|by Hugh McAtamney
It has been an exciting 12 months in the Irish Games Industry, what with the Forfás report and action plan, the rise of the Indie Developer and lots of networking events so it was with great enthusiasm that I made my annual trip to GDC 2012 in sunny San Francisco.
The conference took place slightly earlier this year which was great as it usually falls on the same week as the Games Fleadh in Thurles. It also meant my colleague Bryan Duggan could also make the trip (see his report below). With over 400 sessions and networking events, having two of us there was great. I arrived just in time for a small earthquake which shook me awake on day 1. It was the main topic of conversation on Day 1 of GDC.
The Irish were once again well represented at GDC this year with Havok, Swrve, Demonware etc. But recent addition to the Irish Indie scene ‘Bitsmith games’ were also in attendance and their perspective on the whole thing is also included below.
The format for this year’s conference didn’t change all that much, but one noticeable item missing was the ‘Serious Games’ Summit, which I found the most inspirational in 2011. I remember seeing a call for papers last year but obviously there wasn’t either enough interest or quality. This was disappointing and one wonders if perhaps Serious Games has lost some momentum?
Another noticeable difference was the lack of a conference keynote which was interesting, although I must admit, the keynotes have been pretty poor in recent years. No-one has come close to matching Hideo Kojima’s excellent journey through Metal Gear Solid in 2009 (http://www.g4tv.com/videos/37448/gdc-2009-keynote-hideo-kojima/). Indeed there have been growing complaints about conference keynotes in recent years ever since Cliff Bleszinski chainsawed his way through a paper door at the end of a Microsoft keynote to announce Gears of War 2.
What the organisers DID do this year was ‘GDC Flash Forward’ on Wednesday morning. This was a speed session (60 seconds per speaker) that focused on what was coming up during the conference. It was a great idea, it set the scene for the week and had me frantically updating my online scheduler.
Game Design Sessions
I have found myself gravitating more towards philosophical, game design and educational sessions rather than technical ones in recent years. While interesting, technical presentations can get repetitive and are often difficult to get your head around in 60 mins.
The game design sessions are often playful ones with lots of crowd interaction and this year was no different. Top of the list was the Eric Zimmerman hosted session on Upgrade Humanity in 60 Seconds Flat: The Game Design Challenge 2012 (http://bit.ly/wSxd5H) More than just a design exercise, the Game Design Challenge asked expert game designers to think on their feet as they addressed important game design dilemmas, offering a sneak peek into their game design process. This year they had the reigning champion Jason Rohrer (Independent) competing against Noah Falstein (The Inspiracy) and Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog).
Each speaker presented their game and either played it on stage or got the audience to play it. In the end it was a battle between Jason and Richard.
Jason set about creating a card game that disproved the theory that we live in a world with indefinite inflation. It was a good start and a benchmark for the others (even though he got beaten at his own game and thus didn’t prove his thesis).
Richard Lemarchand however (a conference and industry hero of mine) blew everyone away with his ‘shame game’ which was a massively multiplayer (the audience) RPG that aimed to reduce how we feel shame as human beings. By the end of the game he had over 1000 people staring into complete stranger’s eyes and singing, unashamedly, songs they didn’t know. He proved his thesis and won this year’s prize.
Another great session was Mind Games: Brain Training for Game Developers by Scott Crabtree (www.happybrainscience.com). He had everyone engaged in active brain training by repeatedly asking questions and getting us to stand up while answering. By playing his active session he showed how to learn specific actionable techniques that can be applied in the office to rewire brains to be more effective. These included practices to increase the brain's ability to focus, create, and stay smart under stressful conditions.
Bryan Duggan at GDC 2012
This was my second trip to GDC having previously attended in 2009. I had my mind blown in 2009, so I was pretty excited considering all that was happening in the indie scene in Ireland and around the world. The first two days of GDC are all about “summits” - specialist tracks on topics such as mobile dev, social gaming, AI, audio, academic and so on. I signed up for the AI Summit and the Academic Summit sessions.
The AI summit talks consisted of port-mortems of game AI from various games I had never heard of and a few interesting discussions about the role of game AI. For the most part however, the content was pretty much the same as my previous GDC – behaviour trees, A*, steering behaviours. It seems there has been nothing really new in game AI since FEAR and Nintendogs several years ago. My takeaway from the AI summit? Game AI programmers need to do more people watching.
The academic track was much more inspiring however - in particular the academic rants where we watched Jesse Schell burning a $50 bill to the surprise of the audience. Schell responded: “Why are you so surprised? You guys do this every day!” It was interesting to discover that other academics were coming to the same conclusions as me – you should treat students like adults: no more spoon feeding, demand the best and facilitate open ended coursework that encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. Also that other academics were using competitions such as the Imagine Cup to motivate students through self-directed learning.
The “main conference” took place over Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Some lowlights and highlights:
Least exciting were the talks about AAA games such as Uncharted 3, Batman Arkham City and even Portal 2. I resisted the urge to ask about Half Life 3. Also I found the “monetization” and “social gaming” talks to be kind of seedy and exploitative. These guys came across as drug pushers.
However at the Indie Soapbox session, it was heartening to learn that there is a market for smaller-scale artistic games such as Braid, Fez, Limbo, Amnesia, Bastion and Proteus. I came away determined to play a lot more indie games in 2012.
Jane McGonagle from Social Chocolate chaired a session entitled “Games for change - Designing for Love can Change the World” which was full of memorable quotes:
“Make love games not war games”
“Love is a game that 2 can play and both win”
Also check out The End of Us a 4 minute Flash game about love that might just make you cry (http://the-end-of-us.com/).
I was totally blown away by Zhe Wang’s demos of the Cocos2d-x cross platform game development framework in which he took a game written for Samsung’s Bada OS and in 15 minutes, had the game running on iOS and Android. I’ve already shown this to my students and a team of them are making use of it in an assignment (check out Glass Robot Studios - http://www.glassrobotstudios.com/grs/).
Cross platform is the way to go and there are mature tools such as cocos2d-x, Corona, Unity, MonoGame even HTML 5 that allow you to take the same game and deploy to multiple platforms with minimal porting effort.
In conclusion, GDC was a superb opportunity to re-familiarise myself with the breadth of the games industry. I am quite tempted to quit DIT and do a games start-up but it’s probably not going to happen ?. I will content myself with making games over the summer, trying to bring the technologies I learned about at the GDC into more of my courses and supporting all the gaming start-ups that are coming out of DIT.
Back to Hugh - Heroes, Conference Assistants and Bitsmith Games at GDC2012
The great thing about GDC is you get an opportunity to listen to and then meet your industry icons or heroes. Owen from ‘bitSmith Games’ found this out when he met long time hero Tim Shafer. I asked Owen what he had learned from his GDC experience:
Tim Shafer and Owen Harris
‘I have wanted to go to GDC for many years now, since I first heard about it back in 2005 in fact. Since then I have built it up quite a bit in my mind and I had very high expectations going in. Despite this, GDC still managed to completely blow me away. It was a really amazing experience and has had a tremendous impact on me as a game developer already.
One of the most helpful things was meeting other indie developers. Learning about how they organised their time, communicated with each other and about the tools that they use was incredibly helpful. I was really surprised to meet several teams that had built their game completely remotely, meeting for the first time at the conference. It was fascinating to find out how they had co-ordinated [over] great distances in different time zones.
We also got a great chance to showcase our own game. Hundreds of developers from aspiring to indie to AAA played Kú and we got a lot of really great feedback. We are working really hard at the moment to integrate some of the great ideas that came out of that.
I should also mention the talks. I was exposed to a staggering amount of new ideas. Cappy games’ talk about Marketing Indie Games’ and SuperGiant’s talk about ‘Atmosphere in Games’ are both having measurable impact on the work we have been doing since we got back.
Finally there are the contacts we made. Since going to GDC, it feels like bitSmith is part of a global community in addition to the local one here. I am in continued contact with game developers on every continent and no doubt some interesting collaboration will grow out of that.’
Basil Lim, Lead Artist with bitSmith was also there but he managed to blag his way onto the GDC volunteer programme which I talked about a few reports back. I asked Basil what that was like.
‘Being a volunteer, or CA as they're known in GDC, is an entirely different proposition from the usual "stand here and hand out leaflets" job that most other events relegate their volunteers to. This was made clear to us on our first day of induction. We were told that we were the bosses of GDC, with our only superiors being the thousands of GDC attendees due to flock through the doors on the week March 5-9th. Our main job at the conference was very clear: to ensure the attendees had a good time.
The organisation behind the CA network was staggering, with multi-tiered levels of responsibility seamlessly meshing together to provide the inner workings of GDC. It's an eye-opening experience seeing how the organisation for such a large conference can be entrusted to a group of volunteers, a large number of whom have never done it before, and have the event run so smoothly. This was largely due to the efforts of Tim and Ian, who run the CA network and are two of the founders of GDC.
The volunteers are unpaid in the traditional sense, but what they do receive is more than enough compensation. In return for a small amount of work, most of which simply amounts to guarding doors and scanning badges, CAs receive an all-access pass, lunches, breakfasts, and the opportunity to network with a huge base of talented individuals, some of whom are extremely well placed within the industry. In the course of my five days, I met CAs that included a senior concept and environmental artist for Blizzard, heads of QA from ArenaNet, professors of game design, and numerous talented freelance individuals. The work that is assigned to a CA is also tailored to include their preferences for viewing sessions, so they may very well work at - and thus be able to attend - all the sessions that they asked for! The very fact that the CAs are assigned all over the conference means that they pick up all sorts of news, which gets relayed to the other CAs through chats or announcements.
Being a CA is an extremely rewarding experience. The selection process is individually monitored, so you can be assured of being surrounded by industry vets as well as promising young talent. It's a great view of a slice of the Game Industry itself!’
There are two expos. The main industry expo and the careers expo and both are getting bigger and better. Unity were very noticeable with a huge stand towering above everyone. There were even more (than last year) monetization companies located around the fringes and the IGDA games festival demonstration area was packed to the rafters as usual. The standard is getting really good. The student entries to the competition were impressive and the standard to aim for.
The expo floor from the Unity stairs.
The career expo was bigger than ever with the floor littered with Human Resource assistants from all the big publishers. Queues of students / enthusiasts waited in turn to get a chance to show off their portfolio of art, design or to just have a chat and see what steps they need to access the range of jobs in the industry from QA, to Programming to Level Design.
There were even mini programming competitions happening right throughout the area with crowds of people gathering around to watch. Who would have ever thought that speed coding could be spectator friendly?
Code a game in 9 mins. Fair enough!!!
The Serious Stuff ‘n’ Stuff
The IDA and EI had a super joint event this year at GDC in a genuine speakeasy called Bourbon and Branch. It was great to see the mix of Irish startups and multinationals swapping numbers and making plans. When you see Mark Lambe from Thurles startup Nevermind enthralling Colm O'Rian of Zynga you just know that new possibilities have opened up and all barriers are down. The confidence of the Irish startup scene was palpable as the likes of Tribal Cities, Ideal Binary and Bitsmith mingled with developers and execs from EA, Zynga, Bigpoint and Microsoft.
Simone Boswell of EI and Gareth Coen of IDA deployed just the right mix for some alchemy to ensue and it would be great to see more of this from a Games Ireland point of view as the lines of demarcation break down between inward FDI and indigenous companies. Many Irish execs based on the west coast expressed an interest in coming home to start up and were impressed with the industry growth and supports. The IDA hinted at some interesting game developments on the existing brands already operating in Ireland. Maybe it was the cocktails taking effect but it felt like the start of something big.
My two DAU’s
The most important takeaway for me, I’ve realised, from GDC is that it gives me a reality check on where the industry is. This is a good thing; however I can’t help feeling a little deflated leaving for home. Every year the standard gets higher and higher, every year I go out thinking we’ve made progress to come back feeling that we are falling further and further behind (in some ways).
The approach to education in the games industry is taken far more seriously in the US. They don’t just have top up courses/certificates in game design, add on streams in games programming as part of computer science courses. They have whole schools dedicated to it. There is a lot more joined up thinking.
I want one of these
This is a multibillion dollar industry that encompasses computer science, animation and design NOT the other way around. Students enrol on a game design undergraduate programme from day one on either a programming, animation or design major but are building games in interdisciplinary teams in simulated industry environments for 4 years.
We are way behind in this area. I could argue that we don’t have an indigenous games design industry and that we have to start somewhere. I could also argue that resources don’t exist to create whole schools of game design and all of those are valid points. So what can we do?
I would like to point to one item in the recent Irish government action plan on games;
‘7.7.3 Support industry in working with third level institutions to introduce a pilot game development/publishing ‘hothouse’ initiative for undergraduate and Post Leaving Certificate courses.
The initiative will bring together, in multi?disciplinary teams, students from games, multimedia and animation courses (from a range of participating PLC and third level colleges) to work together on a game development project for a defined period. Each of the teams will receive mentor support from industry practitioners. (Clustering Development Team with industry)’
This action plan is a good idea, if we pool our resources and talents we should be able to setup what I would call a ‘national academy of game design’. In order to capitalize on the momentum gained over the last number of years we need to get going on this and the government needs to put its money where its mouth is.
Thanks to Owen Harris, Basil Lim, Bryan Duggan and Paul Hayes for contributing to this and to Aphra as always for editing.
Hugh McAtamney is a lecturer and researcher in the domains of digital media and computer science. He is course chair in the Masters in Digital Games and Creative Digital Media at Dublin Institute of Technology. His GameDeveloper.ie handle is Hatch.
Dr Bryan Duggan is a lecturer in the School of Computing at the Dublin Institute of Technology teaching various subjects including first and second year programming and game engine programming in final year. For more see http://www.comp.dit.ie/bduggan
youtube: http://youtube.com/skooter500 and twitter: @ditcomputing