The Search for God in the Game Industry: GDC Day 2

Reflecting on their second day at GDC, our editors talk about the affect of free-to-play monetization strategies, emotional indie games, and Lost Levels (the GDC unconference).

Written by Gamechurch Writers / Published on April 3, 2014

Recently, Gamechurch editors Drew Dixon and Richard Clark attended the Game Developers Convention in San Francisco, CA with one thought on their mind: they wanted to find signs of God’s grace in the game industry. For a long time, Christians have been skeptical if not outright dismissive of videogames as anything that could be beneficial to relationships and general human thriving. Clearly, Gamechurch has known better, but we thought a trip to GDC would be a good time to investigate further, from within. 

Drew Dixon

Ask the average person what the most popular videogame on the market today is and they will likely say Call of Duty. The reality is that mobile games like Candy Crush Saga are more profitable and popular. As you said, talks about monetization, companies dedicated to monetizing games, and companies dedicated to making addictive free-to-play games are a extremely common at GDC. At the same time, there’s a growing distrust of this very same trend within the industry.

" if games like Thralled continue being made, we will have interactive experiences worthy of preservation."
In a talk on Don’t Starve, developer Kevin Forbes shared how the game was initially going to be a free-to-play social game. When they began developing Don’t Starve, “if you had been around GDC at that time, if you had talked to anybody in the industry, we were all scared. Our lunch was getting eaten by these free-to-play upstart people and it seemed as though it would be good for us to at least try and see what that design space was like.” Forbes, however and his team at Klei were not comfortable with the creative constraints that came with free-to-play monetization strategies:

It was making us very conservative in our designs, we weren’t going to add a lot to the game, we weren’t going to take very many risks, because it had to be so defensively coded . . . . And for a game like Don’t Starve, where it’s like this open-world, rollicking ‘Watch what crazy things can happen with emergent gameplay,’ that’s kind of death. You can’t really have that happen. You lose the soul of the game.

Forbes’ team weighed these constraints and the toll a free-to-play strategy would have on their personal lives and scrap the model altogether. Instead they made one of the year’s most creative releases that managed to cultivate community without giving into questionable monetization strategies. Similarly, in the #1reasontobe panel, Laralyn McWilliams shared how she came to the realization that “every day matters,” which “led her to quit a job making a game where quality and monetization were opposed.”

Don't Starve

Don’t Starve

I was also pleasantly surprised by how many people were outraged over the “Monetizing Teens” talk we wrongly assumed was intended to exploit teenagers. The fact  that so many were concerned (not to mention that the talk ended up being about keeping teens from being able to make purchases without their parents permission) are steps in the right direction.

If shady monetization strategies make it difficult to discern God’s hand in the videogame industry, I think the diversity and depth of voices in the indie game community at GDC is a clear sign of God’s activity. I have spent as much time going to talks this year as I have chatting with interesting indie developers. These men and women want to do more than just make fun games, they want their games to be honest about the human experience, they want to bring people together, generate important discussions on ethics, and challenge the status quo.

The greatest example of this I saw at GDC was Thralled, a game about a runaway slave in Brazil in the 1700’s. In the portion I played, I was tasked with leading Issura and her infant child away from her captors. Traversing the level required putting the baby down in order to move various objects that allowed Issura to progress. Upon putting Issura’s baby boy down, he starts to cry and in that moment a personification of death begins to pursue him. The game illustrates a trial that most who play it will never have to face but should strive to remember. I don’t like thinking about slavery and I felt horrible every time I had Issura put her baby down in order to plot her escape. Unlike Farm Heroes Saga, games like Thralled are not only poised to change the way we think about games, but offer us experiences that might just help us better understand and extend compassion to our neighbors.

Thralled

Thralled

This reminds me of a talk I attended today called “U.S. National Investment in the Future of Games” in which Noah Waldrip warned of the dangers of losing the history of game design. Waldrip called for developers and libraries to partner in archiving games so that resonate, powerful, and important games are not lost and forgotten. I thought this talk was interesting because so many games today still feel really transient. However, if games like Thralled continue being made, we will have interactive experiences worthy of preservation.

Richard Clark

I suppose you’re right, though I’m not so sure transience is a bad thing. In fact, the more accessible a game is, and the lower the investment one has to make to partake in it, the more potential games have to surprise and teach us.

"I’d love to see more transient experiences . . . that cause us to consider others and ourselves more deeply"
Increasingly, I’m convinced that one of the most profound benefits games have is the ability to cause the player to let their guard down. In order to progress or take part in a game, the player needs to play along to some extent, essentially opening themselves up to the perspective of the designer, even if only externally. But pretending often turns into understanding, and that’s where videogames have the potential to nudge us toward empathy for those we may not naturally understand. We see this in games like Mattie Brice’s Mainichi, and Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, and Tale of Tale’s The Path.

#LostLevels may be the perfect embodiment of the value of transience. A sort of anti-GDC experience, Lost Levels is a conference in a nearby park that allows anyone who signs up beforehand to give a 5-10 minute talk about the subject of their choice. The overall concept is a double-edged sword: the crowds are small, the subject-matter is often off-the-wall and aimless, and the execution can feel haphazard. But the overall payoff is a collection of perspectives that would otherwise never be heard. The listeners are attending the talks in order to be surprised. Unlike GDC proper, they’re not investing a full hour, so they’re willing to be taken to unexpected places — satirical rants about how to make the most money as a game developer, insight into how to change the world through games, and a talking banana expressing her heartfelt appreciation for indie game developers. As a result, many of the talks open the listener up to perspectives they would have written off as a waste of time otherwise.

Lost Levels

Lost Levels

That’s what smaller, more transient indiegames can do. So while I agree that much of what we think of as “transient” in videogames these days are basically wastes of time and energy (hello, Candy Crush!). But I’d love to see more transient experiences that stick with you, that warp and change our minds, that cause us to consider others and ourselves more deeply.

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