One neatly dressed coder cracks a joke to another about the polygon count of his colleague's creased shirt. Bright young things with harsh neon hair mooch around on beanbags below us, as the escalator slowly shifts us to a level where men in oxford shirts line up for Xbox-sponsored lattes. The Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the GDC, is a wonderful, eclectic mess. I've come to try and get a snapshot of the industry's current state in the hope of reassuring myself that my career isn't a total waste of time.
With the help of a bunch of bright game design post-grads from NYU, we're running a Shut Up & Sit Down board gaming lounge. Until quite recently something like this would have been regarded as little more than a frivolous curiosity, but in 2015 it's weirdly legit. Changing circumstances continue to force the games industry to step outside of its comfort zone, and that step isn't always one toward tech.
As someone who used to work in traditional games media, it's unusual to be exposed to such a broad slice of the industry. Glossy events like E3 are effectively just marketing turned up to ten. Well-tuned spokespeople broadcast key soundbites, old dudes in suits dodge difficult questions, and children wobble around in promotional capes and cardboard crowns while also wearing a lanyard that describes them as "PRESS."
Business expos are always a special kind of hell, and GDC's show floor isn't any different. Microsoft continues its ostentatious tradition of paying through the nose for double-thick carpet before covering most of it with a paneled wood floor, creating a zone of unparalleled luxury that honestly doesn't give a shit about your calves.
Look past the cash-splash of the usual players, and the big money this year is almost laser-focused on the increasingly impressive realm of virtual reality. Oculus Rift and Sony's Morpheus continued to impress purely in terms of visual fidelity, but Valve's collaboration with HTC was the tech that had everyone talking. It uses mad laser-shit to map out your room and provide simple holodeck-style cues to let you know if you're about to walk into a wall.
It's difficult to walk away from these VR demos without experiencing an evangelical buzz, but it's impossible to ignore the vigorous uncertainty that bubbles just beneath. Movers and shakers and triple-A makers are almost uniformly enthralled with the tech, but there's a tangible sense that everyone involved can't forget that it's still a bit of a gamble. Everyone I meet seems keen to assure me that "virtual reality is happening," but I can't tell who they're trying to convince.
Keeping an ear to the ground across the whole of the conference, this sense of uncertainty isn't unique. Large chunks of the mobile sector, for example, are increasingly worried about the monopoly of titles like Game of War and Clash of Clans, in which gigantic profits are cyclically invested on block-out-the-sun-sized ad campaigns that effectively smother all competition. Meanwhile, the guy behind Crossy Road is giving a talk about how that silly game has made over $10 million.
Nobody knows what the fuck is going on. It's a phenomenon that can easily be attributed to the wider market of All Life on Earth, but in this specific case it's hugely evident. The financial risks behind super-shiny games has put the future of consoles in a strangely sticky place, and Steam's previously curated selection of PC games has now become more of a grab bag.
Even if you've got a great idea and you've managed to navigate the current minefield of choosing a platform to sell your product, you've then got the decision of how to make cash. Is it full-price? Budget? Free to Play? Ad-monetized, or weighted towards microtransactions?
This turbulence won't be resolved quickly. GDC will have undoubtedly provided many with the insight they need to try and make the right choice about what to do next, but most people have already pretty much made their beds. Practical business reasons aside, it felt like many of the people I met at GDC had come to the show for some sense of reassurance—a chance to anchor themselves both professionally and personally.
I'll admit that I felt a bit lost, too. Alongside the erratic mutation of the games industry that doesn't look set to settle anytime soon, the past year has seen the culture surrounding games play vanguard to an unpleasant new internet phenomenon that we've yet to learn to deal with—a digital equivalent of the way that Brutalist architecture ended up accidentally creating ghettos. To be fair, they fucked up in a dramatically bigger way: it wasn't until pretty recently that most people even realized that the internet was going to be a place where people would live.
It was naturally upsetting and not entirely without blame that our house became the one in which the first shits were plopped, and many of the people I met at GDC had primarily attended for the same reason as me: in search of some concrete reassurance that the games industry wasn't wholly comprised of Total Chodes™.
As a man walking around without any real sense of what he was looking for, I seemed to almost exclusively bump into people in bars who also didn't really know why they were there. Myself and a fellow Brit had both inexplicably traipsed alone across town to enter a writing competition in a semi-awful sports bar. We were joined by two young Americans in ill-fitting suits. One was a software engineer, and the other looked alarmingly like a tiny version of Matthew Broderick.
None of us really knew why we'd ended up there, but when the software engineer won the contest I suspect he walked away with exactly what he needed. Baby-Brodders was drinking "Black and Blue"—a 50-50 mix of Blue Moon and Guinness. I don't think he'll ever really know what he wants. The rest of us dissipated into the night. I ended up in a nightclub that looked like Hotline Miami, listening to music from Hotline Miami, and gratuitously imagining exactly what I'd do if it actually was Hotline Miami. The only assurance I left with that night was that I wasn't the only one.
I'd pinned my hopes on being reassured that everything was going to be OK on a party that was helpfully titled "Everything Is Going to Be OK." The wilfully wacky shindig is better known as the That Venus Patrol & Wild Rumpus Party, an annual celebration of loud music with strange games and very lovely people. If that wasn't enough to recharge the industry's collective hope-batteries, then everything was almost definitely not OK.
In the end though I bailed on it and watched Netflix in the bath, as by that point I didn't need a parade of chiptunes and unlikely hairstyles to remind me that games wasn't a big bag of dicks. The Independent Games Festival awards had fixed that beautifully. Tim Schafer's sock-puppet antics parsed better in the screen-grab land of Twitter, but the most powerful moment of the evening—if not the week—was far from a joke.
IGF host Nathan Vella capped off the awards by calling for the industry to better support those who put themselves on the line to protect the future of gaming culture. As you'd expect, it was a sentiment met with broad applause. The clarity and intention of the speech itself couldn't be faulted, but I found myself cynical towards the reaction from the crowd. It was a fucking massive room for starters—how many of the 10,000 people here actually care about the point being made? A round of applause at an awards ceremony doesn't always mean much, and doesn't cost much either.
Then, in the distance, people started standing up. As the polite applause slowly died down, a second wave picked up with forceful sincerity. The vast majority of ten thousand people stood up and clapped for a full five minutes. I'm amazed but not ashamed to admit that, as a moment, it almost brought me to tears, despite being stood way back in the crowd and surrounded by a collection of total strangers.
After watching a number of frighteningly talented post-grad students get up on stage to collect their awards, I realized that what I'd been looking for had been around me all week. The industry doesn't have a clue what the future of games is, and there's a very real worry that the culture we've grown up with is being violently twisted into horrible shapes. For us, right now, it's a pretty rough time, but when you meet the people behind the games of the future it's evident that everything is in safe hands.
These guys don't care about our current woes of trying to place all bets on one type of platform—they're super-holistic badasses who are prototyping board games, card games, and even RPGs. Their broad definitions of exactly what games can be makes the current offering look turgid and silly, and the talent and intelligence of the students I met throughout the week made me impossibly jealous and extremely happy.
They're lovely, they're brilliant, and the future is theirs. It doesn't matter if VR turns out to be a dead horse. It doesn't matter if Game of War causes all other mobile games to shrivel up and die. It doesn't matter what the fuck I think about the importance of standing up for diversity, and it doesn't matter what the fuck you think about the importance of standing up for diversity. These guys are the future, and the future is very fucking lovely. Everything is going to be OK.
Follow Matt on Twitter.