Notes from GDC: Why Do We Game?

Process, suffering, and a gold-mint after party. A dispatch from the Game Developer's Conference.

Mar 24 2014, 5:15pm
Image: Shutterstock.

For game developers around the world, March is the season to head West. My fellow cave dwellers have awoken from hibernation, flocking, spawning, and returning to our respective territories for the Game Developer’s Conference 2014. I was on the floor of the conference all week for various game-centric events, combing through the various tracks of the summit, diving into the strange and wonderful world of conference parties, dodging sales reps on the expo floor, and eating many burritos.

Some people seemingly did not show up to this year's GDC. Alexander Bruce is not one of them.

Bruce makes videogames. Take Hazard, his debut masterpiece. The game's Herculean development process was at the heart of an honest, poignant, and inspiring talk Bruce gave amid the maelstrom that was GDC. Inspiring in the sense that it reminded the game dev community of the struggle and diligence needed to make our work into reality. After all, Bruce’s triumphs often gave way to tragedy; the pressures that came with making Hazard, now known as Antichamber, took him through dark, despondent psychological ruts.

Funding deals. Competitions and awards. Self-marketing and promotions. Bruce hustled for years just to put out his game in early 2013. Despite his self-destructive tendencies, he finally got the game out and is now enjoying a bit of success.

It got me thinking about how—what—we sacrifice to make games. Why must we suffer to create?

Bruce offered some clues. He guided the audience, chronologically, though the emotional travails of the development process. Along the way, he cited his friends and gaming sages who offered their own advice, including former Epic Games President Mike Capps, and Kokoromi co-founder Heather Kelley, among others. But perhaps most important to Bruce’s journey was a central question, one he asked himself over and over in comparing himself to indie compatriots like Ed McMillen and Phil Fish: What makes me different?

It ultimately led him to a simple answer: Nothing.

For Bruce, the difference between luck and opportunity is all related to time. Luck is only apparent in hindsight. Opportunity, on the other hand, is what fueled him to continue on even in his darkest hours. As Antichamber sails (and sales) on into indie Valhalla, Bruce received a standing ovation. Some choked back tears. Powerfully moving stuff. 

There was a great talk by John Murphy, a game designer with Chicago-based Young Horses, about level structure while building Octodad: Dadliest Catch, by which I mean their studio management. Their ego-less working environment and relatively meteoric rise together as students, then as studio, was incredibly refreshing to hear. I’m consistently impressed with everything coming out of the Chicago scene and happy to hear that things are mounting up back home.

Murphy went on to remark on the tragedy of the closing of Irrational Games, whose studio mentality is the antithesis to the model being forged by Young Horses. On the projectors, Ken Levine became a pharaoh and Bioshock Infinite, his pyramid, brought light on a subject teased apart on Twitter earlier this year.

So to digress: Here was Bioshock’s most storied author, who buried his team in a monument to himself, saving his most loyal subjects to start a new studio. Ken Levine increasingly positioned himself as the auteur of Bioshock and its essential ingredient between its launch in 2007 and Infinite’s 2013 launch. He went so far to say “BioShock 2 wasn’t the right project for us” in an interview with Joystiq back in 2010, when in fact, 2K Marin was comprised of all his former workers. Who was his “us”? I guess just him.

I bring this up because Levine has increasingly become the embodiment of hubris in games. Refreshingly, the Indie Soapbox closing out the IGF track at GDC was mostly about humility, as was Bruce’s talk earlier in the day. Game trailer maestro Kert Gartner spoke to the changes in his work flow on account of having children. IGF veteran and Crypt of the NecroDancer creator Ryan Clark talked about making games about human evolution, about our humble beginnings as a search for survival, facing instinctual fears stemming from loss of senses and emotions.

It led nicely into a session by writer and Riot Games community coordinator Nika Harper. She was blunt, stating something we’ve all heard before: We’ve already done everything, but need to add our own voices and interpretations to even the most redundant of tropes to quiet the naysayers. From there Depression Quest designer Zoe Quinn talked about her struggles with abuse online, and how calling trolling "trolling" dismissively invalidates its victims, while free-to-play consultant and Some Day You Will Die designer Ethan Levy positioned himself as the villain indies deserve, but not the one the community needs right now. Levy also addressed his work as a free-to-play consultant and the self-loathing indie shame cycle that was bitingly true for many of us.

And then there was Shawn Allen, a colleague of mine. He's a towering guy, and usually projects a booming voice. But he spoke softly enough that it was hard even to hear him ask some of the most essential questions I heard posed at GDC: Where are the people of color? Where are the women? Where is representation for the people who have no voice in games? Why do we hear the same voices at these conference, year after yea? Who should be heard? Allen shouted out some devs to watch and listen to as we search for those answers, including Philadelphia’s Shawn Pierre, Seattle’s TJ Thomas, San Jose/New York's Ashley Alicea, and fellow New Yorkers Arthur WardCatt Small, and his wife and collaborator, Diana Santiago

It was an emotional day, to say the least. What better way for it to have drawn to a close than Humble Bundle inviting us to an after party in a gold mint? I'm not quite sure what that is supposed to mean.