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The Rant: Burn Baby, Burn!

General Articles By Jon Wood on March 28, 2006

The Rant: Burn Baby, Burn!

Game Developers Conference Panel: The Rant - Burn Baby, Burn!

Developers and journalists diagnose what they think is wrong in the industry

One of the highlights of getting to visit the Game Developer's Conference has been getting to hear the opinions of various game developers on subjects across the board. It's an opportunity that any gamer would enjoy, and gives us an indication of where the industry as a whole is heading. Of all of the talks and seminars that took place over the week, perhaps the most anticipated was the Game Developer's Rant. Where else would you get to listen to industry experts really let loose with the things that are bothering them about making games, and the people who do it. The name of the rant session? Burn Baby, Burn!

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The event was supposed to kick off with Frank Lantz, the co-founder and creative director of area/code, but he decided to give up the first part of his rant to his friend, Robin. Robin gave us a brief, but useful rant about what's next in video games, to her mind, judging by what she had seen so far at this conference, the next thing in games is: "hot babes". She went on to show a number of different female stereotypes that show up in games and in game promotion. The rant itself was sarcastic, meant to ask present developers to think about that way that women are being represented, or even being drawn into this industry.

The Frank Lantz rant, on the other hand, took a look away from issues of gender and into the realm of fantasy. Frank ranted about what he called the "immersive fallacy", he talked about how there is an idea in the industry that we are moving toward to world where our video games are like a Star Trek holodeck, totally immersive and uncontrolled. He also said that thinking this misses the point of representation, which is what happens when we make a video game. We're not trying to re-create a thing, but rather, we are trying to show a thing. He pointed to other means of representation to make his argument. "Statues would not be better if they could move", he said. "Model airplanes would not be better if they were the actual size of real airplanes." Instead, a statue is great because it represents a person, a model plane because it represents a plane, just like a game is meant to represent some aspect of real life. Frank warned about the dangers of layering simulation over simulation, eventually getting to the point where you have nothing but a lesser version of real-life. He says that the gaps between the reality and the representation are where the fun exists.

Next up to the podium was Seamus Blakely, Seamus came to the rant to "gently" remind his fellow game designers that every now and then, they have to stop and think about the finances of making games. He says that too often, developers don't take the finances of getting their game made when they are pitching their ideas. There is a tendency in the industry to complain that no one has the "vision" to pay to make a great game. The truth is that we don't have the same draw as the film or music industries. We don't have a Grammy’s or an Oscars, award shows that justify the making of more artistic products that might not otherwise get made because they are outside of the recognized system that makes money. Seamus said that "we don't have good business behind the games we want to make". This feeds into a lack of creative, innovative gaming as the ideas are out there, but developers need to learn how to sell those ideas.

Seamus was followed by the much more mild-mannered Jonathan Blow, who started simply by stating that "There is not enough innovation in video games". Right now, the industry seems to be using "shiny things" like graphics to distract from the fact that there have been no real innovations. Jonathan's argument is that there will be innovations over time, that it simply will happen. We can. however, make games important to people right now by looking at what was done a long time ago. The new technology would allow us to take those old ideas and make them new and exciting again, Jonathan used Ultima 4's ideas of the exploration of morality as an example.

Jonathan's rather upbeat rant was followed by the much more dower rant of Chris Crawford, a noted game developer and writer. Chris Crawford started his rant with 5 words. "The games industry is dead". He said that all that was happening now was developers feeding off of a brain-dead corpse. His rant was short and not-so-sweet and ended with him saying that just down the hall, there is something called "interactive storytelling", and that's the industry that he's going to work in. The purpose of the rant is clear. Crawford believes that the interactivity and immersion factor of the future of games is in the story. Is he right? Only time will really tell.

Jane Pinckard was up next, representing video game journalists. She said that sometimes it feels as though the public relations people are in control of everything. She laments the fact that we do not spend out time talking to the designers and artists that are responsible for the games, the real heart and soul. She said that we need more transparency between developers and gamers. She then went on to say that yes, these "rant sessions" are fun, but that we all need to get up off of our butts and do something about what we are ranting about. Don't let them be passive, let them inform us as to the things that we need to change.

The last rant of the evening was a surprise. It came from Chris Hecker, the winner of the Community Contribution Award at the Game Developer's Choice Awards. Hecker had the rant, but took the time to rave a little bit as well. In his rant, he complained that things like patents could certainly destroy the industry, keeping developers from using some concepts, and stunting innovation and growth. He said that we could learn something from the film and comic book industries and from their successes and failures. He points specifically to the trend that killed comic books as a mainstream form of entertainment. Repetition. Comic books took one concept, the super hero, and did it again and again and again until the general public just lost interest. Is this something that we're suffering from in the games industry?

In terms of raving, he said that games are awesome, and that we are all currently at the very beginning of an art form. Games are, more than anything else, about interactivity, and will allow us to effect people on an emotional level beyond just speaking to their "power fantasies".

The rant then moved on to open up the mic to members of the audience, and the mood in the hall turned to teasing the various panelists. When all was said and done, we were given a number of things to think about in terms of the future of our industry and where it is headed.


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