5 Min Impromptu Talk from Lost Levels at GDC 2014

Apr 9, 2014

At Game Developers Conference 2014 there were a handful of points that I was discussing with the friends, readers, and strangers (soon new friends!) that I ran into. While across the street at Lost Levels I had an opportunity to talk for a 5 min. interval, and jumped at the chance to share with a small crowd some highlights from the conversations I’d been having over the previous few days.

This was entirely off the top of my head – I’m peeking at my phone just to keep a sense of my time remaining – so it’s pretty disorganized. And it’s outside in a crowded, windy, downtown park, so the sound quality isn’t great. I really don’t know how Alan Hazelden, who recorded this (as part of his longer recording with many more talks), managed to capture the sound nearly so well as he did, bit it’s mostly pretty clear. Anyhow at least as a bridge very briefly connecting some points that I’ve been writing about recently to a topic or two that I’ll be covering in more detail soon, I think it holds up well enough to warrant sharing.

I’ve also typed up a transcript below, in case reading it may be preferred, especially considering the level of background noise and the pace of my speech here.

Transcript follows:

[Moments before the video recording started…] Hi! I’m Chris DeLeon! My interest is in helping [start of video here] people who just want to make games as a hobby, non-professionally.

My way of talking about this has been that when someone wants to pick up a basketball, it’s not to first join the NBA. When someone takes voice lessons it’s not to become Lady Gaga. When someone picks up a guitar for the first time it’s not to try to immediately play on a stage as a huge pop star, it’s because they want to learn how to play music.

And so my emphasis is to try to point out the kinds of stories that we don’t usually see: yes, Rovio’s Angry Birds is in some ways a simple game, but in other ways it’s roughly the 53rd that they produced. Notch [creator of Minecraft] has been programming games since he was 8 years old, for a long time before doing it as a professional it was something he just did because he loved it.

I’m trying to create more space for people to recognize that if your game doesn’t go commercial, that’s fine. You didn’t fail at it! Any more than someone that takes dance lessons, karate lessons, or play baseball on a team doesn’t fail at it by not become a professional, it’s still a worthwhile activity. It’s still enriching. It’s still a great way to learn new skills, and to meet new people. I’m trying to create more of a space where the goal isn’t always commercial.

In many cases, I’m interviewing people who are doing it commercially, triple-A or indie alike, but then make the decision sometimes to make noncommercial games. People like Colin Northway here, he made Shader as a demonstration of the fact that – even though he has now made well-selling games – there are reasons why sometimes you don’t want to design something and then go through the marketing cycle, figure out whether there’s a demographic niche for it, whether it fits the current payment schemes, where to stick ads on it, how to get Steam placement…

Another guy I interviewed, Matt Gilgenbach, proposed to his wife with a game. You’re not going to commercialize that (:

I’ve now helped a whole bunch of different students (and I’m always trying to find ways to help more people that aren’t just students, people in different areas and times of their lives) learn how to structure projects that are zero budget, that can be fit around the rest of their life’s schedule (their day job, their work, their family commitments), that are multi-month. These aren’t just a 72-hour game jam.

Nothing wrong with game jams. They’re just a very different discipline than having a multi-month teamwork project where you can iterate on it, sit on it, think about it, experience some films, go back to your life, try some other things when you come back to it. I just want to help more people do that, all over the place.

If you have any questions about how to do that better, I want to help answer them. One of my emphasises is that no question is so naive that we should disregard it. Lots of people out there are stuck with questions that they try to ask other people but they then get dismissed. People tell them it’s a crazy question, it’s a silly question. I think that because of the internet we should answer every question they have for us. There’s either already a good answer we can point them to, or 8,000 other people have the exact same question so for goodness sakes take the time to sit down and write it. This isn’t just for that person, it’s also for everybody else that’s wondering the exact same thing. Many of the things seem obvious to somebody already in a position, but for everybody else that’s what’s holding them back. Nobody explained to them how to use a terminal, but sometimes with certain programming tools that’s really useful to know.

[Making zero budget games] also it opens up a lot of options for the kind of games we design. One of the things I studied when I was in academia – which I’m now on my way back out of – is the way that various economic models influenced the styles of games that got/get designed. People have been very aware of this more recently with Free-to-Play, things like In-App Purchases, Facebook games… certain types of games get favored in that space [based on what’s earning the most money]. This has aways been true.

My brother and I grew up playing Marble Madness and Bubble Bobble, two player games on Nintendo Entertainment System. They were two player because they were ports of arcade games, and in the early 80’s it was more difficult bringing in coins, they realized that multiplayer games pulled in more quarters at the same machine. That’s why those games existed.

Those four player games we loved with X-Men, TMNT, The Simpsons – various games with four players walking to the right beating up everyone in the streets in relatively easy games – again, more quarter draw for a four player machine. Commercial games have always been about revenue and they always will be. The full-price retail experience, in talking to Warren Robinett about his work on Atari Adventure (one of the first games in the genre of Zelda, though pre-Zelda), he was finding there was a need for the full-priced retail product to be bigger than something at the arcade.

Otherwise people will rent it, but not buy it.

Longer games make sense for that experience. Meanwhile we’ve also seen subscription model [as with MMOs] where it’s only important that people buy it, start playing it, and then don’t leave playing it. Suddenly that’s what makes sense for those.

However when you’re doing your free game, you don’t have to consider any of that. You’re free to make anything you want, independent of whether it’s something that would have only made sense in the late 80’s, or the mid-90’s.

One of the things I’ve picked up on too is the way that we use art as clues for what kind of history we’re pointing to. People realize that, yeah, we use pixel art because we’re lazy, we use pixel art because we’re not trained artists, we use pixel art because it’s fast. But also it’s a clue that when you play a certain game we’re asking players to put themselves in the mindset of “this is kind of like a game for Commodore 64” or put yourself in the mindset of “this will play like an arcade game.” It’s an instrument that we have to point players to not treat something like a PlayStation 2 game when that’s not the kind of thing we’re going for. So I’ve been thinking about how we offer clues to people playing our free games about what sort of non-free traditions we’re trying to build them from.

Maybe a given market is dead, maybe it’s not, but it doesn’t really matter. When we can make it for ourselves the fulfillment comes from completing a project we’re proud of, and got some other people involved in practicing some skills. Maybe next time one of them will lead a project that I can be a part of, in which I can dabble and practice some misc. skills of my own at a non-professional level.

Anyhow I think that’s worth doing, and I want more people doing it.

That’s my deal.

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