Early Wednesday morning, on the second day of the 2012 Game Developers Conference, a row of news vans lined the street outside the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Disappointingly, and perhaps somewhat ironically, they weren't there to cover the various exciting projects and ideas being shared by the game development community within — they were next door, reporting on the latest, marginally-improved slab of consumer circuitry from Apple.
Make no mistake, the iPad can be a vehicle for creation in and of itself, and it's sure bet that a good portion of the creative individuals that were attending panels and workshops inside the Moscone Center that week consider it an indispensable tool and platform. Still, there's something profoundly sad about witnessing first-hand this disproportionate interest in the tools of production over the people doing the actual producing. Lectures and workshops may seem dull to news crews in lieu of the latest Apple product launch, but it's really the hallway conversations and social connections that make events like GDC stand out. With a focus on people rather than products, it becomes different from every other videogame-related event in one very important way: Nearly everyone you talk to is actually making something.
Late Thursday on the expo floor, I was a good 10 minutes into a conversation before I learned that Eirik Surhrke, the nice fellow I was talking to, was actually an old-school chiptune composer I had known and admired for years by the alias 'Phlogiston.' In a sense, I shouldn't have been all that surprised: Two games he had done music for — Ridiculous Fishing and Spelunky — were up for awards at this year's Independent Games Festival.
At the booth behind him sat FEZ, the long-awaited, long-delayed 2D/3D platformer hybrid that had just won the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the festival. Programmer Renaud Bedard stood close by, his smile never fading as fellow developers approached to congratulate him and the rest of the game's team on their well-deserved win.
A few booths over, Anti-Chamber, the M.C. Escher style first-person game that can be best described as a videogame mindfuck, had drawn an enormous line of eager players. Alexander Bruce, the game's Australian creator who won at IGF for Technical Excellence the night before, stood confidently nearby to explain how he went about breaking all the rules and still coming out with an enjoyable, albeit challenging, interactive experience.
20 minutes later, I'm being led by Johann Sebastian Joust creator Doug Wilson into a small alcove of the long hallway connecting the Moscone Center's north and south buildings. He informs me that a friend of his, an excitable chap named Elliot Trinidad, had just made a new party game, and I was going to be one of its first beta testers.
Sure, why not?
Elliot and his crew quickly set up a projector and soon we are all part of a guerrilla game demonstration, huddled around a large arcade button console in the middle of the hallway like it's no big deal. The game is like a hyper-physical, electronic evolution of "Whack-a-Mole" — cartoon characters pop up in random patterns on the screen from holes corresponding to the large buttons on the controller, and each player must make frantic attempts to hit the other players' characters while defending their own. Like B.U.T.T.O.N, there aren't really any rules — just raw, rowdy horseplay and a whole lot of fun.
Toward the end of the week-long event, the Experimental Gameplay Sessions provided for a less spontaneous but equally inspirational showcase of new ideas. In these short, rapid-fire pitch sessions, Rami Ismail of Dutch game company Vlambeer presented one of the most fascinating concepts: An online game called "GlitchHiker" that slowly corrupts its own code as it is played until it simply ceases to function. The game, which is non-recoverable and now only exists through recorded videos and screenshots, was one of the many game projects made during last year's Global Game Jam, where participants from around the world collaborate to sketch out games focused around a particular theme within a 48 hour period.
Afterward, during the big post-conference come-down, I ran into Bennett Foddy, creator of QWOP, whose talk earlier in the week about player-abusing game design easily ranked among the most interesting of the conference. Next to him, members of RPM Collective, the group responsible for the Oakutron traveling arcade cabinet that paraded a cooperative game by famed indie creator Anna Anthropy around marches and demonstrations during Occupy Oakland earlier this year. It had become impossible to turn around without getting into a conversation with someone doing something novel, expressive or exciting with videogames.
Despite being my second time at the conference, it still amazes me how everyone I meet is working on something special, and nearly everyone has interesting things to say about videogames. As far as videogame events go, it's a welcome respite: Most are either industry trade shows like E3, where most of your interactions involve PR and marketing people shoving corporate-approved sales pitches down your throat, or fan events like Penny Arcade Expo, where everyone you meet is there to simply fanboy out about their favorite consumer pastime.
GDC, thankfully, is miles away from either category. It's about people who make things, and the infectious kind of inspiration it spreads among those who attend is something no press conference for the latest electronic gadget could ever hope to achieve.