I returned from GDC 2013 a week ago, and I brought back four important things:
- an inspiring vision of what games still have to accomplish
- a wonderful memory of time spent with new and old friends, of relationships warming and growing closer, of challenges and cheering and all that great stuff
- a sense of apprehension about my own role and path in the industry and about where I will end up going with this
- a horrific case of Convention Plague which has crushed my entire respiratory track in its talons and kept me almost completely bed-ridden for over a week
So, after spending most of last week’s deadlines hallucinating and unconscious, I come to deliver my post-GDC report. I couldn’t decide whether to do an overview of the talks and the general theme of the 2013 conference, or to do more of a practical advice column for the conference in general to help other GDC neophytes with the culture shock (which I’m still suffering from after my second go around).
But hey, I have a fever, so doing both sounds like a great idea, right?
GDC 2013 – A Bright Future Ahead
Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku summed up the mood and theme of GDC 2013 as, “We can do this better,” and that’s pretty accurate, though I’d say there is as much hope as disappointment in that statement. Whether it was looking at how we can push the boundaries of new play and story models or how we can make the gaming industry and community more welcoming for minorities, this year’s GDC offered both a frank look at our shortcomings and some great suggestions as to where to go from here.
GDC is traditionally broken up into two parts, the Summit and Tutorial section on Mon/Tues and the main lectures from Wed to Fri; you can get cheaper passes for each, or access to both for almost $2000. This year, I sprang for a pass for the Narrative Summit and, as a result, most of the sessions I attended were focused on writing, storytelling, and narrative design in games. Story in games is still in a weird place – often seen as unnecessary and still balancing weirdly between emulating film and attempting to capture the unique, interactive nature of the medium – so lectures on the discipline of writing and storytelling in games always have a bit of a “new frontier” kind of feel to them. This year had some particularly amazing talks that either challenged what we are doing or envisioned what we could be doing in the future. Here are some of the most enlightening talks, in no particular order:
- Jay Posey spoke about the difference between realism and authenticity when writing for video games; to sum up, the *reality* of being a special ops soldier (hiding in a swamp for 72 hours, taking a single picture of a target, then waiting another 24 hours before leaving) will not always make for a good game, and in many ways will feel less *authentic* than what the audience THINKS a special ops soldier would do (slog through swamp, guns blazing, taking out the target). While he highlighted the importance of accurate research and using primary sources, he also emphasized the importance of taking audience perception into account and that, sometimes, it’s more important for something to FEEL real than actually be real.
- Peter Garchin offered an interesting notion; why can’t we generate story the same way that sports games do? When you think about it, the commentators in a soccer game are like narrators telling the story that YOU generate by scoring a goal, missing a pass, etc.
- The creators of Defender’s Quest gave a pretty awesome post-mortem on their game that really illustrated the power of letting your game mechanics inform your storytelling rather than letting them float separately from each other. For example, they wanted to have an RPG-themed tower defense game where you summoned heroes from the currency dropped by enemies… but how would that all work? Why would enemies stream mindlessly towards the player? What “Macguffin” would need to be protected? Why do the monsters drop currency? Why can that be used to summon people? Answering these questions from a storytelling perspective (rather than just, “because that’s the way it works”) helped construct the entire story framework for the game.
- One of the most critical and interesting talks was about violence and giving it context in games, using Spec Ops as an example (the speaker, Walt Williams, was one of the narrative designers). Rather than making blanket condemnation of violence in games, Williams pointed out that violence has consequence in and out of world, and that strong games will hold this up without getting preachy or tying it up in in-game punishment like reputation loss. One powerful example is a segment where, after shooting through multiple enemies, the player may easily shoot a running, screaming refugee woman by accident; none of the other characters comment on this and the player is not punished in any way… save for the stinging of their own conscience. The talk was really interesting for anyone interested in Spec Ops or how to deal with violence or trauma in a game.
- One of the most emotionally powerful and important talks of the Narrative Summit was from Tom Abernathy on the importance – moral, creative, and business – of diversity in games. In a speech that covered everything from the amazing shifts in quality drama on television – directly aided by fantastic female characters like those in Homeland and Game of Thrones – to the surprising demographic breakdown of who’s REALLY buying video games (hint: not just straight white men), Tom made it clear in no uncertain terms that there is absolutely no reason for there to be resistance to the idea of putting more women, people of color, or people of differing sexualities or gender identities in games. They make stories better, they make more money with broader audiences, and they make the world a better place.
- Probably my favorite talk of the conference, however, would be Jesse Schell’s talk on the future of game storytelling, if only for how it showed that we have only scratched the surface of what kind of stories we can tell. For example, Schell pointed out that most games are concerned with verbs that are “below the belt,” as it were – running, kicking, shooting, jumping – while other storytelling media incorporate verbs above the belt as well – begging, negotiating, reasoning, connecting. He said that as game writers begin to branch out into those “upper” verbs and actions, we’ll begin to see new stories and, more importantly, new games. He also posited that there might be more interplay BETWEEN player and character… imagine a Mass Effect where the player could ask Shepard what he/she thought of the last mission and Shepard answers honestly before asking the player the same! Schell suggested that we may start thinking of our game characters more like companions than simple extentions of ourselves.
- Lastly, special mention should be made of the Q&A panel about being a new game writer. If you are ever at GDC and wondering how to become a game writer, what it’s like to work in teams, the differences between freelancing and fulltime work and other knotty questions, check out this panel, hosted by my friend Toiya Finley and featuring a great table of diverse writers and storytellers.
There were, of course, many other brilliant panels and discussions, many of which I wasn’t able to attend – the #1ReasonToBe panel in particular got a lot of fanfare all over the Internet for Brenda Romero, Leigh Alexander, Mattie Brice and other awesome women talking about the ups and the rather horrible, shameful downs of being women in the games industry. Also, not going to lie… nearly shelled out another $1000 just so I could attend the Sexuality in Games talk by lead Bioware writer David Gaider.
Unfortunately, there were also some hiccups as well, both in and out of the conference. Some of the talks I attended just didn’t quite hit the mark (Warren Spector’s was an hour talk crammed into 25 mins and missed a lot of major points, while the FarCry 3 talk just felt WAY too meandering and self-important), but the biggest misstep was probably the IGDA Party, which, thanks to a five block lineup, I decided not to attend. Good thing, too, as it was not only one of those obnoxiously loud raves (how do you network and chat to people in those anyway?) but it also featured some scantily clad female dancers (hired by party organizer Yetizen, not IGDA), the day before that aforementioned talk about how women get marginalized in the industry. WHOOPS. Come on, guys, we can do better than this!
Is GDC For You And Me?
Despite learning a huge amount from the Narrative Summit and having a wonderful time reconnecting with old friends from previous game conferences, there were still a few times at this GDC when I felt overwhelmed and a little out of place. GDC is not like PAX; it assumes that you are either already in the industry proper or that you are actively trying to get in (e.g. as a student looking for work, as an indie dev looking for backing, etc). I don’t really fall into either category at the moment – I’m more of a past-industry member who is happy to be on the sidelines while working on personal projects – and as such sometimes have trouble finding the “sweet spot” at conferences like this. GDC can still be massively helpful and successful for even hobbyists, but it’s not for everyone, and if you’re thinking of attending one year, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Can you afford it? GDC is very, VERY expensive. If you want all access – the summits, the regular talks, the expo, and video vault access afterwards – you’re looking at almost $2000. Summits are about $700; Main Conference is $900. Yes, there are “cheaper” expo passes (about $200, I believe?), but you miss all the talks (great places to meet people and ask questions) and don’t have much to do other than stalk the expo hall and recruitment center. And of course, staying in San Francisco isn’t exactly cheap either. In the end, the question of whether or not GDC is for you is, sadly, tied tightly to the question of affording it, and whether you need to get bang for your buck.
2. What parts of the conference are of most interest to you? Obviously this depends somewhat on your discipline, whether you’re a programmer or artist or sound engineer etc. If you’re interested in the overall scope of games (e.g. their role in the world, games as stories, etc etc), you’re best served by either attending the Narrative Summit or by getting a Main Conference pass and attending the Game Design and/or Advocacy tracks. I would go for the Expo pass if a) you want to go to the recruitment hall to look for work, or b) there’s a specific company, person, or group of people you want to connect with and you need access to the conference to do so. As for the All Access pass, it is definitely the sauce, and if you have the money, go for it, but it’s up to you to then judge how much return you expect for a $2k investment.
3. Are you trying to get into the industry, and if so, at what “state” are you at? If you’re still more at the, “I think I wanna work in games,” stage, I’d save your money and either work on your portfolio or look at game schools. GDC isn’t the best place for people with a total blank resume (though again, if you can afford it, you’ll make some good connections and get great ideas!) If you’re a student, you’ll have a lot of fellow students to compete with, but the conference is well set-up to accomodate new and up-and-coming grads who have their heart set on finding a job, and a smart student can make some great connections.
4. If you’re NOT trying to get into the industry, what is your interest in GDC? If you are an academic or into critical games journalism, GDC is great for you, both in terms of its talks and its social atmosphere. This is, after all, where a lot of the high-level discussion takes place, and you can have some amazing conversations about ludonarrative dissonance or how the UI of ACIII is borked over 2AM beers. Things are a tiny bit less inviting for what I would call the hobbyist – the person who has a non-gaming day job and is NOT job hunting, thanks very much, but likes making or talking about games in their spare time and wants to know more about the medium. GDC offers some great informational content for hobbyists (e.g. the talks in the narrative summit) and lots of really great people to talk to, but given the conferences’ emphasis on being in or getting into the industry, there can be a lot of pressure to constantly network or party or otherwise market yourself more than you originally planned. Luckily, the game writers are very chill and happy to hang out with almost anyone, so I was pretty happy, and as my main goal for GDC was to reconnect with the game writers, mission accomplished! For other people considering it, though, identify what your main goals for the conference are… then be prepared for the inevitable barrage of well-meant job-hunting advice to NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK GIVE EVERYONE YOUR BUSINESS CARD YOU ARE LOOKING FOR WORK AFTER ALL, RIGHT?
5. Are you an introvert? If you are, then not going to lie, GDC can suck sometimes. Again, you are implicitly expected to spend the day meeting new people, exchanging business cards, and making an impression… and then you’re supposed to spend all hours of the night at different parties doing the same thing. And did I mention there are tens of thousands of game devs there? I found my friend Deirdra Kiai’s guide to being an introvert at GDC immensely helpful, particularly in its encouragement to take whatever “me” time you need. Find an empty table or a hallway, plop down, pull out a laptop or smart phone or what have you and just give yourself a time out. If your hotel is nearby, go back and have a nap. Attend sessions if you have the right pass; it’s a lot less stressful to listen to someone else talk in front of people than to be gregarious and social. If possible, check out the Lost Levels “unconference,” a smaller and free series of casual microtalks hosted near GDC (I really regret missing this!) And don’t feel super pressured to go to ALL THE PARTIES or even some of the parties. This is how I approach my conferences, and while I realize I’m probably missing out on Serious Networking Opportunities, I feel like I had a much happier, more personally successful GDC, and in the end, I’m the one paying the bill (see #1), so that’s what counts. Find your balance, and stick to it… and if you’re really, really introverted, then perhaps give it a miss until you’re really sure what you want to do. And worst case scenario, just do what I did… contract Con Plague and spend most of the day resting in your hotel room!
Overall, despite how overwhelming GDC can sometimes be, I had a wonderful time and feel like it was well worth it. Hopefully I’ll be able to afford the next one… and hopefully, I’ll see some of you there!
Have you been to GDC? What were your experiences?