Smile and Nod

Smile and Nod: What I learned at GDC

Russ Pitts | 25 Feb 2008 17:00
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It's always entertaining to spend a week with the entire game development community. For one thing, those guys like to party. I mean really, really like to party. And for some reason, the hardiest partiers are from places where water spends most of its time in frozen form.

Early reports from the Nordic Game Program's official party suggest it was the place to be Wednesday night, if for no other reason than they hired 90s rock sensation Skid Row to play the event. ("Eighteen and Life"? You got it.) Icelandic MMO developer CCP, as usual, outdid everyone, hiring dominatrixes and midgets to abuse the crowd, who'd lined up around the block for the privilege. One of our team members had the welts to prove it. He displayed them while smiling. Perhaps there's something he's not telling us.

And speaking of blocks, Sony pulled the same trick for their Block Party, which, it turns out, was more of a party out in the street, around the block, than inside the Mezzanine. I'm not sure what strange portent of the apocalypse this is that people send out "exclusive" invitations to parties and then expect you to wait in line for hours just to get in. Where I grew up, we considered that rude. I declined to wait and had burgers with Yahtzee and crew at the diner near the Moscone.

As for what I learned personally at GDC (aside from the fact the conference's Executive Director, Jamil Moledina, sounds like the guys you call on the phone to find out when movies are playing), the most important thing was that everyone seems to think everyone can make games. At almost every conference I've been to in the last two years, there's been a buzzword. This year at GDC, that buzzword was "democratizing."

"I can't help but be nostalgic for the days when all you needed [to make a game] was your father's computer and a modem," said Microsoft's new Peter Moore (Corporate VP of Everything Related to Xbox), John Schappert, introducing the upgrades to XNA, the cross-platform (Windows, Xbox, Zune) development tools introduced a few years ago. XNA, in the spirit of democratization, now allows creators to make games and upload them to the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Granted, as with all democracies, it's a bit more complicated than simply making games and getting them out to people. Just like with America's Electoral College, the XNA developer community will exist as a buffer between the people and their right to vote (in this case, with their wallets). Members of the XNA developer community have been able to upload and share games with each other for some time. Starting this year, these members will be able to select, through a peer review process, which games make it to the larger Xbox Live community.

In theory, this should keep the channel from filling up with crap, and serve as a gateway to only the best new games. In practice it could mean only those with the right amount of influence ever get the nod. Again, like the American electoral system. Only time will tell if the developer community can handle that much power.

But Microsoft wasn't alone in their call for democratization. Rod Humble, head of the studio at EA responsible for The Sims, thinks everyone should be a game developer. And he's put his money (EA's anyway) where his mouth is. Humble was at GDC to announce The Sims Carnival, a website where practically anyone can make a game.

"Game developers have shared values," he said, pointing out the pasty, white faces of the gathered developers, and gently mocking them for all being middle-class suburbanites. He then brought up a few pictures of working class folks, the type you'd never see at GDC, asking what games would be like if "normal" people made them. But unlike other panelists, he wasn't just idly musing. "It might become something dangerous."

The Sims Carnival is a browser-based game studio and indie game community rolled into one. A month before coming to GDC, Humble and his team distributed the tools to 100 people, in a sort of closed beta test. Those 100 people, in one month, made 500 games. Granted, some of those were simple, jabs at Space Invaders, for example, with pictures of political candidates pasted over the invaders from space, but other belied their simplicity with an exquisite eye for design, rivaling many of the so-called "professional" designs.

According to Humble, who's something of an intellectual on the subject of games, The Sims Carnival, will "make the art form a little larger, a little broader." At the very least it will make the world a little more interesting. Never a bad thing.

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