Since its start in 1988 as a gathering of developers in a designer’s living room, the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) has served as a nexus for the video game industry to trade notes and share ideas. Now held for a crowd of over 15,000 at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, award-winning game developers spent the last week providing talks and panel discussions about what worked in their games and what didn’t as part of the first in-person conference since the start of the pandemic. Over the last two years, the event went entirely virtual, offering up free tote bags to the first hundred people to buy an event T-shirt, with attendees huddling in online chat rooms to view pretaped talks. In 2022, GDC reemerged as the main event at which developers and business analysts gather to discuss the industry’s most pressing concerns.
Going in person after two years of virtual meetings
With many people returning to GDC as one of their first major outings since the beginnings of the pandemic in 2020, the event held a cheery — yet wistful — tone, even as the discussions at the conference focused on some weighty topics.
“We all miss the serendipity of the Hotel Bar experience … running into people that you normally wouldn’t find in the wild and being in the right place at the right time,” said Tiffany Otto, who oversees partnership and outreach at indie games festival IndieCade. “Despite our best efforts, it is really hard to replicate that online.”
While some developers opted not to attend this year’s show due to coronavirus concerns and a lax mask mandate, others congregated outdoors in the nearby Yerba Buena Gardens, a longtime GDC hangout. This year the refreshing swath of green amid downtown San Francisco’s urban gray featured a patchwork of crowds and blankets. Developers conversed, took selfies and rested between talks, all in open air that rendered them safer (though still not entirely safe) from covid-19.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been top-of-mind for a lot of the games industry. At an awards ceremony on Wednesday evening, attendees wore Ukrainian flag accessories such as pins and earrings.
“Presentations generally stayed away from the topic, and I only spotted Unity displaying a digital banner in support of Ukraine at its booth,” said George Jijiashvili, principal analyst at video game research firm Omdia. “But that isn’t to say that attendees or game companies haven’t supported Ukraine or taken action. There has been an overwhelming show of solidarity for Ukraine from the gaming community, as evidenced by the Ukraine Humble Bundle and Itch.io Ukraine bundle raising over $26 million for charities working in the country.”
Companies like Itch.io and Humble Bundle sold a pack of numerous games for a significant discount, with proceeds going toward Ukraine.
Brandon Sheffield, Necrosoft Games creative director who organized the Itch.io Ukraine bundle, said the bundle helped developers feel like they could contribute at least a little to the Ukraine relief effort.
“I’ve been getting a lot of congratulations, but luckily nobody is giving the sense like they feel the problem is solved. Everyone knows there’s more we need to do,” Sheffield said. He said he was able to talk to Humble Bundle about how each collective effort — between Itch.io, Humble Bundle and Epic donating “Fortnite” proceeds to Ukraine — inspired another one. “Of course, none of this was actually coordinated between us, but there is the sense like — somebody else is doing something, I should do something, which gets us all trying to do something together.”
Earlier this year, “Grand Theft Auto” game publisher Take-Two Interactive said it would buy “FarmVille” maker Zynga for a record $12.7 billion. A week later, Microsoft announced it would acquire Activision Blizzard for nearly $69 billion in an all-cash deal. Two weeks later, Sony said it would buy “Destiny”-maker Bungie for $3.6 billion.
The first three acquisition deals of 2022 have already outpaced the whole of 2021 — which totaled $85 billion in mergers and acquisitions — in dollar amount.
The effects of these massive deals on the games industry were a prominent topic of discussion at GDC this year, especially as developers think about how to compete with the biggest firms holding the purse strings.
“In my experience, as industries mature and saturate, you tend to have this concept of consolidation, where it is a power curve, and it’s more difficult to compete,” Roblox’s vice president of developer relations, Matthew Curtis, told The Post. “So then those that are at the top start to bring their power together to have a better distribution and competitive advantage versus others.
“It will probably continue. It creates a lot of challenges for a smaller developer, an indie. Now, not only do you need to make an outstanding game, you have to have expertise in performance marketing and you’ve got to have a budget to back that up. You have to take a lot of risks.”
The ongoing debate over blockchain and NFTs
While blockchain-related technologies have been present at previous GDCs in limited capacities, 2022 marked the first GDC since the term “non-fungible token” made it to the forefront of the cultural lexicon. Numerous blockchain and crypto booths dotted the expo floor, some of them — like that of WeMix, a global blockchain gaming platform — were as large as booths from Unity and Amazon. Talks, meanwhile, pointed to the tension underlying the topic. Some speakers, giving talks like “Blockchain gaming: How good tech empowers players and player communities,” were all aboard the blockchain train and assumed others were in support as well. But naysayers were present and plenty at GDC too, with sessions like “Blockchain, NFTs, play-to-earn … is it real or a farce?”
“[There was a lot of] the usual ‘f--- blockchain, NFTs’ sentiment exchanged between devs,” Ysbryd Games owner Brian Kwek told The Post. “Although I did sense some degree of morbid curiosity where some devs I was with seemed to ask the blockchain folks present, ‘You’re still here despite everything?’ Rather than just plainly tearing them down as tends to happen on social media.”
One of several issues some developers take with NFTs is their environmental impact. There were also several climate-related talks at this year’s show. One, hosted by researcher and consultant Benjamin Abraham, was not well attended. “I was hoping this session would be packed like the NFT ones,” he said during his talk about practical, research-based solutions the industry can apply in the face of the climate crisis.
Even some in the crypto world remain unsatisfied by this status quo on the environmental front.
“You do have carbon footprint issues that will be resolved, but haven’t yet,” Ryan Wyatt, former head of YouTube Gaming and current CEO of blockchain developer platform Polygon Studios, said. “I think everybody that is assessing it and looking at the current state of affairs has every right to have skepticism toward it.”
Conversations around the games industry getting closer to unionization and how companies can make their workplaces more diverse were at the forefront of this year’s GDC. Recent headlines around Activision Blizzard’s corporate culture issues and workers’ unionization efforts stayed on developers’ minds throughout the week. On the show floor Wednesday and Thursday, the media labor union Communications Workers of America helmed a booth where volunteers worked to persuade passersby to unionize their studios.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure what [the booth] was, but it looked to be something about unionizing? If that’s what it is, then I’m really all for it,” said Cam Perry, lead programmer on “Validate,” an upcoming indie visual novel and role-playing game. “As much as I love being a dev, there are a lot of problems in it. And if we are unionized, then maybe that will help people be able to speak up more than they already do without being blacklisted or having to deal with any amount of backlash.”
Gabbi Pierce, an organizer for the CWA, said she got involved by first helping a nonprofit where she worked to unionize and then agreeing to support the campaign for video game workers to organize. Now she supports Activision Blizzard workers.
“It’s so cool to be able to be around people who just love video games or work on video games and being able to connect with people over that,” she said.
Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic who rose to prominence on the back of her 2013-2017 “Tropes vs women in video games” YouTube series, gave an especially impactful talk that drew a line between misogyny in games and the growing number of stories and lawsuits stemming from sexual harassment at video game studios.
One of the most important talks at #GDC2022 @anitasarkeesian ‘s “It’s been 10 Years Since Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games: What’s Changed?”— Javiera Cordero (she/her) 🏳️⚧️ #GDC22 (@javierabegazo) March 24, 2022
Live Tweet 🧵: pic.twitter.com/BvodKdDI6q
“I like to think of it as an iceberg,” Sarkeesian said in her talk. “The stories that make the headlines, the most escalated examples like murder, rape and sexual violence — that’s the bit floating above water. But underneath the surface are all the everyday harms that feel ubiquitous.”
With this in mind, she reflected on the harassment she received for creating her videos, which ultimately peaked with 2014′s notorious “GamerGate” harassment campaign.
“[Maybe] you were one of the people in 2012 who did not understand why I was making videos about misogyny [in] games, or why I would withstand years and years of abuse for that work,” she said. “But now you do.”