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GDC is No E3 (And We Like It That Way)

If the motto for this week’s E3 is “where business gets fun,” the motto for the Game Developers Conference (GDC) should be “where business gets done.” According to the NPD Group, the U.S. videogame industry posted more than $10.5 billion in sales in 2005, a six-percent increase over the previous year and a new high for an industry whose performance is often compared to Hollywood’s. The lion’s share of this revenue came during the holiday shopping season, and most gamers would tell you that the hype for those hot holiday sellers kicked-off at E3 2005.
But two months before E3, cuddled in cubicles in downtown San Jose, hundreds of developers met with a handful of publishers to hawk their wares. It was the Hype Headwaters, if you will. In 30- to 60-minute sessions, developers huffed and they puffed and they blew publishers over with rhetoric about how their game was better than hundreds of others and would generate profits for both parties. They were, like any other artist, looking for funding to keep practicing (and justifying) their craft.
You see, E3 is the Paris Hilton, the glitz and glamour, the dog and pony show of the U.S. videogame industry. GDC is the Hilton Hotel’s janitorial staff, the nuts and bolts that give the E3 glamour some substance. Without GDC, E3 would never happen. Without GDC, developers would not get their continuing-ed or contracts signed. Without GDC, many developers would never be given a shot. And in fact, most of them aren’t.
The War of the Words
It’s March 2006, and the Fairmont Hotel lobby teems with developers huddled around marble tables basking in the glow of a single laptop computer. Images reflect off their glasses, and they point excitedly at the newest features in the latest build of their game. Assembled in tiny groups, the developers are in-between Game Connection meetings with publishers who may or may not tell them that such excitement is warranted.
Cell phones, Blackberries, laptops and briefcases are the armaments of choice for this phalanx of developers. For most of them, a lucrative publishing deal is their strategic goal. For some, that’s just icing on the cake.
“We want to partner with publishers who believe in our products, who believe in serving the gamers, because the gamers are whom we make games for,” says a representative from developer Load Inc.
His is an attitude missing in most industries, an attitude that doesn’t reflect a drive for profits and efficiencies and early retirements. But the videogame industry is not like most. Regardless of Roger Ebert’s stance, the videogame industry is like the artistic world: fueled by creativity, advanced by new techniques, and appreciated by those trained to recognize its intrinsic qualities. There are no “widgets” in videogames, no mass-produced commodities, only completed murals that tell as complete a story as its artists are capable of painting. And that is the beauty of The GDC Dance.
Publishers in Armani suits mill through the Fairmont Hotel saying things, business-world things, to discourage Levi-clad developers and gain negotiation leverage. “It’s just way too crowded.” “There are too many games.” “It’s a purchaser’s market.” If cattle trading is passe, then game publishing must be the modern equivalent. What’s the innovation? Where’s the plot? How’s your widget different from the rest? Developers field these questions unabashedly yet desperately to have their game branded by a publisher. And only the games bought at GDC will make the grand parade at E3.
For the Love of the Game
“You can tell right away who’s in this industry for money and who’s in it for the art,” says a developer from Ubisoft’s Red Storm team. “The people who are in it for the money? They’re gone after two years, max. This isn’t an industry that you get rich quick in.”
Indeed, he’s right. According to the 2005 Game Developer Salary Survey, the average income for videogame developers is approximately $70,800 USD, an incredible sum by blue-collar standards. Yet the survey also indicated that it took an average of four to six years of experience to reach that pay, anything but a “get rich quick” career.
At Red Storm, the developers work for the love of the game, for their desire to make games that they themselves would want to play. Unlike many studios, Red Storm also has a culture that supports its programmers, designers and production staff not only having families, but actually spending time with them.
“It’s a tough career,” says another member of the Red Storm team. “Late nights, early mornings, working weekends…your family just has to understand.”
For better or for worse, that’s one concept that doesn’t get lost in the GDC translation. Publishers speak that language as well, and those late nights, early mornings and worked weekends are often expected when it’s time to prepare for the show-and-tell session of E3. By early May, each branded developer will have had multiple “strategic” meetings with the publisher, in some cases rewriting entire sequences of the game, twisting the plot or even changing a key gameplay mechanic to make it more marketable.
Because that’s really what E3 is: a marketing convention. Sure, reporters want to see the games, and of course the media want to know what’s on the horizon. But E3, with its booth babes and blinking bulbs and boisterous booths, is really about attracting retailers. If game development is an art, then marketing those games at E3 is no less artistic. Impress a buyer’s rep at the annual show, and you’ve got newfound shelf space. Botch a presentation, and there are 40 more publishers waiting in the wings to talk to Wal-Mart.
Among casual gamers, GDC and E3 are commonly confused, or at the very least treated as stylistic siblings. In actuality, the two shows are more like parent and child: without one, the other would not exist. At GDC, developers anxiously unveil their art to would-be patrons, hoping for money to continue pursuing their passion. At E3, those patrons hype the artists’ work to retailers and the media, as E3 is as much about posturing and pomp and circumstance as it is the games themselves. But the only games hyped in Los Angeles are the ones publishers deemed marketable at the San Jose speed-dating sessions.
As many good games as we’ll see this week, at least twice that many died at GDC. Love of the art or no, developers need to make a living, and without the faith of a publisher, even the most creative game will never see the light of day. The dog and pony show of E3 is a torrid affair, a week filled with hot buzzwords and even hotter promises. But if just one of those promises comes true, it will bring even more aspiring artists to GDC 2007. That’s the cycle in an industry fueled by creativity and advanced by new techniques. Especially techniques that allow artists to continue their work.
— Jonas Allen

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