Opinion: the Game Developers Conference is refreshingly free of the superstar egos and the luxury brands that dominate architecture biennales and furniture fairs – and much more significant for the future of design, says Kieran Long.
The most important design event in the world is one you've probably never heard of, or, if you have, one you've almost certainly never attended. You can keep the Venice Architecture Biennale or the Milan Furniture Fair, Tokyo Designers' Week or Design Indaba.
GDC, the Game Developers Conference, which happened in San Francisco the week before last, is where 26,000 video game designers get together to talk about the state of their art. And in their generosity, diversity, and technical sophistication, the talks there show gaming to be a discipline from which the rest of design can learn a great deal.
The most striking thing of all was spending a week in a design community where personality and image play very little part. Imagine architecture or furniture design, but without the big, swinging egos of the superstars. Game designers' work has much bigger audiences than either of the above, but you won't find much posturing or manifesto-writing here.
San Francisco becomes a crossroads, for a week every year, for a design field with no real centre. There aren't any particular cities, or even countries, that monopolise the production of video games. A team can be distributed across the world, in nondescript places, or in a few hubs (Montreal, Stockholm, Austin) that emerge because a large, global studio is based there, spawning other, younger ones over the years.
The conference itself is a true industry event. There's a show floor with sales people flogging their latest wares, from eye-tracking interfaces to virtual reality headsets or the latest iteration of a game engine. But the focus of GDC is a packed talks programme, with 20-30 parallel lectures going on all day, every day, while the conference is open.
These talks range from industry veterans telling the story of how a classic game from the past was conceived and designed, to instructional talks of hair-raising specificity and technical depth. In that category, I passed on the opportunity to learn about how to design better barnets in Augmented Hair in Deus Ex Universe projects: TressFX 3.0. But I did stop by several astonishing talks, perhaps best of which was Do Artists Dream of Electric Sheep, given by Grant Duncan, the art director of Hello Games, based in Guildford, England.
Duncan spoke modestly but brilliantly on No Man's Sky, one of the most anticipated games in development today, explaining step by step the tools they have built that will generate an explorable universe of 18 quintillion unique planets each with unique landscape, flora and fauna.
No Man's Sky by Hello Games
Duncan, and his colleagues at Hello, should be numbered amongst Britain's most exciting young designers. First of all, and unlike their architectural colleagues, they've found a genuinely beautiful use for parametric design: creating infinite combinations of geology, geography, ecology, animal and plant life to make a believable dramatic setting for a game. Despite its machine-generated nature, the visual language that results is nonetheless totally coherent, and clearly inspired by the illustrators Duncan professes his love for, like Ralph McQuarrie and Chris Foss.
Most game designers don't talk much about their influences, or if they do it's not very convincing. Duncan is an exception, reclaiming artists whose science fiction idiom has been out of fashion for decades, and deriving surprising and compelling design directions from their neglected work. Most obviously inspired by these artists' technicolor universes was the idea of designing a video game set in space without using the colour black, something that Hello Games are on their way to achieving.
Almost as compelling was Jane Ng, lead artist of Campo Santo, a San Francisco studio working on a game set in the Wyoming wilderness. Firewatch is a strange proposition whose protagonist is an overweight, lonely, middle-aged man with a job watching out for wildfires in a national park. The flat colour, cartoonish landscape was partly conceived by Olly Moss, the British graphic artist who has moved from film posters into game design. Ng's account of how she translated that graphic style into a dynamic, 3D landscape, complete with heartbreaking sunsets, showed a straightforward joy in this kind of collaboration – the technical mastery that allows a graphic vision to become a fully realised world.
Firewatch by Campo Santo
Both these examples are from "independent" studios, small teams of less than a dozen people dedicated to a single project for years at a time. And if there is anywhere in gaming where there is some evidence of a star system, it is amongst these independent, artistically motivated groups. But compared to what the rest of design is used to, it's modest in the extreme.
Asking a few industry veterans why this was, the most common answer was that the games industry is just not used to taking itself that seriously. The lack of ego is related to the fact that there's still a sense, even within the profession, of games being a lower artform than others.
I went to GDC precisely because video games seem to me an unignorable field of design and popular culture. But you don't find a braying, overconfident group of people with no need for the rest of culture. Despite the astonishing financial and cultural success of many games, there's a reticence about seeing game design as related to the rest of design history.
Some of the debates within games can look naive from the point of view of disciplines with centuries-old discourses built around them. Everything seems to be at stake all the time: from the inclusion of ethnic minorities and women in the ranks of designers or as characters in games themselves, to the economics of the industry or how gaming can lose its reliance on beefcake protagonists setting the world to rights with the help of firearms.
But this is not naivety, it's a discipline with a heightened sense of itself and its own discourse. Yes, the misogynist attacks of the Gamergate "campaign" cast a depressing light on the culture of games fans, but it has provoked a debate in public about such issues.
Last year I attended compelling conference sessions covering such topics as how to depict believable love stories (gay, straight and between different species of alien) in games, and how to avoid creating a culture of harassment at industry parties. This year there were many similar sessions. Which other design field is so ready to discuss these things at the top table?
Perhaps, after all, I'm just relieved to attend an event where we escape the overweening luxury brands that dominate design festivals. At GDC you might get a can of Monster energy drink or a free packet of chocolate-covered bacon handed to you by a hopeful marketer (this actually happened), but there's not much more romancing than that. Just good conversation about design with committed people in a beautiful city. And my work doesn't get much better than that.
Main image courtesy of Game Developers Conference.