It's been a long time since my last E3, or even the E for All Expo, when it existed as an offshoot of the main conference (both of which I have to thank Indiecade for, as I had previously volunteered during my time at USC). I suppose much has changed since then, in terms of the titles (back then, Assassin’s Creed was a new franchise!) and their official stance on “prosumers” – given that back then, E for All was spun off specifically for the general public, but the one thing that hasn't changed is the spectacle of it all. The offerings at the press conferences, the way the booths are designed and laid out, the presence of so many people – excitement hung in the air over what would be announced. And with the age of social media upon us, most had already heard rumors of what might be announced or talked about.
I’ve had the incredible fortune now to be a two-time IGDA Scholar (details on how to apply here), once for GDC 2014 and once for E3 2015, two very different experiences, but both worthy in their own right. Part of this is for the material benefits of the Scholarship: an all-access pass to each event, exclusive access to special events, tours of local game studios, networking opportunities with (high placed) industry veterans, and even a mentor in our game discipline.
But more of it, I think, is the people I shared these experiences with. The other Scholars, of course, who were among the best and brightest in their fields, each doing unique and interesting things with art, narrative, procedural generation and more. And certainly, the hard-working volunteers, many of whom were former Scholars themselves, without who none of this would be possible.
My own specialty of course, lies in what some have called serious games, others persuasive games, and still others, earnest games. Whatever one likes to call them, they’re basically games which are meant to do more than simply entertain. What they are beyond that depends on who you talk to, as there is no one clearcut definition (yet), just as there is no real agreement on what constitutes a game as opposed to an interactive experience. That’s because games are still a fairly young field, and as with most such fields, definitions and boundaries are often fast and loose and fluid, shaped as much by what we do in practice as much as what we formally define.
Trade shows like E3 are a big part of this, given how press conferences, the titles being promoted, and even how the titles are promoted shape public perception of games. The very language used in a press release or a gaming article, or the sex and gender of a game character and how a company reacts to reaction can be rather telling. And so can how the public responds, with social media allowing us a window into the reactions and thoughts of fans – often without any filtering, and sometimes (as I’ve learned as community manager), not very…nice.
So, I was quite pleased to attend Bethesda’s first press conference at E3 (they’ve previously just had a booth), where they showed off DOOM, Dishonored 2 (which I was pleased to see featured Emily as a protagonist, given the events of Dishonored), a bit of The Elder Scrolls Online, and of course Fallout 4 as the flagship title. But the lineup – aside from Fallout Shelter, an iOS game, which was completely new and released that night – was expected. What wasn’t was that Fallout 4 would be out in a matter of months, presenting a large shift how previous announcements in the industry have been handled – where a game may be announced over two years before release.
During E3 itself, I had the privilege of meeting Kellee Santiago – one of the co-founders of thatgamecompany, partner at the Indie Fund, and Chair of the Indiecade Festival Awards Jury. I’ve met Kellee’s co-founder Jenova before - both during my time at USC, when he spoke about Flow at the MFA thesis show, as well as at GDC 2014 as part of the Scholars program - but it was interesting to get another perspective, since Kellee served more as a producer, handling the business side of thatgamecompany, while Jenova was Creative Director. Talking with her shed more light on the company’s deal with Sony, the growing pains of a small studio as they grew beyond their initial handful, and what the Indie Fund, as well as others, look for – which is important as going indie is not easy, something I know all too well.
The Scholars also met with Justin Berenbaum of 505 Games, a man who has a wealth of experience in the business of games and who sits on the IGDA’s Board of Directors, where we received some tips about how and when to follow up, and some of the art of self-presentation and leadership. With the exception of Warren Spector’s Denius-Sams Gaming Academy and the IGDA’s Leadership Summit, there aren’t many opportunities to learn about leadership aside from trial and error. Most learning opportunities tend to involve becoming better at one’s particular field of development – design, programming, art, or so – instead of preparing people to direct and produce projects, which can be akin to herding a group of uncooperative cats, given how each discipline has its own priorities.
This is even more so with Serious Games, which can also involve academic, educators, scientists, health professionals, program officers and more, each of which come with their own discipline-specific jargon – and a set of views on what various words of plain speech mean, often driven by their discipline’s funding models and so forth. The word “immediately”, for instance, can mean just that to someone in industry, or within a few days to someone in academia. In the same way, one group may prioritize engagement and “fun”, another may only care about efficacy, and a third may be most concerned with how an innovation or experience can be monetized. Bringing these into balance to ship a good product is hard (and time-consuming).
Just as shipping a good, bug-free game can be challenging in the industry, especially for teams of hundreds of people. The more people there are on a team, the more chances something could go wrong, a misunderstanding could occur, or a communication failure can happen.
And yet, many good games are finished and shipped, with Nintendo, especially, having a good reputation among fans for games that are fun, accessible – and ok, often difficult to master, given the saying that some things are hard, and some things are “Nintendo Hard.” As Scholars, we were able to meet with several of their senior executives, as well as with Charles Martinet, the voice behind Mario and Luigi, and learned a little more about their Treehouse localization group and their inspirations behind some of their newest titles like Yoshi’s Woolly World and Starfox Zero, both of which represent beloved, long-lived franchises in a market where sequel fatigue is very real. If you think of other franchises beloved by games, like Zelda, Mario, Pokemon and other such, you’ll notice an interesting thing: most of them are made by Nintendo.
They capture a kind of long-lived magic in an industry where there is a great deal of pressure for something new, something shinier, something that pushes the envelope, and for my work with Serious Games, I see their example as quite meaningful. Serious Games need classics to unify around, titles people will remember and play for the experience – not just because of the learning opportunities – because the learning in games is usually from game developers looking at mechanics, systems design, and so forth, or fans looking at narrative or learning how to best get through a level.
We have two powerful examples of more meaningful, “serious” games today - Journey or This War of Mine, one of which speaks to the human condition, and the other covering the horror of war, something that many have felt games cannot truly describe. But why? Are games not simply another medium in which stories might be told, like film, literature, and so forth? There is no reason we cannot present powerful experiences through this interactive medium – experiences that might even be more powerful than the others because of its interactive nature.
Going to something like E3, I see all sort of possibilities in presentation, and opportunities to make existing games richer by implementing small tweaks to their systems - using a RPG's party management and interactions systems to have a more humane approach to mental health, for example. Or incorporating within RTS and strategy games - which already focus on resource management - game modes focusing on economy and balancing ecology with production.
The games we use today can be used for serious purposes; games can be fun as well as therapeutic or allowing us to learn. One only need look at Tetris and how it is used to build hand-eye coordination for physiotherapy, how the Wii is used in nursing homes, and how Assassin’s Creed or Age of Empires inspired tangential learning when players, who became invested in the game worlds, looked into the source material behind them and discovered the richness of history. These games – these systems – weren’t sold because they were powerful learning experiences, but because they were fun; because they were hyped, because they offered something new, something rich and engaging, and built names for themselves that we still recognize today.
Serious games, sadly, has little in the way of promotion, and so much of what is made is lost amongst everything else being produced these days, no matter the efficacy of any particular learning or health intervention. It comes down to excitement, engagement, and experience - if these are lacking, people will not play them or talk about them. And without these, the media perception with continue to result in travesties like Elika’s Escape, a false game pitch cum publicity stunt staged by UNICEF which belittled games as being incapable of portraying the experience of war, and portrayed those who played them as being unaware of the world around them and incapable of dealing with reality.
This is particularly disturbing when one considers that this was staged one month following the release of This War of Mine – a game which touches upon the theme of survival in war from the point of view of a civilian, with a player’s choices making them reflect on how difficult such situations could be, and gameplay conveying the powerlessness and horror of those caught in a warzone.
A game that partners with the charity War Child to raise money to help protect children from the brutal effects of war and its consequences.
A powerful game – like Journey before it – which gives the lie to claims that games cannot be more than just entertainment.
But people need to hear about them – to see what games can do, to be exposed to these rich experiences. E3 represents perhaps the biggest focus of the industry’s efforts to be noticed by the media, and there is so much to be learned from how they build franchises, shape perception, and how they react to perception – even in missteps and failures.
As a Scholar, I am grateful to the IGDA and the ESA for giving me the opportunity to attend, to be dazzled, and to learn. And of course, to meet others working on innovations in narrative, design, and more – powerful ways of telling stories and encapsulating experiences that linger, beyond the thrills of adrenaline and dopamine. It is an honor to be one of their number, to count them as my peers, and to work with them on future collaborations.
For as Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I will move the world.” Games can be that lever, if they have a firm base upon which to rest. I think together, we can build that…don’t you?