IGDA Brisbane Game On

Recently, I was invited up to Brisbane by their IGDA chapter to speak at one of their Monthly Game On events. It was a pretty open invitation so what I decided to focus on was extending some of the thoughts that I’ve had here about industry, culture, and how the words we use restrict our ability to properly think about things.

Here’s the video. A full copy of the talk – which isn’t really a transcript, but it’s what I wrote to say amidst a flurry of other deadlines – is beneath the fold.

One of the things about running a festival that I didn’t expect was how much it enables you to sort of frame the present as a function of the past and the future. I suspect the reason for this is that it happens over a specific weekend, giving a really clear focal point. Sure, there’s a lot of planning and thinking and wrangling that goes into it, but there’s also that crystalised moment where all of that same planning and thinking and wrangling coalesces into something pretty tangible.

Freeplay’s been going since it was started by the arts organisation Next Wave in 2004. Now, try to think back to 2004 and what game development was like then. Seven years ago. It’s almost inconceivable, right? I recently wrote a piece for the IGDA newsletter and so I can tell you exactly what it was like:

The first Freeplay took place in a converted karate dojo in the city in 2004. Back then there was no PlayStation 3, no Xbox 360 and no Wii. The PSP had just come out, and the original DS had only just been released in Japan earlier that year. Gaming was dominated by the PlayStation 2, with the Xbox taking second place, and the GameCube kicking around in the background. On the PC, Half Life 2 was finally released after ten years in development, and World of Warcraft was unleashed on the world.

Next Wave did 2 more festivals. One in 2005 and another in 2007. Similar sort of changes took place in those years and by 2007, we’d properly entered this console cycle – and the iPhone was released. Only four years ago. Weird, right? How the hell did any of us survive?

We took it over from Next Wave in 2009 and in doing so, we reflected on the significant changes that had happened in the 5 years since it had started. Technology had changed dramatically; the culture was embracing games properly; Independent development had become economically and creatively viable, and we wanted to capture a bunch of that change – and I think we mostly succeeded. The feeling coming out of the event was one of a strong creative desire, but perhaps not the clearest sense of how to express that. When we sat down to plan 2010, we wanted to harness that, looking at the opportunities for creators as part of the wider creative and artistic culture. And, again, I think we mostly succeeded. Over 1500 people came through the whole event and if the feedback is any indicator, it was a significant success. Not bad for two people running out of their respective homes…

A lot has changed since then though. The local scene has tilted and shifted pretty dramatically, and in talking to people over the past 6 months, I get the feeling that there’s a caution in getting involved – or staying involved – with games, and I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is and what can be done about it.

And the first step is to talk about how I stopped having fun.

Middle of last year, I borrowed Dragon Age from a friend to play. I’d just completed Mass Effect 2 and enjoyed it – other than the slightly mental end boss and the strange overlap in character issues – I thought it was well writen, mechanically strong, and I wanted more of that.

But Dragon Age bored me. Seriously bored me. And it became a war of attrition to complete it. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about all of these tiny little quests. There was a massive army massing, goblins and dragons and blight, and all people seemed to care about was whether or not I could help them find the lost little snuffling pig creatures that they’d let escape. It’s essentially a game of petty politics and unbridled self-interest and it lost me very early on.

But, after about maybe 10 or 15 hours of play, I started to wonder something strange about it – perhaps boredom was the point of the game. In capturing and encoding the actions and the fiction of an exiled king, I wondered if Bioware were doing something incredibly experimental in the trappings of a multi-million dollar AAA game? Surely the experience of politics is summed up as travelling around trying to convince people to join you, keeping them onside, occasionally slicing them open with swords.

I don’t really think that at all. But there was a reaction to Dragon Age that got me thinking – why doesn’t this game work for me? It should. I like Bioware’s other games. I’m kind of interested in the world, in the moral framework, in the story they’re trying to tell.

But nothing. Except for boredom. After about 24 hours or so, I finally finished it. Still bored. And I spent a lot of time thinking about why? And whether or not games could use boredom well.

Few months later, I was playing Bioshock 2 – which brilliantly uses the familiar settings of the first game, the drudgery of being a big daddy, the endless haranguing of Lamb and her disciples to tell you that you’re an abomination, that there’s something wrong with you, that you should just give up. When you think about it, that’s a pretty brave thing for a game to tell you to do – stop playing it. And in the first few hours, I was, not exactly bored, but sensing familiarity in the setting and the mechanics. I pushed on – and I’m glad I did because there was a moment of catharsis, a turning point both similar and different to the first game that drew the majority of its emotional charge from the juxtaposition of the initial boredom and the following accomplishment. The game simply wouldn’t work half as well if the first half hadn’t felt like a chore.

And this, along with my reaction to Dragon Age, got me thinking about my own expectations of games because games are supposed to be fun, right? That’s their purpose. They are entertainment. We might want them to be Art with a capital A, but it’s right there in the name. They’re games. But why should that be? Why shouldn’t we look for something more?

And then it all came together when I finally got a chance to play Limbo.

At Freeplay last year, Brandon Boyer, the current chairman of the IGF was talking about Limbo and someone stuck their hand up and said ‘they couldn’t understand why anyone liked it because it was just a trial and error platformer’. Brandon thought about that for a moment and replied that maybe it was, but that it was also the first game to give him a serious Lord of the Flies vibe.

I played it recently  and discovered something really interesting. It is just a trial and error platformer. But it also succesfully communicates that Lord of the Flies vibe. Both are valid opinions of the game, but require a certain perspective in order to view the game as one or the other or as both.

I didn’t have fun for a lot of my time playing Limbo. I was frustrated, exhausted, confused, but I persisted because there was something beyond just having fun in the game. A gestalt experience that said something through it’s mechanical nature as a trial and error platformer and a uniquely aesthetic work.

These three games, as different as its possible to be – from an RPG to a FPS to an indie platformer – taught me an incredibly important lesson

My games literacy, and I assume the literacy of the person asking that question at Freeplay, had evolved alongside the technology of games. When you think about it, it’s only really been what, around 30 years that videogames have existed in their current form. I’m 33 and what I consider a game has been shaped by the evolution of the medium up to this point. My tastes have formed at the same time as games have formed. And the sorts of games those were tend to skew towards mechanics over aesthetics.

What a curious revelation. So curious that I wrote a great big essay about it that you can hopefully read when it gets published later in the year.

But what does that have to do with anything? And what might it have to do with Freeplay?

Games have only existed as both a cultural form and a creative industry for an incredibly short period of time. Pong was released around the same time as I was born – 1977 – and in the 33 years we’ve gone from a cottage industry to a multi-BILLION dollar one, from a technical curiousity to an almost mainstream cultural and creative form.

And if my own games literacy has evolved alongside those massive changes in technology, culture, industry, and art, then other people’s probably have too, and maybe there’s something happening at a macro level that is reflected in my own personal experience.  Which leads to the question of – are some of those changes ready for re-evaluation? Can we find better ways of thinking and talking about things that we take for granted? If we can reframe what games are and what they’re capable of, can we also do the same for industry? For community? For culture?

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice meets Humpty Dumpty and they have a weird conversation about the meanings of words that has the following exchange:

I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

Lets ignore for now whether or not Humpty Dumpty like almost everyone else in Through the Looking Glass was on drugs, and also that he fell off a wall and nobody could really fix him up – which could be used as a slightly defeatist metaphor if I was that way inclined – and instead focus on what he has so clearly figured out.

Words have meaning. They’re important. They have both intrinsic and extrinsic value. With them, we frame our thoughts, have conversations, discuss what is in our head, and turn those thoughts into action and then into the things we make.

And words can restrict or empower, either by accident or through intent. We can use them to hold us down, or we can wield them as swords, as tools, as modes of thought, as enablers of action.

But we can also allow ourselves to be used by them, by the masters of them, again either by accident or through intent.

Let’s start with the Games Industry.

In October of 2010, MTV Games interviewed one of the developers of NBA Jam and they asked him the question “What do you think is the biggest problem current games suffer from?”

To which he replied:

“I think there are a number of problems we have with the way games are being developed today, but honestly, I think one of the biggest problems right now is the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there. You know who they are. If they spent less time spewing ignorant hate on the boards and in online games, and more time rallying behind the great games they love and helping to build a thriving community that welcomes everyone that shows up to play with them – everybody wins. Nothing wrong with a little smack talk here and there, just wish gamers respected each other more. I just got back from PAX Prime down in Seattle. I am of the opinion that if the people of PAX ran the world, it would be a much better place. Costumes optional.”

Pretty reasonable response, right. And he makes the pretty clear distinction between the development process and the audience.

This was picked up by a number of blogs in a weird game of chinese whispers…

One had:

“What’s the biggest problem facing the games industry today?

According to NBA Jam’s Creative Director Trey Smith, who just put the finishing touches on the slapstick sports game for Electronic Arts, one of the biggest problems right now is “the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there”.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing the games industry today?”

Slightly different, I think. Trey from EA makes a pretty clear distinction between what I’d describe as the development of games – their industrial component – and the audience. I think it’s a fairly fair statement to make that for most of us, the audience isn’t part of the industrial process. People who read books don’t think of themselves as part of the publishing or writing industries; people who go to see films don’t think of themselves as part of the movie industry; people who wear clothes don’t think of themselves as part of the fashion industry.

On another blog:

“I would like to respond to this sentiment by stating that this is not the biggest problem facing the games industry. The internet is synonymous with idiots, and this does not just restrict itself to gaming, but the internet as a whole. Hell, just step outside during the day, or night, and you’ll find your share of selfish idiots wandering around.

No, the biggest problem facing the games industry at the moment is suits. Corporate suits. Worn by people whose first thought is to their shareholders above anything else.”

And another wrote in response:

“That’s what’s wrong with the games industry. Not the suits: they’d disappear in a month if we stopped supporting them. Not the angry ranty geeks: for all their lack of social graces, they often reserve their passion for the things that deserve to be supported. No, it’s the ordinary people who keep handing over their money for overproduced, soulless shit that doesn’t need to exist, either because they don’t know any better, or worse: even though they do.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

So, this might not seem important – just a bunch of bloggers commenting – and I half agree with you, but this is a problem I see again and again. To bring it back to Freeplay – the reason I am here at least – Australian Gamer recently had an article titled ’10 reasons why the future of the australian game development industry is looking awesome’, which is a noble thing to write in the face of such seemingly all pervasive negativity.

Except, Freeplay is on it along with the Global Game Jam and Lubi and Truna’s 48 hour game jam.

I don’t have a problem being on a list about why things are awesome, but we’re not Industry. Not by a long shot.

So, I want to define what the games industry probably is, because if we define it, we can take control over it, and we can have a conversation about what it is, what it isn’t, and whether or not we want to be a part of it.

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation recently released a report titled “Working in Australia‟s Digital Games Industry” and there’s some great stuff in there for anyone interested – including what other countries think of Australian development – but there’s also this very concise description of what the Games Industry is:

According to the UK Department of Trade and Industry (2002), the digital games industry for console and stand-alone PC games consists of at least seven sub- sectors:

  • Development
  • Publishing
  • Middleware and tools
  • Outsourcing and service companies
  • Format holders/console manufacturers
  • Distributers
  • Retailers

No mention of festivals in there, nothing about audience, nothing about games reporting or reviewing. Industry is a very specific thing, designed to solve a very specific problem, and which tells a very specific story about itself.

And that specific story, coming from an industrial space, can be incredibly limiting. I’m surprised, but I shouldn’t be when I hear things like this in games reporting:

Another prominent games industry executive, who declined to be named, also says the narrative elements “places funding outside the realm of most Aussie games developers”.

“Strong story-telling elements are found in AAA titles – like the recent LA Noire by Team Bondi – (but) the budgets for these projects are beyond what most independent games developers can expect to secure,” the source says.

“It’s no accident that Australia’s recent success has been on the iPhone platform – Flight Control and Fruit Ninja are examples, and there’s been a shift towards developing games for social media networks like Facebook.

“The program is a bit dated and will probably benefit traditional media producers and not games developers as I am sure was intended.”

I’m tempted to pick this apart line-by-line, but I won’t. All I’ll say is that it didn’t take me long to come up with a list of games that don’t fit into this thin measure of success – either Flight Control or LA Noire – Machinarium; Limbo; Sword and Sworcery; Stacking; Costume Quest. All with strong story-telling elements, all critically succesful, and all neither AAA or a mechanically driven iPhone title, and having worked with their innovation division, I reckon would totally be the sorts of thing Screen Australia would be willing to support.

But I think this is a good example of the story the Australian Industry sector tells itself at the moment is – we’re good at mobile; we’re good at licensed titles; iPhone is where it’s at – but the more we talk about ‘Australia is expert at mobile’, or ‘that coders in their bedrooms are beavering away on the next Fruit Ninja’, or that ‘the games industry is this or that or whatever the hell it is this week’, the less we’re talking about anything specific, and it in turn becomes more difficult to have conversations, which then restricts our ability to imagine new things when we come at them from an already established perspective.

As Humpty Dumpty taught us, it’s about being the master of the words. So we need to ask ourselves – who controls these words? And why does that matter? Are there better words to use? Is there a better story we can tell ourselves? About where we are and where we want to go?

A few years ago, 2009 to be exact, I was having a really difficult time of it. I was working through a whole bunch of personal issues and my therapist at the time suggested two books for me to read that she thought might help me get things in perspective.

One was a book called The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris and it’s a mix of philosophy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and practical advice that sets it apart from almost every other self-help book.

There’s a lot in the book, and a lot in it that helped me, but the two things that have stuck with me the most – and which are the most applicable to this discussion – are the idea of choice and the idea of following values over goals.

At our core, our very core, the only thing we have any real control over is the way we choose to act. There are always things outside of us that we can’t control – a shifting industrial landscape, a global financial crisis, the whims of a senior design director, the games other people are making which might steal your carefully planned PR thunder –  but, what we can control is how we choose to act in response to those things. I’m not suggesting that all choices are easy or have no risk associated with them, but their are always choices and alternatives. Just because they’re unpleasant doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They just mean that they might not be a choice you want to make. You can choose to rail against the industry or try to build something alongside it. You can choose to work somewhere you don’t enjoy or you can take steps to find somewhere else. You can listen to prominent industry executives and choose whether or not to believe what they have to say or dig a little deeper and form your own opinions on it.

This very much influences how I see Freeplay. We have chosen to make it a very specific thing. Our theme is a choice; the speakers are choices; the panels & lectures & workshops are all choices, and they’re all designed to achieve a certain effect. More abstractly, we have chosen to build something rather than provide a space to bitch about how horrible the industry is, and we try to encourage other people to do the same. At the same time, we’ve chosen to try as much as possible to avoid being all pollyanna-ish about it, because we believe that the best way to make good choices is to know pretty clearly what those choices look like.

And in the end, all we have any control over with this piece of work are those choices. When somebody comes along and sets up what they describe as Australia’s Biggest Independent Games Festival, what can we do about that? Sure it’s tricky to wrangle, but it’s outside our control. The only thing we can do is choose to behave a certain way, build the thing we want, and hope people respond to that.

And in the end, those choices fundamentally reflect our values – and the Happiness Trap is interesting because it encourages a shift away from looking at life as a collection of goals into one of values.

Most of us want to make games, right? Maybe we have a game in our head, maybe we want to work at Blizzard or Valve, or maybe we want to create something incredibly innovative that wins the IGF. These are goals. Working in games is a goal. It’s something with an end-point, something clear.

But what if you don’t end up getting a job at blizzard or Valve. What if your game doesn’t end up winning the IGF or even being a finalist? What if that idea you have turns out to be not that great after all?

Disappointment, right? The existential angst that accompanies failure – are you wasting your life? Were your parents right? Is it time to get a real job? Are you good enough?

What if you reframe those experiences in terms of the values that matter to you. That way, even if there are things you can’t control, or if things don’t go as planned, you can always be acting in accordance with those values – and you can reframe your sense of satisfaction.

But figuring out what those values are can be hard. Making a game is something clear, but why do you want to make the game is tricky. Do you want to make beautiful things? Fun things? Do you want to communicate something? Do you want to explore technology? Do you want to connect with people? These are value judgements and they’re far more individual, but in the end they’re far more important because they reflect us – and they reflect the people we choose to associate with and surround ourself with.

And values help to answer the question of: what is a community? It’s a collection of people bound together by something common. In many cases, it’s a geographical thing, the culture of a town or a city, in others, it might be a shared practice or experience – a sporting or company culture – or it might be the mythology that is constructed  – the Wild West cowboy mythos, or the Australian fair go larrikin – but in all cases, it’s something difficult to define, but shared at some level.

But the larger the group, the more abstract those values have to become because – by necessity – they include more people with greater internal conflicts.  A great example is  when you hear people like Julia Gillard say things like ”The Greens will never embrace Labor’s delight at sharing the values of everyday Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation.” Kinda insulting, I think, and in a population of 22-million people what are the shared values of everyday Australians?

Closer to home,  when Robert Clarke, the new Victorian AG says the community should have a chance to discuss the draft guidelines — which have not been made public — and see what sort of games would be legalised. ‘‘The Victorian government will decide our position based on our assessment of whether the final proposal will adequately protect the community,’’ or when in the same article has “Backed by a groundswell of support from the gaming community, the Gillard government is determined to fix the classification system for computer games, which allows unsuitable games to be rated for 15-year-olds, yet bans popular games for adults.” What are the values of the gaming community? The whole gaming community? As though they’re an amorphous blob – and as though the community they’re protecting doesn’t look like a big venn diagram with a massive overlap between the two.

The values of Freeplay are about community, communication, creativity, sharing. We could do that in a million different forms, from a single workshop to a 2-week long festival. We can manifest them no matter what we’re doing and feel good about what we’re doing in that space. Some of those values are my own, and others are the festivals. And it’s the difference between taking a top-down approach to things like building a community where a festival says ‘this is what you need’ where they are goal driven – and those goals could quite conceivably fail – to a bottom up approach to things where a festival says, ‘here are options & ideas & we’ll work with you.’

The values of the reasons we are here are because we have something in common – we care about play, about games, about the community that surroundes them and the culture they inspire. And those values let us be part of something larger than ourselves, something shared, but perhaps not something easily articulatable.

If there is a gaming community, the only real common value is that ‘they like playing games’. Beyond that, You’d be splitting into smaller and smaller groups (with heaps of overlap) of ‘first person shooters’, ‘facebook games’, ‘DS games’, ‘Family Friendly games’, and then into parents, children, people who support and don’t support the R18+ stuff, developers, indie developers, writers, doctors, nurses.

So, let’s bring it back then to our original questions about the stories we tell ourselves and the language we use and dig out what the values of an industry might be.

Going back to that APO report that drew out the definition of industry, there’s a brilliant little boxout that shines the brightest of lights on that question.

There is an observable difference between the career paths and skills of the entrepreneurs founding and growing enterprises in the games market, and the profile of specialist workers within the industry. Enterprise entrepreneurs in the industry are characterised by some eclectic mix of publishing passion, entrepreneurial flair and a commercial incentive to try and recoup a return on the investment of their sweat equity.

The employee labour force is very different. As in film and television, the games labour force is motivated by the buzz of the current project, the attractiveness of being part of a specific team environment, and the ability to recoup intrinsic creative rewards.

This section is really telling. It tells us what I think many have suspected – that the people who start studios frequently have different values than the people who work there – but it also gives us a look into the answer for the question of what’s an industry for? And the answer is: it’s about making a return on an investment; it’s about making money.

An industry solves a very specific problem of controlled and manageable production, and in the main that’s a problem that the games industry solves pretty well, and has solved locally pretty well for a while. Studios gathered people together and figured out art and technology pipelines; game designers experimented within the confines of external producers and internal politics; management structures evolved, taking from existing companies and adapting them to games’ strange mixture of technology and creativity. But it’s still about solving that problem to make money. Even those companies that we all respect – your Blizzards and your Valves – do it, they’ve just realised that they can make more money by making better games and build their companies and their cultures around those values of quality.

So, with that in mind, with that core, why do we talk about ‘industry’ as though it is something else, as though it’s the audience or games reporting or education?. The reasons we do that is because industry has, very successfully, figured out how to be the master of the words and how to be the master of their stories.

None of which is to criticise industry, I think it serves a really important role as part of a bigger creative development culture, but things are in flux at the moment for a whole host of reasons and suddenly industry doesn’t quite mean the same thing that it did in the past – and if the LA Noire / Fruit Ninja comment is any indicator, they might not have a great grasp of how the world is changing around them.

But, industry is where the jobs are, right? Sure, for a very long time. And when there are jobs, when there is clear economic value, it isn’t that surprising that they’ve been the dominant voice of the sector for such a long time, and in doing so that industry voice has bled out to encompass everything from production to audience, dictating the terms of our creative and cultural story.

And I think there’s a better story, one that doesn’t need to be confined by the values of the industrial model, but which can extend out beyond it, we just need to figure out how to reframe what exists and exactly what we want to go to.

The second book my therapist suggested I read was Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It’s about a psychiatrist who survives a concentration camp and the treatment philosophy that comes out of that experience. For me, the whole thing can be summed up by one story from it.

A man goes to see Victor. He tells him he’s distraught, and has been since his wife died five years ago. Every day he feels the pain of it, that loss, colouring every day and night as he goes about his life, such as he feels it is. Victor thinks for a minute and then asks the man how his wife would have felt if he’d died instead of her, how she’d have gone through the past 5 years. The man quickly responds that she’d have been as distraught as he was, and Victor tells him that he’d saved her from that, the pain and the loss. This was the price he had to pay for their relationship and to keep her from that. The man left and never went back to see Victor.

When that unnamed executive talks about how games with strong storytelling elements are AAA like LA Noire and ignores the smaller scale titles like Limbo or Machinarium. When the measure of success promoted by our government agencies and our industry voices are all Fruit Ninja or Flight Control, it encourages people to try making games like that in order to secure funding or because they think they can ride the Apple cart to success, even if it might not be the game they want to make. When we talk about how Australia is good at mobile, we should ask if that’s true or if it’s just Firemint and Halfbrick who are good at mobile. When we say that we’re full of ‘world-class’ talent, we should take a look at ourselves and go, what the hell does that even mean?

So what would Victor Frankl tell us as a creative sector or an industry?

He’d tell us that the world has changed significantly since that first Freeplay in 2004, and he’d tell us that the internet means that our creative peers and our audiences are no longer just the people in Australia. He’d tell us that we don’t need to be constrained by the small measure of success established by those in industry. And he’d tell us that this change is scary, sure, but that there are opportunities in it for those willing to take the risk. And he’d tell us, I think, that what’s going on might just be the price the sector needs to pay in order to build something better – and he’d tell us that we can choose to view it that way if we want to.

There’s so much negativity, there’s so much the industry is screwed up, the sector is screwed up, Australian developers aren’t innovative enough, they don’t take enough risks, they aren’t creative enough, they don’t listen to feedback enough. Everyone, it seems if you go online, knows what to do to fix things. But here’s what I think Victor Frankl would tell you if you said that to him – he’d say: You can’t control these things. You can’t change an industry or a sector or a company or a studio, all you can do is choose how you’re going to behave, how you want to act, the sorts of values you want to embody and the people you want to surround yourself with who also, hopefully reflect those values too.

And this is what it boils down to – people and values and the social constructs we design and build that support and enable those.

This year’s Freeplay is sort of a realisation of a lot of this stuff.

A festival is a designed thing. Or at least it should be. I’m sure a bunch of people here have been to events or conferences or attended talks or classes and left wondering – what was the point of that? There are sometimes factors outside of a person’s control, but for something like Freeplay to exist there has to be a reason for it to exist, and then that reason is articulated through what we program, who we ask to talk, what the sessions are.

Because the event reflects a part of me in a very real way. It’s strange to be talking about a however many day long thing Freeplay ends up being as being representative of me, but that’s what design is – it’s a series of choices you make that try to communicate something in my head. So, last year when we chose to look at play as part of the wider cultural, artistic, and personal community, that was something that I was interested deeply in. This year, when we’re looking at the individual as part of the creative process, it’s again something we care about, and something that we believe we can explore through the structures a festival affords us.  I make choices about sessions, about order, about people, about marketing and about audience every day that shape it and hopefully give it a voice.

And the best structures around us enable us to do the same. Our friends, our families, our communities, our studios, our cultures reflect our values – consciously or unconsciously. You look at Valve and they can tell you what their culture is, what their values are, why they’ve made the choices they have. Same for Epic, for Blizzard, for Rockstar, for Naughty Dog, for Double Fine. The studios that we all respect, the individuals that we all respect in this field, have clear values that can be articulated and shared.

And it’s about making the choice to follow those values – even if it’s hard, and it frequently is. I’ve given up a lot to do Freeplay. Time, money, some relationships, have all suffered, but I’ve chosen to make those sacrifices. And in the end, that makes following them easier for me.

I have an existential streak in me. I believe that you can’t control your thoughts, that you can’t control your feelings, you can’t control the world outside your head all the time, so the only thing you have control over is how you choose to act in response to that. I can choose to follow the values that matter to me or I can choose to ignore them. I can choose to follow a path of building a community that matters to me or pursue financial rewards. I can choose to be honest about that or hide my true intentions. I can choose to become more aware of those values or choose not to.

In the face of a shifting industry, I can choose to respond to the reality of it or rail against how I think it should be. I can choose to build systems or communities that reflect my own values. I can choose to surround myself with people that I want to work with, who I know will have my back when the shit hits the fan. I can choose to make beautiful things. I can choose to be part of an industrial system – accepting that their values aren’t the same as mine – or I can stay outside of it. I can choose to go overseas and create AAA titles or I can stay here and try to make it happen. I can choose to make money or culture or find the middle ground that might let me do both.

And in doing all of that, perhaps I can surround myself with people who share my values, who want to tell a better story, and maybe we can show people that such a thing is possible, and that story and those values can get larger and louder and maybe drown out some of the others that are out of date or not so useful or whatever it is. But if not, that’s fine, because I’ll have built things that I’m proud of. And I am very proud of Freeplay in its incarnation on my watch.

I want to finish up by asking a few more questions – there’ve been a lot, I know, but hang in there, almost done:

What would you do if nothing changed? If the industrial side of things didn’t suddenly explode with jobs? If there were no government tax breaks like Canada? If the R18+ rating didn’t come through?

These are things that you can’t control. Maybe influence. Maybe a little bit. But they’re kinda outside you’re sphere of influence.

Would you still make games? Because that’s a choice. And it’s a choice that matters.

Thank you for your time.

4 thoughts on “IGDA Brisbane Game On”

  1. Outstanding writing!
    I have found my outlook towards the Australian gaming environment has become more and more positive since I had a discussion with a certain writer about a year ago

    I really do think we have innovation, creativity and excellence and it is not restricted to the better known studios.

    I also believe the players ARE a part of the industry unlike book readers and film watchers and that this is a strength the industry should embrace. Sure there will be negativity (which can sometimes be good to keep things in perspective) but remember we are at the beginning of what is likely to become a massive industry worldwide in the future, how can it be anything but exciting?!

  2. That was an absolutely excellent presentation Paul, and inspiring words. I’ll be giving those two books a look.

    I’m also actually a graduate from the RMIT Games Course (last year), one of the guys who worked on All in a Day’s Work. Honestly in regard to that project in particular I can relate being the loss of direction and dissatisfaction in the aftermath. It’ll be quite interesting seeing how the Australian industry reshapes itself, especially in contrast to how things are here in the UK at the moment (after the failure of any tax relief last year).

    However I do think that the players are more of a part of the industry than they ever have been. For example crowd funding becoming a bigger trend within the independent scene, and even beta testing used as a way to promote and push copies (or pre purchases) of independent to triple A games.

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