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GDC 2010, Day 3

Everything I saw on day 3 (the last day) of GDC 2010.

[This is the last in a series of GDC retrospectives - the full set is available here.]

Welcome to the last day of GDC 2010. First, there was my lecture.

David Sirlin (Sirlin Games)

I was supposed to inspire the students who are trying to join the industry. This was part of a student track, so several other speakers would speak on various student-themed topics over the course of the day. I didn't know ahead of time what other speakers would say, and I still don't know actually, but I figured they would cover boring detailed stuff. So I gave a lecture about how to get into the game industry that isn't really about how to get into the game industry.

Those new to work in games will probably face a "hump" they have to get over to really be allowed in. I'm not saying this is how it should or shouldn't be, but just that it is. If you're not "in" then people kind of push you away usually. But if you are "in" then even if you kind of suck, it seems to be easier to get work than if you're "not in." So how do you get over this hump? My lecture is a 4-step process to forget that there was ever a problem in the first place. The steps are:

1) Have courage from within
2) Do Something
3) Get Better at the Thing
4) Stand Apart from Others

Courage Within. Absolutely do NOT wait for anyone to give you permission to be what you want to be. If you're a game programmer (or whatever) then be it, live it, do it. If someone tells you that you aren't or that you can't, then tell them (out loud or just in your head) "Fuck you, and don't tell me what I can't do." You have to have internal motivation to keep going, and ignore external factors like naysayers who don't have the vision that you do. Every visionary who ever lived was told by naysayers they couldn't do whatever it was they were doing. Ignore them.

There's a reason to ignore them though, it's not just delusion. Take as an example, the first time I saw the movie Reservoir Dogs (I was in high school). It has an unusual plot structure and I starting thinking about why it has the structure it does. The non-linear structure allows Tarantino to have careful control over the flow of information, so that each question he answers raises more questions. I started thinking about 1) what was the designer intent behind lots of these choices and 2) what effect on viewers did these choices have. For the first time, I was thinking about structure of a film.

From then on, I thought about the structure of other films...and books, street signs, conference halls, laundromats, and so on. It becomes a way of looking at the world, a "designerly way of thinking." Now you might have your own discipline such as programming or art and I'm not saying you have to be a designer. What I'm saying is that I didn't wait around for people to call me a designer or game designer or whatever. I just started being one by adopting the right mindset myself. It comes from within.

 I mentioned an artist I knew who said basically the same thing. When I asked how he can draw as well as he does, he said he and other artists have "the artist's eye." That means when he looks at something, he really LOOKS at it. He sees the shadow, the highlight, the outline, the form, the color, the composition of the scene, the tone. He looks at all these details and really sees them and thinks about their interplay. You can't wait until someone calls you an artist, you have to just be one.

I then told them about an interview I saw with actor Jim Carey. Carey described a time in his earlier career that was analogous to the situation many students in my lecture were probably in. He cared about comedy, he studied it, he worked on material, and he even performed in local clubs on stage, but he was not famous or successful. He looked more "unemployed" than "comedian." He had his one big shot to be discovered by a talent scout...and he really blew it. He thought his career was over. He got past his depression and pushed on though. He decided that he IS a comedian god damn it, and there would be another talent scout and another and another and someday, someone would realize his ability. THAT is why we know who Jim Carey is. It takes enormous internal drive (aka persistence or stick-to-it-ness) to make it, especially in a creative field.

Machiavelli said kind of the same thing. He talked about "virtu" and "fortune." Virtu sort of means "virtue" but not really. It's your boldness, your conservatism, your charisma, your smarts, and so on. It's you ability--what you're made of. Fortune isn't about money, he meant the external forces of luck. He saw the world like a raging river, always changing randomly and with so many factors outside your control that help you or hurt you.

Princes and Kings that he studied often found Fortune against them. But Machiavelli believed that someone with virtu CAN rise to prominence by just having perseverance. Maybe this time Fortune was against you, but eventually things will line up in your favor, and are you prepared to take advantage of that? He said you could even tame Fortune slightly, at least to "50/50 odds" if you prepare and plan for it. In my own career, my very first "job" was internship that i got from pure luck, but you could also say it was luck I somewhat planned for. I planned to be at the Game Developer's Conference that year, the first time I ever went. I thought a lot about design so I was prepared to have conversations about it. When such a conversation just happened to lead to my start, it was luck, but maybe if Fortune had been against me that day, it would have been with me some other day anyway.

Do Something. You can't just decide to be an artist/designer/programmer/whatever and do nothing. You have to actually do something now. Making a gamem would be great, but that isn't even required. If you're an artist, start making art. Concept art, character drawings, landscapes, user interface, web pages, 3D modeling, animation, *anything* really. If you're a programmer, go program a game, even if it has bad art and bad game design. Just FINISHING something is a major, major deal. More than you know. Though it does kind of bother me when I see a programmer work on something like that without working with a designer to have a good game design, too. I mean, why not? It's not that programmers can't come up with good games designs (they certainly can, see Sid Meier). It's that programmers need to learn a world of technical knowledge that is totally separate from the world of game design. Maybe join up with someone who knows that world and have good technical design as well as good game design. Heck, get some art too. But even if you do none of that, you can STILL program a game by yourself.

Then I told the students about Tom "Zileas" Cadwell. He "did something." First, he became great at starcraft specifically to raise his visibility (see later thing about standing apart). He won the Starcraft US Beta tournament, even. After that, he and one other guy got together to make Strifeshadow, an RTS game. Remember that finishing any project at all is a major thing. It's not really much surprise that he then worked at Blizzard on the balance patches for Warcraft 3 (then on World of Warcraft). Do you think Blizzard is looking for people who sit around waiting for permission to be designers or artists or whatever? No they are looking for people like Zileas who bust their asses to do something they're passionate about that is related to what Blizzard does. Finally, I told the students about Zileas's application essay to business school. He explained in great detail how he founded and ran a guild in World of Warcraft! It showed all sorts of planning and execution of both operational logistics and people management. So producers take note: even without a job, he showed he could be a producer and business person by *doing something*.

A corollary is to "just show up" and Be Somewhere. Woody Allen said 80% of success is just showing up. Show up to GDC or to other events. If you "show up" by working at some game company, you'll be around when that game company presents other opportunities. So by just being there at all, you gain access to more opportunities outside your actual job.

Get Better. Time does not equal skill. It should be obvious that in any field or craft or competition that the winners aren't the people who have done it the longest. Many people who have done (whatever it is) for a long time still suck. That said, you can't really become awesome instantly either. Studies show it takes about 10 years or 10,000 hours to be world-class. This is true in chess, composing music, tennis, and many other fields. So what you need is time + something to become great. What is the something? It's "effortful study."

You have to practice in a way that is challenging. Not easy and not impossible, but doable and challenging. This should be no problem for you because in step 2, you were already "doing something." So do something that offers this challenge and you'll naturally get better.

Then I talked about the study Unskilled and Unaware and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, but let's just skip ahead.

Stand Apart. It's not purely a meritocracy, so spend at least *some* time on marketing yourself or your work. Put at least a little polish on things. Your resume should look not so horrible that I want to barf, though who really cares about your resume anyway? Let's see your work from the "do something" stage. And if you present that on a website, how about the website itself looks reasonably good? Just these basics help you "stand apart" from those who lack even this minimal polish.

Of course the best way to stand apart would be to make actual games that express your unique style or vision. This is a tall order though and might not be possible for you at this point. If that's the case, that's ok, there are other routes. I talked about how I used writing to be noticed in my own career. Furthermore, I have used two types of writing: controversial and um....don't know the word...."cultural interpreter?" My friend says I just mean "teaching" but we'll get back to that.

Controversial writing of course separates you from the rest, but maybe you shouldn't do it. You need to have a better understanding of your subject than usual, better research, better writing, and so on to pull it off. When you do pull it off, you have to deal with a bunch of idiots who have no idea what they are talking about responding. What a hassle. And while its possible to create a powerful movement that disrupts the status quo, it's also possible that years from now this type of writing won't be as relevant. (It might though, it depends.)

Anyway, you can "stand apart" without attacking the status quo at all. You do not have to be Carmack to write something about programming, if that's your field. Surely you know something. Surely in the "do something" step you learned enough to be an expert in some small area, or at least competent. Write for those who know less than you, and even for those who are not in your field at all. If you can summarize jargony ideas to an audience outside your "tribe," that's pretty interesting. It might offer long-term value and get you noticed as a clear communicator and teacher.

In short, if you have Courage Within, Do Something, Get Better, and Stand Apart, I think you'll forget there was ever any hump in the first place. Somewhere along the way, you'll find yourself "in."

Fired and Fired-Up: Jobless Developer's Rant

This was a rant session composed of developers who lost their jobs or studios during the last year. The two most interesting rants were from two people ranted against themselves!

Justin Hall took the mic and delivered one of the most high energy speeches I've seen. He spoke so loudly that it caused microphone problems and Eric Zimmerman and a tech guy were trying to move the mic around and broke part of it, and tried to fix it, and so on. This did not phase Justin at all. He kept yelling at us very enthusiastically about how anti himself he is.

He made an "MMO" that consists of a firefox plugin. It gives you a toolbar with too many buttons and lets you make challenges and trivia questions on various websites that other players can stumble into and try to answer. It also creates extra popups. Great huh? No. He got 1,500 users though, and then some venture capital people somehow wanted to give him a lot of money. He took it. $2 million. He spent like a year and half building up a big fancy version of this and then they launched. Their burn rate was $75,000/month. After launch, they made $25/month. That is not a typo. Then they changed things around to do a better job monitizing. After this change, they went up to $50/month (double, wow!). Still $75,000/month burn rate.

His rant was how he spent way too much time on retarded things like a company intranet and shopping for cheaper office chairs and printers, when really he should have done more market testing to determine people wouldn't pay for this. He said it was a complete failure on his part as a CEO...he's just a student who got a ton of money and didn't really know what he was doing. With 5 months left before funding ran out, he changed direction and made some Facebook games. (Remember, 100% of all GDC sessions must mention Facebook this year.)

Paul Bettner also gave a rant about himself. It was about the rise and fall of Ensemble Studios. He joined Ensemble when he was 19 years old and worked there 12 years until Microsoft fired all of them (by closing the studio). He said that you'd expect Microsoft to be the bad guy in this story, killing a gem of the game industry, but really he thinks this isn't the case. He thinks Ensemble is to blame and he takes much of this blame personally, meaning he should have taken action to prevent this rather than doing nothing and allowing the inevitable conclusion.

He loved Ensemble. He grew up there, he had great times there, his team was like his family. In the early days, they had so much fun working endlessly on their game. It would have seemed crazy to go home at 5 or 6pm because they were having too much fun. They stayed late and ordered pizza like in college. They slept there sometimes, not because anyone made them, but because they were just that into it.

They had amazing success, too. He was there when Age of Empires won game of the year, when it sold the first 1 million copies, and so on. He celebrated with his team and all those long hours seemed completely worth it. BUT, a problem was brewing.

The next game was harder to make than the first. It took even longer and it cost even more. There started to be a name for this kind of work: "crunch." The game after that took even longer than that and it cost even more, again. Crunch was becoming the norm. EA-spouse happened (and more recently, Rockstar-wives). When you fast forward, what happened is that crunch became institutionalized. It was woven deep into the culture and Bettner says he did nothing to stop this. He didn't stand up against it or attempt to change the policies. He grew into a management role where might have been able to effect some change, but instead he went along with the status quo.

Ensemble's employees suffered deeply from quality of life issues. Their defect rates (as in how many bugs their games have toward the end of a project that have to be fixed) were worse than any other Microsoft Game Studio. They were now taking about twice as long as they promised on games and it was costing about twice as much as the budgets allowed. He said Microsoft was not the bad guy for closing the studio. Microsoft's action was completely logical: Ensemble just cost too much.

He said that he deeply regrets his inaction and he now knows better. He wants a studio where the culture understands that quality of life is extremely important. The best work comes the morning after a good rest, or in the shower after a good night's sleep, or even a stroke of inspiration while on vacation. People need to have lives and do other things in order to be productive and produce creative, error-free work at work.

He said our industry is doing horribly on this right now, and gave some stats on it that I forget. I think it was something like 50% of us don't last even 5 years in the industry because we burn out. That means every year, we lose people who are the brightest, most creative, most skilled people at "putting fun in a box," as he put it, because our poor working conditions drive them away. He says we need to do something *sustainable* instead. At his new company, people go home at normal hours. He said they want to make games for many years to come, and it just can't be maintained at a "crunch" pace. He's in it for the long haul, and he's sorry.

Bettner is the only speaker I remember at GDC to receive a standing ovation.

Metaphysics of Game Design (Phaedrus)

I was considering one of a few talks for this last slot, not really sure which. I in the halls talking to a pretty well-connected guy. Then some guy he knew came up and started talking about the mystery talk. Wait, what? Apparently there was a talk with an unknown speaker and there was a lot of hype for it. He said there's already a big line. We asked if he knew who it was. He said all he knows is that the speaker required that he be in the last time slot on the last day of the conference and that his name not be announced. Also, this guy said he heard it was a speaker who has never spoken at the conference before.

I got in line, and I got in. By chance, I happened to sit right in front of Raph Koster. Raph said someone high up at GDC told him he "HAD TO GO TO THIS LECTURE." He said he was told that people should "change their plane tickets if necessary not to miss it." He also heard it was "someone he know and who he had seen speak at GDC before" (which flatly contradicted that other rumor). Raph also told me that he heard that the current time and date numbers were the same numbers that appeared somewhere in the Portal 2 promotional ARG thing.

Several of us thought it might be Will Wright, but hmm, he has spoken many times. Someone thought possibly John Carmack, but the subject of the talk didn't fit. The speaker's name on the program and big screen in front of us was listed as "Phaedrus." The big screen showed mysterious hieroglyphics and an image of a human surrounded by transcendent energy. It also had the title "Metaphysics of Game Design...--Phaedrus."

Seriously, wtf is this? Someone said he thought Phaedrus might be the name of something in Portal. Or maybe it isn't. Then it dawned on me: look how baited we all are. This all we're talking about, this mystery because information was witheld from us. Where is this happening right now in the game industry? Answer: the Portal ARG. The point of an ARG is to make players seek out marketing materials rather than shun them (because they are looking for clues for the alternate reality game). And here we are, eating all this up because of the mystery, it's basically the same thing. It must be Gabe Newell.

At this point, Will Wright took the stage. Phaedrus is really Will Wright.

How am I even supposed to summarize what he said though? Have you guys seen a Will Wright lecture? It's a constant stream of ideas, graphs, random google images, and topic changes that seem to not relate to the previous topic. (Wait, or do they?) He's brilliant, but I really don't even know what to tell you here.

There was some stuff about the size of different entertainment industries, with sports and internet as the biggest two. After that was pornography, gambling and tv (what does that say about us?) Movies and games and a bunch of other things after that. He drew a bunch of lines between them all showing the flow from one media to another.

Each kind of media is pretty isolated from the others, like different fields of science are pretty isolated from each other. Will says the intersections of science (interdisciplinary stuff) is where the most interesting stuff happens. He thinks this will be true for entertainment as well.

The average amount of personal data a person created a couple hundred years ago or something was about 1k. (Land deeds, shipping manifests, etc.) He stepped us through to when that became 10k, 100k, 1MB, and so on. He thinks is 1GB now or maybe he said 10GB. He thinks by the time he dies it might be up to 1TB. This includes all the writing, text, video, that you create and leave behind. He says that there's a half-life for that data after you die (some time where 50% of that data is simply lost). In the previous generation, that data was scattered around on floppy discs and stuff. Now so much is in "the cloud" that he thinks the halflife is getting much longer.

Young spend lots of time "playing" and this goes down and down as they get older. They have very little "real experience" when they around young and then more and more of their lives become "real experience" as they get older (less play). Will says this distinction makes less and less sense now. Virtual is real now, basically. We all spend so much time online and "playing" in some sense that it's hard to even draw that line now.

A graph of how much people watch movies by age groups shows that it's almost a flat line. Young people watch a bit more, but that's about it. The same graph showing game playing though, is not flat at all. Old people are at about zero while young people have a HUGE spike. He says this will become a wave as time goes on. He means it will pass over all the other age groups too, and when you and I are 70 years old, we'll still play games. So the landscape will change a lot.

He said technology is changing and that the rate of change is increasing (see Kurzweil). He said if you asked someone in the year 1800 what life would be like in 1900, they wouldn't be too far off. If you asked people in 1900 about 2000, they'd be pretty far off. If you ask us right now about 2100, we really don't have a fucking clue anymore.

One thing we don't know how to predict is how robots and artificial life will turn out. Will it be like the terminator? Or friendly kids like in the movie Artificial Intelligence: AI? Will says no, those are both wrong. The future will actually be in hybrid man and machine. Implants, artificial parts, computers that we wear, that are part of us. I think I have this stuff out of order, because a few paragraphs below I'll mention Facebook, and I think Will's point here was that investing in Facebook stuff is a good bet, but investing in THIS stuff is really the next wave.

In geologic time, there was an explosion of life that happened in the Cambrian Era and we still don't know exactly why that happened. Before then, there were life forms that had been around a really long time, and things were kind of stable. Then there was a this explosion where most of the types of life as we know it showed up in a short span of just 50 million years (short in geologic time). Then Will showed a graph of new console releases since the Atari. It's pretty stable looking. He says right now, we're having an explosion of platforms. This is our Cambrian era.

He showed a slide with an absurd number of platforms. Oh, and he said a landmark moment that took us off the current trajectory was the Wii. Our trajectory seemed like more and more powerful game machines with more and more buttons, then this thing that grandmas can play showed up. Now there's iphones and facebook and a dozen other things. He said it's an exciting time, especially for an unemployed guy like himself. By the way, he's no longer at Maxis.

He said this is an exciting time to explore games because we have more possibilities now than we ever had. It's like an easter egg hunt with golden eggs, he said. Except that the easter egg hunt is taking place in a minefield. So it's also very possible to go bust right now because no one knows what's going on anymore.

Will said there's mostly just three types of graphs. A power curve (curves a bit up then up, up, UP!!!), an s-curve (curves UP but then levels off), and a bell curve. He says a common miscalculation is to believe a thing is a power curve when it's really an S-curve. He said smart investors try to identify the upswing of an s-curve and get it before it levels off. On his list of like 20 platforms, he put a gigantic arrow pointing to Facebook. (Remember, can't be a GDC 2010 lecture without mention of Facebook. They had armed guards to enforce this.) He said Facebook is an s-curve, not a power curve, and it's in the upswing right now. It will level off.

He showed a clip from a music video that showed graphics of a woman going about her day, including schematic views of the train she takes, the elevators she takes, and so on. From different angles, with different levels of abstraction, with flow arrows showing the movement other people, and so on. It's kind of showing "seeing the matrix" of a city as she goes around. Will says this is how he sees urban environments all the time, like it or not.

So back to platforms. There's a lot of technology platforms, but Will says two other platforms are "culture" and "psychology." You have to design for your target platform. For example, if your target platform for culture was "german girls" and your target for psychology was "the fantasy of riding a horse" then you'd make some horse simulator game that he showed a picture of. Then he showed what had to be more than TWENTY other horse riding games for girls in Germany. Wtf? Will said "and you thought The Sims had a lot of expansions."

He talked about some theory of cities that the center is the most desirable place to live, and commerce people an afford to pay the premium. Farther out, residential can pay, then farther than that, industry can pay. But then different things happened in real estate and it got kind of turned around. Gated communities are example where instead of people trying to get their place in the city, it's the place in the city trying to get the people. "Join our gated community rather than that other one because of X,Y,Z." Similarly, social networking stuff is the same way.

Linked-in wants you and so does Facebook. And so does like 1000 other things. He showed a picture of a squatter town, like migrants who set up tents to live there. He said these social groups are like that, except everyone has a jetpack and can instantly leave and go to some other group anytime they want.

There were more graphs and pictures, the usual talk of Walt Disney and EPCOT, some stuff about shooting mail in across the country in rockets, a thing about how mail was delivered in tubes across all of manhattan for 5 years until it became infeasible (the pipes really were clogged, just like the internet gets sometimes!). There was more geniusing and more topic changes and more google images and strange graphs, but that's about all I can remember.

There was no question an answer thing after (it would be unthinkable to have one for Will Wright), but I thought back to a few years ago when someone asked Chris Hecker my favorite question ever after a GDC talk: "What was your talk about?" (I actually know full-well what Hecker's talk was about that year, it was about "the photoshop of AI" but it was kind of mindblowing so I understand why the guy asked.) For Wil Wright, it's not that I think his lecture was bad or anything. It displayed his usual level of extreme smartness. But yeah, what was it about exactly? Phaedrus is a mysterious guy.


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