Reflections on a Decade of GDC Fieldnotes

March 25th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

Ah, the Game Developers Conference (GDC)… I started my field research in 2004 at a relatively small but growing game studio: Vicarious Visions. Since that time I’ve been researching game development and game developers. That’s a long time to study such an amorphous, variable and shifting thing/community/world/culture. I’ve ranged from AAA developers to hobbyists to serious game development teams. I haven’t made it to every GDC in that time; travel has always been highly subject to the aleatory. But I have been watching, listening and taking notes from afar even when I haven’t been there myself. What follows is a meta-note, on my collection of meta-notes, which will make this pretty meta-meta.

GDC Badges

GDC Badges

For those unfamiliar, GDC is a yearly meeting of primarily North-American game developers, though many from Europe, Japan and increasingly, other countries do make the pilgrimage. While GDC came from humble beginnings, it rapidly grew to a scale where it was eventually (not without controversy) sold to CMP Media, which was later acquired by UBM TechWeb.

It is a bit strange to see that my entry to the field in 2004 and subsequent new-found interest in the conference in 2005 come at a pivotal moment for the event. 2005 marked the first of what would come to be the new “standard” location for the event in San Francisco (with a brief return to San Jose in 2006). It marked the first year of what came to be the annual “rant” sessions, though historically preceded by the “whip” speeches (glad I didn’t have to unpack that in my dissertation research).

The fact that my forthcoming book focused on the structural aspects of the game industry, like licensing, publishing and manufacturing is partially a product of its temporality (2004 – 2008). I’ve been hanging out for a long time, a kind of feral participant observer. Like other anthropologists have noted, there’s something to be said for long-term ethnographic fieldwork. What’s most interesting, going back and plumbing the depths of my notes is the rise of a kind cultural consciousness that has gone along with a maturing community of game developers. Which isn’t to say that some of the developers, like Brenda Romero, John Romero, Eric Zimmerman, Frank Lantz, Ian Bogost, Chris Crawford, Will Wright, or numerous others really went anywhere…But they’ve really come back to the fore and started to reflect on their lives in the game industry and hopes for the future.

GDC has always been a place where plenty of developers get together and give topically specific presentations on technical and professional practices. But, I think more important than that is the role GDC has in sustaining an albeit limited institutional memory. GDC brings together a subset of the beating heart of the game industry. Unlike E3 or other trade “expos,” GDC has always retained its focus on developers, though it has it’s expo moments.

If GDC 2005-2008 marked an increasing awareness of the structural conditions that the game industry occupies, then 2009-2011 saw increasing interest in players, metrics, digital distribution and the seismic shift of the iOS App Store and Facebook’s “social” and “free to play” models. 2012-Forward has increasingly been a critical reflection of the culture of game development, players and the role of games more broadly in the world. A strange divide still exists for many developers that attend only for “professional” / “informational” reasons or those interested in and invested in thinking about what kind of industry they want to live and work in.

Game consoles, which still dominate the marketplace have spanned two generations in the past decade. Microsoft has moved from the Xbox to the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One. Sony, in the same span has gone from the Playstation 2 (PS2) to the Playstation 3 (PS3) and now the Playstation 4 (PS4). Nintendo has struggled from the Gamecube to the Wii and now the Wii U. A new variety of micro-consoles and “steam boxes” (small PCs connected to Valve’s Steam service) have further shifted what was once a battleground for only the three major players.

Handhelds have transitioned from the Nintendo dominated space of the Nintendo DS and Gameboy Advance to a variety of Nintendo 3DS platforms, but a mobile space dominated by iOS and Android phones and tablets. I have noted on several occasions GDC 2009, in which the last “platform keynote” was presented by Nintendo, discussing the release of the 3DS and the availability of several “Apps” like Netflix on the platform. At the very same moment, across the street, Steve Jobs was introducing the iPad 2 and the availability of more than 25,000 apps for iOS. Things have changed.

In 2005 Unity, was a Mac OS X only game development tool building a small, friendly and loyal community base. In 2014 Unity is now a force to be reckoned with in the game industry. A platform that once vied for attention and access from the console manufactures is now frequently bundled with Development Kit (“DevKit”) licenses. Unity’s branding was as prevalent at the Nintendo booth as Nintendo branding on the expo floor in 2014. Even “hobbyist” focused game development tools like GameMaker: Studio are being courted as reasonable development tools for console systems.

Twitter was launched during this time as well. 2009 marked its increasing relevance for game developers. It was a delightful back-channel at the conference, and, for many, it was a new opportunity to emerge from behind the curtains of companies. It was its prevalence at that time that prompted me to work with other researchers to explore its role. So much so, in 2010, after the birth of a child, I stayed away from GDC, to find the friendly #GDC10 hashtag a welcome insight into an event that so frequently helped me keep my finger on the pulse of developer concerns.

Twitter and GDC has increasingly proven a battle ground for the soul of the game industry. From concerns about sexism and misogyny with discussions around #OneReasonWhy, #1ReasonToBe and the #FeministFrequency’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project. Light has finally been shown on the foundations of a culture that has enabled the disenfranchisement of those outside the norms of game development. Pushing further, in 2013 the “Hothead Developers” rants included issues ranging from the policing of what counts as a game to developer’s inability to also address issues of race and transgender representations. Many of these conversations transpired first on Twitter, only to then be brought center stage at GDC. Though, to be fair, the conversations have always been there, just to a greater or lesser extent.

2008 and 2009 signaled the ascendancy of “Indie Games,” and increasing visibility of individual game developers. It also came at a time of the massive closure of numerous medium to large game studios, particularly in Austin, TX and Southern California. In 2014 the important role of “indies” is unquestionable, yet the rapid decline of medium-sized game studios remains a rising concern of mine. As many at the event this year indexed, what it means to be indie is quite difficult, when even at the annual awards show there was very little line drawn between “developers” and “indie developers” in acknowledging excellence.

Perhaps Greg Costikyan put it best this year:

“I called for a revolution; and to my astonishment, we’ve witnessed one, over the last ten years. Online distribution and developers ready to defy the system produced the indie revolution, a Cambrian explosion of creativity not seen since the early days of computer gaming. New platforms – social and mobile games – have opened up entirely new channels, and enabled entirely new game styles. The last 10 years have been the most exciting and most promising time to be a game developer in history, and I include the birth of the industry, and the rise of tabletop hobby games, both exciting times, in that judgment.

But all good things come to an end. And so it is today. The walls are closing in once more. The coming years are going to be harsh. There will be a winnowing of developers unseen since the Atari crash. There will be less and less innovation. Ten years from now, we’re going to need another revolution.”

One of the things long-term anthropology produces is an account of structure. When I look back at ten years of notes on GDC, I see change and shift. Yet I see structures reemerge time and again. The very structures that have enabled the seismic shift in game distribution and development have emerged as new structures that now mimic the old. Manufacturers and publishers have been replaced by the App and Game Stores. Where once only custom game development tools existed and an upstart game engine as challenger, you now find one engine to rule them all, with a hefty subscription price-tag for all. No one is indie because everyone is indie, increasingly even the shattered AAA studios.

In 2008, I hoped that Quality of Life (QoL) issues, so important to developers at the time, would have made more progress. But they haven’t; work-life balance remains a real problem for the game industry. Indie developers face equally intense demands on QoL and often less chance of being compensated for it. In 2014, I see hope and promise around increasing the diversity of those making games and the kinds of games being made. Yet, I worry if the next ten years will bring progress or be trampled by an increasingly fragmented and structurally constrained community of practice. GDC always invokes a kind of double-edge feel for me. A sense of community and care about the craft of game development but also a sincere concern and fear for that craft’s place in an increasingly complex political-economic context.

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I see hope and promise around increasing the diversity of those making games and the kinds of games being made. Yet, I worry if the next ten years will bring progress or be trampled by an increasingly fragmented and structurally constrained community of practice.

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