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GDC 2011: Social Game Developers Rant Back

March 3, 2011

Brenda Brathwaite
COO & Game Designer, Loot Drop
GDC 2011: No Freakin’ Respect! Social Game Developers Rant Back

[This rant was recorded by Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat: You can see the piece here.]

I resist this rant. I resist its leading title, and I resist the will to fight. I will not turn against my fellow developers who have supported me through 30 years of my career.

We have been through this before. For me, it begins in 1981.

“You’re ruining games, you know.”

My Dungeons & Dragons DM said this to me when I started working at Sir-tech Software on the Wizardry series of games. “Games aren’t meant to be played like that, not this game.” He had heard about Wizardry, how I could create 6 characters and take them on an Apple II adventure, without interacting with any other human beings. It wasn’t social like D&D was; it wasn’t even particularly intellectually challenging. The entire game had maybe three puzzles in it, and an absolutely endless series of button mashes – Fight, Fight, Fight, Parry, Parry, Parry. It would have been a clickfest, but we didn’t have mice on our machines back then.

I remember people writing letter after letter after letter when they found the Lesser Demons and Greater Demons that haunted the lower levels of the maze. They called us evil and said our games promoted Satanism. They didn’t, and we didn’t, but it was a reflection of the time we were in.

It was a challenging time. We stood together, you and me, because we loved games.

I remember when graphics started to replace text, and we worried that the game’s deeper meaning would be lost, and that soon, games would be nothing more than meaningless images incapable of transmitting any deep type of play, never mind the feared complete loss of story. I remember lamenting the loss of the text parser and absolutely railing against keyword conversations because, to me, they dumbed down the whole game to the level of toast. I remember when cutscenes first appeared in games and we committed the cardinal sin, taking the game out of the hands of the player, because we wanted to show something cool and wow them, even if they just sat there waiting for it to pass.

I remember these things, you remember these things, because we loved games.

I remember when we really started having fun and players were slapping each other silly in arcades and at home in Mortal Kombat. It seems so quaint now, the ripping out of your opponent’s heart. Thanks to a bunch of concerned legislators, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were dragged to the floor of Congress in 1993, and that same year in front of the same Congress, Sega and Nintendo fought each other like two foolish characters in front of the world. Then DOOM was released and blamed for Columbine and every police officer stopped asking, “Did he listen to Ozzy Osbourne,” and instead wondered, “Did he play GTA?”. We stood together, most of us, because we knew that games were games, and that games didn’t shoot people. Real guns and real bullets did.  We’ve been called murder simulators, sex simulators, rape simulators, insensitive and horrible. In this very state, legislators have tried to class games with drugs as “harmful substances” in order to prohibit their sale.

I remember these things, you remember these things, because we loved games.

I remember when a cut feature was found and hacked, and the term “Hot Coffee” no longer referred to a steaming hot beverage but a steaming pile of shit as the game industry was once again threatened, re-rated, and subjected to over 100 new pieces of legislation in response. Some game developers made really bad games about sex and explored its frontiers. And I remember Elder Scrolls getting re-rated, because they revealed that underneath a woman’s bra, God forbid, there are nipples, even if you can’t actually ever see them through normal gameplay. More recently, Fox News called Mass Effect a virtual sex simulator.

We stood together, you and me, because we love games.

When the powers that be asked us to work a little bit more, then a lot more and then seven days a week, we supported one another. When seven days a week turned to months and sometimes months turned to years, we stood behind a lone courageous voice, EA Spouse, and forwarded her call to everyone we knew. When they came for our products, our creativity, for our companies, for our hours, and for our families, we did everything we could in public and behind the scenes to fight against the people in suits and for our games.

We stood together, you and me, because we love games.

I remember when on the floor of this very conference, we fought against allowing console game developers admission and vigorously debated letting our beloved CGDC become merely the GDC. I remember when I first heard games called “addictive”. I’d returned from a morning spent volunteering at an alcohol detox center. I wondered what their definition of “addictive” was. I remember the horrible month of September 2001 when flight simulators were blamed for the horror that was 9/11. Racism, hate crimes, violence against women, children, and animals: all of these have been our burdens to bear.

We stood together, you and me, because we love games.

And then we moved to Facebook.

I know the things that are upsetting to you, and I can assure you they are also upsetting to me. I have seen the strip miners and their entry into games. I have seen them exploit technology and new platforms not for the purpose of crafting beautiful creative works but rather taking the audience for all they can get. They are not one of us or from us, but rather from another space, and they do not understand this contract that we’ve had with our players since 1978, because we are our players. These people do not care about gameplay. They do not care about games. They do not care about players. They do not care about fun. And you know what? I dislike them just as much as you. I have witnessed decisions made not for fun but for fortune. I have seen games gutted, and players churned and burned. I have seen things I never want to see again.

And these game developers here on the stage? We are not like them, and we do not come from that world. Like you, we want good gameplay, we want compelling experiences, we want casual, and we want hardcore. We want to make a great game for the 43-year-old Facebook Mom, because – damn it – she deserves a great game, too. We are not the ones making what some of you call “evil games” but rather the first fucking wave, the Marines storming the beach to take our medium, our culture, and our potential back.

And as you look upon these games and curse them, know that we look upon the very same horizon and see a great space of possibility. I hope you will someday be the occupying force.

We stand together, you and me, because we love games.

Thank you.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2011 12:16 am

    Thank you, Brenda. You didn’t take the bait, but you still made your point. Bringing us together is more productive than dividing us into camps. Rants are entertaining and sometimes maybe they get the job done. But in this case, listening and responding with compassion advances your argument more forcefully than any podium-pounding rant might have done.

  2. goran permalink
    March 4, 2011 12:28 am

    When I finished reading this I realised I had a tear in my eye:). Absolutely great energy in your writing.
    I come from a small county that has great talent, but no culture of game design. I set to change that and people like you give me the fuel to keep my fire burning. All because I love games and can’t stand to watch great talent go to waste.

    Thank you 🙂

  3. March 4, 2011 7:07 am

    You sure know how to fire up a crowd, Brenda! 🙂

  4. Elizabeth permalink
    March 4, 2011 7:19 am

    Thank you for absolutely crystallizing why I’m so compelled by social games right now. Yes.

  5. March 4, 2011 7:53 am

    Thank you for this, Brenda. It’s inspiring during a period where I’m having my own struggles along these lines.

    I currently have an opportunity to work for one of the companies industry folks consider, shall we say, notorious? It’s honestly a great opportunity for a stable job that would let me move back home and, importantly, actually let me work as a designer, which is a hard sort of thing to get work doing right out of school in most companies I’ve spoken with.

    Yet, most of the reactions I get are “Seriously!?” or “But you’re actually good at game design; why would you want to work there?” and variations on the theme.

    Well, maybe that’s the point. Maybe I want to try to make things better there in some small way. Maybe I’ve got some ideas to explore the possibility space. Maybe I’d rather be part of the solution instead of complaining about the situation.

    Still, it’s been painful to deal with getting the kind of reactions some people have been tossing my way since I decided to pursue it– even though I’ve been avoiding admitting it is. This is exactly the opposite, though, so I’m glad its available to those of us that couldn’t make GDC this year.

    So, you know what? Screw it– I’m storming the beach. Damn the torpedoes.

    • March 7, 2011 6:54 am

      Corwyn, I may be alone in this, but: don’t do it.

      I, too, had stars in my eyes when I took a job at a place notorious in the game industry for a particular sin. I thought I could nuance my way around it. Surely everyone can get behind design! No, some places have an acidic corporate culture when it comes to creativity. It’s treated as a byproduct, not an ingredient. Your chances of changing a billion dollar behemoth from the inside? Not so good.

    • jla01 permalink
      March 30, 2011 1:57 pm

      I’ve been working in the industry for almost 13 years and I too thought I could make a difference in one of those “notorious” AAA devs which I joined recently that puts out a refresh every year or so.

      If it’s the one I’m at, I would highly warn against it.

      Honestly, the stuff I’ve seen pulled in here makes EA look like a kid’s park and you aren’t really going to make a difference. WAY too much money, WAY too many egos. You will start to hate the gig in about 6 mo. after being a cog.

      I’m trying to get out as soon as I can…so run don’t walk away.

  6. March 4, 2011 8:04 pm

    Ok – I can get behind this, for the most part, and I do see a ton of possibilities on the horizon, but so far even the people I’ve most respected appear to be making terrible games. Am I wrong? Are there amazing Facebook games I just haven’t found yet? I agree that the games OUGHT to be great, and that there is plenty of space for great social games – I’m just baffled that none seem to exist yet. Why pioneer awfulness?

    • March 5, 2011 1:29 pm

      It’s possible that a good game on facebook, even if it is a good game, won’t be a good game for you personally. Most likely nobody is ever going to make a PS3 game that I’ll like, because the things that people want that platform to do, and the things it’s good at doing, are terrible for me.

      I’m not defending any particular title, as I’m not personally interested in facebook games and haven’t been researching them. But what features in particular are you running into that are making them ‘terrible games’?

    • Slachter permalink
      July 15, 2011 5:58 am

      Facebook games are played by people who necessarily don’t play traditional games. They seem to like repetitive simple games because they can excel in these games without learning new skills. Hardcore gamers on the other hand want a challenge and learn new skills. That’s a conflict of interest. I am not saying, that you can’t create a Facebook game I would like, but at least I haven’t found any. I just have zero interest in clicking trees every hour to collect the berries. My despair was great when I learned about CivWorld and ‘defection’ of Brian Reynolds.

  7. March 5, 2011 8:24 pm

    Who out there in the industry is annoyed at the potential fun that could be a part of the social gaming experience? No one.

    Social game developers are looked down on because, almost without exception, they are working on projects that barely resemble games and exist only to monetize a new audience instead of try to deliver a worthwhile gaming experience.

    If anything, the industry should be rallying to cordon off social game development to it’s own little bubble, and leave the real game development to the folks who know what’s important: the gameplay.

  8. MadTinkerer permalink
    March 6, 2011 1:58 am

    Well this is almost enough to make me try Facebook games again (last time I tried a Facebook game was about a year before the rise of Farmville). But there’s so much opportunistic drivel in that space right now, and it just seems like the Casual Boom all over again. A zillion clones, utterly indistinguishable, and worse: the ones that do manage to rise above the rest do so mostly because of inertia of the number of players involved rather than the merits of the design.

    But maybe I’m wrong.

    Part of the problem is I really don’t have the time to investigate which Facebook games are worth my time on top of everything else I’m doing right now. Madden, Guitar Hero, and CoD are a few examples of massively popular genres I completely ignore because each year’s model is exactly the same as the last and thus the franchises as a whole become boring. So it’s not like I’m just anti-Casual, anti-Social-Network.

    When Lucasarts and Sierra ruled the Point & Click adventure genre, you could tell instantly whether a game was a Lucasarts game or a Sierra game. For PC gamers, the rivalry was as legendary as Nintendo vs. Sega.

    But now you can’t tell the difference between anyone anymore. If every Facebook game looks like every other Facebook game and there’s no way to tell the difference between the innovators and the ripoff artists, the risk of me wasting my time on junk just seems too high. I only have so much time to play, and I really don’t want to miss out on the next World of Goo, Minecraft, or Plants vs. Zombies because I’m too busy tending crops in Farmville.

    But maybe I’ll give it another try. After all, if Brenda Brathwaite says I should think twice about dismissing Facebook games, I probably need to think twice.

  9. Adrian Lopez permalink
    March 6, 2011 1:14 pm

    I’d be less skeptical of Facebook games if their mechanics weren’t so often and so blatantly aimed at increasing exposure and generating revenue. There’s a significant conflict between design decisions where players are the main beneficiaries and design decisions where players are resources to be exploited for cash and relationships. Facebook games tend to have both, but where the latter decisions are evident I find they tend to cheapen the former.

    I understand social game designers’ desire to defend their craft, but the question remains: How do you design financially viable Facebook games that don’t exploit players for friends and cash? Traditional games do this through compelling gameplay, word of mouth and unit sales, but what about Facebook games? Much of the “word of mouth” in existing Facebook games is generated by computers, and monetization is achieved not through sales but through microtransactions that tend to break a game’s fourth wall while milking players for all they’re worth. What remains is compelling gameplay, which Facebook games do often have but for which “compelling” is often closer to the negative sense of the word than to its sense as a virtue.

    How, then, do you make Facebook games that play as well as traditional games without the publisher going broke? That’s what I’d like to know.

  10. March 6, 2011 6:15 pm

    I liked this rant because it highlights how crappy Facebook games are and, just like my goal, it seeks to bring fun to Facebook games. Many social game designers also love games, but right now they don’t have the backing to make something truly great from a gameplay point of view.

    Of course, the reasons for this are many and not even fully clarified yet… but I almost jumped for joy at the announcement of Loot Drop, because finally the designers are free (unlike Brian Reynolds for example) and don’t have the boss man demanding monetization and virality over creating a gameplay experience that people WANT to spend money on and WANT to get their friends to play with them.

    Right now, Facebook is too easy for those with cash. Hopefully some real designers (such as yourselves at Loot Drop) can get some money and show the world that it can be better. Because we love games.

  11. March 10, 2011 8:27 am

    Great job Brenda! It is so fortunate that we have someone with so much experience to back us up in regards to our purpose and dealings on the socialized side of design. These are new grounds of design and discovery for the game industry. Having mentors such as you in this field will allow some of us to forge ahead faster, in-order to lay-down the first real set of creative standards which will become Socialized Game Design for generations to come.

  12. Joe McGinn permalink
    March 10, 2011 7:31 pm

    Probably get flamed this this but … maybe social gamer developers should stop being paranoid about this “lack of respect” and start addressing the real issues. As Ryan said in his blog ( ) GDC was an embarrassment in the social gaming sessions. Issues and real debates being avoided with a passion – for some weird reason social game developers seem to prefer whining about the lack of respect to discussing the issues.

  13. Kirstie Dolphin permalink
    March 16, 2011 10:48 am

    My mum is a 53 year-old facebook social gamer and your right she does deserve a game she will enjoy and love! and Yeah farmville floats her boat, there should be games for everyone!!

    I’m starting a girl gamer magazine in England and social gaming is on a rise and I plan to try help it!!!!

  14. Adrian Lopez permalink
    March 17, 2011 10:41 pm

    Oh so true:

  15. March 21, 2011 1:38 pm

    Great rant, alas the future has indeed happened, but lets hope it is not too late to fight back! 🙂

  16. March 25, 2011 2:03 pm

    Best rant ever, it’s moving (comes from the heart).
    Very true. I am happy with Flash games at the moment, some renaissance of that spirit.
    ps: Rift sucks.

  17. Shem Taylor permalink
    April 21, 2011 5:02 am

    It’s very correct to say that major game development studios adopt a one size fits all mentally with their titles, it is however, a contentious point to argue that, that mentality means a game will not be as good simply by that virtue. The unfortunate truth is that game designers are artists and artists essentially hate compromising with reality.

    As technology has advanced our industry has seen corresponding rises in the player’s expectations on the complexity of games. The more complex a project is the more money is required for its development and large sums of money are sought from financial institutions and shareholders. It is for this reason that complicated games must target a larger audience and players and designers must accept compromises.

    Independent development studios have alot more control over development and can create games with unique game play, compelling story lines and interesting themes. But both the designer and player must compromise again. The designer must hobble their design because the small developers don’t have access the specialised labour and game engines. The player must compromise on their expectations of an incredibly complicated and advanced game.

    A desirable skill in a game designer is the ability to accept and thrive on compromise. They must be capable of producing an excellent game within the constraints that they work under because without exception they will be encountered at all levels of games development.

  18. Grant permalink
    May 5, 2011 9:39 pm

    This post was inspiring to read, I am a student and having been a gamer since my dad bought me a Sega Master System II. I have grown up playing games and even today some of my favourite, current, games are purely text based. Even in that niche market things are changing, games that once were highly focused on providing high standards in both the dramatic and formal elements of gaming have been… dumbing themselves down.

    It seems to have been happening everywhere though, from the perspective of a gamer there has been a downhill slide, where more and more games have been released to attract to a wider and wider audience. I am hoping against hope that once we have snagged these people who once saw games as the domain of the nerds, that we can train them, slowly but surely raising their expectation and skill to the point that we can start moving them onto the games that we have known and loved over the years.

  19. Nathan Forsyth permalink
    May 6, 2011 2:52 am

    Hi Brenda!

    You make some really good points in your rant; I especially like the point about how the designers of games should be the ones that play games as well. I believe that designers and developers should be gamers themselves, as the designer is really an advocate for the gamer and thus should have what is best for whoever is playing the game at the front of their mind, rather than thinking wholly about how they can best make money from the game.

    All the clones of games and clones of clones of games these days are in essence just a money grab from the AAA game design studios. What the designers should be focussing on are reinventing the gameplay of a game and coming up with something innovative and different, rather than a carbon copy of whatever is out there. Regardless of how many people actually buy these game clones and how much money the studios are making from them, everybody deserves something better from the videogame industry, they deserve a chance to be immersed in a world where it’s almost like they’re living the game, rather than just playing it. Gameplay should be about immersion and the ability to escape reality, rather than pointless continuous clicking to just waste time here and there.

    That’s just my two cents at least.

  20. Varoon permalink
    May 6, 2011 5:59 am

    That was an amazing read. I am a student someday to be in the gaming industry. I figured that’s how it goes around in the world of Facebook Gaming, but it is hard to believe you can’t get to play one good game. The games are so caped on creativity and so focused and trying to make money. I understand the companies have to produce what is expected by the shareholders but I believe they can find a better way to do so without interrupting the gameplay. My teacher taught me the skill is not to produce the best but to produce the best possible with the least you have and with the great amount of money going into these fields it would be expected that a game that is enjoyable would be produced.
    It is great to know that there are people out there who what to make games for what they are. This was a real boost in moral for me. It may take time but I am sure that there will be better games on FB someday as people who play games on Facebook increase, as will they demand for better games rise. It may take time but it will happen.

  21. May 25, 2011 12:36 am

    Epic! Even more so than wow rares. You could leaf an army with this rant. Oh I’m gonna make darth vader helmets out old IKEA bowls!. Let me know if you get an army of takers going. 😉

  22. June 1, 2011 1:21 am

    I have a dream… [buy comment coins to read the rest of this text]

    Sorry, only joking.

    Good rant!

  23. June 13, 2011 1:46 pm

    Great speech, Brenda. It’s wonderful to know there are game developers out there still fighting the good fight.

  24. July 1, 2011 2:28 am

    You could leaf an army with this rant. Oh I’m gonna make darth vader helmets out old IKEA bowls!. Let me know if you get an army of takers going. 😉

  25. September 1, 2011 3:32 am

    You’ve touched upon some excellent points in your post. As a passionate gamer, I was quite moved by your speech. Sadly, there is a new group of game developers whose sole aim is to generate large profits. They lack the proper creative passion and love for gaming that is necessary to create a great game. Game design is its own special art form and one that needs to be defended against the likes of such profit-hounds. What makes gaming so compelling is its ability to entertain and engage people on a level that is both recreational and intellectual. While such masterpieces are few and far in-between, they are a standard that all game designers, as artists, should aspire to.


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