This year was the first time I’d been able to attend the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco. I went primarily to talk on the subject of women-in-games initiatives and how they make a difference. This panel session – in which I was joined by Zoë Quinn, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Sagan Yee and Stephanie Fisher – will be made available on GDC Vault in the coming weeks.
I also attended in order to seek inspiration and some new direction, and to meet people working outside of Europe. Although I skipped past many talks in favour of the sorts of activities I couldn’t simply catch up on online afterwards (a strategy I’d recommend strongly to future first-timers), I did nevertheless come away with new insights – some whimsical, and some practical.
What follows, then, is a collection of personal reflections on the talks I saw, along with my tips for recommended GDC Vault material.
Whenever I’m asked what my main takeaway from this conference has been, I’ve always been able to respond immediately with ‘diversity’. There was a significantly more diverse-looking crowd in attendance than what I’ve seen at other events, with many talks addressing related issues like team make-up, accessibility and respect towards other cultures – even outside of the advocacy track, where such discourse is expected.
The Game Narrative Summit was particularly strong in this regard, with the pairing of Meg Jayanth’s Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for “80 Days” and Beyond and CJ Kershner’s The Lives of Others: How NPCs Can Increase Player Empathy standing out as especially insightful talks. Both explained in practical terms just why and how one can and should write more diverse (and therefore interesting) casts, playing close attention to cultural appropriation, nuance and the blunt fact that not everything has to be about the game’s protagonist. I particularly enjoyed Kershner’s discussion of environmental storytelling through NPCs, such as with villagers whose digital lives revolve around a water pump. Such a simple stroke paints a vivid picture for any player who’s willing to stop and observe it.
Diversity was also addressed during a number of the GDC Microtalks – an inspirational collection of quickfire thoughts, curated and hosted by Richard Lemarchand. It is fitting that in a space dedicated to the joy of games, with a theme of “Everyone Loves to Play”, we would get a variety of takes on this topic: from Robert Yang’s darkly amusing journey through homophobic censorship, through Henrike Lode’s slides on ‘games no-one is making with me’, to Steve Gaynor’s presentation on unexpected hurdles in indie development, and how much having a gender-diverse team has contributed to Fullbright’s renowned creative practices. The Microtalks actually brought me to tears – a first for any conference session.
Given that I was attending GDC in order to speak on the advocacy track, I dipped my toes in a few talks under that banner – namely Meg Jayanth’s 10 Ways to Make Your Game More Diverse, Ian Hamilton’s Mobile Devices and Disabled Gamers, and Heidi McDonald’s Don’t Fear the Queer: Audiences are Ready! The latter was, unfortunately, rather disappointing. Although it cited a fairly broad-reaching survey seeking to understand audience reception towards LGBT+ content and expression in games, the results seemed skewed towards an audience which was already heavily invested in this idea. Coupled with McDonald’s passionate conclusions and literal rallying cry at the close of the talk, it all sat at odds with my expectations of a talk delivered towards games professionals.
Jayanth and Hamilton’s talks were, by contrast, rich in practical advice, putting the case for diversity and accessibility with ease and authority. With 80 Days as her primary touchstone, Jayanth discussed how seeking out those with lived experience and checking biases and provenance count heavily towards developing an informed experience, and that striving for authenticity isn’t always a useful end goal, since so-called ‘authentic’ works often still rely upon the silenced voices of a minority. In a similar vein, Hamilton put the case for considering the social model of disabilities, and not the medical one. In other words, he argued that game developers should focus upon obstacles to play as the true disabilities in their games – not merely the circumstances of their players.
I also attended a few talks which related to game and level design, dipping in and out of the misleadingly-titled Level Design Workshop. There I saw talks by Epic Games’ Jim Brown, architect Claire Hosking, and Firewatch level designer Jake Rodkin.
Brown’s rather slickly-designed talk on The Illusion of Choice was a densely-packed exploration of how, where and why players make decisions at any given point in a level. His delve into FPS games cited numerous behavioural phenomena such as the paradox of choice (having any choice at all vs. the paralysis of too much choice), familiarity, and sunk cost. His talk also carried a useful reminder that agency is not the same as autonomy, as the latter is more specifically about making informed decisions, and having those be endorsed within the game.
Later on in the day, Rodkin explained how architecture can evoke feelings of calmness and unease without the sorts of devices which can be deployed by, say, audio and narrative. Her musings on positive and negative space, typology and topology, and a focus on construction materials all opened my eyes to far greater possibilities in this field. Rodkin’s talk was instead a more direct affair, specifically detailing Campo Santo’s environment creation process using Unity IDE and plugins from its asset store.
I can’t mention the use of peculiar tools without expressing my gratitude at being able to attend yet another misleadingly-labelled session: the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. The variety and scope of projects displayed during this almost 4-hour event are well worth tracking down, this year and likely for previous conferences. I took a particular liking to multiplayer tactical racer Chalo Chalo, whose lack of a musical score actually contributed a great deal towards its cutthroat tension.
Finally, from the production track I would highlight Alexis Kennedy’s Open Production with “Sunless Sea” as a talk to seek out on GDC Vault later. Although pitched towards small studios, I felt it contained lessons useful to many. In it he discussed – frankly and openly- what Failbetter Games learned when they began to design and develop for an invested audience. I particularly appreciated his focus on how studio teams should be protected from the feedback chain somehow, for the sake of morale if nothing else. That safety should come before fun and then profit is a wholesome model which has demonstrably worked for Failbetter and a growing number of other studios, and the testimony then gave a lot of weight to Kennedy’s argument that “crunch is bullshit”.
The overall message from my own slice of GDC was.. certainly assembled from a mixed bag. That a conference encouraged me to look deeper, expand my thinking and not be a lazy idiot is not, in itself, particularly revelatory. The conference did feel inclusive though, and that really helped me along as I battled imposter syndrome from day one. Ironically, I actually skipped Thursday’s panel on imposter syndrome in favour of an IGDA Indie SIG ’roundtable’ (in actuality, a networking event). That will be top of my list for when the GDC Vault is updated, for sure.