SAN FRANCISCO — On day one of the 2007 Game Developers Conference it sounded like video games might solve the world's problems. Pending oil crisis? Video games can help fix things. Cemetery land disputes? Games may offer help. There was even a guy making the rounds of the conference's digs, the massive Moscone Center, suggesting that it's time for video games to do their own "We Are the World."
By Wednesday of this week, the winds of GDC will shift toward art and commerce, the fun and financially profitable ways to design games for consoles and computers. But on Monday and Tuesday (March 6), a few noble spirits drift through as panels for society-improving Serious Games are held, along with scrappy meet-ups for indie game development and cell phone gaming.
Even on the first two days there are signs of what GDC is primarily about. The GDC store, for example, is open, selling how-to books for programmers along with demonstration DVDs — the clearly relevant mixed with the likes of "Visual Storytelling With Iain McCaig Volume 2: Cosmic Mermaid Character Design." But there are the ideas fluttering around not solely focused on art or profit.
Take Martin de Ronde. The tall Dutchman helped found Guerilla Games, a company that made an unflinching — some said sensationalist — Vietnam War game, then a first-person-shooter called "Killzone" for PS2. The company was sold to Sony and got to work making "Killzone 2," an extravagant, expensive FPS that PS3 fans hope will be their console's "Halo." De Ronde cashed out. Now he spends some of the year in the San Francisco area, where he has started a company he announced just last week called One Big Game. He's got visions of Bono and Bob Geldof dancing in his head. "I was watching a documentary on the 20th anniversary of Live Aid and Band Aid," de Ronde told GameFile. The thought struck him: "Why don't we, within the video game industry, do something similar to what Band Aid did for the music industry?"
Since March of last year, De Ronde has been assembling sympathetic colleagues in all tiers of the gaming industry to pull together a charitable enterprise. This included an American duo, Seamus Blackley and Justin Hall, who were dreaming up a similar project — their USA for Africa to De Ronde's Band Aid, as it were. The two efforts merged.
Despite what one might infer from the name One Big Game, the immediate aim of De Ronde's team right now is to tap star gamemakers to contribute to an iTunes-style casual games portal. They're talking about making many small games sold to benefit global children's charities.
De Ronde fantasizes that the Bungies and Peter Molyneuxs of the world would donate small pieces of genius. But that might be harder than corralling a bunch of pop stars to sing about famine relief for a one-day recording session. "The whole notion of One Big Game revolves around developers donating their creativity and therefore their time," he said. "We are asking them to actually sit down and come up with something that either can be integrated into a bigger game or something that can be a game itself. We're going to sell it, and the profit is going to charity. Now, no matter how enthusiastic these people are going to be, if they're going to design — or if their bosses will allow them to — it's going to be difficult."
He thinks it's a noble effort, and who's to stop him? The pitch is compelling. What's good for the world is also good for the game industry's image. Updates on the project will appear at OneBigGame.org.
Dreamers like De Ronde were abundant on Monday at GDC: peace, love and far-out goals are apparently still alive in San Francisco even a few decades after their heyday in the town. How else to explain a guy like Santiago Siri, an Argentinian game designer who gave a talk slamming games from "Pac-Man" to "Gears of War" for not advancing the gameplay vocabulary available to players beyond "kill, eat, run"? He demonstrated a technology called Project Utopia designed to enable complex, compelling storytelling in games by mapping conversation trees to tables of emotions, adding interactive sliders for gamers to adjust the tone of dialogue responses and a slew of other factors. He spent a couple of years of his own time making the thing into a usable game-design computer program, then refined it to a new Web-based system he calls Playdreamer.
Siri wrapped and asked for questions from the audience. The first wondered how he could make money off this. "I'm not doing it for the money," Siri said. "For the money, I do other things. I made this for the love of art." Bear in mind this is a developer whose blog is called GamesAreArt.com.
Never mind the fountain of funding coming from governments to support the creation of Serious Games. Even if some of the noble Monday attendees were out to wheel and deal, their discussion of games was infectiously optimistic and persistently lacking in cynicism.
Jane McGonigal, one of the world's foremost designers of alternate-reality games, explained how an ARG she was hired to make promoting Activision's Western "Gun" a couple of years ago wound up benefiting public cemeteries. Part of the ARG encouraged players to go to real cemeteries containing the burial plots of figures from the Wild West. She learned that many of the cemeteries are at risk for losing their land to rezoning and private developers, with the lack of much going on atop cemetery grounds reason enough to convert the land for other use. "Cemeteries are fighting for their lives," she said. "They need live bodies in the space to actually continue their existence." The fact that her game could serve up those live bodies was a benefit to a real place.
The cemetery/game connection may sound like a strange theory to those who didn't attend McGonigal's session, which was based on the concept of game playing serving as a socially helpful activity. On the same panel, a creator of the old Star Wars "X-Wing" computer game talked about being tapped by the U.S. Department of Defense to come up with engaging interfaces for military personnel piloting unmanned drones. People were talking how making a game of something plain could make the activity enticing, like challenging someone to sweep a room clean in a set number of strokes.
Near the end of the panel, McGonigal announced her next ARG, previewed at WorldWithoutOil.org. Launching April 30, it will challenge gamers in 30 parts of the U.S. to blog and otherwise communicate their experiences in an imaginary America where the oil supply has dried up. In the process of playing, gamers may be blogging about how they planned a wedding to which no guests could travel in vehicles requiring oil-based fuels. "What is dating like?" she asked. "What is cooking like?" The goal is to get people thinking and maybe even generating new energy-saving strategies, all just by playing. "I'm looking at this as a game that changes reality," she said.
That's the kind of California dreaming that went on Monday at the GDC.
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