Why I’m Going Back To GDC

Next week, when I’m not at Adaptive Path’s MX: Managing Experience conference, I’ll be heading to the Game Developers Conference here in San Francisco for the fourth time. It may seem strange for someone outside the game business to attend an event like this. After all, this isn’t one of the big consumer-facing game industry events like PAX. It’s an event by insiders for insiders, talking about the issues insiders care about most.

But even as an outsider, I still get enough out of GDC to want to go back. Every time I’ve been to the event, I’ve found it a refreshing and stimulating look — from a slightly different vantage point — at many of the same issues we face as designers of other kinds of products and services. Looking ahead to this year’s edition, I’ve thought of a few reasons why I get so much out of GDC:

It’s a culture of (relative) openness. While game developers can be extraordinarily secretive while a game is being created — games are often in development for years before their very existence is even acknowledged — once the game is released, it’s a different story. I’ve been especially impressed by the willingness of game designers to talk about the failures and stumbling blocks they run into along the way. I’ve seen more concepts that went nowhere, abandoned features, and failed prototypes at GDC than I’ve seen at any UX conference.

Games are complex systems. The experiences that games create for players are emergent — the result of the interaction of interlocking systems that dictate what can and can’t happen in the game. (This isn’t unique to video games; the same properties can be found in all kinds of games, from baseball to poker to foursquare to Risk.) Wrangling this complexity toward a particular experiential outcome is the mandate of every game designer.

Games are still software. If you work on digital products, many of the issues game designers talk about will sound familiar to you: communication, collaboration, iteration. But their take on these issues may not be quite as familiar — but no less valuable. The best talk I’ve ever seen on documenting design decisions was at GDC. And the best talk I’ve seen on integrating qualitative and quantitative research findings? That was GDC too.

Games are multidimensional experiences. It takes a lot of different design disciplines to create a gameplay experience. You’ve got game designers crafting the overall game system; level designers creating gameplay environments; narrative designers creating the story and backstory that gives the game world cohesion and emotional resonance; character designers, animators, and sound designers bringing that world to life. The orchestration of these design disciplines presents creative challenges that exist far beyond the realm of games.

Experience is paramount. Around here, we like to say that “the experience is the product“. Nowhere is that more true than in the game industry. Every decision a game design and development team makes is evaluated against its impact on the ultimate experience the game will deliver. If you want to see how an experience-driven organization in another industry might actually work, you won’t find better examples than game companies.

Of course, there’s plenty going on at GDC that’s not for me; I’m never going to have much use for any talk with words like “voxel” or “spline” in the description. And I’m not going to lie to you: If you don’t have a basic level of game literacy, you’ll find a fair amount of the content rough going, as presenters will naturally use points of reference familiar to their community that are opaque to others. But if you go in with an open mind, you might be fascinated by the ways that this world mirrors your own. Oh yeah, and if you see me around Moscone next week, say hi!

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