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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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