, taking this approach in terms of a more formalized approach to production will make you produce better games in a more efficient manner, retain human capital, all that good stuff, and make your company a more profitable company. It's not a touchy feely thing. It's not just a, you know, I want my people to have lives outside of the company thing. Those are byproducts of having a more efficient production process.

The reality is that this is a business decision. This is something that affects your bottom line and actually improves the profitability of your company. There's no doubt there's some initial headache in terms of getting people trained and maybe buying some new tools and learning ramp up. But ultimately we're talking about massive returns on investment.

Tom: You touched on an essential side effect of adopting more efficient production processes. An issue that I find particularly alarming is the potential loss of human capital. Personally I was shocked when I read the IGDA quality of life white paper, particularly the committee's findings thats less than 4% of the developers surveyed said that their coworkers averaged ten or more years of experience. That's just a staggering figure. So what does that come out to? Something like one out of every 25 people in the business are still working after 10 years?

Jason: I mean this is a whole conversation unto itself. We bring in these super passionate people, and if we're lucky we get two projects out of them and then they're gone. Physically they're burned out, the rewards were not what they were expecting or don't match the amount of effort that goes in. Things change, projects get cancelled and they just check out. And that's just horrible and speaks to the much larger issue of the medium of games. That if everyone working on games only gets to work on them for five or six years and then leaves, how are we supposed to evolve the art form? How are we supposed to advance the craft? All the new people coming in, they kind of make all the same mistakes and do all the same things.

Everyone complains about innovation and lack of originality and so on, this is one of the contributing factors. I know there's business issues and market issues and all that kind of stuff. This is one of them, imagine if you were in the industry for 30 years. I would sure hope that what you are working on from year one versus year thirty has evolved dramatically, just sort of as a necessity to keep yourself entertained and challenged. Whereas if you bail after five years, where's the chance to evolve there if you're only on one or two projects? That's a part of it. Never mind the business issues with what you might call friction costs of losing staff.

So you lose staff, lost production time, you have to spend time to find someone new, cost of interviews, cost of bringing those people in, ramp up time and training on the internal tool sets. You're looking at friction costs at $50,000 to $100,000 per head. If you consider then, in some cases after a project, you lose like half your team and then you have to re-ramp up for the next project, that's a lot of wasted resources. If we were just a bit more sane during the initial process, we would be able to keep our staff and move them on smoothly to another project.

Tom: Let's wrap up with your assessment of what you see as the most timely challenges facing the IGDA.

Jason: The problems and the challenges that the IGDA are working on are evergreen. Stuff like censorship and acceptance of games as a valid form of expression, recognition, and credit within the industry...that's not going to stop. We're not going to say, well, we're done giving recognition, let's go home. That's kind of an ongoing effort. Similarly with our agenda on the quality of life and workforce improvement, that's sort of a never ending crusade.

It's degrees of improvement. You know, year by year of course operational tactics might change depending on what's going on in the community and such. Overall that's what we're doing. We're here to advance the careers of the game industry workers, we're here to advance the industry. That's what we're about.

Tom: Great Jason, thanks so much for your time. I'm looking forward to this new year of gaming because I think we're on the cusp of some pretty significant changes. There's still a lot of important issues that have yet to be resolved and equally a lot of promise for absolutely stunning game experiences and exciting industry developments that are right around the corner. So I'm sure that you as well as myself are looking forward to seeing how this will all play out.

Jason: Indeed, well thank you very much Tom.

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