Remembering My First Game Developers Conference
Later this week I will be attending the annual Game Developers Conference, where I will be leading a session called Still Gaming After All These Years, a look at the challenges and opportunities for game developers who are over fifty-years-old. It’s a topic that I sort of fell into after posting a very popular comment about Facebook about the irony of how difficult job hunting has been for me despite (or perhaps because of) my long career, followed by an even more popular Gamasutra article I wrote about ageism in the game industry. And so I’ll be speaking about this topic at GDC, and as I prepare to talk about my own career as part of my session, I’ve been thinking about the very first Game Developers Conference I attended.
The first GDC I attended was actually the second. By that I mean that the first Game Developers Conference was held in in game developer Chris Crawford’s living room in 1988. Crawford, best known for creating the Cold War strategy game Balance of Power, invited 27 game designers to his home to confer about, well, game development. The meeting must have been very productive, because later that year, they decided to hold a second conference at Holiday Inn in Milpitas, CA. This was the one I attended.
I was working at The Walt Disney Company as a Software Development Specialist. (This may sound like a programming position, but actually I was Disney’s liaison with video game companies that were making games based on Disney characters, television shows and films). My manager approached me with the invitation Disney had received to attend the conference and asked me if I wanted to go, and I gave her a very emphatic “Yes!”.
When I arrived I was one of 125 game developers in attendance. I can not tell you how exciting it was to meet other people who do what I do. In my close to nine years working in the game industry (at the time), I had not really met anyone else who worked primarily as a game development manager or game designer. In all of the game companies I had worked with (including Disney, again, at the time), I was the only person in my position. And working in Los Angeles, which was not yet the game development center that it is today, I was especially isolated from my colleagues.
One lesson that I quickly learned was that the best place to network with people was not in any of the meeting rooms, but in the hotel bar. There I met a couple of game developers who had worked on a Dumbo game for Disney before I joined the company. They complained that the Disney representative they dealt with had no understanding of game platform technology. This representative refused to approve their artwork for Dumbo because the baby elephant was not the proper gray. What made this a point of contention, of course, was that gray was not a color that any of the personal computers at the time offered among their very limited color palette. The Apple II, for example, only had the colors white, black, green, magenta, blue and orange available. No matter how much Walt might have insisted that Dumbo be gray, there was no way to make Dumbo gray on an Apple II. And this was not something my predecessor apparently understood.
I did assure my new acquaintances that this was something that I understood: my degree was in Computer Science and I had started in the industry programming my own games. Such technical ignorance would not happen at Disney again, I promised. Unfortunately, the two decided to tell this story about Disney’s ignorance to the entire assembly at a wrap-up session at the end of the conference. I could have done without this bit of embarrassment at an otherwise delightful gathering.
However, the main issue of debate at the conference — which was actually called the Computer Game Developers Conference back then — was whether the conference should include console game development as well as computer game development. At the time, many computer game developers who created simulations, role-playing games, and strategy games looked down upon console games, which were primarily action and platform games, as being too simplistic as to be worthy of serious discussion. Eventually console games earned their due respect among the game development community, and the conference was renamed (sometime after 1997) the Game Developers Conference. However, now I have to laugh at the gamers today who say the mobile games aren’t real games, worthy of respect.
When I returned back to Disney, my manager asked me what I thought of the Conference, and the thing I remember telling her that the people who do what I do are properly called “producers” (I was very excited to learn this, being a movie buff who might otherwise have gone into the film industry). Her immediate reaction to that was “I didn’t know that you were unhappy with your title,” but nothing came of it until a year or so later when a former Electronic Arts producer was hired to manage us (there were now more of people like me) and he changed our titles to “Producer.”
I’ve returned to the Game Developers Conference at least a dozen times since. The reason(s) I don’t attend every year is that either I’m too busy at the time, or I can’t afford to go if the company isn’t paying my way. Fortunately, GDC gives speakers free admission to the conference, and I’ve only been able to go as many times as I have by speaking at the conference. And that’s what I’m going to do this Friday. I hope to see you there!