I couldn't have prepared more. In the months leading up to GDC I did everything I could to ensure that my trip ran as smoothly as possible. I reorganized my blog with a spiffy new about pages. I also tweaked the search, glossary, and download pages. There's even a special GDC page with all the important info and links at one's fingertips. I printed multiple kinds of business cards and even special KirbyKid stickers. I read up on advice from conference veterans, printed out maps of the show floor, tested various conversation starters and enders at a local IGDA meeting, and I kept my eye out for anyone using the hashtag #GDC. I always figured I'd make it out to GDC eventually. So after spending the last 3 years saving money, tossing around the idea, and finally committing to the trip, I found myself at the start of my gaming future.
From 6pm Sunday evening to 1am Saturday morning, I was fully engaged in the non-stop, forward-moving GDC life. The entire city seemed to be populated with gaming energy to such a ridiculous degree that the best analogy I can make is of the Battle City Tournament Kiba hosted in the second season of Yu-Gi-Oh. Around every corner and in the seats of just about every eatery was a handful of GDC attendees all talking openly about games like ordinary people do about the weather. Even the wayward conversations on the street were punctuated with words like "Rockstar," "Riot," and "Blizzard" yet there was nothing particularly newsworthy to report to the outside world. Even the litter on the ground and the graffiti was gaming related here. If you looked closely you could see Gabe Newel's face plastered on many public objects.
Concentrated doesn't quite convey what it was like. If you've ever stumbled across a fantastic website or blog (perhaps mine) and you realize that you have enough content to catch up on to keep you busy for a year or more, then you have some understanding of what it was like for me to step into GDC. The opportunities to network were constant. I literally bumped into people and we immediately started talking about games. Even the reserved individuals keeping mostly to themselves proved to be interesting network contacts. And if the people weren't enough, the sessions were stacked time-wise. Even when I narrowed my search down to the most interesting sessions, I still had to cut my schedule down by 5 times to work out a decent schedule. And after the career pavilion and the expo floor opened, I couldn't even keep track of all everything I was missing. Yes, GDC is the kind of place where helpful advice and inspiration flow freely.
Inspiration and I are currently at odds with each other. It's just something about how my brain works; and by "works" I mean never stops working even while I sleep. It's frustrating to have so much to do with so little time and energy. So I tend to resist inspiration. Nowadays, I don't listen to music. I watch very little TV and few movies. And I don't read any books. My inspirational diet is strict because just an ounce of the stuff is enough to consume dozens of hours of my time. For exame, remember Sid Meyer's quote about how a good game is a series of interesting choices? This single quote from Sid Meyer practically forced me to write a 9 part article series before I could rest. Iwata Asks are the same way.
And it's not just the talks that pushed me over the edge. Meeting gaming people has the same effect. Specifically, the Conference Associates (CAs = volunteers) were as friendly as possible. I don't remember a time when I've been a part of such a high concentration of cool people.
It helped that everyone seemed to roll with the same model for starting a conversation; "who are you, what do you do, and what are you looking for at GDC?" These are all very good questions that I had a surprisingly difficult time answering. Who am I? KirbyKid; a particular response that isn't as explanatory as I would like. I'm not famous for designing a game or writing anything, and my Smash Brothers pseudo-fame might as well be kept to myself. What do I do? I have a hobby of everything and a profession of little. In conversations I could relate to the experiences and processes of artists, programmers, designers, writers, and even the sound engineers. But my ability to relate usually stopped short of actually developing content that actually went into an actual game. Though my experience varies in these areas, not getting paid and not having something solid to show for most of my creative work doesn't build my confidence.
What am I looking for at GDC? Direction. Advice. Tools. Tips. A job? I've said that 2012 will be a big year for B.E.S, which is the same as saying that my brother and I are taking game development seriously. But I know that I'll need more time to focus on my projects. I have numerous dreams and ambitions in the queue, but I didn't think that GDC would help me sort these issues out. So, if nothing else, I figured I just wanted to find a high level conversation at GDC about game design, story design, or language that is so hard to come by elsewhere.
Fortunately, my Critical-Glossary, which I had printed and bound into pocket sized books, were very useful. I could hand it to someone and say "here, this is what I'm about and this represents the level of detail I bring." The mixed reactions were interesting. Some flipped through the book noting its professional print quality (thanks lulu.com). Others were surprised that I had written nearly the whole thing myself. Some immediately saw dollar signs and began discussing print costs and how much attendees would be pay for a copy. Few, very few, engaged with it in the way that I had hoped. One female game designer in particular immediately flipped to my entry for "game." Anyone who's serious about game design and teaching game design, as she was, knows that a solid definition for game is where everything begins. Another audio engineer guy browsed through the book until he spotted terms he recognized from the field of educational psychology. Just seeing the word "intrinsic motivation" sparked one of the more unique conversations I had at GDC.
These pocket dictionaries were my demonstrative networking key. But it's more interesting to briefly describe the 5 individuals I gave my 5 copies to. Everyday during GDC I happened to find someone interesting enough and interested enough to part ways with a copy of my Critical-Glossary books. On day 1 I crossed paths with Chris Remo, Co-founder of the Idle Thumbs podcast. After explaining that I was a fan of his show, I mentioned that I was the guy who posted this Pikmin article series on the idle thumbs forums years ago. Remo remembered and said I did a good job with the series. Then I showed him my pocket Glossary and briefly explained my plans to create indie games this year. And after chatting about podcasting, music playing, and writing intelligent video game content I was happy to leave my first copy with him. If Chris Remo ever needs intelligent content about game design, I think I could help him with that.
Day 2, Tadhg Kelly, writer of the blog whatgamesare.com. I had only emailed Tadhg once before last fall with a few questions about his thoughts and his particular writing standards. The email correspondence was brief as Tadhg seemed very busy at the time. Months later when I found out Tadhg was going to GDC I immediately reached out to him. We had breakfast at a nearby bakery and throughout the venture the conversation was constant, spirited, and focused. Writing styles. Design terms. Job offers. Connections. Story design. And, funnily enough, we had a conversation about "what games are" in response to the game Dear Ester. When I had originally sent Tadhg that email last September, I wanted to get a better idea of where he was coming from game-design-analysis-wise. While my email was not so successful (probably my fault), our real life conversation was exactly what I was looking for. Tadhg was thoughtful and quick on the reply. I learned a lot from his example. By focusing on a layman's lexicon of game related terms, Tadhg has become quite successful and popular as a consultant and games writer. So when the conversation leaned on the subject of the more academic style of terms and language of game design, I knew Tadgh Kelly would be the day 2 recipient of my Critical-Glossary. Hopefully, I could help him as much as he helped me.
Day 3, Shawn McGrath the creator of DYAD. Shawn is a fan of Critical-Gaming particularly because of its focus on game design, gameplay, and mechanics. I had only started talking with Shawn online since last November, and since then we had been working out ways for me to play DYAD to give him some critical-feedback. At GDC, we played DYAD at his hotel, met up with his wife on the Expo floor (who is very good at DYAD), and grabbed some dinner together. All the while we talked about what real music is, tournament level fighting gameplay, abstract algebra, some basketball, and we spiraled down a rabbit hole discussing the concept of abstraction and whether or not my definition of abstraction accurately encapsulated the concept. I know Shawn was the kind of guy that deserved a copy of the Critical-Glossary. After handing over copy#3, Shawn immediately began scanning through it from the beginning trying to find a term he disagreed with. As you may have figured out, he got as far as "abstraction" before we had to talk things over. Great guy. Great game. I'll be writing about both in the near future.
Day 4, David Sirlin. Yes, the man who wrote Playing To Win the blog and book that gave me my kick start creating Critical-Gaming. David's standards, style, and overall thoughtfulness was the level that I aimed to reach with my writing. His work has influenced my glossary, my style, and my plans on what to do with Critical-Gaming going forward through 2013. I sought David after he gave his microtalk session for some advice and to pick his brain on a few topics. Clearly there's a lot I can learn from a man who has worked on a game series he loved (Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix), self-published a book (which I own and didn't think to bring to GDC for an autograph), maintained a blog, and developed several highly rated table top games.
Apparently, the secret is lots of hard work. And it's not easy for David. Just hearing about David's struggles helped me set my own expectations on what 2012 will be like. We talked about crazy French concepts that I can hardly pronounce and won't bother to spell here. David brought up the book Gödel, Escher, Bach and how its genius could be a model for where I hope to take Critical-Gaming in the future. And we talked about the lack of true game design talk even among the like minded people of GDC. As high as my standards are, it's good to be able to point to guys like David as an example of someone who never disappoints. His micro talk was also the best. It was the most researched, most thoughtful, closest to the theme, least info-mercial-like presentation. He deserved a copy of my self-published book.
Day 5, Mark MacDonald. I've followed Mark throughout his podcasting adventures since his appearances on the 1UP Yours podcast. I remember how much work he put into announcing his departure. I admire the kind of person who takes the effort create a fake, multi-paged press release as a joke that only lasted a few minutes. I'll never forget that hilarious event. When he resurfaced in podcast form, Mark informed the world that he was in Japan working for a company called 8-4. His experience shows in his direction over the conversations and discussions on 8-4 Play the podcast. I even attempted to quote him at the top of my article Wrinkles in Design Space. Mark was impressed by all the hard work I put into the Critical-Glossary, and I was happy to give him my last copy. Perhaps his concern about becoming the next Jaffe will be alleviated if he relies on my clearly defined game design terms. I'm only joking with that last statement.
As Sirlin, Shawn, and many others have made painfully clear to me, not everyone can discuss game design on a high level. The truth is many aren't prepared or comfortable doing so yet; not even among game designers at GDC. If this reality was merely a matter of the industry as a whole not having the tools or the organization to elevate the game design discourse, I'd wouldn't be worried. But it is concerning that so many people who seek to create games and work to create games don't have the clarity of thought and language to explain what they think. Even if you're not like me with plenty of drive and time to write out all of your design thoughts on a blog, even if you don't know how to research ideas, even if you can't create your own interactive demos to gather data, I would think that if you really wanted to express yourself and understand game design you wouldn't be comfortable with vague, unclear, and fuzzy thoughts. If game design is really important to you, you should have questions, a hunger for clear explanations and language, and you would would have some idea of where your own understanding falls short. In other words, it doesn't matter to me how much work you've done already. I'm only counting what kind of attitude you have going forward. And I don't see the right attitude in many.
I can live with game industry thinkers who are extremely confident in what they know despite the fact that they can hardly explain any objective element of game design. But what I can't stand is the kind of person that blind ignorance and over-confidence tends to create in the long run. These gamers have been throwing around statements like, social media games is where all the innovation is happening. The indie games space is where all the creativity is. And the biggest claim of all, the current state of Japanese game design is garbage. Believe me, I understand that some of these claims may be exaggerated for effect. But I've heard enough of this kind of talk throughout my time at GDC to know that many truly believe these claims. The part that bothers me the most is that the people who are making and listening to these claims are suffering from a lack of clear language. It's not about opinions, rather it's what happens to our discourse when we can't clearly express our opinions. Or when we try to make an opinion work like an obvious fact. Yes, many gamers are disappointed with the trends and traditions of Japanese games. Yes, many gamers have grown tired of the AAA-mass-market-money-making-machinces and how they seem to pump out sequel after sequel with no "real innovation." Yes, the indie and social spaces seem to be more free to try crazy new ideas more quickly. However, it's one thing to be a gamer with these opinions, and it's another to clearly explain what's happening here design wise.
I say it all the time on this blog; complexities cannot be compressed. To explain that there are 7 key differences between X and Y requires at least 7 specific and clear statement. It simply can't be done in fewer statements . This is why my blog, Critical-Gaming, is so large. To explain a seemingly simple concept like fun or intersting choices, I had to write large articles series with plenty of reference links to other articles I've written. Video games are complicated, and attempting to use short cuts like review scores, design trends, and even general rules of thumb aren't going to help us get to a place where we can comfortable see, analyze, and communicate exactly what we think about video games.
The root of this problem is a human tendency that is the same root of racism, classism, sexism, and any other negative "ism." The lack of understanding and clear language forces people to think in binary categories of "this good" and "everything else bad," which is a terribly polarizing perspective. Phil Fish simply said out loud what many were thinking when he had this to say to a Japanese attendee in front of a large croud at GDC: “your [Japanese] games just suck.” Drama aside, this quote, the apologies, and the buzz of conversation surrounding it did not target the core issue. Though I don't have time in this article to explain what has happened to innovation and gamer perspective in this current generation, I can say that I will be writing about this topic very soon.
After I first set foot in San Francisco, 72,930 steps later my adventure was over (props to my 3DS for keeping count). GDC blew my mind around every corner and at every turn. And by the end, I met many games people that I hope to stay in contact with as long as I'm a games person. I have to make a special shout out to Michael Abbott, Derek Yu, Tak Fuji, Nick Suttner, Noah Sasso, Hiroko Minamoto, Terry Cavanaugh, Jeremy Parish, and a few other secret individuals. It was beyond great to meet all of these guys. I even met 3 old Smash brothers from my Melee days, two of which I got to see working at TinyCo, a real game development company!
I'm about half a year behind in articles I plan on writing here on Critical-Gaming. If I listen to and respond to many of the GDC talks, I might be a full year behind. I don't know how I'm going to process everything I've experienced and will experience from GDC. So without overthinking it, here's to 2012. May podcasts, posts, projects, and people flow freely.