Michael French on why the biggest change to the GDC schedule reflects a major shift in the games industry
GDC 12 this week is my seventh attended as a journalist after my first in 2005 (I'm a new parent, so missed last year's).
For most attending GDC in its modern incarnation (the conference is actually 26 years old - a chunk of younger attendees don't realise it used to be held in San Jose) the event is both a pilgrimage and a party.
The Game Developers Conference is a chance to flock with the great parish of game creators from around the world and convene on a hallowed ground of learning and reverence.
Nothing summed that up better than the GDC keynotes, which had become a place to worship the gods of games. The great gatekeepers that allowed modern games developers to live would come down from their corporate towers to espouse, inform and direct the broad strokes of creativity around games.
Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo. They were the exalted highlight of the show - rightly promoted by the event organisers as they were delivering key company strategy.
Yet this year, there is no major keynote for GDC. There are compromises to compensate - a 'flash forward' keynote session that teases the other parts of the conference, 'track keynotes' with a major talk per discipline, plus the usual exciting summits.
But still - there are no keynotes. However, this isn't a gap in the schedule. The schedule, the show, the audience… they've all squeezed out these big firms. GDC may 'only' be an event - but this subtle change to the programme this week exemplifies the broader changes in the games industry.
The gods of games are dying. Their disciples no longer need to hear great sermons on the future of games. The little people no longer clamber for an answer in the hour-long platform-holder show-and-tells. The congregation no longer needs its highness.
These keynote talks were, deep down, dedicated attempts to control the games dev masses. Three very telling years on the trot that exemplified this: Microsoft and its HD gaming commandments (2005), Nintendo and the bid for the wider market ahead (2006), and Sony pitching user generated content (2007).
After that, the keynotes became borderline outlandish, with the platform-holders hungry for the stage, with GDC growing as E3 wobbled off the map momentarily and the number of game developers ballooning.
CliffyB crudely chain-sawing through the stage in 2008 to announce Gears of War 2 was the real apex (or nadir!) of this - a hugely talented young designer relegated to a panto role in front of an audience of his peers.
In general, these talks had gone from historically being a way for a mass of games developers to offer an ear for some advice, but to be told what to be excited about, to be told what supposedly mattered, and effectively to be told what to do next.
Historically, the driving question of GDC keynotes wasn’t “what are you making?”, it was “what are you making for us?”.
And that was the case right up until last year, when Satoru Iwata took to the stage to defend high-quality high-priced games for his then exuberantly overpriced 3DS… Only to have the late Steve Jobs roll up next door, whip out the IPad 2 and celebrate how three years of 69p apps meant developers had earned billions in revenue between them.
In one respect, developers had just swapped the church of Nintendo for the cult of Apple - but it's not just Apple. As journalists like me say, 'the [blank] happened'. The Internet happened. Facebook happened. iPhone happened. The power shifted. And Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony - they all lost some relevance. They had to share power with platforms that were built, at a macro level at least, to not be so draconian. For better or worse, platforms like the App Store are free markets instead of walled gardens.
For an event like GDC this is a blessing. Not just because it informs the schedule, or offers sponsors, or fuels expansion - but most importantly because it means the emphasis is on the attendees, not the attending companies.
The new gods are roaming the showfloor. The new gods are not just the chosen one standing in front of you in a lecture, but the persons to your left and right. The new gods are the people flooding open platforms with the best work they’ve done in years. The new gods are you.