SAN FRANCISCO--"At every GDC and in the corridors of the companies where we work, there are grumblings," began Eric Zimmerman, moderator of the "Burning Down the House: Game Developers Rant" session at GDC.
"The idea of this panel is to really take those grumblings and mutterings and bring them out into the light, speak truth to power, cut through to the real s***, and talk about what is going on in our industry--what's wrong and what we can do to change it."
The fire marshal would have been upset to see the crowd that showed up to the session, which had attendees sitting on the floor, standing in the aisles, and peering in from the entrances in the back.
This was understandable, though, in light of the session's subject as well as its panelists: Warren Spector, founder of Ion Storm, Jason Della Rocca, manager at IGDA (a last-minute addition), Greg Costikyan, games researcher for Nokia Research Center, Brenda Laurel, chair of the graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design (among many other roles), and Chris Hecker, technical director for Definition Six.
Each panelist gave a 10- to 15-minute opening statement, er, rant, pulling no punches in his or her anger and vigor. They vented (cathartically, we hope) on as many facets of the games industry as possible in the hour-long session, covering topics like the industry's flawed funding and distribution model, developer apathy, xenophobia, publishers' smothering of innovation, relentless consumerism, poor representations of the male ethos, lack of social responsibility, the poor technological choices for next-gen consoles, and piracy.
Zimmerman was the first to speak:
Eric Zimmerman: We do not live in a perfect world and we certainly don't work in a perfect industry. I will be moderating this panel, illustrious curmudgeons, game industry veterans, and others who have a lot to say about what's right, and especially what's wrong with the game industry. I just want to say a few quick words. Every game developers conference--and then I want to leave you guys to the fire and brimstone of our panel--please move into the room. Try and let them in, let's squeeze them in.
Every GDC, and in the corridors of the companies where we work, there are grumblings, there are complaints. There are things wrong with what's going on. And sometimes they surface. This year there's been a lot of stuff about the quality of life and the working conditions in our industry. But a lot of times they don't. The idea of this panel, is to really take those rumblings and mutterings and bring them out into the light. Speak truth to power, cut through to the real s***, and talk about what is going on in our industry, what's wrong and what we can do to change it. And without any further adieu we're just going to start our panelist rants. Each one of them is going to give a short rant, there's going to be a little bit of discussion among the panelists, and then we're going to move onto the next one, [as we want to] save time at the end for everybody to have questions from the audience. Thanks for coming, and our first presenter needs no introduction--Warren Spector! Thank you very much.
Warren Spector: I've only got 5 or 10 minutes, and I can't say hello in that much time. But I have about five meta-talks I want to give first. First of all, I don't hate Will Wright. I ran into you on the elevator, and I yelled out, "I hate you!" It's just--I had one of those, 'I'm not worthy moments,' and it pissed me off, OK? The first truth is you not only work for the 800-pound gorilla, you are the 800-pound gorilla, OK? The second thing is, I felt kind of weird being up here, because for the first time in my entire--well, I was going to say my entire life--but certainly in the amount of time I've had enough of an idea of what's going on in the world that I can remember anything about my life. I don't feel very 'ranty,' actually! So, I tried to bail on this panel, and every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in.
But I had to say something, so basically, what I'm going to talk about is how, simply put, this business is hopelessly broken. And we're really--
[audience member interjects--inaudible]
Yeah, and we're really doing pretty much everything wrong. And that's at the root of much of what you're probably going to hear today. Just--where to start? I mean, obviously we all know that games cost too much, they take too long to make. They have to hit big at retail, and quickly, or they're pushed off the shelves. You know, the whole concept of word of mouth--remember that? Remember that? Holy cow, it was nice. You've got Wal-Mart driving development decisions because the publishers are unwilling or unable to push back on the guys who actually determine how many copies of your game end up on the shelves, and for how long, yada, yada, yada.
You know, when publishers start minimizing risk by cow-towing to the retail buyers instead of players, you've got a real problem. They go after the sure thing, and how many sequels and licenses and stuff, [indiscernible] last year, or two years ago--I really don't have a problem with that. But they really shouldn't have to be as sure as people hope. I mean, when every game has to be a blockbuster or a student film--you know!
We got a real problem, OK? It seems like, from my end of the game business, all our efforts are going into trying to reach a mainstream audience that may not even be interested in what we do. The idea that my next game is going to cost [intentional mumble] million dollars, compared to the first game I did, which cost $273,000, and got me into trouble as a result, is absolutely terrifying to me. You know, in order to minimize risk--how many people work for publishers that insist on focus-testing everything? And how many people actually work on games that make money?
[hands are raised]
Oh, my god! I didn't expect more people to raise their hands on that, because according to one industry pundit who I will not name, because he may have been lying, and I may be lying secondhand, 4 out of 5 games lose money. Despite the fact that we go for the sure thing, we do licenses, we do sequels, we focus-test boxes, we focus-test concept, we focus-test this, we focus-test that--frankly if we just trusted the creatives a little bit more, could we do any worse? So why don't we trust the creative folks anymore?
But that's not the only problem we face, trying to reach this mainstream audience, reducing risk, spending more money, losing more money, rah, rah, rah--the big problem I see, and I am kind of rounding about to the point--OK, at some point I'll get to it, we're the only media that I can think of that lacks an alternate distribution system. And that I think is the root of all evil. Well, [can be]. All we have, and I can already feel the waves of anger hitting me, all we have is box games sold at retail, OK? That's starting to change a little bit--I'll talk about that in a minute. But think about our competition for our entertainment dollar. Movies have theatrical release, pay-per-view, cable, DVD, VHS, you name it. Oh, broadcast--forgot about that. Television has first run, DVD, reruns, you name it. Books have hardbacks, paperbacks, audio books, and books. Music, you know, we can all run through the list, right? Every medium has a variety of ways to make money. We have--we put it on a shelf at Wal-Mart, it sells or it doesn't--oh my god, you just blew $10 million.
And you look at those problems, all this 'no risk' mainstream focus-test crap, and put it in a box, put it on the shelf and you're done. They want to blame that on publishers, OK? And if developers would just stand up and go on strike and say no and do whatever, everything would be great. I think that's crazy. That publishers don't respect developers is not the problem. Gutless developer is not the problem. The problem is we have a flawed funding and distribution model. And not to get too serious about this, but the--oh, oh.
Eric Zimmerman: Somebody's revising their rant right now.
Warren Spector: Look, there are very few ways to get a game done these days, at least in my experience, and like I said, I'm sure we're going to get yelled at. Publisher fully funds, publisher distributes and promotes [indiscernible]. Money--comes from and returns to the business guys, and developers just--I mean, why should we own anything in that model? Why should we get a huge return in that model? We're taking--sure, we're taking some of the risk, but that $10 million belongs to somebody else, that marketing budget belongs to somebody else, and that retail space belongs to somebody else, that ad space belongs to somebody else. It's a bad model. The end result is that we have a winner take all business that has a lot of risk. And I think it's a business that has to change, and that's change in ways that--maybe we can influence a little.
The first thing is, I think, we have to find alternate sources of funding. How am I doing on time?
Eric Zimmerman: You've got about 2 or 3 minutes left.
Warren Spector: I'm totally hosed!
Eric Zimmerman: There's a time for everything.
Warren Spector: What, you're going to hold me to a time limit? That would be a first.
Anyway. You know, Chris Crawford used to rant about how we need patrons in this business. OK, that's a little crazy, but I don't care if it's wealthy patrons or--well I do care if it's venture capitalists, but hey, they're out there, whatever. They're a bunch of people who want to bring film financing to this business. I don't even care what it is really, but I think it's critical that we divorce funding from distribution. I think that's really key.
In addition, I think we need to find alternate forms of distribution, not replacements for [Churchill publishers] I'm not standing up here saying, "Publishers suck." Although I believe that in many cases. And I'm not saying that, if the plane went down, who would care about the marketing guys, because the whole, like, superstar developer phenomenon is like, kind of obscene and weird and scary, and let's not even talk about stalkers OK?
So, what we need is another way besides the brick and mortar store to get games out there into player's hands. OK, if anybody bought Half Life 2 at Wal-Mart, just leave now! I'm not kidding, go! Leave, I don't want you in this room. You know, Steam is a great start. When it's something more than just PC I think it will be really amazing. Has everybody in the room bought Bioware's online modules? I don't really care if you own the original games, buy their damn online modules, OK?
You know, there's Excent, and Comcast has games on demand. I mean, if you're not supporting that, then you are actively hurting your own business, OK? We have to find other ways to get games into player's hands that don't involve traditional distribution methods.
You know, like I said, I'm not saying the publishers are evil, I'm not saying any of that stuff. I'm also not saying that--OK--let me back up. If we do all that, if we start going direct to our consumers with games that are funded some other way than EA, or whoever, you know, we'll get to keep more of the money, we'll get to make different kinds of games, we'll be able to make $3 million games, which, right now, if anybody went to Kathy Schoback's talk, you know, there's this sweet spot, like at--what did she say? $20 million, or $1 million or less you know? Whoa!
How much are we leaving on the table? It's incredible. We have to find a way to get someone to pay for this, and then find a buyer for it after. We need to find, we need our Sundances, we our need our independent film channel. And there are people who are really trying to work on this.
There is, you know, the Capital Entertainment Group a couple of years ago, that James and other folks were working on--it didn't work out--but hey, you know, it was a pretty interesting idea. Just try and find some way to fund your stuff that doesn't come from a traditional publisher. Well, I hope I'm not eating these words in a little while, but anyway. It happened in the movies, the movies have this now--the studios don't fund everything that happens out there. And while I'm not going to hold up the movie business as the model of great business practices, the fact is, the fact that you can get money from a variety of sources, means that there is a much broader content possibility.
You can make a variety of different kinds of movies at a variety of different kinds of budgets, and you know what? When the studio system was in place back in--until 1948, that didn't exist. Every creative person was owned by a studio--only the movies that were funded by the studios and the theatre owners--put in the theatres, which were owned by the studios, in fact, got made. Content was kind of limited, the developers of those films didn't get a whole lot of return. As soon as the Supreme Court stepped in and said, "No, you can't own the means of development, distribution and retailing," basically, that whole business changed. And we now have an independent film channel, and Sundance and summer blogging. There's Jerry Bruckheimer and you know, what ever big blowing things he's doing now, and there's Sideways. And we need to get to the point where we can do that, and the only way to do that [boy, I've got about an hour more] [laughter]--sorry!
Eric Zimmerman: We've got a lot more ranting to get through!
Warren Spector: OK, just to sum up, at the very worst what we need is publishers to recognize that we have to ask more than one question. When we have one funding source we ask one question about a game proposal, and that is, "Is this going to generate maximum profit?" And for a lot of games that's not the right answer. Even the freaking car companies know that, OK? Even the car companies--you know, like, what is it--Volkswagen owns Rolls Royce, they understand that there's a reason to do something other than--the music is starting--I'm out of here!
Eric Zimmerman: Warren Spector!
Eric Zimmerman: Warren Spector, I should say, just recently liberated from Eidos and just starting his own company. Perhaps he'll--perhaps his new games will be following some of the vectors he mentioned. Come on and sit down, Warren. We won't bite. Our next speaker, Jason Della Rocca, when I met Jason, all of you probably know, the director of the IGDA he was a very polite Canadian. Demure, deferential, and never spoke out of turn. But recently I've seen a change in his behavior. I've seen him handle speakers from the back of conference rooms, and I've seen him call people out on--
Chris Hecker: Did you know that I got Jason this job?
Eric Zimmerman: Oh, really!
Jason Della Rocca: That's because I saw him sucking face with Jennifer Pahlka. I said, that's the girl that runs the IGDA. They were making out behind one of the columns at the San Jose convention.
Chris Hecker: We're married so it's totally OK.
Jason Della Rocca: I'm still a polite Canadian!
Eric Zimmerman: All right, Jason Della Rocca, take it away--let's hear it for him!
Jason Della Rocca: I think I was kind of like the last minute adjunct to the effort here. I just want to, sort of add a caveat and say that anything negative I say doesn't count for IGDA members in the room. They're all good, so, all the negative stuff applies to everyone else.
So, actually my first rant is obviously related to the work with the IGDA in that the issues that we're working on are sort of the meta-level issues, these are big, sort of industry-wide issues, and we're talking about stuff like quality of life, diversity within the industry, academic relations, censorship from the government, these are all kind of big, sort of infinite problems that will never really be solved. And one of the frustrations in the work that we do is, so many developers just seem to be apathetic, you know, they're just kind of busy with their daily grind, they don't really take the time to realize that these big picture issues actually affect their daily life.
With the censorship stuff, one day it's likely--well hopefully it's not likely--but your publisher can walk in and say, "You know what? The government said we can't make those kind of games anymore. So, get the whole team out the door, we don't have games to make."
That's sort of a very extreme hypothetical example, but that could happen one day, we're fighting to stop that stuff, but anyways, the point was that on many of the issues we're working with, everyone is just kind of apathetic, they're just, you know, head in the sand, doing their thing. But--give me the pen--I'm going to cross that off the list, because the room is pretty full here, and that's actually very exciting. So, I'm going to switch that rant, or that sort of point, and say--we need bigger rooms!
Obviously it's very exciting that you guys are all here, and I thought we'd have a few people in the room, but certainly at the end of the day, it is very exciting to have the room packed up like this. And not that I want to be negative about GDC, but maybe this is sort of symptomatic of some of the challenges that we deal with, that it seems to me that the sessions that have been most packed are stuff like--well actually, all the stuff that Eric runs, seems to be the stuff that's jam packed.
With the game design challenge--well it's not all the stuff that Eric runs--but stuff like the game design challenge, the experimental gameplay workshop, or Will Wright’s talks, and those kind of things, seem to be the things that we're most interested in. And fine, all the other stuff has its place as well, we've got to learn how to write better code, and learn production best practice, but I think it's really important that we're here and talking about these issues. And I don't know why the GDC folks don't sort of allocate larger rooms for these kinds of issues.
Hecker: Is that actually your rant?
Jason Della Rocca: Well, OK fine I'll move on! I just feel bad for all the people that have to sit on the floor. OK, so I'll move on. So yes, so that apathetic side of things is a serious issue, and for every developer here in the room, there's like, another thousand out there who really doesn't care about this stuff. The other--sort of the main point or one of my main areas is xenophobia. It's very upsetting to me the extent by which we don't really care about anything outside of the game industry.
There is so much knowledge, there's so much research on the academic side, but also research on business models, in terms of management practices, in terms of many, many things that, you know, we're like gamers, we kind of grew up as passionate gamers and we just don't pay attention to anything else that's going on outside the industry, and I think that hurts us in many ways. It hurts us in terms of the business side, hurts us in terms of how we run our companies, and how we manage projects.
At the Quality of Life Summit, Steve McConnell was there, and he has nothing to do with games, and he's a software guru. This guy is up there with the top bigwigs in software development, and he basically walked in and said, "You guys are fools. You guys are fools, because there's tons of knowledge and research and tools out there that proves that running a project in a formalized manner, not only enables you to be predictable and ship stuff on time, and manage your resources, but enables you to do better work, because that formalization provides the groundwork, or the foundation with which you can be creative on.
And it actually boosts morale, it actually helps you,"--I mean--he doesn't have game-specific knowledge, but it actually enables you to put out better product. And part of the problem, he even admitted to himself, is that, well, people will be sitting in the room, and he was talking, saying, "You know, I can see everyone shaking their heads, saying, 'well Steve McConnell has never done a game, what credibility does he have? He doesn't understand the uniqueness of games.'" And certainly games are unique, but like, you know, medical applications are pretty unique in that, if you crash, like, someone's going to die. So, they have their own unique issues. Or you know, like aerospace, they've got to keep those planes in the sky, and you know, so we have that sort of luxury of, a crash in an inconvenience--
Eric Zimmerman: Unless they're full of marketing people.
Jason Della Rocca: Oh, yeah, OK fine. So, they're full of marketing people. It's a different issue then. So, yeah, we're unique, we have something unique, the sort of aspect of fun and interactivity, but these other industries have their own unique aspects as well that they have to deal with, and he was there saying, "There's decades of research and knowledge that proves that these formalized practices actually have a humongous return on investment." So even for the most cold-blooded, sort of devilish businessman, or woman, it's a no-brainer.
And I don't mean to speak specifically about the management stuff, it's just sort of in my brain because we were at the summit, but it's just one of millions of examples where so many developers within the industry really just don't pay attention to that stuff. And it could be--whether it's design [order] stuff, or art, or whatever, just because it's not called games, it's not done by some big hotshot game designer, or you know, so that sort of aspect of xenophobia. And related to that is this fear of formal processes, and this fear that, oh, we're creative and we have to be all just sort of just cowboys and shooting from the hip--I think it's holding back the industry. Part of that also is input from academia.
We had several panels throughout the week where academics, I mean, these guys, they’re the nerds, right? They're the braniacs and they're studying games, they're doing research, and they're literally willing to give us stuff for free. They were willing to do--it's like no-cost innovation. Give them a challenge, give them a call and say, "Hey, we've got to shoot the game this year, we don't have time to do this stuff, so why don't you get some PhD students to do this stuff," and sort of research for free.
Anyways, I had some other notes, very similar to Warren about the business being broken. Something else, I don't know if anyone will touch on, but I think the journalism side is also pretty broken, and the media side. I think there's a couple of journalists in the back of the room there.
Eric Zimmerman: Jason, is there anyone here you haven't offended so far? Let's see--who isn't a lazy, close-minded slob?
Jason Della Rocca: Yes, myself--I'm a [indiscernible]. You know, I never tuck in my shirt, I don't know, it's kind of my--people--when I go to do the awards thing, "You better tuck in your shirt this year!" OK, whatever, well anyway, so the media is broken. It's not to point a finger, but the media sort of perpetuates a lot of the myths of what the gamers want, and sort of what counts in the industry, in relation to what Warren's points are. But I'll kind of stop there, and remain sort of--summary is, you know, kind of, open up--don't be so close-minded to all this other great stuff out there.
Some of it business related, some of it management related, but also, like, literally everything that we do, maybe it's because we're all working so hard we don't have time for it, but I guess that's an issue we're working on. So that's kind of my rant.
Eric Zimmerman: Jason Della Rocca!
Eric Zimmerman: [indiscernible]. Greg Costikyan, our next speaker, has been working in the game industry, probably as long or longer than anyone in this room. In fact, Greg started working--
Greg Costikyan: 1976.
Eric Zimmerman: All right--in the paper game industry. So he's had a chance to see how f***ed up things are for a very, very long time, in a variety of different game industries. And take it away, Greg Costikyan.
Greg Costikyan: Actually before I get into some of that, I'll say I worked in publishing, I worked in paper gaming, I worked in electronic games. I worked for an investment bank for a while, and my experience is that all industries are f***ed up, but they're all f***ed up in their own way! So, you know, to start with, the disclaimer, my opinions are most emphatically not those of my employer.
I don't know about you, but I could have been a lawyer, or a carpenter, or a sous chef, and before I get rolling I'm going to ask you a question. How many people are here just because developing games is a job, and you need a paycheck, don't really care? OK.
[one man raises his hand] [laughter--applause]
And how many are here because you love games? [majority of audience raises hands] I don't know about you, but the things I've heard here at GDC have made the future of this industry clear to me. With the arrival of next generation consoles, the whole cycle is about to be ratcheted up another notch. We're going to go from $5 million budgets to eight figure ones. We're going to go from dev teams in the dozens, to dev teams in the hundreds. It's all going to get bigger, as Iwata-san says. But is it going to get better?
I've been doing some research recently into the history of British and American board games in the 18th and 19th centuries. And I'm seeing what I think is an interesting pattern, one that persists into the 20th century and into the digital era, and through to the modern day.
It's a pattern that Dan Scherlis rather cynically describes as, the genre is what we call one hit game and its imitators. So, in 1756 Jeffreys publishes A Journey Through Europe, and suddenly we have a whole genre of track-based travel games.
One fishing game appears in the mid-nineteenth century and we have dozens. "Mansions of Happiness" spawns games of moral improvement, George Parker creates a business game, [unintelligible], Charles Roberts creates the board game, DandD produces the RPG, magically [indiscernible] CCG, Donkey Kong, and we suddenly have dozens of platformers.
[indiscernible] reproduced the digital RPG, Doom 2, we have the real time strategy game Doom, The First Person Shooter, Sims, the Autonomous Agent games. Games grow through innovation. Through the creation of new game styles that spawn whole new markets, and whole new audiences for games. Innovation extends the pallet of what is possible in games. The story of the last 20 years is not as you have been sold--the story of increasing processing power and increasing graphics--it's been the story of a startling burst of innovation and creativity. That's what created this industry, and that's why we love games. But it's over now!
As recently as 1982, the average budget for a PC game was $200,000. 1992. Today a typical budget for an A level title is $5 million, and with the next generation it'll be more like $20 million. As the costs ratchet up, publishers become increasingly conservative, and decreasingly willing to take a chance on anything other than the tired and true. So we get Driver 69, Grand Theft Auto: San Infinitum. And license drivel after license drivel. Today you cannot get an innovative title published unless your last name is Wright or Miyamoto. How many of you were at the Microsoft keynote? OK.
Jason Della Rocca: The room wasn't big enough!
Greg Costikyan: I don't know about you, but it made my flesh crawl!
The HD era, bigger, louder, more photo-realistic 3-D, teams of hundreds, and big bucks to be made. Not by you and me of course. Not by the developers--developers never see a dime beyond dev funding--by the publishers (and Microsoft, presumably]. Those budgets--those teams ensure the death of innovation. This is not why I got into games. Was your allegiance bought at the price of a television?
Then there's the Nintendo keynote. Nintendo is the company that brought us to this precipice. Nintendo established the business model under which we are crucified today. Nintendo said, 'pay us a royalty not on sales, but on manufacturing.' Nintendo said, 'we will decide what games we'll allow you to publish,' ostensibly to prevent another crash like that of 1983, but in reality to quash any innovation but their own. Iwata-san said he has the heart of the gamer, and my question is what poor bastard's chest did he carve it from?
And how often do they perform human sacrifices at Nintendo?
My friends, we are f***ed! [laughter] We are well and truly f***ed. The bar in terms of graphics and glitz has been raised and raised and raised, until no one can any longer afford to risk anything at all. The sheer labor involved in creating a game has increased exponentially until our only choice is permanent crunch and mandatory 80-hour weeks, at least until all our jobs are outsourced to Asia.
With these stakes, risks must be avoided, but without risk there is no innovation, and innovation is what drives growth in games. But it's OK, because the HD era is here, and big bucks are to be made. It doesn't matter if all we do from here to eternity is more photo-realistic drivers and shooters with more polygons on the screen. It doesn't matter if our idea of innovation becomes blowing into a microphone. [laughter] Because after all, look on the bright side. Bing Gordon's wallet will be thicker. I say, Enough! The time has come for revolution.
Unknown Speaker: Amen!
Greg Costikyan: It may seem to you that what I've described are inevitable forces of history, and there is some truth to that, but not fundamentally. We have free will, and our current plight is the consequences of individual choices. EA could have chosen to concentrate on innovation, rather than continually raising the graphic bar to squeeze out less capitalized competitors. But they did not. Sony could have chosen to create a Miramax of the game industry, a subsidiary funding dozens of sub-million titles in the process of planned innovation to establish new world beating game styles. But they declined. Nintendo could make dev kits cheaply available to small firms with the promise of finding and publication of the most interesting titles, but they prefer to rely on the creativity of one aging designer.
You have choices too. You can take the blue pill or the red pill. You can go work for the machine, work mandatory 80-hour weeks in a massive sweatshop, publisher-owned studio with hundreds of other drones, laboring to build the new compelling photo-realistic driving game with the same basic gameplay as Pole Position. Or you can defy the machine
You can choose to starve for your art, to beg borrow or steal the money you need to create a game that will set the world on fire. You can choose to riot in the streets of Redwood City, to down your tools and demand an honest wage for an honest 8-hour day. You can choose to find an alternative distribution channel, a different business model, a path out of the trap the game industry has set itself. You can choose to remember why you love games, and to ensure that a generation from now, there are still games worthy of love. And you can start today.
[applause, standing ovation]
Eric Zimmerman: Thank you Comrade Costikyan!
All right we're going to turn up the heat even a little bit more. Brenda Laurel! Brenda Laurel is a professional firecracker. She has been in the industry since the days of Atari, and has seen things from the girls game movement, from the core of the mainstream game industry, and now in academia, on the outside looking in. Take it away Brenda.
Brenda Laurel: Then I just became a distinguished engineer at Sun Labs. They knew I was distinguished but they had to Google "engineer." I want to talk about culture, I want to talk about the spectacle. The spectacle. The thing that [was once said] was, 'The meanings created by images that hold us in webs, are social relations to one another. The spectacle. The billboard, the television commercial, the babe you get when you drive the car, the role that you're entrained to when you buy the game, and when you play the game.'
My thesis is that we are contributing to the damage that the spectacle does to human beings by suggesting that interactivity of a joystick is real agency. We entrain people to understand that imitation as personal power, and not to look for personal power anyplace else. The spectacle entrains us to be consumers, red pill, blue pill, chocolate or vanilla. We are urged to keep the economy healthy, pay our bills, borrow money. Business makes America work. Shareholder value is really important.
Did you ever notice, there's no place for the earth on the bottom line? There's no global warming. We'll go to Mars, but we won't fix the Hubble, and we canceled the Voyager mission for less than the cost of a video game.
Space as spectacle. The dream of space, appropriated by George W. Bush! How can you stand that? Games imitate tropes that keep essential social myths in place. That keep people from being able to change the way things are. So we have tropes in our business that criminals are cool, actually. That war is hell, but it's cool, actually. That real men are fighting men, or star athletes--you know you have a 2000 percent better chance of going to jail than you have of being a star athlete? The commercial game business is a non-consensual relationship between middle-aged men and young boys. It's worse than the Catholic church.
These old f***ers don't look at what boys are like. They look at their own twisted '50s fantasies of what boys are like. What they wanted to be, but never got to be. These are guys that have really big tires on their truck, and we all know why!
So the fantasies of these guys position the boys of today's world as tiny little clones. And what rocked their world, those 70-year-old, 60-year-old f***ers who run this industry now, that's what they force you all to make with your creative genius, to the leghold traps of their contracts. We can't keep doing that fellas.
Mmm, excuse me. There was a crowd in the women's room today. [laughs]
So, I guess what I'm trying to say is, I've been asking what boys did lately I've been doing a lot of research with 8- to 12-year-old boys, and I want to give you a little bit of information about them that might lift you up a little bit. For example, that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas game?
I talked to 22 little boys in Los Angeles, interviewed them all extensively. All of them wanted to see that game. They were waiting for it to come out. And 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 the revenge or the bad story of crime and punishment, and violence. They weren't even interested in stealing cars. They're interested in the simulation. They were interested in driving by their house. They were curious. The roles that we give boys in the games that they play, model through them what personal power is and what masculinity is. We model the male ethos in the games that we design.
And so what we have are a very slim number of choices, right? Super athlete, criminal, soldier--give you me another one--hacker/slasher. Monster-killer.
Audience member: Wizard.
Brenda Laurel: Wizard? Now that one's maybe worth pursuing.
But the Millennial boys, those of you who know Neil [unintelligible] know that means anybody who was born with the Internet, and computers around them all the time, they're pro-social. I had skateboard boys telling me that if they had a million dollars, they'd buy their mom a new house because she worked really hard. Skaters are mainstream now. Skaters actually rule. Skaters are ascendant. Boy culture goes, skater, wannabe skater, baller, wannabe baller, wannabe gangster, gangster. It's pretty f***ing cool, but I don't see us acknowledging that in the content of the games that we give these guys to play. And I think that as the skaters are ascendant. So we have these two models of alpha maleness that you might see there. On the one hand you've got the skater. Well, he's the astronaut, right? And on the other hand you've got the baller, he's the soldier. There must be more than two constructions of successful masculinity in our culture. Or you guys will never reproduce!
We need heroes. But what kind of heroes are we making? Where is Richard Feynman in our games? Where's Cesar Chavez? Where's John Glenn? Where's Malcolm X? Where's the f***ing Governator! There hasn't been a game about geopolitics that was worth a s*** since Hidden Agenda.
We should be giving people rehearsals for citizenship, and rehearsals for change. Now I've got to tell you, Microsoft is the walking dead.
Digital rights management is a wet dream.
It's not going to work, the cat's out of the bag. And what happens at a time like this, when things go up for grabs like this, in the economy that we're talking about--is that you just have to let the cards fly into the air and fall where they may, and figure out how to design your work in your economy around how things come down. But give it up about digital rights. Give it up about ownership. Cleave to open source. I don't think you'll be a starving artist for long, because I think a new economy is forming. As we become connected by cellular telephones, by Wi-Fi networks, and by healthy culture, we're going to find new economies emerging that will support the kind of work that makes us human again, instead of the consumer drones we've been becoming since the beginning of the last century. We are the wellspring of popular culture. We have a responsibility.
[applause, standing ovation]
Eric Zimmerman: Thank you Brenda. Our final rant--Chris Hecker. Chris Hecker is the quintessential indie game designer/developer. Chris is responsible for the Indie Game Jam, helps engineer their experimental gameplay workshop every year. And is an important pundit, gadfly and generally dissatisfied citizen of the game industry. Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Hecker!
Chris Hecker: It pains me to [speak] after that introduction. I recently actually took a job at EA.
However, I work for Will on the game you just saw, so it's not [indiscernible]. All right, here we go. "How Sony and Microsoft are about to screw your game design." These are games in the good old days. We didn't exactly have the best physique, but we were at least a balanced individual, you walk out on the beach, and you were like, you know, pathetic. But you know, you looked like a normal person. These are games today. We've been working really hard--I mean, you can maybe make the argument that this is the game--these are games today. I gotta little more work on that left arm to do, it's going to be as big as our graphics arm soon. This is kind of lame. We really want to be this guy don't we?
Unknown Speaker: No!
Chris Hecker: OK, he was the best guy I could find in like, three seconds in the WiFi network out in the lobby. All right. But how do we get there? Well, I'm going to take a little diversion here. I'm a programmer, so, I have two technical slides, really one technical slide. And that's about it. All right, ready? So there are two kinds of code in a game basically. There's gameplay code and engine code. Engine code, like graphics and physics, takes really giant data structures of homogenous data. I mean, it's all the same, like a lot of vertices are all a big matrix, or whatever, but usually floating point data structures these days. And you have a single small, relatively small hour that grinds away on that. This code is like, wow, it has a lot of math in it, it has to be optimized for super scalar, blah, blah, blah. It's just not actually that hard to write, right? It's pretty well defined what this code does.
The second kind of code we have is AI and gameplay code. Lots of little exceptions. Even if you're doing a simulation-y kind of game, there's tons of tunable parameters, [it's got a lot of interactions], it's a mess. I mean, this code--you look at the gameplay code in the game, and it's crap. Compared to like, my elegant physics simulator or whatever. But this is a code that actually makes the game feel different. This is the kind of code we want to be easy to write and so we can do more experimental stuff. Here is the terrifying realization about the next generation of consoles. I'm about to break about a zillion NDAs, but I didn't sign any NDAs so that's totally cool!
I'm actually a pretty good programmer and mathematician but my real talent is getting people to tell me stuff that they're not supposed to tell me. There we go. Gameplay code will get slower and harder to write on the next generation of consoles. Why is this? Here's our technical slide. Modern CPUs, like the Intel Pentium 4, blah, blah, blah, Pentium [indiscernible] or laptop, whatever is in your desktop, and all the modern power PCs, use what's called 'out of order' execution. Basically, out of order execution is there to make really crappy code run fast.
So, they basically--when out of order execution came out on the P6, the Pentium 6 [indiscernible] the Pentium 5, the original Pentium and the one after that. The Pentium Pro I think they called it, it basically annoyed a whole bunch of low level ASCII coders, because now all of a sudden, like, the crappiest-ass C code, that like, Joe junior programmer could write, is running as fast as their Assembly, and there's nothing they can do about it. Because the CPU behind their back, is like, reordering that guy's crappy ass C code, to run really well and utilize all the parts of the processor. While this annoyed a whole bunch of people in Scandinavia, it actually…
And this is a great change in the bad old days of 'in order execution,' where you had to be an Assembly language wizard to actually get your CPU to do anything. You were always stalling in the cache, you needed to like--it was crazy. It was a lot of fun to write that code. It wasn't exactly the most productive way of doing experimental programming.
The Xenon and the cell are both in order chips. What does this mean? The reason they did this, is it's cheaper for them to do this. They can drop a lot of core--you know--one out of order core is about the size of three to four in order cores. So, they can make a lot of in order cores and drop them on a chip, and keep the power down, and sell it for cheap--what does this do to our code?
Well, it makes--it's totally fine for grinding like, symmetric algorithms out of floating point numbers, but for lots of 'if' statements in directions, it totally sucks. How do we quantify 'totally sucks?' "Rumors" which happen to be from people who are actually working on these chips, is that straight line gameplay code runs at 1/3 to 1/10 the speed at the same clock rate on an in order core as an out of order core.
This means that your new fancy 2 plus gigahertz CPU, and its Xenon, is going to run code as slow or slower than the 733 megahertz CPU in the Xbox 1. The PS3 will be even worse.
There's absolutely nothing you can do about this. Well, you can actually hope that Nintendo uses an out of order core, because they're claiming that they're going to try and make it easy to develop for--except for Nintendo basically totally flailed this generation. So maybe they'll do something next generation. Who knows? You can think about having batchable design simulation-y systems, but like, I'm a huge proponent of simulation in gameplay, but even simulation in gameplay takes kind of messy systems under the hood. And this makes your gameplay harder to write.
You want to just write the gameplay. You don't want to have to like, spend 6 years of a super hardcore engine programmer's time to figure out how to make your gameplay run super scalars. You could do PC games. They are still out of order cores, but a lot of people don't think that's an option nowadays. Luckily due to the power of Will Wright our games and PC games--ha ha ha. Or you could rant, which is what I just do. Thank you very much!
Eric Zimmerman: Wow. When I put this panel together I had no idea what I was going to get as a result. And so far it's really been mind-blowing. Let's just give all of our panelists one more round of applause.
Beautiful. We've got one mic, right here in the middle. Can we start lining up? We've got a question.
Unknown Speaker: Yes.
Eric Zimmerman: All right.
Question: Hi. Thanks but, I'm going to preface my question by saying that I don't work in the retail games industry, I work in casual games. Retail developers, get out of your death march! My question is, there's a lot of students here at GDC this year, which is great. What I'm want to ask you guys is, how--do you even think it's possible for a young student who wants to get into games, who's passionate and cares about it, to be successful, to become an independent developer? Is that possible? We have, you know, some of the people that get screwed over the most in the game industry are artists, artists who these days are getting $20,000-$30,000 degrees to get a $40,000 a year job, and work 80 hours a week, which is basically immoral. So do you think it's possible for a young person?
Jason Della Rocca: I'll take a stab at that because the IGDA actually does do a lot of work to foster students who are looking for careers in the industry, provide resources and [indiscernible] and stuff. It's certainly not an easy path. I'm going to kind of stop there, because, that sort of, "how do I break in" question is a pretty--I mean, we get that all the time, and I recommend people to go up to the IGDA website, and I'll sort of return with a mini-rant. All the time when, I mean, we go see a lot of students in a lot of schools, and it seems to me that when they work on game projects, like, usually in all the courses they always get assigned a game project. Every one of those projects is a clone of an existing game.
And I take them to task, and say, "Hey man, this is like, time for you to innovate. I mean, you may not have all the skills of a full level pro designer, but now is your time to go do something freaked out and whacky and innovative. Don't make another Pacman clone, or another Breakout, I mean, how many freaking Breakouts on there--I mean--every other student project is a Breakout clone. So when you're working in a student project, use that as an opportunity to innovate and do some just wacky crazy stuff, and maybe that is what's going to make a difference to you." And sometimes they'll say, "Holy cow, that's really cool, I've never seen that." And maybe that's your ticket in.
Chris Hecker: Anybody who was at the experimental game workshop saw the CMU guys' experimental [indiscernible].
And basically you can see, you know, I think they have, ah, [indiscernible] I think they've got experimentalgameplay.com and I think you can go there, and see their like, pitch video and download a bunch of their games, and you can always go to indiegamejam.com and it shows that like, when Indie Game Jam game is done by a bunch of pro game developers, but like, hey, they're doing just as good as we are. Sometimes better. Tower of Goo--pretty cool, huh?
Jason Della Rocca: Use that as your opportunity to innovate, and don't mimic all the friggin' mistakes that we're making.
Chris Hecker: Is there some way to turn all the mics on, so we don't have to wait?
Jason Della Rocca: OK, is that cool?
Question: The question was, can a new student form an independent studio and be successful? And the answer is, yes, it's possible. It's also possible that this can of soda, through the miracle of science, suddenly disappear and orbit around Alpha Centauri. He's [indicating Spector] founding a studio. I think that's a very risky move for him, and he's like--
Unknown Speaker: [Indiscernible]
Unknown Speaker: Brenda is this just a symptom of the spectacle taking over the imaginations of even college students?
Warren Spector: If any students want to offer me a job…
Eric Zimmerman: [indiscernible]
Brenda Laurel: Actually, we work with our students to make sure that they have the chance to do interactive media and digital work that's not necessarily games. So they can gain an economic base in their lives, by doing work that's not necessarily game design, and it pays the bills, just like that guy just does a job because he had to. Sometimes that's the way to do it too.
Eric Zimmerman: Next question.
Question: Very inspiring remarks about DRM Brenda, and I have a friend named Ben [unintelligible] who has the vision for sort of 'zines that are distributed on PlayStation, and sort of console based 'zines, when you think about interactivity becoming something that people make casually and trade around... Do you see that the consoles could ever become a platform for a 'zine-like culture of casual interactive design exchange?
Brenda Laurel: I think it's more likely to be cellular phones or PDAs than consoles. They're more ubiquitous, they're more connected, they're less gendered, they're more about communications than specifically about gameplay. So if I were going to try and design a business I'd start with that platform.
Eric Zimmerman: How about you Warren, what platform are you developing for in your new radical experimental company?
Warren Spector: Well, right now, what we're saying is, we're developing for multiple platforms. Because we're not--
Unknown Speaker: That sucks even more because you're developing for the least common denominator.
Warren Spector: Amen brother. That's got to wait until we figure out exactly what our final, sort of deal is. You know, the problem, I mean, I really--I don't know that I expressed it very well, frankly, because I had about an hour's worth of material for five minutes. But all of the problems come back to the fact that, you are under the control of the person who gives you the money. And as long as we have one source of freaking money, we are going to be constrained in the kinds of games we are allowed to make.
Brenda Laurel: Warren, you don't say 'f***'… you don't ever say that?
Warren Spector: My mother doesn't approve.
Chris Hecker: Warren wears cardigan sweaters!
Eric Zimmerman: Warren, you're a very good Jewish son.
Brenda Laurel: Can I just make one more point about this.
Warren Spector: Thank you [unintelligible]
Brenda Laurel: Given Justin's question, I just wanted to say one more thing. You talk about 'zine culture, but 'zines can be written on the landscape. You know, we have the opportunity to bring the physical world into the game, and lots of people have been doing that. But as GPS gets enabled on more phones, and as we have things like gravitometers and accelerometers in our computer chips which are coming, right, down the line, we're going to be able to do things that engage the physical world and annotate it and fiddle around with it, in ways that get our heads out of the box.
What's cool about that...Henry Jenkins said this great thing, it's really stuck with me my whole life. He said, "A hundred years ago, the play space of a boy was maybe 10 or 20 square miles. And fifty years ago it was a neighborhood, and 25 years ago it was the backyard. And 10 years ago it was a screen." I think we have the chance to reverse that, by engaging the real world. And, for me, mobile technology is the way to do that.
Eric Zimmerman: Thank you, next question.
Question: I am one of the guys that everybody is talking about right now. I'm working on a big budget, next generation console game, and I just wanted to ask you guys what your thoughts were on the whole issue that nobody's talking about at all, which is totally legalized piracy. And I'm not talking about what's going on in Russia right now. I'm not talking about what's going on in Malaysia, where there's a little bit of gray market, people [indiscernible] or whatever. I'm talking about what's going on at Blockbuster. And what's going on at Gamefly where you can pay $20 a year and you can buy whatever you want, and when you're finished with it, you can give it back.
And I know a lot of people--I'm working on a single-player game, next generation, it's going to be a big budget. It's going to probably up--10, 12 hours long, that's what we're aiming at. People are going to download it, they're going to look at it, and they're going to go to their store, they're going to rent it from Blockbuster for $4, $5, and they're going to take it back. I don't see any of that. Somebody's robbing me! And I want to--we can't do anything about it, and it makes me sad. And I can't do anything to the publisher, I can't walk into the publisher and say, "Hey, don't let them do that. Just make them wait a while." I mean, somebody can, we've got all these different ways that you can do digital rights. Any time you open a copy of a game, then you implicitly agree to a set of conditions. But--
Eric Zimmerman: Good question. Mr.Hecker?
Chris Hecker: I'm actually kind of pro-piracy. I'm going to totally answer this in exactly the opposite way. Like, I want people to just play the games I make. Like, I do it because it's art. And like, I think that DRM is a total f***ing mess. And it's totally stupid. And if the game industry collapses around itself, and it could be reborn in a [indiscernible] indie kind of way, I'm all for that actually!
Greg Costikyan: You know, I've written three novels, and people take them out of the library, and I don't see a dime out of that, I hate that. Come on, for Christ's sake, the reason people only got 10 hours of gameplay out of a f***ing disk is because it takes too much to make your game, otherwise you'd have 20 hours of gameplay and it wouldn't be an issue, because if you actually wanted to play the game you couldn't do it in the course of a rental. The system is broken. But they're not pirating the game, somebody bought a legal copy and they just--get used to it. The world is not designed in such a way that money inherently finds its way into your wallet!
Warren Spector: First of all, I like 10- and 12-hour games because I don't have a lot of time anymore.
[GDC staff requests that the panel wrap it up to clear the room]
Warren Spector: I absolutely know I didn't pirate [indiscernible]
Warren Spector: I've said for the last 15 years that anybody who worries about piracy is full of s***. See, I say 's***.' Anybody's who's going to pirate the game wasn't going to buy it anyway, just because, I mean, it just doesn't follow, OK? You sold a bunch of copies of the game, just live with it, be happy, move on.
Chris Hecker: The right thing here is that, if someone who [designed] the vested interest in either side, should actually do the sociological epidemiological research, and figure out whether piracy actually hurts game sales. The BSA and ESA or whoever the f*** they're calling themselves nowadays, are not the people to do that. Of course they're going to find--they're like the RIA of our industry.
Like, someone actually needs to do the work. If game sales are actually hurt, and I assume that is not the case--and I think most people up here also assume that's not the case--by piracy, well, I mean, yes, if you're talking about like, the guy who just starts these gigantic factories to turn out copies of your game, and sell them all over Europe--sure! Totally shut them down. Like, me, like giving a copy of the game to my sister or somebody, to play, I'm thinking I'm not hurting the EA bottom line that much. But somebody has to do that research. But guess what? We're not. We live in an industry of publicly traded companies who it's in their best interest to not actually figure out the answer to that question.
Brenda Laurel: So maybe the alternative is to find the way around publicly traded companies. Publicly traded companies are evil.
Brenda Laurel: Evil. And you know those three guys that helped fund the Enterprise, that offered Paramount $3 million to build one more season of Enterprise? That's an interesting model, right out of the Renaissance, maybe we should look at patronage.
Eric Zimmerman: All right. You can't shut us up, but we are finishing the conversation for now. Join the IGDA, join the revolution, it's up to you, each and every one of you. Let's change this industry! Thank you!