October 16, 2008

The Man Behind The Curtain

[Alex Ashby works at the London-based indie developer Beatnik Games. In September, he attended the Game Developers' Conference in Austin. In October, he finally reports back. Written by Alex Ashby and Duncan Fyfe.]

As if overnight, the Game Developers' Conference erected itself in Texas. It swept into the Austin Convention Center under the cover of darkness, and when the lights turned on it would attract thousands of developers, programmers, journalists and enthusiasts to meet in this place and talk about video games. They, joined by Bruce Sterling, Harvey Smith and speakers from BioWare, Blizzard, Square Enix and Disney would circulate around the three floors for three days in a frenzy of activity. Then they would vanish, leaving no trace of their presence.

The category two hurricane that had ripped through the state mere days before had not been so insubstantial. Generally, the government were better prepared for Ike than they had been for Katrina, but there's only so much you can do in the face of a natural disaster. Over 90 were killed, many more were displaced, and hundreds remain missing to this day. The city of Houston had gone dark; wet streets littered with torn power cables and shattered glass.

The city being proclaimed Out Of Order, our flight to Houston was cancelled, a fact that we were not apparently fit to know until we were physically turned from the departure gate at an already unpleasant hour. We could have tried our luck with a Sunday flight, but British obstinacy and general unwillingness to return to work prompted us to seek alternatives. In a fit of adventurousness and half-formed aspirations towards Hunter S. Thompson, we decided to fly as far as we could and drive the rest of the way. Armed with a specious awareness of American geography, we chose our destination, the closest place to Texas that we knew: Los Angeles.

By the time our folly was discovered, we'd already committed to the journey, but it gave us plenty of time to consider why we'd wanted to go in the first place. I'd attended previous GDCs, but this was to be my first visit to the one in Austin, and I was longing to draw comparisons. The conference in San Francisco had continued to astound me year after year, not with high profile sequels but with the creative strength and business cache of the independent developers. I couldn't help wondering whether Austin, with its online focus, would similarly draw my attention to areas of video game culture that I might otherwise overlook. These fringe discoveries were the most fascinating thing about GDC no matter in which city it occurred. Stories of success and failure are commonplace in the media, but at GDC futures are made and lost all around you, all on the shake of a dice. Not every Narbacular Drop gets to be Portal. "Austin," said its Chamber of Commerce's Tony Shrum, "is a very entrepreneurial town."

For the chance to be part of that, to witness the nurturing of a fickle and fragile industry, a twenty-hour road trip across four states was a small price to pay. Also, the car rental at LAX promised half-price on all SUVs, and so we bombed down the interstate to Arizona in a car the size of a modest guest room with no regrets.

The closer you get to the centre of LA, the danker it gets; the closer to the center of the Arizona desert, the whiter. A culture shock, coming from heavily-urbanised London: our road trip was characterised by stark swathes of white nothing. There was something satisfyingly uncluttered about the empty plains stretching to the horizon. No distractions, no worries; with land this uncomplicated, you can predict the future up to 20 minutes in advance. As the satellite navigation tells us to "turn in 277 miles", we flip to cruise control and count the miles between roadsigns telling us we are approaching the desert centre, in the desert centre, and leaving the desert centre. Evidently everything else in the state is a bonus.

In Texas, we passed towns, gas stations, car dealerships, all empty. Roadside novelty "western-style" commercial strips, in a strange twist of irony, were abandoned and boarded up like movie ghost towns; saloon doors gently swinging in anticipation of a showdown. As we crossed the Colorado River into Austin, I thought about that disrepair and whether anyone still cared about any of it or if it had been left to fend for itself.

The convention centre itself inspired similar thoughts. I was used to civic buildings with high ceilings, soaring sheets of glass, arches and windows strategically placed to encourage the spreading of natural light. The one in Austin lurked; squat and dark like the world's largest one-bedroom apartment. A registration booth was sequestered in a corner and a small wall displayed the day's schedule but little else about the place was recognisable as GDC other than the many hairy men.

The immediate follow-up was a weak keynote by Lane Merrifield of Disney's Club Penguin (the key to customer service, he said, in so many words, was to not be a prick -- the audience nodded appreciatively) that left me wanting for some human insight. Something deserving of the GDC myth. Traditionally, my interests always lay in the actual sessions, but after enduring an hour of slides featuring lolcats and other post-ironic internet memes, I was ready to bow out. I wanted to meet fellow indie developers, talk to them about their work, but there were less of them to find than there had been at San Francisco. The IGF booth was not only smaller, but also located in an otherwise abandoned corner of the building under, of all things, a staircase. It was ridiculous to see people with such obvious concentrated passion and talent being hidden away like Harry Potter; having to hope that someone might stumble across their dedication by accident. They formed campfire circles on the carpet, sat on the stairwell gazing listlessly out of the window like stoop kids, and idly played their games for hours on end, all to the thrum of the tradeshow bustle reverberating through the building from miles away. It was the only place I wanted to be.

On the other side of the building, another group of people were having to deal with the same thrum. Behind a loose curtain, reminiscent of a hospital ward, hurricane refugees were being quietly shepherded. They came in every day, waiting outside for unmarked white vans to pull up and distribute refuse bags of clothes and personal items rescued from the flooding, hopefully those that actually belonged to them. Beds and soup lines were forming, while next door they talked about MMO synergies and why "synchronous worlds need asynchronous communication features".

Bruce Sterling paced the stage at his keynote, pretending to be a time traveller. "Creative disruption, radical innovations, provocative cultural change," he said, and then he sprinkled a shaker of salt over the floor. Maybe that meant something.

Outside, an elderly man wandered the halls, stopping to stare into the expo hall, and became rooted to the spot. He looked in at the blaze of lights, high end consumer electronics and the booze flowing from the EA stand. He stood there and stared until finally his vision was finally obscured by the door being quietly and purposefully closed. He continued to stare.

Elsewhere, other evacuees made their way to the non-restricted IGF under the staircase and attempted to interact with the games on display. One man watches a demo of Pillowfort Games' Goo; when asked for his opinion, he says it is too yellow. He says he would like to press the "20" button. Another man presses down on the keyboard at random, then he touches the monitors, the equipment, the booth. The indie developers watch in silence, noting that this is the most attention their work has received yet. The computer isn't turned on. They let him stay there, the man with no home, and he presses another button with an expressionless face. He doesn't want to leave. The old saw echoes uncomfortably down the hall: I play video games to escape from real life.

On Wednesday night, convention staff arrived to dismantle the displays. For us, slightly sullen and cynical, it felt like nothing had changed. For our erstwhile roommates, the change was irreversible. Spending those three days among the outcasts and witnessing their indifferent treatment first hand, I realised how easy it was to pretend that things were getting better, that more attention was being paid, that we were building upon foundations more solid than mere opportunism. The idea of any significant reform disappeared with the desert in the rear view mirror. We were leaving.

The ride back was more sombre than the journey in. To break up the route, we spent our last night in Vegas. I'm sitting at the blackjack table; a semi-circle of high-rollers. The dealer's hand touches the felt table, cards laid out. A game of luck, though the odds are rigged. Do I really have a chance? He looks in my direction.

"Hit me."


Ben Abraham said...

I am but a husk of a man, with my dreams of the glittering industry that is game development shattered!

Oh well.

Lovely piece!

Steve gaynor said...

Jesus, quite the accidental road trip! I've never been to the Austin GDC but, uh, it sounds great.