“twelve anecdotes about the 2012 game developers conference in san francisco, california” by tim rogers

| tim

Twelve Anecdotes About the 2012 Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, California
by tim rogers

Monday, March 5th, 2012:

You’re kidding yourself if you don’t believe cocaine births all mainstream entertainment.

If you come away from the Game Developer’s Conference with the impression that alcohol is the intoxicant of choice, you’re going to the wrong parties — you’re going to the scrub parties. I’m not saying it’s wrong to be a scrub — I’m a scrub, too, sure. I don’t touch any drug aside from spinach or almond butter.

If alcohol is a “social lubricant”, cocaine is the “social adhesive”. For example, here’s this guy, stuck to me.

Eyes full-ball to the world, a half-dozen magnitudes more white than iris, he glided toward me nose- and chest-first. With an apple-chewing half-bow, he leaned over and proceeded to mispronounce the name of the company on my nametag literally six times in a single breath.

The name of the company I was representing that night is seriously not that hard to pronounce. It’s just a couple of words like any others, and the host’s handwriting was impeccable.

Sliding a fat slice of mango into his jaws, he rat-chuckled on: “What do you guys do do you develop games do you publish games are you a publisher are you a developer are you local–”

Within the center of my head, a silent-film intertitle:

“If this man does not have a stroke within ten seconds, I must be prepared to punch him.”

He didn’t have a stroke, and I didn’t punch him. His attention turned, with swiftness, to a plastic platter piled high with gourmet cheese (Gouda, Swiss, Camembert, et cetera). He had snap-realized that I was not on as much cocaine as him — or any cocaine at all, in fact — and that, thus, we probably couldn’t do business together. That’s a shame, because I’m sure that guy represented tens of millions of dollars, and I sure could change at least my own world with just one of those millions of dollars. I know exactly what I’d do with a million dollars. That’s why I’m trying to get a million dollars.

That’s the thing here — I come to you, today, as a “CEO”. It’s sort of a grody state of being: I have to make a lot of loose promises with tight slide presentations.

So here I was, helping someone else approach a million dollars, the requisite tweezers holding tweezers holding Q-tips in both of each of our hands.

“I’m glad you showed up to this thing with me,” my business partner du jour said. “Look at all these fuckin’ squares.”

We were in a ballroom so grand in a building so made of marble that I realized I should probably feel a little bit worse about having no idea what it is our hosts’ company actually does.

Somewhere many blocks down the street, hip people were listening to cool music and talking about things I liked. Many of these people were likely people I knew and liked. I recalled Twitter-tweets from earlier in the day, in which game developers and journalists and bloggers described San Francisco during GDC as a “magical place” where you’re always running into people who are talking about videogames. I like so many of those people. I didn’t see any of them at this party.

This party was packed. Everyone was wearing a suit. Lots of the suits were pretty bad.

“This band sucks,” I said, of a band that sucked.

“They paid a lot of money for this band,” my business partner told me. “They’re huge in Shanghai.”

“Did you ever see them in Shanghai?”

“No — someone was just telling me.”

Here we were, marketing experts talking to (and about) other marketing experts. I am allergic to alcohol, and I needed a drink. I needed something I was allergic to.

At one point, my business partner disappeared. I got a Diet Coke. The bartender poured a couple of ounces over some ice rocks. Meanwhile, other people were picking up bottles of beer and walking off. If you’re drinking Diet Coke, bartenders seem to believe you’re also on an airplane.

“Can I just get the whole can?”

She gave me a look of pity.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Oh. Okay.”

I was alone, and didn’t want to enter the dance floor — someone might sneeze on me, and I’d get a cocaine contact high. I busied myself with cheese. I must have gotten about two pounds of cheese in my mouth before my business partner returned.

“That guy over there — I talked to that guy over there.”

“Oh.”

He was pointing at some guy. He was a guy who looked like any other guy.

“He’s going to introduce me to some guys in Palo Alto on Wednesday.”

“Right on.”

Later, the train is wailing and screaming in the tunnel beneath the bay. It’s the sound that must have filled Beethoven’s ears. My business partner is hollering over the squeals:

“I know you, my friend! You are an artist! You are one of the creative ones!”

He clapped his hands once, sending the right hand shooting up vertically.

“A cash injection! Just a little cash injection! Straight to the top, my friend!”

“Okay.”

The cab driver at Macarthur Bart didn’t want to look at my credit card.

“No card!”

Four nights prior, someone had been dead outside the Bart. The police had shut the station down. The train conductor had called it a “medical emergency which is also a police emergency”. Walking home didn’t feel too good. I thought a little bit about being a “CEO” who doesn’t own a car.

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012:

“I love your game.”

“Oh. Oh.”

“So do I — I mean, I haven’t played it yet, because I have an Android.”

“You haven’t played it, and you love it?”

“I mean, I’ve played it a little bit on my friend’s iPhone.”

“Aha.”

“I mean, I’ve read all your articles.”

“Oh — why?”

“. . . What?”

Like all conversations after six in the evening during any sort of game-related conference, this one happened at bloody-murder volume, weaving in and out of the shrill peaks of noisy electronic background music.

This was, in fact, a party about the music: the “POW!” chip-tunes event. Disasterpiece was going to be giving a set of Fez music. I’d miss it, because of a situation involving a biological need to Go Home Right Now — which was mostly related to something else. Unfortunately, I’d also miss my own set: organizer Adam Rippon, designer and director of hideously underrated iOS / PC / Mac Japanese-style role-playing game Dragon Fantasy, had invited me to give a ten-minute talk about my little game, ZiGGURAT. The rule is that Rock And Roll Never Starts On Time, and “POW!” was no exception: they were running an hour late.

A gentleman approached me, told me he loved ZiGGURAT, and then asked if I’d like to look at his game. His game is called A Game With Balls, and the title was apt both literally and figuratively.

I walked over to the game demo tables, where someone who was no Adam Rippon was sitting by a PC with Dragon Fantasy running.

Some kid approached the guy sitting on the stool by the Dragon Fantasy demo station.

“Hey, this game looks rad — did you make this?”

“Naw — here, this is the game I made.”

He handed the guy his Android phone.

I manned the Dragon Fantasy demo unit for a couple of minutes, doing my best to make the game look good.

“Hey — hey. Want to play my game?”

The guy sitting on the stool by the Dragon Fantasy demo table was trying to push his phone on me.

“I can, uhh, play it later.”

“You got a game? I’ll buy your game if you buy mine.”

“I, uhh–”

Here I was, wondering, “Is this worth a sale?”

The Modern Business Schools call this “cross-promotion”. One hand washes the other, one gorilla scratches the other gorilla’s back. In this case, maybe one of us was a chimpanzee, or an orangutan. God, it was probably me — I was probably either one of those less interesting sorts of apes. I wanted to be a gorilla.

That we put a word on this is creepy. I imagine a business scientist in a labcoat, his eyes shocking open with cocaine surprise: “Eureka!” Here it is: people like stuff that’s good. People tell other people about stuff they like. If someone likes a person, they will like what that person likes.

“So,” quoth the hypothetical professor, accepting the Nobel Prize For Assholes, “all we have to do is professionally pretend to like things.”

The party I’d been to the night before was wet with the condensation of this hive-brain’s glass canister. Here I was sampling its children on the molecular level.

The guy was telling me the name of his game. I got my iPhone out and looked it up. The 3G reception was abysmal. “I’ll just leave it on this page,” I said. “When I get home, I’ll look it up.”

“See if there’s Wi-Fi.”

There was Wi-Fi.

It was password protected.

“Ask the bartender.”

The line at the bar was sixty deep.

“Look, I’ll get it when I get home.”

“Oh, snap: your 3G is back.”

It was gone again.

“Give me your business card,” he was saying. “I’ll email you.”

“What” (I’d forgotten my punctuation)

“I’ll email you so you have my contact info. Let me know when you got the game.”

“How about you give me your business card, and I’ll email you?”

“You’re not going to email me,” the guy said.

“You’re right! I won’t!”

I had finally had enough. There was Fez at a demo table a few feet away. I had missed every previous opportunity to play it. I tinkered around with it. Here is my opinion:

“Oh, okay.”

It was a soft-spoken sort of “Oh, okay.” Fifty seconds was enough to satisfy me. I put the controller down.

Some guy slid up: “Man, man — you have to keep going up there.”

“I’ll go up there later,” I told him.

“There’s something cool up there.”

“I don’t doubt it. I’ll see it later.”

“This is, like, the full game, here.”

“That’s good. It’s good to know it’s finished.”

“Seriously dude it gets really awesome up there–”

“I will buy this game,” I said. “I will play it on my seventy-inch television, in the dark, with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. Okay? Okay?”

I don’t know if he heard me.

“There’s cool shit up there, man.”

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012:

I was on a podcast. We were recording it at a big round table near the press lounge.

“What have you seen at GDC?”

“I’ve seen the backs of a lot of people’s necks.”

“What have you learned at GDC?”

“I’ve learned that people still haven’t figured escalators out.”

“What do you mean?”

“They rush to get on the escalators. Then they just stand there. They see a huge line of people waiting to get on, and they just go ahead and get on the side that doesn’t have a line. Then they just stand there.”

“What’s the biggest news of GDC so far for you?”

“That they still haven’t successfully changed the name to ‘Ill-Advised Hat-Wearer’s Conference’.”

“What’s wrong with hats?”

“I’ll put it in computer programming terms: if ‘is Indiana Jones’ equals-sign ‘false’, ‘should wear fedora’ equals-sign ‘false’.”

“It seems that you’re saying only Indiana Jones should wear a fedora.”

“Fedoras are like cigarettes — if absolutely everything else about you is cool, they’ll make you look cool. They are for people who would be cool no matter what.”

“You are advocating smoking for cool people?”

“No. I’m not saying anyone should smoke. It’s just that instant coolness re: cigarettes is a myth. Morbidly obese acne-speckled individuals, for example, look worse when they’re smoking. You might as well also smear lipstick on your teeth.”

“Seriously, though, what’s the biggest revelation of GDC for you, so far?”

“The Apple iPad 3 is kind of neat.”

The podcast host didn’t ask, “What’s neat about it?” Here’s what’s neat about it:

When Apple announced the iPhone 4S, a half-million bratty technophiles wept into Twitter: “Why is it not called the iPhone 5?”

For months afterward, Apple passioners wait with bated breath and busy typing fingers for the prodigal “iPhone 5”. Wouldn’t it actually be the iPhone 6?

With the iPad 3, Apple has improved the iPad 2 with a scarily high-definition screen and a beefier processor.

And they’ve taken the number off — it’s not the “iPad 3”. It’s the “iPad”. I like that sort of simplicity.

The simplicity of the naming isn’t anything I overheard anyone talking about. I guess I’m weird about what impresses me.

Instead, people were talking about Apple being “on a roll” or being “unstoppable”. One guy swimming in a suit told another guy busting out of a button-down shirt that he “hugely” admires Apple’s “consistent drive toward innovation and perfection”. He called them a “role-model to all businesses today”. These walking blogs were having lunch at a diner just three blocks from the clandestine convention center auditorium in which Westinghouse executives were announcing a slower escalator and an exponentially more complicated train ticket vending machine user interface. (Warning: fabrication in previous sentence.)

Also on Wednesday, March 7th, 2012:

Someone asked me, “Have you noticed how many women there are at GDC this year?”

My reply was: “Not really.”

“Are you going to say you don’t see gender?”

“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t see gender, and I don’t see race.”

“What do you see?”

“Shoes.”

Midday: Wednesday, March 7th, 2012:

Wednesday is the only day of a five-day conference when people can comfortably ask you “You been here all week?”

It requires a presumptive leap to ask someone if they’ve been here all week; it takes an extra (and mandatory) presumptive leap to answer the question without coming across as snippy.

Someone might ask you if you’ve been here all week because they know you’ve been here all week. They’ve seen your tweets and they’ve spied you having business conversations in the hall. They don’t want to admit they’ve seen you around because that would invite the question of “Why didn’t you say hello?” (Which would in turn invite the answer “You were going the other way,” or “You looked busy”.)

“You been here all week?” is a shameful icebreaker wielded when, finally, we are backed into a one-on-one with a person we’re suddenly afraid we’ve been subconsciously avoiding since arriving in town.

By Thursday, we’ll remember to be flexible: “Oh, hey! I can’t believe I haven’t seen you all week! You must be busy!”

Thursday morning, March 8th, 2012:

People change — some people change a lot. I’ve gotten a much shorter haircut since GDC 2011. That doesn’t stop people from recognizing me, of course — it must be the huge glasses.

Someone else who had changed a lot stopped me as I was on my way from one thing to another thing. He looked me right in the eyes.

“I love your game.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m glad to see you put your money where your mouth is.”

“Oh — oh.”

“Do you feel like you’re part of a sort of French New Wave video game movement?”

“I’m not French.”

“I mean, do you feel like you’re the Jean-Luc Godard of video games?”

“Jean-Luc Godard is a pretty cool guy.”

This guy was looking me dead in the eye. His eyeball-centers were magnetic vortexes.

“Did you play my game? If so, what did you think of it? We worked hard on it.”

The juxtaposition of “my” and “we” twitched me out for a half a moment.

“I — I didn’t play it.”

“That’s right — you must be terribly busy.”

He was still staring me in the eye. His pupils were hands around my pupils’ wrists.

Wait a second — maybe I had played this guy’s game.

Here, another silent film intertitle bubbled into the center of my brain:

“If only this guy would look away for an instant, I could look down at his badge.”

I couldn’t just do a hand-wave gesture or a pathetic “Hey! What’s that?” This guy was a game designer: such player cues are transparent to the experience designer. My carefree ignorance would be a puppy behind a window.

Eventually, he looked away.

I’m . . . I’m not even Facebook friends with that guy.

Thursday, noon, March 8th, 2012:

“I love your game.”

“Okay. Um. Thanks!”

“I was wondering — I would love to know what you think of this one game. This particular game. It’s at the IGF. Maybe you’ve heard of it — it’s called Johann Sebastian Joust. Has anyone told you about it?”

“I’ve heard tell of it,” I said, considering after the fact that I should have phrased my reply “Only about ninety-five people”.

I wound up not playing Joust. Too many people were queued up. I went to the IGF booth — still too small and crowded, as always — talked a bit with Bennett Foddy about the one-button one-on-one fighting game we might be developing together. We’ll use Unity and hopefully have it finished and live thirty-six hours after we get started, or else just not make the darn thing at all.

Then I played Fingle with one of the developers of . . . Fingle.

Fingle is pretty neat. It requires two people to slide around the fingers of one of each of their hands on an iPad. The game warns the player that playing one player with two hands is cheating, though really — if you can actually play Fingle by yourself, you deserve a medal. One-player Fingle would be about as easy as knitting a scarf while running a marathon.

I’d recommend Fingle if you have an iPad and need a reason right now to rub your fingers all up against someone else’s fingers. I imagine it’s going to break all sorts of sex-ice.

Joust, meanwhile — there’s this big crowd of dudes cavorting and hyena-cackling. They’re having a good time. Add alcohol to Joust, and you’ve got broken ribs. Add alcohol to Fingle, and you’ve got broken ribs — broken in a hot way.

I’m sure Joust is funner than a barrel of monkeys huffing 5-hour Energy Drink, though my living room floor is solid concrete and I’m sure if we played it in my house someone would die.

Thursday, noon, March 8th, 2012:

“Stop talking about Jetpack Joyride.”

“Why?”

“You really shit people off when you bring up Jetpack Joyride.”

“What. How?”

“Bringing up Jetpack Joyride in a pitch meeting is like telling a book publisher you’ve got ‘The Next Harry Potter’.”

“I’d prefer you said ‘a book publisher circa 1940 that you’ve got “The Next Gone With The Wind”’.”

“It makes people groan and roll their eyes.”

“I’m sure that everyone else referencing Jetpack Joyride in a pitch meeting is only talking about copying The Big Parts.”

“Just because you’re a math genius doesn’t mean you can replicate Jetpack Joyride’s success on a molecular level.”

“First of all, I never purport to be a math genius. Second of all, this isn’t even about the math. It’s not about the particulars or specifics of the monetization model or item costs or average play-session values or play-session lengths.”

“What’s it about, then?”

“It’s about the tiny things — the molecular level. The location and size of the ‘play again’ button, the exact number of playable alternate vehicles, the fact that there are only three optional ‘missions’ at a time, et cetera. It’s not genius math — it’s basic math.”

Here’s where he burned me: “If you understand Jetpack Joyride so well, why isn’t ZiGGURAT number one on the App Store right now?”

I opened my mouth. I closed it.

“We got to #52,” I said. “With no marketing.”

“I know that.”

“We, uhh — we decided to make a smaller game,” I said, my face getting a little red (luckily, this was a voice-only Skype call). Why was I embarrassed? I was being totally honest: “We just wanted to make a little thing. A nice gesture. We’ll sleaze up the next one. I swear. You’ll see. We’ll sleaze it up — in the nicest way possible.”

So, a week after having this conversation with an always-exasperated producer — the type of guy who’d honestly rather have a thirty-page game design document than a working, feature-stuffed, fun-as-heck prototype, because a document is easier to get investors’ eyeballs over — here I was, at eleven thirty on a Thursday, about to listen to a guy talk about “depth in simplicity”: the success of Jetpack Joyride.

My attendance of this particular session was a positive reality check. I prayed, going in, that the nice man would say absolutely nothing I hadn’t already figured out during extensive conversations with bigshot producers: that to design a successful free-to-play game which is also a shallow, simple, tight, balanced arcadey action game is certainly 99% perspiration. That perspiration has everything to do with the minute particulars of the game’s congenial psychological interface.

Jetpack Joyride is a Nice Little Game. I love it from its idea upward. In a world of videogames trying to be Super-Size McDonalds French Fries, Jetpack Joyride is a cuddly teddy bear.

Jetpack Joyride is as tightly designed and smoothly oiled as a slot machine — only it’s not evil. It’s not trying to spiritually break you.

I told game designers George Kokoris and Mitu Khandaker, out on Market Street in downtown San Francisco minutes before the talk, “If I learn anything in here, I am going to quit my job and take up pottery.” I think they thought I was joking: I was not joking. I was dead serious.

Well, here I am, still doing this job.

The talk went like this:

The “restart friction” is low: the player wants to restart because the game

1. Rewards the player for losing (with items / slot machine spins)
2. Doesn’t ever really “stop” (it’s going on in the background, even in the game over screen)
3. Often optimizes probabilities of post-game rewards based on consecutive games played (if you’ve played six times in a row, the game becomes quietly fearful that you’re about to quit, and rewards you, for example, with an item that gives you double coins in your next run.
4. The game feels a tiny bit “unfair”. The player doesn’t blame himself when he fails: the decision to try again (“maybe it won’t be so unfair this time”) comes more easily.

This keeps the game “sticky”: the player finds it hard to put down. That’s simple enough.

When we made ZiGGURAT, we borrowed elements of Jetpack Joyride only so that we could present them exactly once in the game’s scripted flow. For example, we have an alien ship fly by at ninety seconds in. It’s hard to shoot the ship. If you shoot the ship . . . something happens. We inserted these elements, and then suppressed the urge to attach Jetpack Joyride’s stickiness to them. For example, we could have made “shoot the ship ten times” the prerequisite for earning a bigger, better gun for the next round.

We didn’t add any of these features because we are a very small team of people, and I am the sort of jerk who wants our first game to be sparklingly free of any of the modern game design psychology. I figure: let’s start with simple fun.

And I still envy Jetpack Joyride — I envy it a whole bunch. Lord, what I would do with a fraction of that money — what I would do with a grain of sand from its hourglass.

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012:

Two days before the start of the 2012 Game Developer’s Conference, I was in Taqueria Cancun in San Francisco’s Mission District with a whole slew of bloggers. Richard Lemarchand, lead designer of the Uncharted series, entered with a few friends. We’d tweeted back and forth at one another for a couple weeks. I was moved and entertained by his insistence on promoting my game over Twitter.

Someone introduced me to Lemarchand, and we got to talking while standing around that booze-sweaty delicious Mexican dive. I showed him that I’d printed up cards featuring ZiGGURAT’s promotional art and several review quotes — “9 out of 10 — EDGE” — and he offered to take a dozen of them, to hand them to “cool people”.

Three days later, while I was playing a prototype on my iPad with Bennett Foddy in a hallway, Lemarchand informed me that he’d run out of ZiGGURAT cards, and would need more. I gave him two dozen. Two days later, I gave him the rest of the cards.

On Friday, I was talking to someone — quietly, with a sore throat, as is the Convention Friday custom — and the subject came up of what games I’ve worked on. I showed this person my ZiGGURAT cards.

“Oh, hey — Richard Lemarchand gave me one of those.”

“Right on.”

“I downloaded a QR code reader to scan that QR code.”

“Oh. And then you scanned it?”

“Yeah — I thought it was a free download code.”

“Oh. Sorry about that. Did you buy the game anyway?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Cool.”

For the record, every time I handed a ZiGGURAT card to someone — with its loud, proud “ONLY $0.99!” in pink font — they asked, “Oh, hey! Is this a free download?” and then got this depressed look when I said, “Oh, no. Sorry.”

We’ve had our iPhone game out for just under a month now, and I will tell you what: people will go to some great lengths to find a writer they like’s email address, email him out of the blue, say they like his writing, and then ask for a free download code for your ninety-nine-cent game. I understand that The Thought counts for more than half of it — they could just be using the game as an excuse to say hi. People of the world: you don’t need an excuse to say hi to me. Also, we only got fifty download codes, and I had to use all of them for press.

Saturday night in The Mission, Richard Lemarchand tucked his first stack of ZiGGURAT cards into a slim little case.

“You know what’s brilliant about ZiGGURAT — it’s all right there. It has so much narrative and history and life right there in one scene.”

I told him that the game is something of a primary-colored tribute to Eric Chahi’s Another World. He told me he can see the similarity: one human beset on all sides by bloodthirsty alien freaks in a future so bleak the world consists only of clouds and triangular mountaintops.

“I presume you’re a fan of Jodorowsky and Moebius,” Lemarchand went on.

“We plan to make an epic-scale third-person shooter called ‘ZIGGURAT’, someday, which is highly influenced by those artists, and by the original ‘Conan The Barbarian’ film.”

Lemarchand wished me luck.

“You said on Twitter that you wanted to pitch me a 2D side-scrolling Rolling-Thunder-like game based on Uncharted.”

“Hah, yeah, that — it’d be the ‘MegaDrive Version’ of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Six levels. A static pixelated one-screen cut-scene with capital-lettered text between levels. We could use the old Naughty Dog logo.”

“That could be excellent.”

“We’ll make a prototype, and then I’ll drive down to Los Angeles to show it to you.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

Why is someone as creative and influential as Richard Lemarchand also such a nice guy? How the heck does that happen? What about that stereotype wherein cool people are all jerks? This guy really breaks the mold. Someday, I’ll be in charge of the game design of a triple-A franchise — even if I have to make it myself! — and I’ll try to be as cool as him.

Friday, March 6th, 2012:

The first time I ever met Yoshiro Kimura, designer of Chulip and Little King’s Story, we talked a lot about Minami-Senju.

It turns out that Minami-Senju, a town in Tokyo semi-famous for its charming grayness and abundance of colorful homeless drifters, was the inspiration for the cartoon weirdland setting of Chulip. I told Kimura that I lived in Minami-Senju, and had for several years, and we had a weird moment wherein we realized we’d seen one another around.

Kimura began inviting me to weekend gatherings he hosted at his old Super Mario World ghost-house-like house in Setagaya. There, I learned many things — like that Tingle from the latter-day Zelda games is based on a real person, and that real person is hilarious, and his favorite cheese is in fact Gouda.

During the very first party Kimura invited me to, he answered the door at one point, and escorted a young, attractive girl into the living room. He put his hands on her shoulders and prompted her to rotate to face me.

“You! You will talk to this girl. You and her will become best friends and inspire one another with your creativity. You will fall in love and be married and have three children. You — she is a comic writer and artist. You — he is a game designer and writer who also plays the guitar in a band. You will have much to talk about.”

He was a little bit drunk. The girl turned out to be wonderful, though I was seeing someone at the time, and when that someone was gone it was too late and weird to call her up. She didn’t come to any parties aside from just the one, anyway.

Once, I took a girl to Yoshiro Kimura’s house. She was blonde and American. Yoshiro Kimura loved her. He got a little bit drunker and told me that I should marry this girl and have “two dozen tiny babies” with her. I told him I would see what I could do.

Before this story becomes exhausting, I’ll summarize: the pattern is that Yoshiro Kimura sees me with a woman, and then tells me I should marry her.

At this year’s Game Developer’s Conference, Kimura was in a different place than usual — both literally (he was in the United States, not Japan) and figuratively: he was, for the first time in his long career in the Japanese games industry, without a full-time employer.

He had quit his job as a creative bigshot at Grasshopper Manufacture just nine months earlier, around the same time that Yasuhiro “Harvest Moon” Wada had also stepped away from the quickly expanding juggernaut of a studio.

Kimura is a hilarious man. He has an incredible sense of humor. He has the mannerism of a university professor in an old movie. I introduced him to Bennett Foddy, and explained that this was the man who had made QWOP, and Kimura nodded his way politely through the conversation. The next day — Wednesday — Kimura ran up to me and dug Foddy’s business card out of his wallet.

“I Googled this guy last night!” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “I feel so foolish! How did I not realize who he was? How could I not have shaken his hand? Can you call him? Do you have his telephone number? I want his autograph.”

I told him that Foddy was stationed in the IGF booth by his game, GIRP. I wonder if Kimura tracked Foddy down to shake his hand? I hope he did.

Later that afternoon, I enjoyed a cup of tea and a business conversation with Mr. Kimura outside the only cafe we could find that wasn’t crowded with GDC attendees. Kimura had purchased a book called “250 Indie Games”. He was flipping through the book, and taking notes in a notebook: he was deciding what order to tackle the task of playing every game in that book.

My friend Tracey Lien happened to be interviewing Adam Saltsman at this same cafe — at the table right next to the one where Kimura and I were sitting.

“This girl is incredible,” he said, at one point. “I have no idea what she is saying, though I can tell from the tone of her voice and the expression on her face that she is a driven person who will no doubt find great success in her career.”

Now Kimura looked at me.

“I think you should marry her.”

Before I could answer, he shifted the conversation back to business.

The idea we were discussing evolved to a point where the only logical course of action was to agree to work on individual partial design documents once GDC was over and we were back to our respective homes.

Now Kimura looked at Adam Saltsman.

“Who is this guy she’s interviewing?”

“He’s the guy who made Canabalt.”

Kimura’s eyes lit up. He flipped open his “250 Indie Games” book. He found Canabalt.

“I should ask for his autograph.”

He got Adam Saltsman’s autograph.

That night, he left the book in the auditorium after the Game Developer’s Choice Awards. He’d be back and forth between the lost and found and his meetings for the rest of the show.

Friday night, when the book still hadn’t turned up — he’d bought another copy — he told me, “Maybe I’ll meet him again someday, as his equal.” He wasn’t being pretentious; it felt amazing, for a moment, to have such a gifted yet humble person for a friend.

Having friendly conversations with Yoshiro Kimura is like reading that Peter Molydeux Twitter account — only, thanks to real-world conversations not being limited to 140 characters, he fleshes out his wacky ideas with incredible credibility. We enjoyed Blue Bottle cappuccinos in the Westfield food court, and thought-designed a half-dozen pretty-neat games together.

Kimura asked what I was doing tonight; I said I was having dinner with Adam Rippon, creator of Dragon Fantasy for iOS, and that I intended to talk with him about a project we were getting started. I invited Kimura to join me; Kimura reported that he was meeting Yasuhiro Wada.

I showed Dragon Fantasy to Kimura. He immediately laughed delightedly at the aesthetic. “It’s perfect. It’s pitch-perfect. What’s it about? What’s the story?”

I told him that Adam Rippon made the game after his father passed away. “His father always encouraged him to be creative. He ended up working as a programmer for other people’s games. So he made a Japanese-style role-playing game where the hero is based on his late father. That’s why the hero is old and bald.”

Kimura was literally in tears. He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm.

“That is incredible. I’ve never been more honored to be involved with making videogames.”

Friday, March 9th, 2012:

“I heard a lot of people around GDC saying so.”

“It seems to be a theme of more than a few talks.”

Some professional game developers were having this conversation in a meeting room.

Two years prior, this conversation would have been about how social games are The Next Big Thing.

Last year, this conversation would have been about how you can monetize even a game made with very little effort.

This year, it’s about this: “Games should feel good.”

“What are people saying about this?”

“The Jetpack Joyride guy said so.”

“Huh. Hmm. Hmmmmm.”

“Feel is important. Everyone is saying so.”

A half an hour later, I was in room 3014 in the West Hall. It was the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. Steve Swink was talking about Scale, a game in which you can change the sizes of every object in the world with the pull of a gun-trigger. The world preserves mass and size, meaning you can only assign so much altered size value to any given object. Shrink some giant mushrooms, and the tiny spikes grow large enough for you to walk between them. Impressive. Interesting. I’m sitting in the back, a MacBook Air open on my lap, a sickly, barren Google Doc open on the desktop. My eyes dart up to the projection screens every now and again, and dark parts of my brain light up: this game isn’t just interesting — it’s incredible. If the level design is hot enough, this could be the next Portal.

And I’m writing a user-interface design document for a social-mobile game.

“TITLE SCREEN”.

So, there has to be a “START GAME” button. They want modes. I want one mode. I want a bunch of modes seamlessly nested into another mode.

“I heard some people at GDC saying that more modes equals more money.”

. . . No one in the offices where I serve as a consulting game designer had said that.

Jetpack Joyride just has one mode! And it’s got little achievements and boosts inside it. I can make a case for this — I think.

“START GAME” — that’s too many words. Make it “START”. Why is there even a title screen at all? What percentage of These Modern Social-Mobile Gamers are so impatient that they’ll close an app and delete it if the title screen requires interaction? Isn’t this why Pocket Gems games use the “loading” screen as a title screen? I should suggest this — flush it down the pipe, wait for it to come out on the other end as a “yes” or a “no”. Here I am, on Google, trying to find precedents.

“We need to go to that workshop on prototyping,” two Guys In The Office were saying the day before.

The next day, one of them said, “I should have taken a photo of That One Slide.” They had gone in to gather ammunition for their next Conversation With The Boss.

I look up: there’s a little pebble, rolling. The player grows the pebble; it’s now large enough to fit on some tracks without falling through. He shrinks the tracks, growing an arch so it’s large enough for the boulder-sphere to roll under.

Later, Daniel Benmergui is talking about Storyteller.

I lose myself for a few minutes in the presentation.

Jenova Chen is talking about Journey.

I’m in this Google Doc, still, explaining in painstaking detail why the “PLAY AGAIN” button has to be bigger than the “Select Character” button.

I’ve brought a head of cabbage to a candy buffet.

Eventually, Data Realms development director (and my fitness role model) Dan Tabar vaults over the seat-back next to me. He sits down and asks me what he missed. He pulls out a mammoth-choking Zip-Loc bag full of cashews and raisins: This is more like it. Real-life nuts and raisins are better than a head of metaphorical cabbage.

He checks his email. The US Department of Immigration has just informed him that he is invited to attend an oath ceremony, and thus officially become a US Citizen.

“Congratulations,” I tell him.

Bennett Foddy is talking about GIRP, and I’m typing about — I’m going to stop drawing comparisons. I was writing about something infinitely more boring than GIRP.

Saturday, March 10th, 2012:

A documentary filmmaker who works on programs for German government-funded television is in my house. His glasses and mustache are amazing relics of incredible eras. He’s set up microphones and a camera more expensive than my television. I’m talking to him about my game. The guy interviews actual celebrities — like, Hollywood ones — with regularity. He’d just interviewed Tim Schafer the day before. He’s asking me real questions. He’s treating me like someone who’s actually done something.

And I’m thinking: all I did was send eighteen psychedelic labyrinthine emails every day for four solid months to three people infinitely more provably talented than I am.

So I go ahead and say that, on camera: the reporter smiles.

“How did you find these people more talented than you are?”

I mention that I had sent a tweet, asking for talented 2D artists wanting to work for free to send me a fan-illustration of the Japanese Phantasy Star II box art. That’s how I met Brent Porter, who is also a programmer and my spirit brother.

“And why was he following you on Twitter?”

“Well, because of my dumb trolling flame-bait game reviews, I guess.”

Here is where the German filmmaker told me, “You are the Jacques Rivette of game developers.”

I laughed. “You’re not the first person this week to compare me to a French New Wave film critic-turned-director. Man. Maybe I should move to France.”

“It is lovely there this time of year,” the German said, totally serious.

“Huh.”

Now I was thinking about it: I had found my entire team because they were each hip to the dumb joke of my internet persona and critical attitude. And they’re all the nicest, most normal, most thoughtful, Facebook-invisible, smooth individuals. When it comes time for me to finally get married, I will need to roll a D20 to pick a best man. (Full Disclosure: I have never touched a D20 in my life, though I did enjoy Baldur’s Gate..)

And that’s probably my heaviest takeaway from GDC: I just know (of) too many awesome people. Who am I supposed to hang out with? It’s scary to face decision paralysis in the name of leisure. GDC is like a music festival where there are literally 98 bands you want to see; the schedule and geography permit you to see only six of them. The list of people I wanted to see again and the people I wanted to try meeting for the first time was so long it gave me vertigo just to think of it. Maybe this makes me a weirdo, though I always run into people at GDC and think, “Man, I could probably be friends with this person in real life.” If I talked to you for more than two minutes at GDC 2012, I was probably thinking that. Please don’t let this weird-up our informal internet relationships, guys.

tim rogers

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