GDC Developer Rant

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Please read this article. I know it's long, but it's important.

Game Developers RANT!

A group of game industry veterans wrapped up GDC 2005 with a roar, venting about all the problems they see hampering the business...

By Dave 'Fargo' Kosak | March 16, 2005

There's no doubt that the games industry has pushed out some great products lately, but long-time players ask why we're not seeing anything really new. That frustration of dedicated gamers is echoed, even amplified, within the industry itself. If you've been following the game development scene in recent years, you'd definitely have spotted a seething undercurrent of frustration among game developers. And not just the struggling independents!

Is the game industry fundamentally flawed? Has it mutated into a strange evolutionary dead-end, where people slave away in sweat-shop conditions to crank out derivative products with better graphics, sponsored by publishers terrified of taking any risks on creative ideas?

Depending on their paycheck, some people in the industry think that the current creative rut is just a natural part of the industry's evolution. Others see this as a crisis point. This year at the Game Developer's Conference, a special panel was set aside toward the end of the show, specifically for industry veterans to rant about the problems that they feel need to be addressed

"Rant" seems like too sterile a word. What transpired was an emotional catharsis, a spewing of pent-up rage. Like Ahab facing Moby Dick, if their chests were cannons, these developers would've shot their hearts upon the white humps of Sony and Microsoft. Judging by the packed auditorium and occasional standing ovations, the sentiments expressed were views widely held. I was surprised the lecture didn't end with the passing out of pitchforks and torches. People were angry!

Heading up the panel was a group of people moderator Eric Zimmerman described as "Illustrious Curmudgeons," with something like a combined total of over 100 years in the gaming industry. You had: Warren Spector, creator of Thief and Deus Ex, struggling to start a new development house. Jason Della Rocca, the Director of the IGDA. Greg Costikyan, who's been in the industry since the pen-and-paper days and has dozens of games, board games, and RPGs under his belt. Brenda Laurel, an industry consultant and commentator since 1976 who's written several books and sits on the advisory boards of the Berkeley Institute of Design and the M.I.T. Comparative Media Studies program among others. And Chris Hecker, from the GDC Advisory Board, who heads up the GDC Experimental Gameplay Workshop every year, and is a frequent contributor to industry publications like Game Developer Magazine and The Journal of Graphics Tools. What did they have to say?

Warren Spector: "This Business is Hopelessly Broken."

Spector stepped up to the podium with a huge stack of notes that ultimately he ended up tossing over his shoulder, having far too little time to get into all of the problems he saw with how games were made and sold today. First and foremost? Games cost too much, and there's not enough outlets to sell them.

Look at the movie industry, for example: After the domestic box office, movies are then sold overseas, then they go to Pay-Per-View, then to the cable companies, then they're sold to the rental places, and eventually maybe to Network TV. A movie has a million channels through which consumers might pay for it. But games? They appear on store shelves, and then within two months they disappear due to limited retail space. That's the ignominious end of up to four years of development!

As a result, games have to hit big and they have to hit quick. "Every game has to be a blockbuster or a student film," grumbles Spector. In such a climate, Wal-Mart ends up making design decisions. "We have a flawed funding and distribution model!" he called out, thumping the podium. He asked the audience to support online distribution, any mechanism that'll work alongside of retail to get games out to people.

Spector says that he was once told that 4 out of 5 games lose money. This is despite all the ridiculous focus-testing and market research. With those odds, he says, can we do any worse if we trusted the creatives?

Ideally, game publishers would ask more than one question. They wouldn't ask which products would "generate maximum profit." The movie industry, with distributors like Miramax or Fox Searchlight, has found ways to be experimental. The games industry needs to do the same.

Jason Della Rocca: Developers Should Care About the Big Picture

As Director of the IGDA (International Game Developers Association), Della Rocca sees the industry from a unique perspective. When issues like the "Quality of Life" problem come up (the EA_Spouse story is sadly not unique), it's his organization that tries to wrap its head around the problem to determine solutions. What he finds is that game developers, struggling to hit their next milestone, are often apathetic about these big industry issues. Software engineers in other fields have reams of research on how to develop products without obscene hours of crunch time: the game development community needs to look outside its own walls to find and use those solutions!

Della Rocca also complained about gaming journalism. He didn't speak long on the topic, but said that game magazines and web sites perpetuate the myth of what gamers want, making the creative rut all the worse. Judging by the applause, he audience agreed.

Greg Costikyan: "My Friends, We Are F--ed."

Probably the best speaker of the afternoon was Costikyan, whose original notes are posted on his blog if you want a complete transcript. Costikyan has been in the industry from the earliest days and approached the topic from a historical perspective: he said that every major success in gaming has come from bursts of innovation followed by imitators. It was true for board games, for RPGs, and ultimately for gaming.

"But it's over now," he says.

The reason is the escalating costs. Companies are estimating the cost of next-generation games will be over $20 million per title. Publishers don't want to take risks with that kind of price hanging over their heads. Without risks, there's no innovation. Without innovation, the industry chokes on itself.

Costikyan says that the Microsoft Keynote Speech made his flesh crawl. MS talks about big bucks, big bucks ... but none of it to be made by game developers themselves. MS gave away HD monitors at the end of their keynote: "Was your allegiance bought at the price of a television?" Costikyan asked.

The Nintendo keynote didn't win Costikyan over, either. "Iwata says he has the heart of a gamer," he points out. "What poor bastard did he carve it from?" Costikyan railed against Nintendo's premise, asking "is our idea of innovation blowing into a microphone?"

The industry, he concludes, is too terrified to take risks. The answer? Revolution! The game development community has choices. He asked the room, do they want to work in some sweat shop cranking out car models for some crappy Gran Turismo racing game sequel that has the same basic gameplay as Pole Position? Or do they want to "defy the machine?" He encouraged people to set up independent studios, to support shareware and digital distribution, and to start making creative games today.

There's been subsequent followup and discussion on Costikyan's blog, if you're interested in more reports from the front line.

Brenda Laurel: An Unhealthy Relationship between Old Men and Young Boys

Laurel stepped back and took a broader view, looking at games not just as a business but as a cultural force. In that light, the current crop of products the industry cranks out isn't just disappointing -- it's criminal. In a wavering voice, strained with passion, she absolutely exploded.

"Games imitate tropes that keep stereotypes in place," she claimed. 'Criminals are cool.' 'War is awesome.' This is the result, she says, of a non-consensual relationship between old men in suits and small boys who buy their product. These old men, holding the purse strings of the industry, force their 70-year-old fantasies on a new generation.

She says that she asked 8-12 year old boys in the L.A. area what they were most excited about in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and says that most of them answered that they wanted to drive by their house. Not be a gangster or anything: they just wanted to see their house. What roles is the industry giving these kids to play out? Soldiers, thugs, or star athletes? What about heroes? What about John Glenn, Richard Feynman, Caesar Chavez? Games, she asserts, should be rehearsals for citizenship.

How should the development community respond? She says that a new economy is forming, that up-and-coming developers should cling to open source, that they should "be free." "We are the wellspring of popular culture," Laurel argues. "We have a responsibility!"

Chris Hecker: "Sony and Microsoft are About to Screw Your Game Design"

Hecker took a more technical look at the industry. He says that 'back in the day,' game code was balanced: you had equal emphasis on graphics, physics, and gameplay. He demonstrated this in a Power Point presentation showing a geeky skinny guy. The way the industry has evolved, game code has been very lopsided: a picture of a modern game showed a skinny guy with one massive, muscular arm representing graphics.

He observes that game engine code is very straightforward, whereas gameplay code is typically sloppy, adjustable, and "crazy." This hasn't been a problem in recent console generations, for hardware reasons. Recent processors allow out-of-order code execution, so that "even crappy code" would work fast. But the next-generation Xbox and Sony's Cell processors are all in-order execution chips. That's great for high-speed graphics, but it makes fast gameplay code MUCH harder to write.

Hecker didn't provide any solutions, he just wanted to vent. Maybe Nintendo will come up with something better. Or maybe developers should all go back to making PC games. He also suggested crying. But Hecker didn't have the answers.

Q&A and Commentary

It's a shame the panel was running out of time, as they only had a couple of minutes for Q&A and open discussion. One interesting thing to come out of that short period was when Hecker said he condones piracy. He said he privately hoped the whole industry would collapse and find a way to be reborn again as something cooler. This gives you a good feel for the tone the panel was taking: these were some smart, frustrated people who wanted to see big changes.

Fargo's Take: I would usually let a story like this stand on its own without some personal commentary, but because this is such a hot topic and the panel was built off of such personal statements, I felt the need to chime in with my own perspective after covering the industry for eight years or so.

The fact is, from talking with other developers at the conference, Microsoft's keynote speech scared people. The idea that it's going to take teams of hundreds of people around the world years to create a game horrifies developers. Nobody wants to be the guy sweating away at a desk for long hours, chained to a project he or she has no creative investment in. That's not why people come to the industry.

Still, Microsoft (and the rest of the big money) is just reacting to market trends. I don't think the industry is where it is because of Brenda Laurel's mythical old men in suits: I think that it got where it is because of the immutable laws of a market economy. Supply, demand -- stuff that's as elemental as gravity.

For two decades, graphics have been a key selling point. Graphics are easy to quantify, and gamers (myself included, I'll admit) are easily swayed by incredible screenshots. Naturally the industry reacted accordingly: investing in better graphics, or rolling out hardware that can produce better graphics on demand. Dollars made the decisions for them.

Now we're at a tipping point, because the law of diminishing returns has kicked in. Graphics are so real that, barring clever procedural tricks, it's going to take an army of content creators to fill out a game. Microsoft isn't creating that reality with their keynote speech; the company was just reacting to it with tools designed for massive-scale development projects.

So what's to be done?

Spector hit the nail on the head with his analysis of game distribution. The window in which games can make money is way too small. Great products move off the shelves too quickly. This is a market factor that has to be changed. Smaller games, sold differently, might hold the answer.

I disagree with Laurel in that I don't think an open source movement, or some sort of 'new economy,' is going to change the way we buy and play games. Developers will always want to eat, and they'll dream of driving nice cars. But, if economics got gaming into this rut, it's the same economic magic that will pull the industry out. New means of distribution, new ways of reaching gamers, new price points -- all will alleviate the pressures that are causing publishers to fear innovation. Valve and Bioware are making products available online for direct download, as is GameSpy's own Direct2Drive and others. All it'll take is a hit or two to make everyone turn their head and embrace new means of distribution.

In the future, if all goes well, gamers will have dozens of ways to buy great game content: episodic games delivered in $5 chunks, shorter games available at $20, or cable-like subscription services with "all-you-can-eat" back catalog games for $25 a month. These changes are coming: you can support them by surfing around, buying games online, and supporting small developers. Check out what Garage Games is doing. They're lowering the cost of getting into game development, and independent game companies are taking advantage of it and selling their games online. (RocketBowl is awesome, for example, and has been a hit whenever I have friends over.) The potential for innovation is enormous, if we as consumers are willing to buy games this way!

I also agree with Della Rocca's assessment of game journalism, believe it or not. Unfortunately, the reality is that gaming websites and magazines are slaves to the same kinds of market forces. Right now, the business model for websites is to crank out pageviews and slam ads all over them. For the most part, these ads are industry-related, which like it or not limits how abrasive our content can be. Gamers on the whole decided that paying subscription dues isn't how they want to get game content, which I don't disagree with, so somehow we have to make this model work. Here at GameSpy we do our best to call out and talk about innovative games, but deep insightful commentary doesn't bring in as many pageviews as GTA cheat codes. Case in point: I know that this article, one of the most important to come out of our GDC coverage, will only get a fraction of the traffic that our Black & White 2 Preview will pull in. Why bother?

The answer is that we want to see the industry evolve as much as anyone else. Walking around GDC, I saw an incredible groundswell of talent and enthusiasm, and a willingness to break the status quo on all sides. I took particular note of how many students were present this year. It's like a whole new generation of game developers are ready to kick down the walls of convention and create a whole new era of creativity. I hope someday to be able to cover their games on our site.

I don't have much to add personally. Pretty much all of these guys are right.

The developers aren't behind these new platforms. What's a game console without games?

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