Game Developers Conference is a conference for game developers held in San Francisco sometime around March each year. I like going to GDC - it’s like going on holiday with a load of people I love and respect, where folk can discuss game design and industry issues among peers who (unlike most friends and family) understand what they’re talking about. Also there are parties every night, and great places to eat everywhere you go.
All of the conference sessions are recorded and put online at gdcvault.com. Access to the full archive requires a login ID that you get for attending a GDC event, but they also release some of the best talks for free. For the sake of this article I’ve gone through the vault and handpicked some of the best free talks from this year's conference, although if you can’t be bothered to watch 17 hours of videos you should at least skip to the last section and watch those four because they are really, really good.
If, on the other hand, you like what I've put together here and want more, just search the vault for more free videos!
To ease you in, here are three short sessions taken from the Indie Game and Game Narrative summits:
In Empathetic Games Are Here To Stay (25 minutes), Vander Caballero (of Papo & Yo fame) talks about the emergence of ‘Empathetic Games’ and gives some advice on how to tell personal stories without alienating your player. I think the most interesting idea is that of using metaphors to help players connect with emotional concepts, instead of straight up showing them the subject and hoping they’ll respond to it the way you want them to - so for example, in Papo & Yo, your relationship with the metaphorical big orange monster develops from a blank slate, free from the preconceptions or emotional baggage you might have about the thing the monster represents.
Away from game design and into the field of business, Steve Swink presents SCALE And The Ethics Of Kickstarter (20 minutes), based on his experience of crowdfunding the titular first-person shrinkage simulator. There’s some good, practical advice for anyone considering their own crowdfunding campaign, but the thing I appreciate most is the general brooding over the external cost of funding. Incidentally, you can tell this talk was from the Independent Games Summit because few people at the main conference would think twice about taking other people’s money.
If all that financial stuff was a bit dry for you, Michelle Clough’s Fewer Tifas Or More Sephiroths? Male Sexualisation In Games (25 minutes) is a rip-roaring guide to sexual depictions of men in games. She describes the gulf between power fantasies and eroticism, explores some of the cultural underpinnings that might explain where it comes from, and provides examples of how women’s sexual interests could be better served. AND SPEAKING OF WOMEN...
Elizabeth Sampat’s Women Don’t Want To Work In Games (And Other Myths) (45 minutes) and Brandon Sheffield and Jennifer Allaway’s Sexism And The Game Industry: An Empirical Study (30 minutes) provide two perspectives on the unenviable position of women within the games industry, while Manveer Heir’s Misogyny, Racism And Homophobia: Where Do Video Games Stand? (1 hour) is an expansive talk on the subject of representation within games - why it matters, where we’re going wrong, and what we can do about it.
All three of these talks are very comprehensively researched (particularly Jennifer Allaway’s work) and should leave you in no doubt about the systemic problems present in both the industry itself and the games it produces. But as depressing as that is, there were also some more positive sessions about how to improve the situation.
The #1ReasonToBe panel (1 hour, 15 minutes) brings a diverse group of speakers together to explain how they got into games and why they continue to do it. All of their stories are worth hearing, but at the very least you should catch the final electrifying speech by Deirdra Kiai about the pain of invisibility and the empowerment they found through developing Dominique Pamplemousse - one of the most powerful moments of the week.
Finally, if you’re not yet an underrepresented minority but you want to do more to help overcome these problems, check out Brandii Grace’s How To Be A Better Ally (30 minutes) for some tips.
One of the most popular formats for GDC talks is the portmortem, in which developers look back at how personal working processes, company politics and random luck influenced the development of one of their games.
There And Back Again: Koji Igarashi’s Metroidvania Tale (1 hour) is a look back at Symphony of the Night by the former Castlevania producer. He talks about the decision to make a 2D game at the height of the 3D revolution, why a vampire might care about humans, his prejudices regarding the steepness of staircases, and how confusion surrounding ownership of the franchise within Konami shaped the game's direction, before giving some advice on how to design a ‘Metroidvania’ style game.
Katsuya Eguchi and Aya Kyogoku presented How To Turn A New Leaf At The Animal Crossing (50 minutes), looking at how Nintendo EA&D revamped the Animal Crossing series for the recent 3DS game. Kyogoku strongly positions the game as a communication tool and speculates that making a game about communication made the development team more communicative with each other, but I think the biggest takeaway here for developers should be that “sharing the concept is more important than sharing design docs”. If the creative leads establish a clear enough vision for the game, they should be able to trust the rest of the team to support it with their own creativity.
Most interesting for me was Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue Postmortem (1 hour) - anyone who follows me on Twitter may remember that I played through the game for the first time just last year. I actually queued for about half an hour to get a good seat and you can see my massive head in the video, looming in the front row. In this detailed history, Suzuki talks about how the game was conceived during a research trip to China, its early Saturn prototypes, and how the team created a finely detailed, living world within the technical constraints of the day. And to answer the question most likely on your mind right now: Yes, there are some broad hints about where the story was going to go after Shenmue II.
GDC is prohibitively expensive, so a lot of people - particularly young indie developers - just buy cheap tickets for the indie games summit on the first two days and spend the rest of the week hanging out in the expo hall, Yerba Buena park, or nearby bars. In recent years some community-minded souls have organised Lost Levels, a free ‘unconference’ in the park on Thursday afternoon.
This year Lost Levels was split across three locations around the park, covering topics from string theory to erotic poetry to cookery. Before you start rolling your eyes and muttering to yourself, most of it relates back to games one way or another - for example, Phil Hassey talked about how sharing his game dev problems with his small herd of goats helps him to unwind. Even the most ‘off-topic’ sessions are basically a glimpse into what people do with their lives outside of game development, which if nothing else is interesting in the sense that such diverse activities can relate to the same common core.
In keeping with the do-it-yourself spirit of Lost Levels, you’ll have to search youtube for random recordings of the sessions. To start you off, Alan Hazelden has a couple of lengthy recordings covering two dozen presentations from one of the locations - Part 1 (1 hour 20 minutes) - Part 2 (50 minutes).
We were particularly lucky this year to be granted a presentation by industry superstar Ric Chivo, who shared his Top 10 Responsibilities For Game Designers (10 minutes) for all and sundry, including one very confused-looking businesswoman who was walking through the park on her lunch break.
Mental health is an issue that’s been coming up in GDC talks more and more regularly in recent years. I’m not sure whether this is because the slow collapse of the AAA industry is causing more widespread damage to developers’ state of mind, or that things have always been this way and we’re simply taking the problem more seriously now, but either way I think it’s good that we’re giving it more attention.
Nika Harper’s How To Become Fireproof: Surviving Internet Negativity (30 minutes) is a quick self-help toolkit for anyone who has to deal with internet abuse. We have our own way of handling comments here at Midnight Resistance, but many people - indie developers, community managers, journalists, etc - often have no option but to wade through these troll-infested bogs to connect with their legitimate community.
In more general terms, Russ Pits takes a culture-based approach to improving mental health in How To Depression-Proof Your Studio Culture (1 hour). This is full of great advice for studio managers, who often develop productivity-focused working cultures that amplify stressors and inhibit people’s natural coping mechanisms, creating all kind of personal problems for employees and paradoxically ruining productivity.
If the standard sessions are a bit slow for you, you might be interested in a microtalk. These are usually hour-long sessions in which ten speakers each deliver a five minute talk about something that’s been on their mind. When you’re unsure about what to see, these are often a good bet - if you’re finding the current speaker boring, you at least know you only have to wait a few minutes for them to shut up.
First off, Microtalks 2014 (1 hour 5 minutes) is a quick rush of opinions from ten game developers and critics. Subjects include how to have a conversation with a difficult coworker, how capitalist ideology is preventing games from exploring difficult subjects, and how physical movement changes the play experience, but what really impressed me was the way Emily Greer achieved what no PE teacher has ever managed to do, by making me feel enthusiastic about team sports.
Indie Soapbox (1 hour) is a similar smörgåsbord put on by the Indie Games Summit. Again, there’s too much here for me to neatly summarise, but it includes a huge roll call of underreported black indie developers, some thoughts on womanhood from the developer of Perfect Woman, and a lot of adorable photos of indie developers with babies.
Taking a slightly different approach, Rant Apocalypse: The 10th Anniversary Mega-Session (1 hour 15 minutes) is a group therapy session where developers get things off their chests. Highlights include Frank Lantz dragging up some of his most hated attitudes among game designers, Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris getting pissed off with fans for ‘defending’ her game Redshirt in the face of valid criticism, and (although it sounds like she didn’t want to be involved in this year’s talk) the excerpts from Anna Anthropy’s blog read by Chris Hecker.
For me personally, the following sessions were the best of the week, and I’ve been urging people to watch them whenever possible ever since the videos appeared online. Now it’s your turn:
In Hearts and Minds (1 hour) Frank Lantz makes an eloquent argument that games reconcile the ‘conflict’ between art and science - between feeling and reason. I can’t really summarise his points in a way that would do them justice, but he expresses beautifully a lot of concepts that most game designers are aware of, but struggle to put into words.
Strangely absent from the GDC Vault, David Kanaga's Music Object, Substance, Organism (15 minutes) is a video presentation about creating 'organic realism' in game audio; not in the sense of literal realism (such as those racing sim developers who record all the mechanical sounds of different parts of the car) but in the sense of relating game audio to the player's actions. For example, the idea that sound should be generated by tactile interactions, either with the player or between in-game objects. The video itself uses a lot of audiovisual effects to express this philosophy, and makes for interesting viewing even if you don't agree with its overall thesis.
Next up, Brenda Romero goes all in on perfection with Jiro Dreams of Game Design (1 hour). Inspired by a recent documentary about a sushi master, she draws analogies between elder game designers and Michelin starred chefs, rails against the limitations of commercial game development, and sets out clear responsibilities for senior designers to their teams and the wider community. My biggest complaint about this talk is that I wish I could have heard it years ago; it’s the kind of thing I’d like to keep a copy of, to watch whenever I’m in a slump.
Finally, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop (2 hours, 5 minutes) is a mammoth event held in the largest hall, last thing on Friday afternoon. The queue forms over an hour in advance, and the truly organised nip out to the shops to load up on snacks before that.
To my mind, the EGW has taken on a role similar to the closing ceremony at the Olympics. It’s a two-hour comedown where thousands of conference attendees settle in together with friends to see a dozen of the strangest games currently in development being demonstrated by their creators. It’s a relaxing way to end the week and often highly inspirational, if not mind-meltingly weird (witness Miegakure, a four-dimensional platformer shown at last year’s conference), which leaves the audience feeling uplifted as they prepare to pack their suitcases and return to their caves for another year.
This year’s featured games included playing through a timeline of your life based on data mined from Facebook, ‘hacking’ into the actual source code of an RPG to change the properties of objects and thus solve puzzles, a rhythm-based approach to FPS games, a platform game that mixes two layers of game world using the Kinect-captured shape of your body, a game about rearranging panels of a comic to change the flow of the story, a Spirograph-like puzzle game inspired by Islamic art, a platform game set in an infographics presentation, and more.
And there you have it - GDC coverage. Now get lost.