AVC at GDC '09: Day Two, In Which The Word "Indie" Loses All Meaning
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One of the show organizers noted before a talk this morning that 11 of the 19 sessions on the Independent Games Summit track had "indie" in the title. "So we're really on message," he said. OK, but what message is that, exactly? The term "indie" is a little too cute to begin with, and nobody knows exactly where the boundaries of indie gaming are. That problem is creating some tension. Yesterday, the indie crowd was all about warm, fuzzy unity, but today, the seams started to show.
The big attraction of the day was the Indie Game Makers Rant, which sounds like the name of a Blogspot site that hasn't been updated since 2006, but is actually a session where a bunch of prominent designer types get five minutes each to talk about whatever they want. Because the Rant was in high demand, I had to get there early to grab a seat, which meant sitting through a punishingly boring talk called "The Indie Businessman." I never realized how little I cared about "microtransactions" until today.
There were some fireworks at the tail end of the business panel's Q&A period, though, when an agitated audience member interrogated Daniel James, the founder of Three Rings Design and creator of Puzzle Pirates. "I've admired Three Rings for a long time, so I'm surprised to hear you took venture-capital money," the questioner said, and we could tell from his voice that this guy was angry. In his view, courting investors crossed an unspoken "indie" line. James tried to explain that it was simply the next step in growing his business, but the voice in the crowd was having none of it—he had just lost a hero.
The rant session was mostly a disappointment. As it turns out, five minutes is the perfect length of time to present vague half-ideas that you haven't fleshed out yet. One developer mused on the importance of creating "worthwhile" games; another argued that games should be considered art (I agree, but I am also very, very tired of this debate) and then issued a bizarre rallying cry for independent developers to "set the industry aflame."
Phil Fish spoke second to last. He's the guy behind Fez (pictured above), a highly anticipated game that, in prototype form, won the award for artistic excellence at the 2008 Independent Game Festival. Fish is literally the mascot of the Independent Games Summit track—the conference organizers used a picture of him for this year's logo. But today, he went rogue. After nervously hemming and hawing for a minute—he said the PowerPoint presentation he planned to show got lost in a laptop crash—Fish blurted out what was on his mind: "Eden should not be nominated [for] IGF!"
Q-Games' PixelJunk Eden is up for three IGF awards. This angers Phil Fish (and, judging by the crowd response, a few others). "I just have a problem with a studio entering IGF," he said. "A studio that contracts with Sony to design their shitty XMB interface." Contracting with Sony: apparently another way to cross the "indie" line. Fish continued, "And then I found out that later this week, Q-Games is going to unveil the expansion for Eden. And then I went, 'Ahh, so that's what it's all about, a cynical marketing campaign.'"
That's when things got weird(er).
IGF organizer Simon Carless ran to the stage and took the freaking mic from Fish to explain that Q-Games submitted Eden for an award before the game was even released. That tamped down the conspiracy theories (or DID IT???), but I don't think it addressed Fish's main argument, which is that the IGF Awards are becoming more about marketing than recognizing unheralded developers. Fish took back the lectern and admitted that the real problem was the I-word. "The term 'indie' doesn't hold up to any kind of level of scrutiny. ... It's meaningless, and I hate that." Fish took his seat. Now that was a rant.
Petri Purho ended the session by poking fun at the "build a game in hours" craze that he's helped popularize. He told the crowd he would use his slot to break all records and program a game in just five minutes, using an audience suggestion drawn from a hat: "Rag-doll Peggle." Purho fiddled with C++ code for a few minutes on the big screen, frantically trying to beat the clock. When he hit the button to compile his program, an amazingly polished Peggle clone with perfect rag-doll physics appeared. We'd been duped; the suggestion was a plant.
I'd kind of like to play rag-doll Peggle, though.
This evening, I headed to a product-announcement event at the SF Museum of Modern Art with a couple of game journalist buddies. I was a little tipsy by this point, and I expected we would kill five minutes watching whatever gimmicky, "paradigm-changing" silliness the suits were plugging and then head out for more drinks. Instead, I saw a demo of an internet gaming service called OnLive that sobered me right up.
Here's the idea. You download the 10-megabyte OnLive client to your Mac or PC, or connect a tiny "micro-console" to your TV. This gives you access to a large library of recently released PC games. You choose a game, and you start playing it immediately. No downloads, no waiting, because the game software runs on the OnLive servers. Your button-presses are transmitted to the server, and video of the game is streamed back to you live. The OnLive folks say their video-compression scheme is so fast that it feels like the game is installed on your computer—there's no perceptible lag (as long as you live within 1,000 miles of the nearest OnLive data center).
In theory, OnLive turns any low-end computer with a decent DSL or cable-modem hookup into a machine that can play the latest high-end games. I'm extremely dubious that this trick will work well on garden-variety internet connections, but if it does, sweet merciful crap, this is a big thing. OnLive has a lot of good publishers on board, too, including indie World of Goo developer 2-D Boy. Or wait, does this deal mean they're not indie anymore? It's so hard to keep track.
Tomorrow, the schedule gets nutty: Nintendo president Satoru Iwata delivers his keynote, the main exhibit floor opens, the IGF opens, award shows happen, etc.
At my first Game Developer Conference in '06, the big buzz game was Spore. Well, that's not fair: it wasn't so much a "buzz game" as a multi-faceted transcendent reality-changing experience that would rejigger the way we look at nature, God, and the dream and horror of life in the stars. Will Wright's keynote address was a highlight of that week, and when Spore finally shipped last fall, I was one among many people who felt it fell kind of short—not just as an experience, but simply as a game.
This morning I heard Margaret Robertson, journalist and maker of serious and teaching games, talk about what Spore did and didn't accomplish. Robertson wrote about the game for Seed magazine, and after it launched, she looked extensively into how schools are using the game to teach science. Her conclusion: They're not.
As Robertson explained, the science is "bunk." Evolutionary biologists pointed out that evolution doesn't work this way—the guiding hand of the player feels too much like intelligent design, and random mutations and adaptation to environmental factors are absent. The creature creator isn't an evolution sim so much as a "Mr. Potatohead Sim." A National Geographic documentary about the science of Spore quoted notable scientists—without telling them that they were going to be paired with the game, which they did not endorse. And the problems went on. I mean, I'm no scientist, but even I know that dropping a giant air-conditioner on a planet won't solve global warming.
That said, while Robertson didn't find a single teacher who used the full Spore in the classroom, she found a number of people who were wild about the free creature creator. But not for the science: they use it for creative writing and storytelling, to teach 3-D modeling, to facilitate teamwork (that old standby of games-in-the-classroom), and also to teach emotional literacy. You can even make comic books starring your Spore creations.
But as for the game itself? At this point, it's too expensive, too slow, and too complicated for the classroom. Robertson also introduced us to the term "TTP," or "time-to-penis," which is the time it takes a group of kids to use the tools you put in front of them to come up with something filthy. Apparently Spore's TTP is about 3 minutes.
How come every time I do one of these high-concept "games for the future" pieces, it all comes down to penises?
Other highlights this morning: we got a preview of Sims 3 during a talk on artificial intelligence, by EA's Richard Evans. The team set out to make the world of Sims 3 feel like "a town full of individuals." The non-player characters you meet shouldn't feel like "cookie cutter" copies: each one should each have a complex, individual, but easily sussed-out personality. Evans explained, with code samples, how they're creating a pool of 80 traits and assigning 5 a-piece to each Sim in the world. The traits run from a sense of humor to kleptomania to insanity to flirtiness, and they can manifest in weirdly specific ways: whereas the last two games had interactions like "talk" and "joke," in Sims 3, the Sims will tease each other about being vegetarian.
One last talk: I caught the end of a talk on the alternate reality game Chain Factor, a promotional campaign for CBS' Numb3rs. Now, I've talked to people a few times this weekend about alternate reality games, and immersive fiction, and usually people just roll their eyes. ARGs are at best a niche, speciality activity, as well as a genre that's been defined almost wholly by its use in advertising and viral marketing, which, as people like Naomi Klein always tell us, is so not cool. But setting that aside: Chain Factor was a neat example of an ARG, because most of the people who came in contact with it knew it from the excellent Flash game on the game's site, now available for the iPhone as Drop7. The designers at area/code found a way to balance the primary ARG—which was a knotty, multi-layered piece of fiction with many offshoots and rabbit holes—with the casual players who dug the puzzle game. People who played Drop7 fed data into the project for the hardcode players; the hardcore players would unlock content that the casual players could enjoy.
And I know people are asking for game recs and bigtime previews. We haven't seen many yet—that starts later in the week—but PETA's Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals is worth the click.