The Dispatch: The Last GDC in Austin, Part 1

How the GDC is nothing like going to college

Again?Again? Damn you Richard Dansky.

In college, the professors don't tell you all to meet them at a bar after class. That kind of thing usually ends in an uncomfortable ethics hearing or paternity test. However, this is what happened after almost every narrative design lecture at the GDC. Everyone was encouraged, emphatically, to show up at Austin's premiere beer-atorium, The Gingerman, for drinks and chats with the best writers in the industry.

Writers? Drinking? I know what you must be thinking, and to put your mind at ease, yes, every night was an alcohol soaked romp that only some of us can remember. I'm pretty sure I locked myself into a League of Legends grudge match with Eidos's Leanne Taylor-Giles, and I may or may not have staked my power of attorney. Also, why does my arm hurt?

Why does the GDC exist?

Its not complete altruism, but its also not utter capitalism. While all artists want to grow the world of art, these artists also make an embarrassing amount of money for studios and publishers alike. Events like these don't foster competition, they are the swell that raises all of their respective ships. Explaining the how and why of gaming fosters a change in the standard of gaming. Gamers won't always demand better. While each Madden title, arguably, gets incrementally better, they would still sellout if the next installment were half the quality of the former. Alternately, many gamers can be incredibly demanding. If something doesn't meet expectations (Black and White 2, Spore, Diablo 3) the backlash will be intense. By sharing their wisdom, the development community develops itself. Man, that's complex. This is some deep stuff you're getting here; I hope you're appreciating it.

It's not all self-aggrandizement either. Developers do not shy away from their mistakes, and are often the first to point them out; usually in an auditorium, with a projector, in-front of an audience of their peers. Few in entertainment could be so bold. You wont see Michael Bay doing that.

Seriously, it was terrible.

TOMORROW! Dispatch 2: Narrative Design, Developers, Kickstarter, and My Boundary-Crossing Man-Crush on Obsidian Entertainment's Chris Avellone!

While the GDC Online 2012 was a fascinating experience for most, you couldn't help but feel the tent poles coming down after the first day. The curtains drew on GDC Austin with the soft, last breath of a dying grandmother. Attendees and speakers alike expressed that it had lost some of the energy and creative momentum of years passed.  Was it was the foreknowledge of it being the last of something? It's hard to say. The Austin GDC was still an amazing event filled with games, floor shows, and enough alcohol to last me a lifetime. Half party and half intellectual discourse, you're going to want to know what you missed.

Austin, TX

The capitol of Texas and good music, Austin is referred to as an island of fun and creativity by some, and den of left-wing nut-jobs by others. I like to think of it as fun place filled with creative nut-jobs. Austin is an amazing town with amazing people, food, and humidity. Attendees were lulled into false sense of comfort by two days of unseasonably balmy weather, and then, after they were worn down by frenetic pace of the event, they were ambushed by the heat and bathhouse-level humidity we've come to know and fear. By the end of the GDC Online, I doubt anyone was terribly sad next year would be in San Francisco. Unless they went to Stubb's for barbecue, then there would be tears.

What is the GDC?

The programmers, designers, and writers of our favorite video games are rarely seen in relation to their complex creations. Unlike the actors and directors of stage and film, these talented men and women wouldn't stand out to the general public or their own fan base. However, if you follow message boards, developer blogs, or other news regarding the development of your favorite title, the Game Developers Conference would look like the Oscars. Anyone who has ever produced a game that drained hours of your life away is here to talk about how they could have drained more. If you were going to sum up the whole of the GDC, it would be “Important game people talking about games.”

GDC Panel of Writers

While much of the GDC takes the form of lectures on the aspects of game development, the lectures take a casual spin. The gaming industry is notorious for its laid-back style. Emphasis, or irritatingly snarky fingerquotes, should be placed on the word “laid-back,” given the deadline-driven world of long hours that are required to complete the average title. Here, away from the studio and lovable media, they discuss the past, present, and future of gaming. They come to talk to their fellows, aspiring future colleagues, and handsome members of the press about the very meat of game creation. They're pulling apart every aspect of the process from the what, to the how, or the why? Think of the GDC as a summit. It's where intellectual giants discuss better ways to absorb our idle time rather than global economics or world peace.

What the GDC is not

Chris Avellone
How could you not?

Conventions, like the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), are about the up-and-coming or the might-come-out-something-like-this-

check-back-next-quarter. They're about creating momentum and spin for the product after its finished or while it's still under development. Expos are glorified advertisements and rarely bring any change to the landscape of gaming. They attract more attention than the GDC, probably because they are less likely to use phrases like “the landscape of gaming” without following it up with fireworks or sexy models. Do they have sexy fireworks? I feel like I'm on to something there.

Erotic pyrotechnics aside, expos are like a rave, while the GDC is a cocktail party thrown by tenured professors. People loosen up, chat about work, but no one ends up in a hot tub. Probably. It's obviously possible, or even very likely. Look, all I'm saying is th at I certainly didn't end up toasting Framboises in a rooftop hot tub with Chris Avellone, but I was certainly thinking about it a lot.

How the GDC is exactly like going to college

People talkin' games

People are running from lecture to lecture; many with backpacks, binders, and the ever-stately messenger bag. Lecturers are cornered in the halls by enthusiastic students asking follow-up questions. I'm sure somewhere a romance began and ended, but even more people went home alone and played video games.

More importantly, like college, the main purpose of the GDC is the exchange of ideas. From master to student, or master to master, everyone is there to learn, to teach, or both. It's an encouraging sight when, for example, designers from ArenaNet are giving informative lectures about how they dealt with dialogue in Guild Wars 2. Employees from Blizzard and BioWare are sitting in the audience listening intently, laughing at jokes, and TAKING NOTES. How many industries do that? I'm certainly not going to do the research to find out, but I can make the rushed, uninformed conclusion that it's not many at all.