24/06/2024 7:46 AM

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What Happens When Twelve Thousand Game Developers Converge?

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Nick Kaman, the co-founder and art director of Aggro Crab, an indie-game studio in Seattle, is twenty-six years old, with messy, brass-bleached hair, large round eyeglasses, and a small silver hoop in each earlobe; self-deprecating and sincere, with a sarcastic streak, he speaks with slacker chill. At the University of Washington, he studied human-centered design and engineering—“Pretty cringe,” he said—while teaching himself how to make video games. Eventually, he started running the on-campus game-development club, which taught students how to build games along the lines of Flappy Bird using Unity, a game engine. “You can make that game in half an hour, but by doing that you’ve learned all these fundamentals of game-making,” Kaman said. “Like, how do I do player input? How do I do jump physics? How do I spawn in pipes that move from the right to the left?” He concluded, “If you make Flappy Bird, you can make Mario.” In 2015, Kaman and a classmate, Tyler Brown, released a free-to-play mobile game called Smashy Brick, which was a riff on the classic arcade game Pong. (Instead of paddles, players draw trampolines.) Smashy Brick was a winner in the Taco Bell Indie Game Garage competition and Kaman and Brown were flown out to San Diego to promote it at TwitchCon, a convention hosted by Twitch, the live-streaming platform favored by gamers. “It was amazing,” he said. “You get a five-hundred-dollar Taco Bell gift card.” They used the card to cater the game’s launch party. A year or so later, they were startled to see that Smashy Brick had been downloaded several hundred thousand times.

In the spring of 2017, on the cusp of graduation, Kaman travelled to San Francisco to attend the Game Developers Conference, an annual weeklong convention of game designers, game writers, animators, visual-effects artists, software engineers, marketers, quality-assurance testers, sound designers, corporate-account managers, and others in and around the game industry. His goal was to pick up freelance work and stave off a full-time job. It worked. He returned the next year and found more gigs. “The first couple G.D.C.s were about contract work,” Kaman told me. “But doing all that contract work I kind of realized, This sucks. I’m gonna be stuck with contract work forever, man, to pay the bills.” What he needed was a publisher for his games. In 2019, with Caelan Pollock, another Seattle-based game developer, Kaman began working on Going Under, a dystopian dungeon-crawler about a tech intern who discovers that her employer’s corporate campus is built atop the ruins of failed startups. That spring, they boarded flights to San Francisco to shop their game to publishers at G.D.C.

Depending on whom you ask, G.D.C. is a critical networking event; an indispensable forum for the exchange of knowledge and skills; an exclusive, expensive, outdated tradition; or an excuse to party. “Film has Cannes. Video games have G.D.C.,” Marie Foulston, a London-based curator and producer of video-game and digital-art exhibitions, told me. “It has become a nexus, or focal point, for video-game culture.” G.D.C. is one of the largest conferences in San Francisco; in 2019, it brought some twenty-nine thousand people to the Moscone Center, an enormous three-building exhibition complex downtown. It includes hundreds of talks and roundtables, many of them technical and niche, and two award shows: the Independent Games Festival, a major awards ceremony, and the Game Developers Choice Awards. Nearby, people make deals at the W Hotel bar and take meetings in the Marriott lobby; corporations host developer luncheons and throw lavish parties in SoMa bars and night clubs.

Today, the video-game industry is valued at at least two hundred billion dollars—maybe a hundred billion more, if you count accessories, mobile products, and e-sports. Games have an audience that’s larger than many other mass-market entertainments; technologies and conventions based in gaming now infuse tech and entertainment more broadly, from the way mobile-app developers analyze their users’ data to what Gabe Zichermann, an industry executive, calls “funware”—the “use of game mechanics outside of games.” The industry’s mergers and acquisitions offer a sense of scale: in the first two months of 2022, Sony purchased Bungie for more than three and a half billion dollars, and Microsoft acquired Activision Blizzard for nearly sixty-nine billion. Such companies make what are known as AAA, or Triple-A, games: highly profitable, large-budget, widely advertised titles. All of them have a presence at G.D.C.; some of their executives sit on the conference’s advisory board.

But there are also strong independent and do-it-yourself subcultures at the conference, emerging from developers working on more niche or subversive games, either independently or at smaller studios, with scrappier budgets and production resources. Before the pandemic, many of these attendees opted to participate in events such as Train Jam, a three-day caravan of developers travelling from Chicago to G.D.C. by Amtrak; Lost Levels, a free and “radically casual unconference,” held in the middle of Yerba Buena Gardens, a small public park adjacent to the Moscone Center; and That Party, which Foulston, one of the event’s organizers, described as a cross between a night club and an arcade. “It’s like when people play video games in the wrong way—when you have speedrunners, when you have people breaking outside of the boundaries of Red Dead Redemption,” she said. “It feels like that’s what a lot of the independent-games communities are trying to do at G.D.C.” Xalavier Nelson, Jr., a twenty-four-year-old narrative director who has worked on more than sixty games, including Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator and the BAFTA-nominated Dead End Job, told me that the value of the conference was the crowd it attracted. “A lot of people just want to be there with the other human beings that occupy their digital and professional reality,” he said. “You can do that without ever getting a ticket.”

Many developers, Foulston said, have “a love-hate relationship with the conference.” Some feel that the event is too corporate and exclusive. Although the culture is changing—bathrooms are now gender-neutral, and a hashtag highlighting diversity, #thisiswhatagamedevlookslike, circulated among industry workers on Twitter—G.D.C. has had problems with sexism, harassment, and discrimination. In 2016, Microsoft hosted a party for Xbox that featured professional dancers in “sexy school-girl” outfits. International attendees can face visa hurdles, and the conference is also expensive: tickets to the expo floor start at three hundred and forty-nine dollars, and access to all of the talks costs two thousand one hundred and ninety-nine. San Francisco can be a fraught place to visit. “People are obviously aware of the financial disparities,” Foulston said. “This conference just descends onto the city, and you’re suddenly complicit in using Uber for the week, or using Airbnb, and you realize, Oh, my God, I’m a hideous part of a horrible problem here. And so there’s always been this sort of pushback.”

In 2020, G.D.C. was cancelled in response to the coronavirus. In 2021, the conference went virtual. This year, it was notably smaller, attracting twelve thousand in-person attendees. Many of the parties and unconferences remained on hiatus. Still, by the first day Yerba Buena was crowded with lanyard-draped young people eating takeaway lunch bowls, drinking boba, and talking with great intention about all variety of things: distributed teams, blockchain gaming, polyamory, unionization, virtual reality, burnout, Elden Ring, the pandemic. Kaman, who was set to give a talk the following afternoon—“Reimagining the Corporate Hellscape: the Art Direction of Going U
nder”—sat with his friends in the sun. That week, he hoped to connect with other indie-game developers, ideally from studios around the same size as Aggro Crab. “A lot of us have the same problems and circumstances to talk about, right?” he said. The cherry-blossom trees had exploded, and the conference was in full swing.

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The first G.D.C.—then the Computer Game Developers’ Conference—took place in 1988, in the living room of Chris Crawford, a widely respected game designer based in San Jose. In the waiting rooms of video-game publishers such as Electronic Arts and Activision, he regularly bumped into other game developers. He realized that none of them had any insight into one another’s work—or any business deals. He invited two dozen game developers to his home, where, for two days, they sat in a circle and discussed their work—design in the morning, business in the afternoon. Later that year, Crawford held a second conference at a Holiday Inn in Milpitas, and more than a hundred and twenty game developers attended. Crawford described the vibe to Rusel DeMaria, the author of “High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games”: “ ‘I used to be all alone, and now I’m not.’ ”

By the nineties, C.G.D.C. had a few thousand regular attendees. Video-game publishers wondered whether the developers might unionize; instead, they swapped notes, exchanged information, and celebrated or commiserated. In 1992, Crawford delivered a now infamous speech at the conference, in which he argued that video games should be considered an art form, and explored as such. Wearing a purple tunic and speaking with liturgical urgency, he said that the game industry was too focussed on its commercial successes to pursue new frontiers for the art form of game design. The speech, which leaned on an extended metaphor about the dragon of artistic perfection, ended when Crawford unsheathed a sword, jabbed it toward the heavens, and cried out, “For truth! For beauty! For art!” The audience, comprised almost entirely of white men wearing conference lanyards, laughed good-naturedly as Crawford galloped out of the room shouting, “Charge!” Shortly thereafter, he left the game industry.

In the years that followed, C.G.D.C. grew beyond the scope of a community project, and began to require year-round maintenance. The conference’s board debated an acquisition offer by Miller Freeman, a trade publisher and event-production company. Crawford, who was still on the board, opposed the sale. Eventually, he was ousted, and the board sold the conference to Miller Freeman. Deeply depressed, Crawford moved to rural Oregon. The conference continued to grow, moving up and down the California coast, first landing in San Jose and then settling in San Francisco. A writeup in Wired, published in 1997, described C.G.D.C. as a “supergeekathon”—a chance “to claim your place among elite programmers, designers, and product managers.”

By the two-thousands, C.G.D.C. had dropped “computer” from its name, and was regularly attracting thousands of attendees every year. The conference had become an industry behemoth, filling an expo hall as large as those used by most consumer-electronics shows. There were interview booths and career-oriented presentations; students received scholarships to attend. G.D.C. attracted corporate sponsors and brought in eight-figure ticket revenues. In the 2019 documentary “The History of Game Developers Conference,” Crawford seemed at peace with the arc of the story. “I feel rather as if I had saved the life of a baby tiger,” he said, from a metal lawn chair in Oregon. “I nurtured it, and it was so cute, and so beautiful, and so full of promise. And it grew up into a big carnivore, and it’s not cute.” He concluded, “Now it’s a tiger, and that is as it should be. But I don’t play with tigers.”

The tensions between art and industry that Crawford articulated in 1992 are very much alive today, but the conversation has shifted. The question of whether video games can be art is now cliché; a more acute dissatisfaction surrounds whether that artistry is recognized. “Whenever you get a game that reaches a certain sales figure, in terms of how many units it’s sold, you often suddenly get all of these articles,” Foulston said. “Like, ‘Red Dead Redemption Has Made More Money Than All of the “Star Wars” Films Stacked on Top of Each Other, Reaching to the Moon.’ ” Games were only seen as “creatively valuable” when they made money, she told me; the gaming industry needed to “open up, and show the people, and show the work, and provide insights into this as creative practice.”

Spend some time at G.D.C. and you start to get a sense of how games are made. This year, talks covered everything from sound design (“Ambisonics and the Great Outdoors”) and story design (“Oriental Narrative: How to Understand Swordsmen (Wuxia) in Chinese Games”) to technical special effects (“Simulating Tropical Weather in Far Cry 6”) and accessibility (“Modern Accessibility in Diablo II: Resurrected, Because Hell Welcomes All”). Some events covered business and marketing (“Social Media Deep Dive: Among Us TikTok Strategy”). The “Advocacy” track featured talks such as “Motherhood in the Games Industry,” and roundtables on being Latinx and Black, respectively. The sheer breadth of subjects signalled the complexity of game development. “Working in games has all the challenges of working at a tech company,” Brian Shih, a V.P. of product management at Pocket Gems, told me. “You’re still building large-scale software projects. On top of that, you’re also adding in two other disciplines: art—so you have art directors, and 3-D modelling, rigging, and all of that—and then game design, which is also its own entirely separate discipline. I think people play games, and don’t realize how hard it is to make something that’s actually good.”

In a talk titled “The New Phone Format Turning Netflix Watchers Into ‘Accidental Gamers,’ ” Nihal Tharoor, the C.E.O. and co-founder of ElectricNoir, a London-based studio, discussed the rising popularity of “phone-first” or “found-phone” games. These tell a story, usually of the crime, horror, or romance variety, by means of simulated cell phones. Wearing a white T-shirt and a large gray blazer, Tharoor pulled up a slide with images from ElectricNoir’s breakout title, Dead Man’s Phone. In the game, a young Black teen-ager has been pushed to his death from a residential high-rise, and is discovered clutching his cell phone; players, acting as detectives, must sift through the phone to unravel the mystery of his murder. “The narrative deals with issues of race in modern Britain, and we’re really proud of it,” Tharoor said. In his talk, he argued that building interactivity into movies and television shows often felt unnatural; better to work in “a medium that already has interactivity in its DNA.” There was, he proposed, “only one medium that humanity interacts with every minute of every day: our phones.”

Outside the conference room, four men stood before a gigantic electronic conference schedule. Three wore T-shirts that read “We Launch AAA Games on the Blockchain—Fast.” The fourth was delivering a pitch: “You know us as a crypto exchange, but we have an N.F.T. marketplace, too.” Downstairs, as part of the educators’ summit, Ira Fay, an educational-game designer at M.I.T., gave a talk on teaching escape-room design. He pulled up some images from an escape room that his students had created, in which participants play supervillains trying to break into a superhero HQ. He pointed to an onscreen trophy shelf, containing a skull, a magic ball, a “sharpshootinator,” and a lantern; when they were arranged properly, the shelf popped open to reveal a secret compartment holding a cipher. “This was one of my favorite puzzles,” he said.

I wandered down to the lobby. A large rotating column advertised Legends Reborn: Age of Chance, a forthcoming play-to-earn game; a morose-looking anime character with gigantic eyes and a single floppy bang stared out at a few mingling conference-goers. In a corner, James Bates and Ryo Alfar, fledgling game designers, sat on the floor, talking to a narrative designer from Bungie, the studio behind the Halo and Destiny franchises. Bates, along with Elanna Tang, had started a game studio in 2020; Alfar joined soon after. The studio was working on its first title, called Nijito—a mobile rhythm game, aesthetically inspired by the work of the Japanese anime artist Shirow Miwa, in which players perform in a rock band. “We’re really trying to make it a deep narrative experience, which is an unusual combination,” Bates said, smiling. Thirty, he wore a windowpane-checked shirt with a silver ring hanging from a chain around his neck. He had grown up in a “sort of Gamergate” milieu, he said, and was now committed to designing games for a diverse audience. He hoped that this could be a force for “de-extremification”—a way to pull fellow-gamers away from odious digital subcultures. Alfar, who wore a black crop top, black jeans, and a shark-tooth necklace, with his aquamarine hair styled in a tidy swoop, told me about queerness in the game. “My problem with representation is that you tend to get either one queer character, one token character, or it’s a queer game,” he said. What was needed were “realistic, complete queer characters.” Bates and Alfar had travelled to G.D.C. to gather knowledge, find funding, and meet other people who might want to work on their game. So far, they felt that they were having great luck.

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