Friday, March 22, 2024

Thoughts After GDC 2024

The 2024 Game Developers' Conference isn't quite over as a I write this. But I want to jot down a few thoughts that it formed in my head before they fade away, which, at my age, they tend to do before I always notice.

First, I visited the expo floor. Haven't been to one of those since a SIGGRAPH conference long ago. In those days, the floor seemed huge. But, like visiting the house you lived in as a kid, this one (which was probably bigger in space than that SIGGRAPH show) seemed smaller than I remember. Sure, Epic (GDC's sponsor) had a big pavilion. So did a few others. But most were either pointless (I mean, really, what am I going to gain from visiting Unity's, uh, "booth?"), or oddly game-adjacent. By that latter, for example, I mean one that had a banner that said something like "Equal Access for All." I'm mildly committed to accessibility in my work, so I inquired. Turns out, they meant they were helping game publishers cope with trans-border cash flows and knowing how to introduce themselves to more international marketplaces. Nothing to do with wheelchairs or anything like that. Others were all about contracting out your need for a thousand rendering servers, or how to maintain version control for a project with hundreds of distributed workers (gig employees?).

Well, that was in the north floor. The south floor had a bit more of the old grass-roots feel, with an actual roller-based interface for a person to play games using their own, actual wheelchair(!). Black Voices in Gaming had a booth. I spent some useful time talking to the friendly folks there about how to engage more Black students in my courses, as I am mildly committed to that, too[*]. But the scale of the south floor displays was small compared to the north. The AAA stores and (this is the big takeaway) their support businesses are where the energy (read that "money") seems to be.

I went to several seminars. Three "roundtables" were the best, where most of the speaking was from attendees, not panelists. Got some insights that, again, told me this is all (as I already knew) a Very Big Business. People talked about their nightly renders that took hundreds of CPU/GPU hours on many servers; their problems managing thousands of animation sequences; their long nights unraveling countless inconsistent filenames from designers making them up as they go along. Eventually, it became clear to me that the shops whose names I (and you) know are not just noodling out clever mechanics and combining them with a few nifty models and a sound effect or two. What they're up to is rather like designing and creating a new car. It takes a lot of people working in a complex setting to produce millions of units that all must sell and work well enough to avoid returns and excessive maintenance.

It was all kind of depressing to a guy like me who, even after over 50 years as a programmer (got some applause for saying that at a roundtable, actually) still thinks maybe just noodling out clever mechanics and combining them with a few nifty models and a sound effect or two will make for a game he can sell.

See, I always say, "money is magnetic," by which I mean that, the more you have, the easier it gets to make even more than that. This time, I learned it has another kind of magnetic pull: The biggest money attracts the somewhat less big money towards it. So, a big game shop that is going to invest $100,000,000 in a game (yes, that's a real number) is naturally going to get the attention of a support company that might bill $4,000,000 (I would guess) to manage international tax accounting for their overseas outsourced contractors. Which means that support company is not interested in supporting a five-person boutique studio trying to do the same thing.

Now, what's that mean if you want to get into games? I hear a lot of people talk as though aiming to get into the big shops is the only career path worth having. But is it? Yes, only the big shops sink millions and millions into development. But where does the money go after the sale? Sure, some goes to pay all the people who made it (although, it really just repays the investors who fronted that cost; the now unemployed laborers already got paid). The rest goes to the shareholders of the business that made the product (and who, in all likelihood, had nothing to do with making that product).

In other words, you can make next to nothing working at a small shop on a small game, or you can make next to nothing working at a big shop on a big game. But either way, the only winners are the guys at the top of the big shops. That's how it looked to me after a couple of days at GDC.

Then I met a young man named "ZJ." He used to drive a truck. During the pandemic, his services were actually in less demand (guess he didn't do Prime deliveries). He thought about going back to school, but decided to learn Unity coding instead. No prior experience with games or code. At all. But he had a lot of time and wanted to get out of the truck-driving business.

ZJ wrote a boxing game. It's not out yet, but he's done some play-testing and says people like it. He's still improving it, but he has something that plays. Talking to him, I could tell right away that his coding skills are a bit crude. But he has something that plays. And it is all his. He designed it, he wrote it, he put it in front of play-testers, and they like it.

ZJ's game may never sell many copies. Or it might. I don't know, But it was certainly something, in the midst of all that discussion about such things as "how many people should there be on your version-control team?" to meet one guy who was still noodling it all out on his own.

So that's my takeaway from GDC: shoot for a modest living in a big shop making someone else's big game, or shoot for a modest living in your own shop making your own game. Either has the same small chance of significant reward, albeit in different ways. But one insures you are realizing someone else's vision, while the other is about whatever vision it is you have of your own.

Fact is, the folks getting rich off games aren't gamedev types. They are gamebiz types. I didn't see much overlap. Now, a good gamedev will learn the business they need to, if they are going to have a small or solo shop that sells a successful game. But I've spent most of my life self-employed and can tell you that the business, although necessary to success, need not be the larger part of what you do with your life. Meeting ZJ reminded me that may still be true, even in the business of developing games.


[*] You may be wondering why my DEI concerns are all described with "mildly." It's because I care about these things and pursue ways to support them, but I'm no hero and don't want anyone thinking I'm laying claim to any admiration I don't deserve, that's why.

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