It’s Monday, 2 March, the first day of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and I can’t help but notice a common refrain: “I’m already tired.”
By most accounts, it hasn’t been a terribly brutal day, especially not by convention standards. But the developers, acquaintances, and friends I encounter seem worn down, deflated. Maybe it’s pre-dread at the thought of the several-day work slog ahead (plus a weekend of PAX East on top of it, for some), but the weariness seems pervasive. It’s like baggage many of these people showed up with at the airport.
San Francisco’s Moscone Center is stuffed with people shuffling between panels, sessions, and meetings. Attendee badges jingle as they walk by. Many of these people haven’t seen each other for quite some time, and they’re ecstatic to be around each other again after months, or even years, of being spread out across the globe. There’s excited waving, a little hollering and yes, even some hugs. This is a common GDC occurrence, but it too is restrained by a feeling of heaviness. I hear some of it. Some conversation change from “Omigosh it’s so good to see you” to “You’ve been through a lot lately. We all have” and “I hope you’re doing alright.”
At a packed, swelteringly hot evening indie game showcase, one press friend makes it especially explicit: “I don’t think I want to work in games any more,” he says before a sigh that feels bottomless. “I’m just not feeling it any more. I’m not sure what I want to do next.”
It’s been a tough bunch of months for a lot of people in the gaming community. GamerGate has taken a toll for people on many sides of the thing. So too has vitriol and negativity on social media, countless redundancies and a general uncertainty about where games are headed — how to be reliably successful on Steam, mobile and even consoles. There’s a lot to be stressed about. There are a lot of reasons to be tired. And I had to admit, that Monday, I was a little tired too.
But I go to GDC to get a feel for things. I can’t know everything about Where Gaming Is At in a single week where I can’t hope to talk to each and every one of the more than 25,000 developers filling the Moscone Center. I can, however, get some snapshots. I can see where I’m at, too.
It’s early morning on the second day of GDC, and I’m taking a Lyft from my house to the convention center. The driver, a man who appears to be in his 40s, a widening patch of skin peeking through the remains of his hairline, notices my attendee badge. He asks what it’s all about and I tell him I’m headed to the Game Developers Conference. He replies that he used to play console games a lot — Halo, mostly — but these days he mostly sticks to mobile stuff. He says he likes to use games as a way to bond with his son and I ask him what they play together. “Lots of Clash of Clans,” he says. “And some Minecraft and Crossy Road.” The usual suspects, in other words — one of which even had a big budget Super Bowl commercial.
I ask if he’s heard of some of our favourite mobile games like ultra-stylish experiment Device 6, brilliant story game 80 Days, or even the once fairly popular Ridiculous Fishing. He replies saying that, nope, they don’t ring a bell. He mostly gets recommendations by checking out the App Store’s top sellers from time-to-time. He rightly observes that it doesn’t change much, but he doesn’t have time to do a whole bunch of research.
This, I hear from people who make mobile games, is common. It is sometimes nearly impossible to get people’s attention, especially on the App Store — even if your game is unique or rock-solid or elegantly simple or blindingly pink. To make matters worse, major players duke it out for prestigious top ten slots like Godzilla tussling with King Kong. They have a way of pushing everyone else aside.
He continues: “But you know, games have all these… things that force you to stop in them now. Like, if you want to play more you’ve got to pay or wait hours. Do people get mad about that?”
“Yeah, kind of a lot,” I reply.
“So why do they keep making games that way?” he asks.
“Why do you keep playing them?” I reply.
“Huh,” he says after chewing on the question for a moment. “Good point.”
It’s night on the second day of GDC. The game is called PSHNGGG. “Like… like the sound a sword makes?” I ask no one in particular. Yes, Past Nathan, like the sound a sword makes.
It’s beautiful in its elegance. I mean that, too: beautiful. It looks like this:
You and an opponent play as these sort of tetherball sword things, and you spin around hacking, slashing and riposting — making your sword bigger and smaller at will — to force your opponent to the other side of the level. It’s simple. It’s brutal. Each time the swords clash — “PSHNGGG!” — sparks fly and anime-inspired lines race in the stark yellow background. I’m not sure if I’ve felt more satisfying impacts from another game, ever. Each one rings. I can practically feel them in my teeth.
The game is the result of Train Jam, a now-annual game-making event that crams a bunch of GDC-bound people on a train for 52 or so hours. During that time, they make games and, well, that’s about it. Not all trains are as entertaining as the one from Snowpiercer, unfortunately. But creativity is often born from constraints. A tight time limit and the claustrophobic insides of a train fit that bill nicely. PSHNGGG is a brilliant example of that, a diamond squeezed from coal. Crafted under pressure, it shines.
Playing at a house where some friends are staying, I get in close on one of the game’s developers. My blade is nearly as small as can be while hers swings in wide, almost hypnotizing arcs. We clash. Flashes from the screen light up the dark, crowded living room we’re playing in. One, two, three clean hits as I swing my toothpick dagger of a sword around much more quickly than the developer. I taste victory, and I know I earned it. More importantly, I know exactly how I did it. Every mechanic, every technique I figured out, makes near-instant sense. It’s a gorgeous game, in so many ways.
Throughout GDC I’ll hear about 60-hour games and games as services and DLC plans and sketchy monetization strategies. I’ll play some cool games, too. Nothing, though, will beat this single, perfect moment. People made a game for the sake of making a game, and it was beautiful.
It’s the third night of GDC, the annual Wild Rumpus party, a madhouse of deafening noise and neon colour. After greeting a number of friends and acquaintances and saying, “WHAT? CAN YOU SAY THAT A LITTLE LOUDER?” about a thousand times, I end up having a conversation with a game developer whose career is doing moderately well, but hasn’t quite taken off yet.
She’s worried — not about whether she’ll find bigtime success, but rather what’ll happen if she reaches that point. “I’ve seen what happens to women like Anita Sarkeesian,” she said. “I don’t know if I could handle that.”
She ponders if maybe it would just be better to keep a low profile. I don’t really know what to say to that, so I don’t say anything. Peppy dance music continues to rock the dark building like an earthquake, but it’s a sobering moment. Eventually, we go our separate ways.
It’s the middle of GDC’s #1ReasonToBe panel, a tradition that started in 2013 after 2012 saw the hashtags #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe explode on Twitter in response to queries about women’s experiences in gaming and game development. The room is pin-drop silent, but its collective muscles are tensed, ready to explode into applause and cheers at any given moment. The women up on stage are saying some damn powerful stuff.
Legendary game designer Brenda Romero — who’s worked on everything from Wizardry to Jagged Alliance to board games that make people want to puke from guilt — stands up. With the aid of a slideshow, she shares a brief story. It’s called The Parable of The Mountain Lion.
“That’s a mountain lion,” she deadpans, pointing to what is, sure enough, a picture of a mountain lion. The audience chuckles. “And that’s my house,” she says, pointing at the picture’s background.
“I know it’s a mountain lion because it has a tracking collar on it. You can go to the Santa Cruz Puma Project and find out where that guy goes. We also have bobcats and raccoons. We have a mountain lion.”
“The odds of me being eaten by the mountain lion are, [in my head], 100 per cent,” she says. More audience laughter. “But the actual odds are closer to this,” she says, pointing to a slide that reads “0.000000001 per cent.”
“And that is far too much. Even though the odds are near-impossible, I find that knowing there’s a mountain lion on my property affects my behaviour. I think about it. I’ve actually stopped exercising outside, and I have become afraid for my family. Fundamentally, even though the odds are tiny, I have stopped being who I am and enjoying the space I’m in.”
“This has to change, because I don’t think the mountain lion’s going to kill me, and I don’t think he’s going away. But the fear has to.”
The final speaker of #1ReasonToBe stands up. Her name is Katherine Cross and she’s a sociologist and academic. She studies online harassment and toxicity on the internet. Given the events that have transpired over the last seven months, she’s had a lot to study lately.
She ended up writing about her findings, of course and she was hit with a tidal wave of backlash. It wasn’t exactly encouraging. On stage, she explains:
“By the time I wrote this article on First Person Scholar, analysing the dynamics of GamerGate that situated it as an ‘ends justify the means’ movement,” she says. “I was besieged with very angry, often transphobic and racist GamerGaters who wanted me to shut up and go away. I was tempted by the yawning embrace of that oblivion; tempted to walk away from the career I’d built, tempted to do anything to make the pain stop.”
“So I made a choice and decided there was only one thing I could do.”
Image credit: Feministing
And then, a pause. Finally, after a couple seconds that feel endless, she continues:
“Write more about games than ever.”
Applause fills the room. Hundreds of people on their feet. It’s the last of four standing ovations in a single panel, easily the most I’ve seen of any panel I’ve attended in my career.
During that same panel, women like former Uncharted director Amy Hennig shared stories of how they hadn’t been treated poorly by the gaming industry specifically, but instead by portions of the community surrounding games on the Internet. Others disagreed with those assertions that the industry itself is largely free of sexism, but respected the opinion and experience of people like Hennig and politely agreed to disagree.
Meanwhile, journalists Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson (both friends of Kotaku; Alexander once worked for the site and is an occasional columnist) announced Offworld, a website dedicated to giving voices to the voiceless, to people in games who don’t usually get a platform. In another panel, activist Randi Harper, game producer Alex Lifschitz, game developer Zoe Quinn (disclosure: we briefly dated last year) and Design Direct Deliver CEO Sheri Rubin announced the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, aimed at studying online abuse, helping people deal with it, and giving companies resources to combat it.
Elsewhere, Vlambeer co-head Rami Ismail announced a program to translate important development resources into multiple languages, potentially helping people who’d never make games otherwise get their start. “This is the first time in more than a year I’ve been really nervous,” he told me shortly beforehand. His voice quivered, both with fear and excitement.
The cumulative message behind it all? Things have been bad lately. Online harassment, whether associating itself with GamerGate or not, is arguably worse than ever. But people are reacting by making things. Games, learning tools, spaces for people to discuss games and issues that surround them. They’re meeting destruction with creation. Under duress, they’re forging steel.
It’s the afternoon of the third day of GDC, but I’m not at GDC. Instead, I’m about half a mile away at the Lost Levels “un-conference,” an event that’s free and open to everyone. Anyone can sign up to give a talk, too.
Last year’s Lost Levels was, for me, an emotional rollercoaster, but this one is significantly more subdued. People are crammed into a small building — not a sunny park — and they’re milling about like ants in an anthill. It’s a bit suffocating.
I want to give a talk — I really do — but I just can’t find the energy I need to get up there and put myself on the line. Public speaking, even in an environment where anyone can do it, is scary, and I’m still feeling like a sack of elephant dung that’s been lit on fire, thrown on somebody’s doorstep, and then punched for some reason.
Image credit: Offworld
A lot of other people are feeling hesitant about giving talks too. For a little while, there’s a lull. Nobody’s giving talks in any of the designated areas. Maybe it’s the structure (a series of thin walls feels less inviting than a park) or the timing or the hellacious year a lot of people have had. I don’t know.
But eventually the crowd thins out, and people find their courage. The room I’m in gets downright esoteric about it. Hyper-specific level design approaches, jokes that go right over my head, a talk about why bizarre undersea creatures are a never-ending font for game inspiration.
I never end up giving my talk, but I’m happy I stuck around.
It’s the third evening of GDC. The two-part award show, which begins with the Independent Games Festival awards, is in full swing. After all the indie game awards are handed out, host Nathan Vella stays on stage for a special speech. He says that people in the video game industry can no longer afford to ignore the hatred, harassment, and toxicity that surrounds some portions of our culture, circling it like slavering sharks.
“There continue to be women, people of colour, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer artists who are being trolled and spammed and doxxed and hacked,” he says. “Even driven from their homes. It’s no longer possible for those of us in this room to ignore or minimize these issues in our industry or with our art.”
And just like that, thousands of people are on their feet, clapping and cheering. In the crowded convention hall, it’s deafening. Vella’s speech isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it’s hard not to feel a little overwhelmed by the response. It’s an astounding moment.
After the GDC awards, Kotaku EIC Stephen Totilo and I encounter Adrian Chmielarz, designer of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I loved his game, but also know that he sees GamerGate very differently than I do. He thinks claims against it are overblown and he’s taken to defending members of the movement, condemning harassment and criticising feminist critics such as Anita Sarkeesian. (As it turns out, he wasn’t a fan of Vella’s speech), and I can’t help but feel a little antsy given how the show went. I wonder if he’ll be on edge. I wonder how he’ll feel about running into two members of the press.
We talk about GDC, his game, and express mutual admiration for each others’ work. It’s brief, but pleasant. Then we go our respective ways. That’s it.
There it was, a moment where everything could go up in flames, and instead we just talked like people. The Internet has a way of masking us, dressing us up in various “sides” colours and telling us to go to war. But standing face-to-face, staring each other in the eyes, the first things that come up aren’t our differences. It’s how we’re similar. Would that all discussions could start from that point.
Later that evening I end up talking with a woman I saw give a talk at this year’s Lost Levels “un-conference.” We talk about the way social media enables people to treat each other like rotting garbage, and how to react to that. She says something that sticks with me in a big way: “Even when people are acting nearly inhuman, always keep in mind that they’re human just like you. Do your best to treat them that way.”
It’s the second to last day of GDC, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard developers enthuse about how essential their players have become to their process. Indies like Tyriq Plummer, designer (and cooler-hair-than-you-haver) of hyper-detailed Steam Early Access roguelike Catacomb Kids, gave players full credit for their games’ directions. Plummer, for instance, said that players doing weird and unique stuff in his game is often a reason for him to expand on a mechanic, add even more detail.
I was especially struck by how much Epic is handing the wheel over to players in their development of the new Unreal Tournament. When they first said they’d be making the game from the ground-up with direct input from gamers, I was sceptical. What would that even entail? I figured it’d probably devolve into community suggestions here and there, ala other crowd-influenced games. But nope, Epic opened up their codebase on day one, and one of Unreal Tournament‘s first two official levels is fully fanmade. Now that’s how you engage a group that’s been doing cool stuff for and in your games for years and years.
As we’ve said on Kotaku many times (and shifted our coverage to focus on), gamers do a lot of fascinating stuff. For years, there was — and still is, to an extent — a sort of friction between game makers and players. Game makers had to keep what they were working on stuffed deep in the darkest corners of their hats, and players were these nebulous masses of desire — rowdy, unpredictable, strange. Things like demographics (18-34 year old males!) made a form of order from the chaos, but it wasn’t exactly personal. Games weren’t being made for people so much as they were being made for a vague idea of people.
It’s good to see some developers be nearly fluent in what their players are up to, especially at companies like Epic. Gamers are, by and large, cool, passionate people, and developers are, by and large, cool, passionate people. Sure, there will be bad eggs, differences of opinion, and bumps in the road, but it’s a brave new world — and a far more interesting one, in my opinion.
It’s the end of the final day of GDC, and I’m tired. I’ve been on my feet all week, and I’ve been subsisting almost entirely on cookies and small plastic packages of Keebler peanut butter crackers. The human body evolved to withstand days upon days of running, eventually catching up to gazelles and being like, “Why are you so tired? Haha stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself, god you’re so stupid.” It did not, however, evolve to contend with non-stop junk food and disastrous sleep deprivation.
But I also feel energized, inspired — like things might just turn out alright. Did all the problems in gaming suddenly evaporate? Of course not. Harassment is still definitely a thing. Success is still far from guaranteed if you’re making a game, and it’s still hard for little guys to stand out. Redundancies aren’t going anywhere. EA closed longtime SimCity studio Maxis Emeryville in the middle of the show, for fuck’s sake. The show wasn’t all roses, in other words.
What I witnessed, though, was a lot of people who’d been battered — trampled, even — by life and circumstance waking up with fire in their eyes. I felt that myself. Their passion might have been squelched for a time, but it came roaring back. So many people, loving games, the people who play them, the people who make them, deciding, “Yeah, shit is rough — maybe rougher than it’s been in a long time — but I adore all of this too much to quit.” So instead they decided to make things — interesting things, fun things, things to make the situation better.
GDC was a reminder that games can bring us together just as effectively as they can push us apart. It was also a moment of clarity, a mirror to gaze into and realise that, no matter what kind of side or affiliation or whatever we identify with, we’re all driven by passion. I’ll admit, I’ve had moments where mine waned — where infighting and meanness and cynicism (even from some game companies) made me tired — but passion adapts. When things get bad, you find the parts of that thing that you really love, and you try to make them better.
Top image credit: mint