Creator autonomy takes center stage at GDC

Colin Campbell, Tuesday, March 21st, 2023 4:05 pm

Despite the hype surrounding certain buzzwords in gaming right now, it’s always worth remembering that technology isn’t always a primary agent of change. People, and the way we see ourselves, can also make lasting differences, and improvements. 

A quick search of last year’s hot ticket words “Web3” and “metaverse” on this year’s Game Developer Conference’s session calendar reveals that the vast majority of returned matches are sponsored sessions, which is not a good sign. These paid-for sessions are like paid advertisements in magazines. No-one buys a magazine for the ads. 

Neither the “Web3” nor “metaverse” labels are enjoying a particularly sunny moment right now, riven by poor returns on (often scammy, poorly conceived) games that leaned heavily into them, and by the usual vagaries of Silicon Valley investors and tech reporters, many of whom have moved onto the latest fad. 

Still, GDC attendees generally expect that the price of their tickets – not to mention the exorbitant cost of San Francisco hotel rooms – will return some clues into the future of gaming. And even if the right words to describe the future are still being juggled and dropped, the future itself is an actual thing worthy of our focus.

It turns out that giving thought to the well-being of fellow workers might be the most powerful part of gaming’s future. 

The Future of Play

In “The Future of Play” on Wednesday lunchtime, GDC’s main stage plays host to a potentially fascinating slate of topics that touch upon the changing interface between the games themselves, and the lives and well-being of the people who make them.

The session features senior game company execs Chandana Ekanayake (Outerloop Games), Jen Oneal (Magic Soup Games), and Robert Anderberg (ControlZee). All three bring unique perspectives to the session. Their individual histories of taking passionate positions on issues that matter to them (and to gaming in general) serve to whet the appetite. 

Oneal is particularly interesting. A former senior executive at Activision Blizzard, last week she announced the formation of a new studio, called Magic Soup, that plans to make “genuinely uplifting and inclusive” triple-A games. In her first statement about the new company, she signaled her priorities, announcing that “we’re fostering creativity, fully remote collaboration, and a diversity of backgrounds”.

Her leadership co-founders, J. Allen Brack, and John Donham, also worked at Blizzard. It’s clear from Magic Soup’s founding statements, policies, and interviews, that they see the future in very different terms than Activision-Blizzard, a company that has attracted severe criticism for its unpleasant business and employment practices, including regular rounds of lay-offs, outlandish executive bonuses, a sexual harassment lawsuit, and allegations of union busting.

There’s no doubt that the post-lockdown, post-Me Too game industry is past due for a change, and Activision-Blizzard (currently in the process of a challenging acquisition by Microsoft) has the look of increasing irrelevance. Monolithic, hierarchical and aggressively patriarchal modes of work are on the way out. 

Tokenised and marginalized

When she quit her role as co-leader of Blizzard Entertainment, Oneal wrote a departure letter that was picked up by the Wall Street Journal. She wrote: “It was clear that the company would never prioritize our people the right way. I have been tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against.” 

Oneal, who is Asian American and gay, called on game industry workers and managers “to think about what you can do to make everyone around you – no matter their gender, race, or identity – feel welcome, comfortable, and free to be themselves.”

This kind of change is a long and hard road. But companies like Magic Soup are specifically and vociferously building their businesses around practices that might just as well be the opposite of corporate nastiness, as embodied by those aging entrepreneurs – almost all male, white, and expensively educated – who continue to dominate the industry. 

Certainly, it is now difficult to imagine companies at GDC making the kind of regular gaffes of the recent past, like hiring scantily clad young women as servers and entertainers at business events. 

Oneal and her partners like to call employees “chefs,” which sounds a bit cheesy, but it holds an important idea about the nature of game development. “We are all chefs in this kitchen,” she recently told GamesBeat. “It’s a sign of respect and an acknowledgment that everyone is an expert at their craft.” 

Compare this with the prevailing norm in triple-A game development; all those times when skilled professionals’ opinions and perspectives were ignored as a matter of culture and policy, in favor of the passing whims of bias-prone bosses. 

Player empathy

Fellow panelist Chandana Ekanayake is creative director and co-founder of Outerloop Games, which creates games about “under-represented cultures and themes”. Its upcoming game Thirsty Suitors is being published  by Annapurna, which has a good eye for groundbreaking indie games. 

The game makes use of a variety of activities – combat, skateboarding, and cooking – to tell the story of a young Black woman navigating complicated romantic and familial relationships. 

Writing on the GDC session page, Ekanayake said: “When designing games about experiences unique to a marginalized culture, there are challenges that a person of color finds themselves needing to navigate.”

In an echo of Magic Soup’s founding principles, he adds that “success depends on an intentional approach in team make-up, game mechanics, narrative, and in empathy for the player’s experience”. He said that he wants his company’s games to go about the business of “dismantling cultural tropes and stereotypes”.

Finally, Robert Anderberg, co-founder and CEO at ControlZee, brings expertise on user-generated content to the panel. While paid professionals are always going to be the core engine of creativity, there’s no doubt that UGC is playing an ever-greater role, especially as blockchain payment and trading models take shape. 

ControlZee’s main product is dot big bang, a Roblox-esque game creativity suite built for web browsers. Gaming’s public spaces are notoriously toxic areas, and even though companies are forever tinkling with AI solutions to block offensive players and content, it’s never quite enough. 

Anderberg’s talk will cover the gamut of UGC-related issues, including security considerations. In a recent interview with Game Developer he compared game company commitments to toxicity with the poor quality of customer service in the outside world. 

“When you phone up a company, and they say ‘your call is important to us, but we’re under a really heavy load at the moment, what they’re really saying is ‘we don’t want to pay [enough] people…to solve this problem’,” he said. “You have to have a commitment … to the safety of your community, and you have to put it before profits in order to be successful.”

ControlZee’s dot big bang has so far avoided features such as live-chat, specifically because moderating them is so difficult, thus inviting toxicity among players and even UGC creators.

One lesson about creating change, especially in the field of human behavior, is that it’s expensive and risky, Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the current behemoths of game publishing and development are so sluggish to improve their business practices.

Although Anderberg is speaking specifically about relatively cheap and widely prevalent in-game features like text-chat, the point stands for many, many game industry ills.

He says that companies that are trying to do the right thing, while building a profitable business “pay a price,” adding: “I know we could be going faster, we could have more users, but I don’t think you can build something that’s going to be successful and going to be a great place if you don’t do that.”

The Future of Play takes place at the GDC Main Stage on Wednesday, March 22 from 12:30pm to 1:30pm.

Image credit: GDC

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.