2009 Game Developers eXchange

I thought I’d take a break this week and vary things up a bit from our usual programming. After all the fuss over GDC I decided it was time to check out another game designer convention. So last week I went to GDX at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to get another look at life on the other side of the fence. Ranked as one of the top ten game design schools in the world, SCAD students are impressive because the arts focus means they’re required to take courses in drawing and art history on top of their game work. The conference kicked off with two lectures by graduating students. The first was by Brian Shurtleff on applying the rule systems of improv groups to games. Rule number one is always make your partner look good. Building on that system were a lot of really interesting ideas on how to build co-op experiences while referencing shows like ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ to give examples. Downstairs I caught the tail end of Jim Sidlesky’s thesis work with Machinima. I was already familiar with the history of the genre but have lost track of the latest stuff. He has put together an intense depiction of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Annabell Lee” using The Sims 2 engine and some music a Goth band in Florida loaned him. The most interesting new Machinima artist he introduced me to was Friedrich Kirschner, whose innovation with texturing and art is astounding. Outside of his excellent music video based on Channel Zero Comic, you can catch this clip of his capturing the animation of a robot submerged in milk using legos, a spoon, and a lot of milk.

A talk by Ian Schreiber that glossed the history of art movements and criticism was well-researched and aptly criticized several stances critics like Roger Ebert had taken on games. In particular, he pointed out that the notion that art must be about the author and how well they communicate a message had been abandoned long ago and that broke Ebert’s chief contention of player input breaking artistic intention. People got a bit touchy when he applied the theories to modern games, which is inevitable with abstract theory, but I think his claim that there were no abstract games was the most problematic. There are at least a half dozen off the top of my head, Randy Balma and game, game, game, and again game being the most popular examples. I’d swapped a few e-mails with Simon Ferrari, a graduate student in game design at UGA and blogger, and he ended up recognizing me from across the River Club where all of this was going on. We shot the breeze for a bit before Ian Bogost gave a lecture on the historical origins of Ms. Pac-Man. The careful decision of “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.”, the debates about depicting her having a child, and how Midway had to hire two modders to make the game all came up. The talk included references to the Hebrew language, how coin-op machines worked technically, and the copyright disputes going on at the time. It was a potent way of discussing a game that took into account the history and culture of the game instead of just pure design.

The key note for Thursday was delivered by George Sanger, or The Fat Man, who has been a composer in the game industry for 26 years. Credits include the Wing Commander and 7th Guest scores among 200 others. The man walked up to the podium, sat down in a chair, and announced that he was going to wing the entire thing. It was a bit like being a kid again and having that one wild adult, the one whose been there so long that he can say whatever he wants, decide to tell you a story. He urged everyone to do wild things, to make the kind of games they wanted to be in the world, and that taking risks is how you make that come true. “Sometimes” he explained, “you have to put your dick on the anvil.” He eventually started taking suggestions from the audience for things to talk about that made it even more strange before ending with a quote from Miles Davis. In a deep voice he intoned, “You gotta be like Miles. Don’t think you’re cool, know it.”

Afterwards they served good BBQ downstairs with all the traditional sides. Ferrari introduced me to his boss and professor, Ian Bogost. Considering the man basically founded Modern Game Criticism, this was a wee bit intimidating. We got to talking about the legal state of the game industry. He was studying copyright law for the Ms. Pac-Man work and since it was something I’ve written on we got into how the Atari lawsuits back in the 70’s essentially founded modern video game law. As the River Club closed down Ferrari and I went to a deserted bar a few blocks away and got to talking shop again. There’s something inherently refreshing about chatting about games in person, all the formality of comment sections and blogging goes away and you just start thrashing ideas. Eventually the bartender even joined in, a tall guy covered in tattoos with a deep Savannah accent. He told us how excited he was for Diablo 3 and went on for a while about the intricacies of power playing in part 2. I eventually found out Ferrari didn’t have a place to sleep so we both ended up taking a twelve pack and crashing at a friend’s apartment. There was more ranting as Ferrari got into his whole thesis project on a game about the effectiveness of sign waving at political protests, we met up with more folks from GDX, and on into the night.

Ferrari’s cell phone alarm is the siren that plays when an atomic bomb is about to go off, so waking up to that was a little intense. We drove around until we found a place to get breakfast and they managed to serve the worst coffee I’ve had in years. Like not even coffee from yesterday, coffee from last week. The day started with Jason Rohrer’s Key Note ‘Game and other Four-Letter Words’. It was a call for reform in how we perceive the industry and making the argument that games don’t need to be addictive, fun, or long all the time. Rohrer puts on an excellent show but I think the most interesting thing about it was the buzz afterwards. We rode busses back to the River Club for more lectures and the whole time I just listened to people chatter about cultural recognition, broadening the definitions of games, and trying to find new things to make games about. I bounced between two lectures after that, one on studying player data in multiplayer games to see the effects of tweaks and the incredible amounts of math that go into studying the Terabytes of data we all generate. Another focused on creating music in games and how to meet a developer’s expectations. I’m glossing over them because, like several other sessions I dropped in on, a lot of it was very technical and went over my head. I had to bounce at lunch to meet with a friend and then headed back to Chucktown so I could get back to work.

Tycho Brahe commented after attending GDC that he felt a bit like a hamburger aficionado visiting a cattle ranch and I think he’s on to something. This is the second conference I’ve attended and there was again this unshakable sense that despite all the jabbering I do about games I’m not really an expert on much of anything. I’ve said before that my job description to game developers is basically: “I fake being important on the internet” and that hit me a lot during the conference. I kept thinking about this column by Leigh Alexander where she explains, “All of us “on here,” within this world of ours, are not just in love with games – we’re in love with the culture we’ve created around games, and that culture, obsessed with information related to our pastime, is only the most vocal minority at the tippy-top of a great big bell curve.” Like the joke Samuel Johnson made about art critics, sometimes you have to remind yourself that the weather would continue on just fine without you. The folks I met at GDX this year are the ones who are actually making it happen.