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GDC Weirdfest 2011

GDC 2011 was really weird. That’s about the best way I can sum it up.

Paul Culp, Blogger

March 19, 2011

10 Min Read

GDC 2011 was really weird. That’s about the best way I can sum it up.

Our Wednesday morning flight was at 6:15am, which is way too early if you ask me. That means either waking up at 3am or staying up all night drinking. I’m getting old though, and the latter just wasn’t a viable option this year, unless I wanted to spend my first day at GDC stumbling around the expo wrapped in an American flag evading the lizard people like the late great Hunter S Thompson. Those days are behind me, I pray. “There is nothing more depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge.” Fear and Loathing makes for a great travel companion, no matter how many times you’ve read it. But it makes for a piss poor survival guide.

Despite the early rising we still barely made the flight and had to chase the plan down the tarmac. They only stopped because we alerted the baggage people that there was an ape on the wing. Airplane people will believe anything.

I passed the flight time playing Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent on my ipad which is a GREAT GAME, by the way. And I don’t say that because we helped make it. Graham Annable knows how to create ambience and tell a story and aside from the puzzles it plays out like a cross between Twin Peaks and Fargo, with Graham’s own Grickle humor. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go check out Grickle on youtube. Two words: Space Wolf. Get into it.

Anyway, GDC was really weird. Everything this year was about the Social Networking and if your game wasn’t on Facebook you might as well have been pitching an Atari 2600 MMO. XBLA, Ipad and Iphone were big too, but those are modern classic formats for the indie game revolution, which, in my humble opinion, is better than the American, French and Velvet Revolution combined. More on that later.

For me GDC is all about running from meeting to meeting and hoping to get in half a session if time allows, which is rare. The sessions ended up being, for the most part, a place to rest my legs, which is a very expensive way to regenerate. I’m sorry, but the IGDA has a serious problem with extorting money from game developers. No offense IGDA, but for 1200 bucks my pass should come with a travel bottle of Johnny Walker Blue, a bag of Mendocino weed and a Siberian wolf pup that craps golden Wonka tickets. Instead, all I got was a 500 pound tote bag full of corporate propaganda and the opportunity to purchase $4 bottles of water and $6 stale Costco brand croissants.

Sorry, I don’t mean to bad mouth the IGDA. They do great things and the conference is a great contribution to the industry but they need to cut out the price gauging if they expect any company to be able to send their developers to mingle with their colleagues and learn the latest and greatest tools and techniques of the year. Never mind the fact that if you’re an indie developer you need to cut out half the features in your game and skip tools development entirely  if you plan on having the spare cash to afford to attend once a year.

So back to Facebook. I mean, I love Facebook as much as the next guy but I’m still not sold on it being the apex of our development platforms. Sure, a behemoth like Zynga may have struck gold on the ole FB but there’s only so much room on Facebook for casual games.  Just because Zynga makes enough money in one day to fund an entire Latin American country for a year, doesn’t mean there’s plenty to go around. Most FB gamers have already blown their wads tending their farms to sink extra time into another game so I have a hard time imagining too many other games making out like them. I could totally be wrong here. It’s not like I’m the Nostradamus of the video game industry. I’m not even the discount palm reader with the fading neon sign on 19th and Mission. I know other studios are making cash money developing for FB and I have very dear friends running studios devoted entirely to the FB experience and I wish them nothing but riches and success. It just seems a wee overhyped this year. Just a wee. But I should shut my mouth since I could very well be working on a Facebook game before the year is over.

One of the developers I met with, who I consider to be at the top of their game, confided in me their concern that they may be dinosaurs of the industry because they are focused on good old fashioned, fun, next-gen console games. I thought this was a strange concern to have, considering well-made, innovative console games are what made this industry in the first place. They’ve given us global recognition and put us in the same entertainment league as Hollywood, Rock and Roll and Major League Sports. Console gaming is also responsible for raising the bar of technology years beyond what they use to train the lizard people in the basement of the Pentagon. So keep making entertaining, great looking console games my friends. They don’t cure cancer or anything but they sure as hell make our lives more entertaining and give us our kicks and there’s nothing the lizard people hate more than us kids getting our kicks.

Another weirdness factor I experienced was actually outside the conference itself. San Francisco sucks for free wifi. This is really weird, considering SF is ground zero for the technological universe. I’m actually proud of this, since San Francisco is my hometown and I experienced first hand the rise and fall of the dotcom bubble, Survival Research Labs Parties and Playstation 1 developers making games in old Victorians and ghetto spaces in crack-laden alleyways. But this year I couldn’t get free wifi to save my life, or check my email, which these days are priority number one. I live in Portland, Oregon which is the stix, in comparison and I can get free wifi anywhere in Portland. But I will move off this lest I sound like a bitchy tech blogger.

Let’s move on to the Expo floor. That’s always exciting, right? Unfortunately this year it seemed about half the size as every year before it and it was full of weirdness too. There was actually a booth for a company that specialized in aroma technology, so you could smell the charred flesh of the bodies you badly burned in a first person shooter. I didn’t see one bottle of scotch being passed around at the Scottish Game Developers Alliance Booth, which is weirdness times 10 and I don’t know if this is good or bad yet, but I saw nary a cape, wand, or orc battle axe on the entire floor. I guess the fankid costumes are relegated to Comiccon these days but I remember a GDC where Magi’s and Faeries were as common as booth babes and free beer.

3D Gaming weirdness. Boy was there a lot of that. Their slogan should be “yesterdays technology. Today!” Stereographic 3D was hot in the 60’s and should have stayed there. It’s a gimmick as far as I’m concerned and a really expensive one at that. I’m the first to admit that Avatar in the theater was a truly unique film experience. They did it very well. But I don’t think your average gamer wants to wield a pair of goofy, expensive glasses every time they want to play a game. I think it’s hard enough to develop a decent title without having to convert it to stereoscopic 3D. I got to see quite a few 3D games at the conference and none of them were remotely impressive. In fact, most were downright silly. Save that money and pay for better tools, I say! Give your staff raises or dare I say, pay your art studios better. Now that’s money well spent. 3D will be gone in a year and no one will care. That’s my 2 cent prediction. EXCEPT FOR THE NINTENDO 3DS. That $H1T is rad! Well done Nintendo. Hats off to you! I cant wait for that thing. I cant wait to make games on it. No silly glasses or anything. Just handheld gaming goodness.

Bare feet shoes. Shoes that look like bare feet. Need I say more?

The most welcome weirdness at GDC this year was honesty. This was a true highlight for me. I know the game industry is often touted as more honest and true than Hollywood or the dot com outfits but that’s just not the case. Our industry has BS coming out of its…well…bovine ass. I get so tired of hearing processed, regurgitated, company-line-towing crap sound bites like “Leading Edge, Premiere, Fastest Growing, blah blah blah,” and spinning their latest layoffs as “consolidations, resource consuming reductions.” Etc. But this year was different. Everyone I spoke with exuded candor and honesty and seemed, dare I day “humble.” This was a refreshing change from the rock star attitudes I normally come across at GDC and E3.

These last few years have hammered us all so much, economically speaking, with so many people out of work, budgets being reduced to pennies, R & D basically shut down but some really good things have come out of it. After all, you learn so much more from failures and defeats than you do successes and I was glad to see the response to all this carnage was a thoughtful, insightful, introspective attitude that to me was nothing short of “honorable” and “dignified; two words that no one ever uses when describing the game industry and us, its colorful denizens.  

The developers and publishers I met with all spoke with this kind of candor and they were also very respectful during our meetings, genuinely interested in how an American art studio like us was faring through this recession. I appreciated that. In return they were grateful to meet with a studio director who isn’t really a “biz dev” or “sales” guy. All too often developers are stuck talking to a guy in a suit representing an overseas asset factory who only cares about getting their business, even if it’s not the kind of work they specialize in or totally out of their scope. Although my job is to bring in developers to partner with I’m an artist myself representing a small team of artists and technicians and I know what we are capable of, what our strengths and weaknesses are and can give an honest answer whether or not we are qualified to take on the kind of work that needs doing. I’m a huge evangelist of ethics and honesty in business and the kind of person that needs to talk with people face to face, free of obstacles and without any BS getting in the way. I appreciated the opportunity to have these conversations with my clients and potential clients and grateful for their time and honesty in return. I hope this new attitude in the industry sticks around after it gets back on its feet and the new wave of industry leaders embrace honesty and ethics in the way they run their companies and develop their games. After all, it was unchecked greed and lies that got us into this mess to begin with.

So in conclusion…GDC was a weird fest. Our industry is weird and only getting weirder. I’m fine with this. It sure as hell beats the conventional conventions of the tech industry in general. Bring it on, I say. And  if the weirdness means a new age of honesty in business, I’ll buy that overpriced GDC badge every year without fail.



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