Futurist and author Bruce Sterling delivered the Tuesday keynote speech at Austin GDC -- a dual message of the way improved technology will change games and how stagnation in the creative side of the industry will hamper their evolution.
As Sterling was tasked with imagining the next 35 years of the game industry, the address began with the premise that he was a time traveling graduate student sent in lieu of the 89-year-old Dr. Bruce Sterling from the year 2043. According to the "anonymous graduate student," future Sterling sent him back with the warning: "It's all completely real -- but they're not going to believe any of it."
The Future of Computing
Though perhaps spending overlong on sardonic gags, Sterling communicated that the computers of 2043 are ubiquitous and banal: "They're like bricks and forks and toothbrushes -- they're like towels."
Sterling demonstrated his point by pretending that a towel he brought was a computer from 2043 -- more advanced and multipurpose than any technology we have today, and more simple. "Moore's law states that computer power doubles every 18 months -- 35 years in the future means 23 doublings." A laptop (or towel) from 2043 would be more powerful than over 8 million 2008 laptops combined. "All media converged into this device -- there's no media left," he posited.
And the games of 2043? "They're not the kind of games that were developed for flat glass screens -- cumbersome," he said. "We don't pretend that a flat glass screen is a window into a virtual world... the idea sounds silly to us."
Then what do the games of 2043 look like? "I think you would call [them] 'augmented reality' but we don't," Sterling continued. "We think that reality is real -- you can have a lot of fun with [an overlaid] game interface." To Sterling, the games of the future scale from personal "body games" to global games and space games and everything in between -- including "neighborhood games". More importantly, "[In 2043] we've got 70 years of computer games -- that's what we've got that you don't have -- and we got it from you. All kinds of dead intellectual properties and platforms, all being continually re-released."
To make this point even more obvious, funny, and poignant, he decided to talk about Tetris
-- a game he "doesn't think" we have yet in 2008, massively popular in 2043. "Tetris
... is incredibly popular and compelling. It's spread like wildfire." He spoke about how the future Sterling wanted him to show Tetris
to us because it's so impressive and compelling. Though unstated, his point is to think about the elegance of that game -- today already almost a decade on from its heyday of 1989.
Networks of the Future
Sterling dovetailed into a discussion of networks of the future -- his prop, this time, a salt shaker. "This is nano-technology -- but we don't call it that, because it sounds old-fashioned to us. Every one of these networking crystals has the power of an entire server farm."
Sprinkling salt on the stage, Sterling "created a network here about the size of the entire internet in 2004." After making the shaker disappear with a bit of sleight of hand -- he quoted Arthur C. Clarke's old adage "Any truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" -- and then, after destroying his nano-network, as an admonition to the audience, extended it: "Any truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from garbage."
Future Present: Money Rules All
Sterling was coy about "answering" the question of what the most successful game trends are in 2043. "What's the part of game development that's really going to take off in the future? Is it the web apps, console sales, the games for handhelds? MMORPGs?" On the latter, he sarcastically said -- "I don't know why you people can't come up with a better word for that simple idea."
No, Sterling pointed out, in the future -- the people who control the currency will be the ones who are rich. "It's the bankers and the financiers. They are not game players, they are bankers," he said. Games have their own currencies -- and thus their own financial institutions.
Reading a fictitious, detailed, and plausible service agreement from "Avatar Checkout," an in-game financial firm, Sterling absolutely rammed home the idea that in-game currency will become parallel in complexity and ubiquity to the current real world financial industry. "Does that sound like fun gameplay to you?" Sterling asked. "It's almost exactly as much fun as investment banking." On the other hand, "If you put a big graphic front end on financial services -- people will actually save for retirement."
Blindsided By Tech
Sterling posed the question he know the audience would pose if they encountered a real time traveler: "What would have blindsided me, that I couldn't see, in my industry?"
Rather than answering directly, Sterling pulled apart the semantics of what game developers do -- using the phrase "computer entertainment."
"What is that -- what does that mean?" he asked. "Well, it's got computers and it's got entertainment. That's how you define what you do, but it's not what you do. It's just two old-fashioned words about what you do."
"First, you can forget the word computer -- it's what holds you back," Sterling continued. There are a plethora of current platforms, such as handheld devices and smart phones -- which he says is helping people forget the distinction, but not quite as usefully, or as globally, as they can. "You'd be better off if your start thinking about other phenomena -- interactive billboards, traffic systems, street lights, credit cards, drones, street-based video, doorknobs... do you know how many embedded chips are built into hotel doorknobs? Stop thinking about the chips. Chips always mean computers. You must transcend that." Self-parodically, he suggested, "Think about a far-out hippie zen paradigm -- like clouds, and smoke, and invasive, and ubiquitous."
Moving on to the second word, Sterling said, "Entertainment is fun. Am I right? If it's not fun, obviously it's not entertainment. You definitely want your users to have fun because that's the definition of your industry -- except for three kinds of people. They're not fun people. They're not you're users -- they're your abusers."
What kinds of people? "First, the gold farmers, the rip-off artists... the pirates. The same crowd, invisible to you. You don't want to see them... they're parasites. But they're not accidents. They're important. Second, the griefers. They have entertainment, but it's not your game; it's their game. Third, the weird ones: the convergence culture people. They don't make any distinctions between the media that they use. They don't play the roles of your games. They want to be in the same outside space you're in. They're the same talent from where you recruit your people. They [all] exist outside your box. They're not exactly your enemies, but they're alien to your chosen paradigm. They only way to get ahead of them is to redefine yourself as something that is not computer entertainment. Their fun is not fun. They are a culture, not an industry, and that is why they kick your ass. How to get rid of them? You don't."
Sterling spent a few moments throwing around ridiculous "future" tech terms like "greebles" to parody our need to make up complicated technical terms -- implicitly symptomatic of a lack of understanding and comfort with these concepts.
So how to predict the future? You don't predict it; you make it, said Sterling. "The best way to make the future is to invent it -- but the best way to understand the future is to study the past. Your past, once involved a kind of futurist prophecy, a dark and painful prophecy made 35 years ago. And that prophecy came in two words: 'towel designers.'"
Towel designers? Sterling continued: "There was a time when Atari was the fastest growing company in entertainment history. So Warner Bros. bought Atari. The Atari geeks said, 'We're creating these amazing high-tech games.'"
Sterling recounted the story of the formation of Activision -- painting it as a struggle between money people and creative people who want money. Warner Bros., in his view, saw it like this: "An Atari console is a factory. It's not a means of expression for artisans." He believes that the execs and marketing people saw the developers as mere towel designers -- taking a basic concept and changing the stripes, the dots, the color. "That was the extent of their value add to the process."
But Sterling seemed worried that we have, today, actually bought into this view ourselves, as an industry. "Some day the computer entertainment industry would be big, big enough and stodgy enough that it actually would employ towel designers, nameless armies of guys. Not visionaries, not game changers -- functionaries, towel designers."
The solution to this factory mentality? "Creative disruption, radical innovations, provocative cultural change," said Sterling. "That is the problem with traditional consumer-friendly towel factories. What kind of game designer is going to ruin that?"
His call to arms, if there was one in this complicated and metaphorical speech, was for a visionary whose perspective is incompatible with this conventional factory production style of game development -- which Sterling obviously sees as pervasive and damaging. "This is your great struggle, and that is what you face," he said. That is what you owe to your predecessors and those who will come after you. You've got your place in the great parade and it's all yours."
Photo of Sterling by Robert Scoble