Jeez, if there was one thing that could make up for missing Will Wright's talk earlier, it's sitting at his feet while this session was delivered! So my mood is slightly improved, although we have to wait between 2-6 weeks before GDC posts the recording (if they do so at all). Anyone find a transcript or a recording out there yet?
So, my notes on the last session of the day. Hosted by Eric "Stage Presence" Zimmerman, the panel was feisty, passionate and speed-talking. I got most of it, bar the detail (who needs it?).
IGDA Session: Burning Down The House - Game Developers Rant
Warren Spector, Brenda Laurel, Jason Della Rocca, Chris Hecker.
Eric: We do not live in a perfect world and this is not a perfect industry. I’m moderating this panel of illustrious curmudgeons who have a lot to say about what’s right and what’s wrong with this industry today. Every GDC and in the corridors of the companies where we work, there are complaints. Grumblings. This year it’s quality of life and working conditions in the industry. The idea of this panel is to bring out those rumblings, bring them to light. So without further ado:
First of all I don’t hate you, Will Wright. I just had one of those "I’m not worthy" moments in the elevator. YOU ARE the 800lb gorilla.
OK. I don’t feel very ranty actually. I tried to bail on this panel. But I have to say something so I want to say how this business is hopelessly broken. Haha. We’re doing pretty much everything wrong. This is at the root of much of what you’re gonna hear today. Games cost too much. They take too long to make. The whole concept of word of mouth, remember that? Holy cow it was nice.
Wal-Mart drives development decisions now. When publishers minimise risk by kow-towing to the retailers, you have a serious problem. When every game has to either be a blockbuster or a student film, we got a real problem. For my end of the game business all of our efforts are going into reaching a mainstream audience who may well even not be interested in what we do! My first game cost me 273,000 dollars. My next one is BLAH millions. How many of you work on games that make money? 4 out of 5 games lose money, according to one pundit who may be lying, admittedly. Can we do any worse if we just trusted the creative folks entirely instead of the publishers?
My point is coming. We’re the only medium that lacks an alternate distribution system. All we have is boxed games sold at retail. This is changing a little. But think about our competition for your entertainment dollar. First run, broadcast, reruns, DVDs.. you name it. hardback, paperback, e-book. Theatre release, pay-per-view, video, DVD. We put our thing on the shelf at Wal-Mart, it sells or it doesn’t, and OMG you just blew 10m dollars. The publishers not respecting developers, this is not the problem. We have a flawed distribution model. There are very few ways of getting a game done these days. Developers.. why should we get a huge return? We’re taking some of the risk, but the $10m, the marketing space, the retail space all belong to someone else. We have winner-take-all business that carries a lot of risk. So .. we have to find alternative sources of funding. Chris Crawford used to rant about how we need patrons.. I don’t care if it’s wealthy patrons, I don’t care what it IS, but it’s critical that we divorce funding from distribution.
We need alternative forms of distribution too. I’m not saying publishers suck, although I do believe that in many cases. [laughter] If the plane went down who would care about the marketing guys? We need another way of getting games out there and in players' hands. If any of you bought Half Life 2 at Wal-Mart, please just leave the room. Has everyone bought Bioware’s online modules? JUST BUY THEM, OK, even if you don’t have the original games! We HAVE to get games into gamers’ hands. So I’m not saying publishers are evil.. if we do all this and go direct to our consumers with games funded some OTHER way than EA or whoever.. we’ll keep more of the money.. we have to find someone to pay for it and find a buyer after. We need Sundances. Independent Film Channel. Equivalents of those. Just try to find some way of funding your stuff that doesn’t come from a publisher.
The movies have this now: the studios don’t fund everything that happens out there. I’m not holding the movie business up as a model of great business practice, but you can get $ from a wide variety of sources. You know what, when the studio system was in place, that didn’t exist. Every creative person was owned by a studio. Cinemas were owned by studios. Content was limited. As soon as the supreme court stepped in and said no you can’t have development, distribution and retailing, everything changed. Now we have Bruckheimer, and Sideways. Sundance. Indies. At the very worst we need publishers to ask more than that one question: is this going to generate max profit. For most games this is NOT THE RIGHT QUESTION. Volkswagen owns rolls Royce, they understand the need for – oh the music’s running, I’m outta here. Thank you.
Jason Della Rocca:
My first rant is related to my work with the IGDA. Meta-level issues. When we’re talking diversity, quality of life, censorship. This are big infinite problems that will never really be solved . These big pictures issues affect developers daily lives. One day your publisher will walk in and cut a game because the government says you can’t make X types of games. That could happen, it's unlikely but possible. But developers are apathetic, head in the sand. But I’m going to cross that off the list cos the room is full here. We need bigger rooms! I don’t want to be negative about GDC, but .. the sessions that have been most packed .. the game design challenge or Will Wright’s talk, seem to be the thing we’re most interested in, and it’s really important that we’re here and talking and I don’t know why they don’t allocate larger rooms to this issue. (Hallelujah -Alice). So apathy is a serious issue. For every one of you in this room there are a thousand out there who don’t care.
Xenophobia. We don’t’ care about anything outside of the game industry. There is so much knowledge, research, business models, management practices out there. We don’t pay attention to anything else outside, and that hurts us in many ways! Software development pros tells us we’re fools – there are tons of systems, processes and tools out there that you could use. This pro, he doesn’t make games.. and you all shake your head and say he doesn’t make games, what does he know, but you know – medical applications are pretty unique! If your machine crashes, someone might die. So yeah, we’re unique, but so are they – and there is decades of research and knowledge that proves that these processes have return, this management stuff is in my brain right now, it’s one of millions of examples of how we as an industry don’t pay attention to other stuff just because it’s not called games. This fear of formal processes. We’re creative cowboys - well it holds back the industry. We had several panels throughout the weeks, the academics, the brainiacs are willing to do this stuff for free. Give them a challenge! Give them a problem – some PhD students could research shipping practices or something.
Journalists and the media side is also broken. I don’t want to point a finger, but they perpetuate a lot of myths about what gamers want, and want counts in the industry. So to sum – open up. Don’t be closed minded to all this stuff out there. Maybe we’re all working too hard to take notice, but I guess that’s an issue we’re working on too.
I don't know about you but I could have been a lawyer, or a carpenter. or a sous-chef. How many of you are here because you’re after a paycheck? [One bloke raises his hand, audience laughs and crows]. Ahuh. And how many of you are here because you love games? [all hands go up]. Right. So we’re being told that everything’s going to get bigger. Paychecks. Budgets. Consoles. But is it going to get better? I’ve been researching old board games and I’ve spotted a pattern. A new genre: it’s called One Hit Game And Its Imitators. One fishing game appears in mid-19C and dozens follow. Games grow through innovations. Creations of new game styles that spawn imitators and whole new markets. The story of the past few decades is not about graphics and processing power, but startling innovation and industry. That’s why we love games. BUT IT’S OVER NOW!
As recently as 1992: games cost 200K. Next generation games will cost 20m. Publishers are becoming increasingly risk averse. Today you cannot get an innovative title published unless your last name is Wright or Miyamoto. Who was at the Microsoft keynote? I don’t know about you but it made my flesh crawl. [laughter] The HD era? Bigger, louder? Big bucks to be made! Well not by you and me of course. Those budgets and teams ensure the death of innovation. Was your allegiance bought at the price of a television? Then there was the Nintendo keynote. This was the company who established the business model that has crucified the industry today.. Iwata-san has the heart of a gamer, and my question is what poor bastard’s chest did he carve it from? [audience falls about]
How often DO they perform human sacrifices at Nintendo?? My friends, we are FUCKED [laughter]. We are well and truly fucked. The bar in terms of graphics and glitz has been raised and raised until we can’t afford to do anything at all. 80 hour weeks until our jobs are all outsourced to Asia. but it’s ok because the HD era is here right? I say, enough. The time has come for revolution! It may seem to you that what I describe is inevitable forces of history, but no, we have free will! EA could have chosen to focus on innovation, but they did not. Nintendo could make development kits cheaply available to small firms, but they prefer to rely on the creativity on one aging designer. You have choices too: work in a massive sweatshop publisher-run studio with thousands of others making the next racing game with the same gameplay as Pole Position. Or you can riot in the streets of Redwood City! Choose another business model, development path, and you can choose to remember why you love games and make sure in a generation’s time there are still games to love. You can start today.
I want to talk about the spectacle. The meanings created by images that hold us in webs. My thesis is that we are contributing to the damage that the spectacle does to human beings by suggesting the interactivity of a joystick is real agency. We entrain people to understand that imitation has personal power. The spectacle trains us to be consumers. We are urged to keep the economy healthy, pay our bills. Did you ever notice there’s not place for the earth on the bottom line? We cancelled the Voyager mission for less than the cost of a video game! The dream of space appropriated by George W Bush? How can we stand for this?
Games keep essential social myths in place. So we have tropes in our business. Criminals are cool. The commercial game business is a non-consensual relationship between middle aged men and young boys. It’s worse than the catholic church. These are guys who have really big tyres on their trucks … and we all know why! [laughter] So the fantasies of these guys position these boys as tiny little clones: so they force you to take your genius to create this .. this .. we can’t have that fellas. Oh by the way there was a crowd in the ladies bathroom today. w00t!
GTA. I talked to 22 little boys in LA, all of them wanted to see that game. With only one exception, the thing that they wanted to see was to be able to drive by their house. They weren’t interested in stealing cars. Or the criminals. Or the back-story. They weren’t interested in that, they wanted the simulation of driving by the house.
We model male ethos in the games we design: soldier, super athlete, criminal. Anyone who was born with internet and computers are prosocial. Skaters are mainstream. We have two models of alpha maleness: skaters and ballers [I have no idea what this is referring to - A]. … we need heroes, but what kind of heroes are we making? Where’s Malcolm X, or Chavez? There hasn’t been a game about geopolitics that was worth a shit since Hidden Agenda! We should be giving people rehearsals for citizenship and change. I have to tell you, Microsoft is the walking dead. DRM is a wet dream. It’s not gonna work! Cat’s out the bag! When this happens, you have to let the cards fly in the air and fall where they may. GIVE IT UP ABOUT DRM. GIVE IT UP ABOUT OWNERSHIP. Cleave to open source! A NEW ECONOMY IS COMING. As we become further connected we will find new economies emerging. We are the wellspring of popular culture. We have a responsibility.
It pains me to say this but I recently just took a job at EA. However, I worked for Will on the game you just saw, so.. [laughter] I’m going to rant about How Sony And Microsoft Are About To Screw Your Game Design. Look, how are we going to get where gameplay, graphics and physics are all evenly well balanced? At the moment we’re the 120lb weakling, except nowadays his right arm here, graphics, is enormous.
So, as you know, graphics and physics grind on large homogenous floating point data structures in a very straight-line structured way. Then we have AI and gameplay code. Lots of exceptions, tunable parameters, indirections and often messy. We hate this code, it’s a mess, but this is the code that makes the game DIFFERENT. Here is the terrifying realization about the next generation consoles: I’m about to break a ton of NDAs here, oh well, haha, I never signed them anyway.
Gameplay code will get slower and harder to write on the next generation of consoles. Modern CPUs use out-of-order execution, which is there to make crappy code run fast. This was really good for the industry when it happened, although it annoyed many assembly language wizards in Sweden. Xenon and Cell are both in-order chips. What does this mean? It’s cheaper for them to do this. They can drop a lot of cores. One out-of-order core is about four times [did I catch that right? Alice] the size of an in-order core. What does this do to our code? It’s great for grinding on floating point, but for anything else it totally sucks. Rumours from people actually working on these chips – straight-line runs 1/3 to 1/10th the performance at the same clock speed. This sucks.
We hope Nintendo doesn’t follow Sony and Microsoft on this, although they totally flailed this generation so anything could happen. Think about batchable designs and simulationy systems. You wanna just write the gameplay. You could just do PC games. Luckily due to the power of Will Wright, our game is a PC game! [laughter]
Eric: I had no idea what I was going to get when I put this panel. What an incredible panel I got. Questions?
Q: Retail developers, get out of your death march! Do you guys think it’s possible for a young student who wants to get in to be an independent developer? Is this possible? Artists these days are getting a 30K dollar degree to work in a 40K job for 80 hours a week. It’s disgusting.
Jason: not an easy path. IGDA are trying to help. All the time when .. we see a lot of students and schools, and when they work on game projects in schools, every one of those projects is a clone of an existing game. NOW is your time to make something innovative or wacky. When you’re working on a student project, use your opportunity to do some crazy stuff!www.experimentalgameplay.com
Brenda: we work with our students so that they have a chance to do interactive media that isn’t just game design.
Q: (Justin) I have a friend called Ben who has this idea for zines that can be passed around.. you think the consoles will ever be platforms for this sort of stuff?
Brenda: I think mobile’s the platform for that.
Warren: we’re developing for multiple platforms. Hah. We still have to figure out what our final deal is. I dunno if I expressed it very well, but all of the problems come back to the fact that you are under the control of the one person who gives you money.
Brenda: why don’t you say fuck?
Warren: my mother doesn’t approve.
Jason: Warren wears cardigan sweaters.
Eric: You are a very good Jewish son.
Warren: thank you
Q: I am one of the bad guys: I’m working on a big budget next generation console game. I want to ask about totally legalised piracy? Not Russia and grey market – I’m talking Blockbuster. 20 dollars a year you can borrow whatever you like then give it back. People are going to rent my game for 4 dollars. I won’t see any of that. They’re robbing me!
Chris: I’m pro-piracy. I want people to play the games I make. I do it because it’s art. I think DRM is a total fucking stupid mess. If the game industry collapses and can be reborn, I’m all for it. Pirate on!
Greg: they’re not pirating the game! Someone bought a legal copy! The world is not designed in such a way that money inherently funnels its way into your wallet!?
Warren: I never minded piracy. Anyone who minds about piracy is full of shit. Anyone who pirates your game wasn’t going to buy it anyway!
[the session was brought to an end by the GDC organisers who were timekeeping, to huge booing and catcalling.]
So that's that. Fucking fantastic. Nothing could top that, so I'm off to the pub.