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GDC 2011: Social Game Developers Direct Their Rage Outward, Inward
GDC 2011: Social Game Developers Direct Their Rage Outward, Inward
March 4, 2011 | By Kyle Orland

March 4, 2011 | By Kyle Orland
More: Console/PC, GDC

The GDC rant panel is regularly one of the most memorable events of the conference, and this year's was no exception, with social game developers of all shapes and sizes unleashing their rage about their perception and also social games themselves.

Rant co-host Eric Zimmerman started things off by reminding the audience that social game developers are often seen near the “bottom of the barrel” when it comes to the industry's coolest jobs. “The social game developers arguably have drawn a tremendous amount of ire and controversy, some would say jealousy, form inside and outside the industry,” he said

Wizardry designer and co-founder of social game studio Loot Drop Brenda Brathwaite was up first, letting loose with a breathless, rapid-fire rant. She recalled how the game industry stood together through controversies ranging from the move to graphical games and the inclusion of console game developers in the old Computer Game Developers Conference to congressional hearings over Mortal Kombat and sex scandals in Grand Theft Auto. “We stood together, you and me, because we love games,” she said.

Now, she said, the industry should resist being divided by the supposed threat to the industry being created by social games. She differentiated between the social gaming “strip miners” trying to maximize profits at the expense of good gameplay and the thoughtful game designers up on the stage, who think that the new, non-traditional audience of social gamers deserve good games, too.

Zynga chief game designer Brian Reynolds was significantly more mellow in his rant, suggesting that social games have value because they provide an excuse for people to socialize, and that he's now reaching more people than he ever did in traditional game development.

“I think it's interesting and I [now] have a chance to talk to audiences larger than those that I or anybody else have been able to talk to before … People I've never been able to reach or talk to through games,” he said.

Playdom's Steve Meretzky directed his rant at all the non-designers, from the CEO down to the mailroom, that think they have what it takes to design a good game. He let loose a barrage of derision for those who “think you can just waltz into into a design meeting and contribute because you play a lot of games and read a couple of articles on Gamasutra.”

Even though Malcolm Gladwell's book outliers says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, Meretzky said he's still learning after over 60,000 hours, largely because the game industry is such a constantly changing place. The industry should respect this kind of learning, rather than trying to cut it out of the game development process entirely, as some executives are trying to do.

Special guest ranter and Spy Party designer Chris Hecker provided an interlude focused on the wider world of games, and how they need more human moments to really achieve their potential. Rather than the gamification of life, he's interested in “the lifification of games,” an admittedly awkward phrase, he said.

Hecker said he could do with never seeing another game with aliens and orcs in it, especially when they're not needed to make a real personal or controversial statement, as they often were in classic science fiction. He also stressed that adding a human touch to games can be as simple as reaching out for a hand-hold in Ico or letting people form a connection to their very mortal horse in Red Dead Redemption

Zynga and Playdom designer Scott Jon Siegel directed his anger at the vast majority of social games, which he said have been led down a distressingly myopic path in the last two years by the success of Farm Town and similar games that generate a slow drip of reliable, time-based rewards. These games have been wildly successful, but have squashed the potential shown in great social games like Parking Wars, Bejeweled Blitz, and Mouse Hunt, he said.

“We started mimicking success patterns and everything became more and more recursive,” he argued. “We took a hard right turn and never looked back.”

Siegel urged the social game makers to take advantage of an “etch-a-sketch moment” to start over with a blank slate, building more meaningful social games.

EA and Digital Chocolate founder Trip Hawkins worried that social and mobile game developers may be “lambs to the slaughter” as new platforms erode the idea that games are worth money. He highlighted the fact that the $1 billion generated by Apple's App Store has been divided up among 250,000 apps, leaving a $4,000 per app average that “doesn't even pay for a good foosball table.” (the actual revenue figure may now be closer to $2 billion)

Hawkins said that while the walled garden of console-style license agreements could be equally restrictive, and meant fewer people got access to platforms, “at least Nintendo had the decency to tell you up front how you were going to get screwed.”

He also compared many of those trying to strike it rich with their game idea to the deluded American Idol contestants who all think they are going to be the big winner. “There's something very inspiring about that, but just thinking you're going to make the superior game that's better than Angry Birds... what you don't know is about the 1000s that tried and failed,” he said.

Ian Bogost was the rant session's last presenter, using his satirical game Cow Clicker to highlight how even inherently pointless social games could be made into platforms for creative expression. That alone doesn't mean they're worthwhile, though. He drew the analogy to Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, who was forced to write poetry with feces on toilet paper when in jail as a political prisoner.

“Shit stinks,” he pointed out. “When forced to root in it we retch and cower, and yet despite it, we rise above. We find crevices... and rise up out of the filth... No matter what shit we throw, people grow and thrive.”

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[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Ernest Adams
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Brilliant comment by Katrin Becker on the huge emphasis on monetization at this year's GDC: "It's all a little too Ferengi if you ask me."

Glenn Storm
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["spit take"s coffee] lol

Joe McGinn
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>>Hawkins said that while the walled garden of console-style license agreements could be equally restrictive, and meant fewer people got access to platforms, “at least Nintendo had the decency to tell you up front how you were going to get screwed.”<<

LOL! Made me laugh. The walled garden is history IMO, but I agree it's not necessarily a good thing for professional game developers. It may become much harder to make a living in this field.

mark mcmichael
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Playdom's Steve Meretzky directed his rant at all the non-designers, from the CEO down to the mailroom, that think they have what it takes to design a good game. He let loose a barrage of derision for those who “think you can just waltz into into a design meeting and contribute because you play a lot of games and read a couple of articles on Gamasutra.”"

Damn straight!

Jaroslaw Szpilewski
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umad.jpg :]

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Liked this year's rant. Very nice indeed.

But I can't just walk in a conference room and do that?!

Daniel Martinez
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I do that all the time... in my mind.

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I do it all the time...IRL xD!

But since there's only three of us, well....nothing is going to happen lol.

Carlo Delallana
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Trip, someone (and I emphasize ONE) has already made a better game than Angry Birds and is currently keeping it away from the number 1 spot ;)

Ok, here's my rant...

Now what? Folks got to blow of some steam but it'll be back to business as usual. I fear the machine, the machine that sees us as cogs. A machine that bows down to the god of metrics and the numbers dogma. A tool used by those who know nothing of game development or even worse, have no vested interest in the intrinsic desire we all posses to create and entertain in meaningful ways. If we will stand together as developers then we must stand together to face down people and practices that intend to marginalize this medium where potential is squashed by the profit-drive.

I'd be laughed out of a room if I was a game designer who has never played a single game in his life. If you are going to be the leader of a game company your hands should be dirty with the sweet sweat of game development.

Folks like Satoru Iwata understands this. He referred to us as his colleagues in his mini-rant Keynote. There are so few people in leadership positions like him who really understands what its like to make a game. A savvy business leader and game creator who has weathered many challenges and changes like we all have (celebrating by 10 year anniversary in this biz myself). To him CONTENT IS KING, something we all believe as developers.

I agree with Brenda, we should stick together and make positive change in the emerging social and mobile platforms. We can't let "business and profit" control the narrative anymore because WE are on the front lines. It's OUR content that players interact with, not the budget spreadsheets, not the quarterly forecasts. I understand these are realities of running a business but we're in the business of content, we are here to give players entertainment that is worthy of their precious time. I want these players to spend money on our games because they ENJOY it and not because we've created FRUSTRATION and the only way to get past this is to give us your credit card number.

If you are this kind of leader, one who truly believes that content is king then please speak up! Help us change the narrative around these new experiences.

/end rant ..... now lets do something about it!

Rey Samonte
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Hey Carlo, for the most part, I agree with what you've said. Prior to the whole social game boom, I was heavily involved and completely enjoyed making mini games that solely focused on gameplay. The freedom to create and choose what kind of game I wanted to make next kept the job fresh and exciting because as a developer, I was learning new things with each new project.

What I'm starting to see is that the success these social games are having is starting to sway the heads in thinking this is the right way to go. Yes, money talks and everyone wants more of it and have a profitable company. If you are a business man, that's all that matters. So now, the focus is turning away from making fun little mini games to trying to copy what's already been done. As a developer, this model we are trying to follow takes away all the fun in making games because we're too busy trying to re-create the wheel that we're not putting the same effort in creating something new. Since I am employed and being paid by the guys who make all the money, I don't have much say in any of this. Like you kind of said, I become more of a resource rather than someone who is valued for his expertise and input.

From my experience in the game industry and my time creating Flash, order to have full creative control, you need to branch out on your own. But that's easier said than done. In the real world, we can't all afford to stand on our own and we have to learn how to play ball in the corporate world.

Carlo Delallana
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Or you can change the game.

Check out Crowd-source your production to people who share your enthusiasm. The number of game projects being fan-funded is increasing. The caveat of course is that your idea has resonance and people get excited about funding your creative venture.


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Carlo....excellent man. Nice posts over the past few days btw. Stole the words out of my mouth.

Btw, since I'm SOE, I'll just sue you for stealing said words xD (see what I did thar ;) ).

jaime kuroiwa
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I don't mind being a cog, as long as the machine isn't a Terminator.

I think what's missing in all these rants is the need to be inclusive, but not in the "city upon a hill" approach. No one -- even the non-gamer moneyman -- should be excluded from the discussion. That being said, the non-gamer moneyman shouldn't be steering the development either, which I guess is the target of the frustration.

Everyone has their role in the industry, but that shouldn't get people "laughed out of the room." Just because a person has more experience or savvy shouldn't give them the power of selective hearing.

The grand irony is that social game development seems to lack the ability to be social with themselves.

Candace Young
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While I appreciate Seigel's "etch-a-sketch" comment, I'm more in agreement with Bogost. Everyone has got to start somewhere. Admittedly though, when you set your roots amongst the diverse cultures of social networking websites, ranging from tweens to stay-at-home moms to rap stars to religious fanatics, you're bound to have some bumps and hurdles along the way to becoming a "true" (and respected) industry.

Scott Henshaw
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All this corporate vs indie, social vs traditional (what is that anyway?) games, come on guys get a grip. You create something entertaining and to those entertained it has value. If you are smart enough to market your entertainment experience (however long or short) to the right audience in the right media you will make money, if you get those components wrong you wont. Simple.

Trip also neglects the key aspect of games and media in general that 10% of the titles collect some 90% of the revenues so that for the myopic iDevice developer (why again would you focus on one closed system for delivery and then whine about its restrictiveness? -- another rant) so the claim that each of the 250,000 iDevice apps generates a paultry $4000 is just wrong. Think more like 25,000 apps that generate $70,000 each and the rest generating closer to $1000 each. All of which goes back to marketing.

Social or traditional, console or handheld it doesn't matter at all. Great entertainment + great marketing = the ability to do it again. Fail at either and nobody will know you ever exist.

Sting Newman
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Not exactly correct. What you've described is a vast oversimplification. Marketing can only take you so far unfortunately. Lots of MMO's had great marketing but their carcasses are everywhere. Then there is awful games from a gameplay standpoint that sell a lot like world of warcraft.

The real issue is cannibalism, the gaming industry is highly cannibalistic. All the different games end up fragmenting the the user base.

Michael Joseph
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Did you I hear you right? How much you make selling your "entertainment experience" is the only validation that matters?

If that's the case then you're not on the same wavelength as the people you're telling to "get a grip."

Ben Herman
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I have 30 years of gaming history starting with Frogger in 1981 (Parker Brothers). Here is the skinny. Ad dollars are needed. Room is too crowded to just put a game out. Develop for multiple formats and operating systems as well as multiple territories. As Trip correctly stated NOA approving concept was mandatory before a game could begin development. Now we have too many games BUT we are in the infancy of this social category. 3D tablets and phones and computers are arriving.

There are so many platforms, so many games, so many developers. Can anyone create an easy way to find games on a menu? Apple are you listening? All of these parts equal 100% of the pie in an economy that is hurting. Used to be when money got tight people stayed home and played games. Nothing has changed. We are all in this together. Last question..What do you do when the phone rings...LOL.

Michael Joseph
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Is there a video of the rant online somewhere?

Gordon Gecko's "Greed is Good" rant mixed with a little "Emperor's New Clothes" is what I'm picturing.

EDIT: I did find a video of Brenda Brathwaite's rant @

but it seemed too much like a bait and switch sell to me. First she talks about the history of "computer gamers vs them" over the years and then finally suggests that when some of "them" invades gamers' space to make evil games that gamers should stand by them? Sorry that makes no sense whatsoever.

I think those of us who view certain so called "social games" as "evil" do so NOT in a blanket categorical sort of way but with a specific group of criteria and caveats. So I see no reason to ever stand by those specific ones that treat their users like so many cows waiting to be milked.

EDIT 2: As an aside, an entire debate could be had on the merits of her "gamers vs them" history as well. I mean I believe in people having the freedom to create works and sell them obviously, but doesn't mean I have to actively support KKK propaganda literature. So just because games like Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto had their share of detractors but in the end survived the attacks does NOT mean that there weren't any merits to the detractor's arguments nor does the fact they survived vindicate those games in terms of moral, ethical or social responsibility. Cigarette anyone?

But in the final analysis those merits are irrelevant (at least in the US) because we value freedom of speech above most other things. I may not be happy that there are more shows like "24" and "Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire" than there are of "Happy Days" and "Little House on the Prairie" and we could argue whether western culture is hurt by any of this but it would be an academic exercise because in the end we all agree that the government shouldn't be regulating such things.

So games having been vindicated time and time again over the years appears to be one of the implied themes in her rant with social games being just the latest to be added to the hit list and the next to be vindicated. But nobody is talking about banning social games. And surviving and succeeding economically isn't blanket vindication.