The Game Developers Conference is the kind of place where controllers
for the PlayStation 4, Sony's forthcoming console, sit under glass like
the Hope Diamond, and where designers and other industry professionals
line up for hours to try the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, which
has begun shipping as prototypes to those who paid $300 for a
But futuristic gadgets weren't the only innovations
on display at the Moscone Center here, where independent designers who
make text adventures and other lo-fi games can seem like bigger stars
than the ones who make blockbusters. All told more than 20,000 people
attended the conference last week.
When I dropped by the
"'AAA-level design in a day' boot camp" on Tuesday - AAA being industry
jargon for big, mainstream titles with multimillion-dollar budgets - the
room was a quarter-full at best. A few hours later a near-capacity
crowd of about 1,000 started queuing up more than 30 minutes in advance
for a series of five-minute talks known as the "indie soapbox." Ushers
held up fingers and guided people to the few remaining seats.
also dominated the Game Developers Choice Awards, which were handed out
Wednesday night. Journey, a downloadable game made by the independent
studio thatgamecompany for the PlayStation 3, became the first
independent title to win the Game of the Year award. Past winners were
blockbusters like "Gears of War," "Grand Theft Auto III" and the "Sims."
the end of that night "Journey" - which is, to be fair, decidedly high
tech, gorgeous and the climax of a three-game contract between Sony and
thatgamecompany - had won six of the 11 awards. "FTL: Faster Than
Light," an independent game financed by a Kickstarter campaign - asking
for $10,000 and receiving more than $200,000 - won the award for Best
Just two prizes went to games developed by mainstream
studios. The award for Best Technology went to "Far Cry 3" (Review), an
open-world, first-person shooter published by Ubisoft. The audience
award went to "Dishonored," from Arkane Studios.
"The system we're
fighting kind of likes us now," said Andy Schatz, an indie game
designer who hosted the Independent Games Festival Awards, which
preceded the Game Developers Choice Awards. "Like it or not, we're not
the Clash anymore. We're Green Day."
Eric Zimmerman, a game
designer and an instructor at the New York University Game Center, gave a
similar explanation for why he is canceling the Game Design Challenge
that he has held at the conference for the past 10 years. This year's
was the last, he said.
"The idea of doing strange, bizarre, experimental games is no longer strange, bizarre or experimental," Zimmerman said.
an independent designer, Jason Rohrer, won the 2013 challenge. The
theme was "Humanity's Final Game," and Rohrer designed a game within a
He first constructed a board game made of titanium and
buried it - along with playing instructions, encased in glass - in the
Nevada desert. He then provided the audience with envelopes that, in
aggregate, contained more than a million GPS locations where the game
might be found. Rohrer estimated that it would take one person more than
2,000 years to locate his game, as yet unplayed.
like Sony and Nintendo were at the conference, but they used much of
their time to emphasize their desire to work with independent developers
rather than to show off their own wares. Sony ran a "PlayStation Indie
Arcade" to promote new and current titles.
The arcade culminated
in a tournament of Johann Sebastian Joust, a screenless game during
which selections from Bach's "Brandenburg" Concertos play while
competitors try to jostle the motion-sensitive controllers in their
opponents' hands while holding still the controllers in their own.
always been cool, experimental stuff going on in the indie space, but
it's broadened its reach," said Steve Gaynor, a co-founder of the
Fullbright Co., a studio that consists of four people in a house in
Portland, Ore. "It's become a lot more viable, businesswise, to be an
indie." (The Fullbright Co.'s forthcoming game "Gone Home" was nominated
for excellence in narrative at the independent awards.)
of digital distribution, game designers no longer need to have contracts
with publishers - which might once have secured them vital shelf space
at Wal-Mart - to succeed financially, Gaynor said. Beyond money to pay
for licensed music and some voice acting, "Gone Home"'s budget basically
pays for food and rent and living expenses for four people. "Our burn
rate is really low," he said.
Leigh Alexander, the editor at large
for Gamasutra - a trade website owned by the same company that runs the
Game Developers Conference - was heartened by the indie invasion. She
tweeted her one-sentence take-away: "The good guys are finally winning."
she was also on a conference panel that confronted the industry for not
doing enough to make women feel accepted - as designers, as players, as
conferencegoers. The indie crowd is still, like the studio system,
largely a men's club. (Of the 10 indie soapbox speakers, nine were men.)
either doing it, or you're not," said Robin Hunicke, a designer who has
worked on games like "Journey" and the "Sims 2" and who recently was
co-founder of an independent studio. "You're actively working to broaden
participation in our industry, or you're in the way."
designer starts out as a player, noted Kim McAuliffe, a designer at
Microsoft Studios who most recently worked on the children's game Kinect
Nat Geo TV. The limited number of playable female characters -
McAuliffe could remember only Chun-Li from "Street Fighter II" and the
princess in "Super Mario Bros. 2" from her childhood - necessarily
limits the audience for female players, she said, and thus reduces the
number of female game designers.
McAuliffe also said she was
uncomfortable with the large number of games that involve shooting human
characters. "I worked on 'Socom 4,"' a military shooter, "but it made
me uncomfortable every time I played my own levels," she said.
number of women in the industry is growing, said Brenda Romero, the
game designer in residence at the University of California, Santa Cruz,
and the creator of acclaimed board games, like Train, about the
Holocaust. After all, she said, "2006 was the first year there was a
line at the women's bathroom at GDC."
But, she added, industry
traditions like the "booth babes" at the annual Electronic Entertainment
Expo, known as E3, need to end before women will feel fully welcome.
12-year-old daughter told her that her dream was to make a video game
with her. For now, though, Romero is unwilling to take her daughter into
what she called E3's "sexually charged environment," one that she
compared to a leering crowd at a construction site.
directly to the organizers of E3, Romero concluded the panel by saying,
"Please change this, so I can bring her there."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service