David Wolinsky and I are in San Francisco this week for the Game Developers Conference or, as it is known by those who are hip to the biz, GDC. There are a lot of gaming shows scattered throughout the year, and each one has its own distinctive character. E3 is the annual bacchanalia whose decadence everyone decries and secretly enjoys. DICE is where industry muckety-mucks make each other feel important. PAX is for the fans. Gamescom is German.
GDC is the event where you feel like you are tapping into the bloodstream (latex gloves recommended) of the medium's creative community. The show organizers have been careful to keep it from turning into a PR extravaganza—i.e., an E3 Jr.—so as you walk around San Francisco's Moscone Center and duck into the various talks, you get a sense of something real, an impression of the process that goes into the creating these games. Thanks in part to the iron fist with which game companies control information, the creative process behind video games is still quite mysterious to the public, even to those of us who write about games for a living. GDC opens the window a little bit.
The show happens in waves. The first two days are mostly taken up with summits that focus on various niches of gaming, like the Social & Online Games Summit (for Facebook-y games) and the Serious Games Summit (for boring games). I generally stick to the Independent Games Summit, because indie developers are pushing the amorphous medium of games ahead in ways that their corporate cousins cannot. That's not to say that AAA games can't advance the conversation, too, but I think we all get implicitly that creative freedom and experimentation make a difference.
That difference is exemplified by Jonatan Soderstrom, the prolific, idiosyncratic Swedish developer better known as "Cactus." He gave a talk today called "Abusing Your Players Just For Fun." This will probably be the only session at GDC to open with a warning that it may induce seizures. It wasn't a joke—or, at least, he was kidding on the square—as "blinking, rotating graphics" were among the weapons that Cactus suggested developers wield against their players. Others included weird/irrational game logic and insane difficulty. (There were plenty of examples of these tactics being put to use in indie games, and David was planning to hunt down links to many of the games that Cactus referenced. He'll post that soon if he hasn't already.)
Cactus also spent a great deal of time talking about works in other media, especially film, that willfully challenge their audiences. David Lynch was cited as a particular inspiration—in the course of listing practically every movie Lynch has made and proclaiming how awesome it is, Cactus showed that famous "mystery man" scene from Lost Highway as an example of cinematic difficulty. I have been thinking lately about the parallels between accessibility in film and difficulty in games; I touched on it in a Death By Cube review a few weeks back. Some of the more dogmatic game theorists preoccupy themselves with exploring only how games are utterly different from other media, a line of thought that I find naïve and self-defeating. So I really enjoyed hearing the way Cactus drew inspiration from a diverse range of media. He drew parallels to progressive rock, as well, quoting John Holmstrom's definition of punk: "It's rock and roll by people who didn't have very much skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music." He suggested that might describe the more experimental end of the indie scene, as well.
So what if you don't have very much skills as a programmer but still want to express yourself? This year, the tools behind cool indie games are getting name-checked more and more by the developers. Cactus gave a shout-out to Game Maker, and at an afternoon session, the creator of Fantastic Contraption recommended Box2d and the Citrus Engine. That's a tiny sample; the universe of tools for indie developers has expanded and matured quite a bit. Spend a few hours at the Indie Game Summit, and you'll start to think you can make your own game. And hey, you probably can.
The Fantastic Contraption post-mortem, with aforementioned creator Colin Northway, was a look at one of the most successful Flash games ever. There was nothing terribly surprising in the rags-to-riches story of the game's rise to fame, although it's always amusing to see what cool games looked like in the early prototype stage:
The one surprise in the talk, at least for those who still think that indie games are parent's basement-type deals, was in the numbers (vague as they were): By his own accounting, Northway made "a few hundred thousand dollars in the first few months" of Contraption's existence. Yeah, that's not bad.
Let there be no mistake; money—specifically, the making of it—is topic number one at the Indie Games Summit. That figures, since having money helps with the whole "independence" deal. It might be my imagination, but it seems like there are more business-oriented sessions on the IGS schedule this year and fewer purely creative talks. Last year, the vibe was "Ha, we might be able to earn some money doing this!" Whereas this year it's more like, "No, seriously, let's make some fucking money."
Funding for indie game makers has often been a morass of confusion, predation, and sorrow, usually in that order. Ron Carmel, one of the World of Goo creators, gave a talk this morning announcing the Indie Fund, which is just what it sounds like. Carmel and a bunch of other big-name indie people like Jonathan Blow (of Braid fame) and Kelle Santiago (Flower) have banded together to create a source of investment that pledges to be more respectful of game development's flexible, experimental nature. They also plan to let developers retain intellectual property rights, which is key. Details on the scope of this beast are still pretty hazy, and there was a bit of skepticism amid developers' overall positive reception, but you have to praise the idea, at least.
There were a few announcements outside the indie sphere today, but not many of note. One exception: The embargo lifted on news of a new studio, Seven45, working on a new Rock Band-esque music game called Power Gig: Rise Of The SixString. Here's the top bullet point: The guitar peripheral is an actual electric guitar, with controller electronics added in. You can disconnect the thing from your Xbox and plug it right into an amp. Here is a picture of the guitar being caressed by a man with a beard.
I saw a build of the game and a couple versions of the guitar peripheral a couple weeks ago in New York while this project was still under the murky veil of embargo. It was pre-alpha code, so I guess I'm not supposed to tell you that the game looked kinda gangly. I'm as fatigued as the next guy with bulky game peripherals that take up space in the living room, but I have to admit that the real-guitar angle struck me as really cool. (The too-cute-by-half "SixString" moniker, not as much.) It's an answer to all those "Why play Rock Band instead of learning to play the guitar?" cranks, as Power Gig can teach some basic guitar skills and muscle memory.
But you don't have to have any desire to learn the guitar to play the game. Anybody can play! I am telling you this because the Seven45 marketing executive at the New York meeting gave the impression he would kill/maim a member of my family if I didn't. They seem awfully worried that this will be perceived as a niche thing (because of all the people who hate guitars, I guess), so "Anybody can play!" is the message that has haunted my nightmares for the past few weeks. The truth is, I haven't tried the game myself, so I don't even know if I can play it. It looks promising enough.
Other odds and ends:
- Nintendo is really pushing their WarioWare D.I.Y. DS game. Apparently, you make your own mini-games and then play and/or share them. I have a hard time believing this game will not be terrible.
- There was a Final Fantasy XIII launch party last night. I should have gone for the sake of A.V. Club coverage, but I spent most of last week/weekend playing FF13, and yesterday I turned in my review, and I was feeling melancholy. Here's the thing. I've played all the Final Fantasy games. I wrote my senior thesis in college about the semiotics of Final Fantasy. I own embarrassing pieces of Final Fantasy paraphernalia that by all rights ought to have prevented me from getting married. So the prospect of writing my first Final Fantasy review for a national outlet was somewhat exciting for me. I don't want to tip my hand entirely, but suffice to say that my excitement had worn away by the time I filed the review yesterday. So I skipped the FF13 launch festivities. This turned out to be a terrible mistake, as the soiree was apparently a hilarious extravaganza of awkwardness.
- I ran into fellow writer Jamin Brophy-Warren, who has teamed up with A.V. Clubber Chris Dahlen to launch Kill Screen, an honest-to-goodness print magazine dedicated to sophisticated writing about games. The first issue is being sold at GDC; you can also get it at the link above.
- Apologies in advance for this plug: I'm moderating a panel on Saturday, at 10:30 a.m., about comedy in games. I've assembled a star-studded team of funny developers: Tim Schafer, Rhianna Pratchett, and Sean Vanaman. If you're attending the show, I humbly entreat you to consider attending. Should be a good time.