As the internet raged, game devs at GDC screamed for change


As the internet raged, game devs at GDC screamed for change

The Moscone Center's North Hall is covered in GDC signage.
Game Developers Conference

For a certain subset of angry gamers planted behind their keyboards, March 18 was just another day in the digital outrage mines.

The video game industry was weeks into its latest “controversy,” this one aimed at a small consulting team called Sweet Baby Inc. The company, which provides writing support for some of the industry’s biggest studios, had become a target for a small but loud group of players over the course of a few months. Their gripe? Sweet Baby Inc was forcing diversity into games through its industry-standard services, which include cultural consulting for studios looking to add more authentic representation into titles like Alan Wake 2. Some spent that Wednesday continuing to rage on sites like X (formerly Twitter) over the nebulous threat of “wokeness” in games, just as they had been for weeks.

That same day, the people who actually make those games were venting some anger of their own. But those voices weren’t hidden behind anonymous social media profiles; they were screaming out loud for the world to hear. The moment of catharsis opened this year’s Game Developers Conference, an annual gathering of game developers. Frustrated with a new wave of harassment on top of months filled with layoffs and instability, developers gathered outside San Francisco’s Moscone Center to let out a collective scream.

“Let’s take a minute where we all stop pretending, and express just how it feels to be a game developer in 2024,” an online page advertising the event read.

That was a running theme throughout GDC at large this year. The conference was a crucial forum for game developers who sought to achieve real change amid a dark moment for an industry that’s already shed thousands of jobs this year. And while the show took place under a long shadow, hope rang out through convention center hallways as game makers united to find their way back to the light.

Venting frustration

Game Developers Conference is an annual event where game makers gather in and around San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The show is home to insightful panels on game design, allowing creatives to share a year’s worth of learnings with their peers. On a more fundamental level, the conference acts as the industry’s biggest water cooler. It’s a social event, as evidenced by the smiling packs of attendees who spent the week chatting in Yerba Buena Gardens, a sunny park just outside of the Moscone Center’s North Hall.

Yerba Buena took on an even more symbolic role this year, acting as the home for the “GDScream” that kicked off the show. The feelings expressed in that carnal yell become especially tangible when you look at the past three months of news. Despite 2023 being a banner year for video games, many companies kicked off 2024 with massive layoffs. Riot Games laid off 530 staffers, even shutting down its Riot Forge publishing arm entirely, while Microsoft cut a staggering 1,900 jobs. Those weren’t anomalies either; major players like PlayStation and EA slashed hundreds of jobs each, alongside cuts at smaller studios.

It’s enough bad news to make you want to scream.

Most cathartic at #gdc GDScream screaming at the state of the game industry. #unionize

— Hideo KoJimmy (Jimmy Chi) (@TenaciousChi) March 20, 2024

Frustrations were vented in and around the halls of the Moscone Center through the entire week, but they reached a fever pitch at the Independent Games Festival Awards, which took place at the show on March 21. The celebratory night was filled with fiery speeches from winners who used their spotlight to shine a light on everything from layoffs to the conflict in Gaza. The show opened with a State of the Industry address from developer Shawn Pierre that summed up the frustrations to waves of applause.

“We’ve already seen thousands of people losing work this year because they’re not being valued the way they should be,” Pierre said on stage. “People are working overtime and on weekends only to be left behind after a game is completed. It’s unhealthy, it’s certainly not sustainable, and the end result of this is a weaker games industry for all of us … Between the countless announcements of layoffs, we’re also reading too many stories of how people are being systematically pushed out of the game industry instead of empowered and recognized for their contributions. They’re being made to feel like they don’t belong, that the work they’re doing is not significant and instead is harmful to games. This is beyond unacceptable, and change is well overdue.”

Independent Games Festival Awards and Game Developers Choice Awards Livestream | GDC 2024

I spent the week talking to multiple developers and other industry professionals about those challenges. Conversations ranged from dissections of the industry’s sustainability crisis to the online pushback to diversity. When I spoke with Dr. Jakin Vela from the International Game Developers Association, he painted a broad picture of the current crisis and how it’s impacting both the industry and the people who build it.

“It’s a wake-up call for a lot of developers in the industry,” Vela tells Digital Trends. “I don’t think most developers think of job security as something they have, but I feel that’s something we need to feel to be a sustainable industry. If we have people who are concerned about losing their jobs today, tomorrow, or have already lost their jobs, how are we keeping people in this industry to sustain its growth? People are legitimizing the profession across nations, our governments are funding games, yet how are we going to keep developers if the industry is making them disposable?”

Those feelings were universal among the developers I spoke to at the show, though some felt it to varying degrees. Vela noted in our interview that some of the issues the industry faces are more uniquely American problems, like the challenges of getting established unions for developers as opposed to other countries. International developers I spoke to reinforced that idea, with some noting that their unconventional studio structures are able to work thanks to European law.

It’s always the best of times and the worst of times.

What’s harder to get a sense of is just how uniquely dire the situation is. The video game industry is no stranger to ups and downs. Just look at the great video game crash of 1983, which plunged the medium into recession for years. Those who have been around for a long time, like Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, noted that the moment is the latest in a cycle – something that can either be read as comforting or disheartening.

“In some ways, it’s always the best of times and the worst of times,” Mechner tells Digital Trends. “The industry is so big now; it’s not just one thing … There are wonderful games being made with all of the challenges, and I think that’s always been the case, but every new twist in the industry brings its own opportunities and challenges. I know that the first months of this year have been brutal in so many ways, but it’s not the first time in this industry that many have had that feeling.”

What can we fix?

While there was a lot of discussion about the industry’s problems at GDC, developers weren’t just shouting into the abyss; they were focused on finding solutions to a bevy of problems throughout the week. Though, as I discovered when speaking with game makers about the issues they faced, they’re fighting a war on multiple fronts.

At the end of most of my conversations at GDC, I asked developers the same open-ended prompt: If you could change one thing about the video game industry, what would it be? That question would turn out to be a brain-buster for some who struggled to narrow it down. The running response I heard was that one single change wouldn’t have an impact. The issues with the industry are so systematic that any alteration would involve uprooting the entire thing.

“Every few years, I feel like there’s a cycle of contraction and expansion,” Vela says. “But what we don’t end up doing is making these systematic changes to the industry. That’s a big deal! One person isn’t going to be able to do that. It’s societal structures of change that are required to be sustainable.”

Developers speak on a panel at Game Developers Conference 2024.
Game Developers Conference

Even when acknowledging that there was no singular change that felt like it would do enough, developers still had a lot of ideas. Some took the prompt in a broad direction, calling for more communication from studios or expressing a desire to get games to even more people. Others focused on very specific challenges. “I want a meaningful competitor to Steam!,” Jon Ingold of A Highland Song studio Inkle told me, highlighting the platform’s high fees and failure to protect developers from review bombing. Aggro Crab Games’ Nick Kaman agreed, noting that he would love to see Steam add a tipping feature to help developers earn more.

Other answers focused on diversity, a hot-button issue in the gaming world right now. While the crowd currently rallying against voices like Sweet Baby Inc seems to believe that diversity has been crammed down the industry’s throat, developers feel a very different way. Many I spoke to, like King’s Head of Central Insights Jan Wedekind, noted that the industry still isn’t doing enough to both hire and retain diverse talent.

“We talk a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Wedekind says. “We’ve been on that journey for quite a while, but it’s still a journey. It’s still not there. For example, in my area of data science, it’s still not as diverse as I would like it to be. I think that goes for all the parts of companies overall. We still can do better.”

There’s no place for harassment in this industry. We just need to squash it like a bug.

That attitude would explain why this year’s GDC featured such a heavy emphasis on the subject. Attendees could sit in on a number of educational panels on inclusivity, from forums advocating for better LGBTQ+ hiring to summits on responsible representation. Several developers I spoke to expressed the importance of more inclusive hiring, noting that greater diversity of thought leads to better games.

Online detractors had a different view. Images of GDC’s list of diversity panels became a meme for some on social media, who flaunted it through the week as proof of what some call “forced diversity” in the industry. That feeling is part of a wider issue for developers, as it has led to a new wave of online harassment reminiscent of the 2010s GamerGate campaign (many within the movement ironically claim that it exists to speak out against harassment, accusing a Sweet Baby Inc employee of engaging in harassment by reporting a Steam curator that had created a list of “not recommended” games the consultant worked on). Several developers I spoke to did cite that as a challenge they were facing, though their focus was on asking platform holders and studios to do a better job at protecting workers from it by taking strong, vocal stances for diversity and against online harassment.

“There’s no place for harassment in this industry. We just need to squash it like a bug,” Vela says.

Holding leadership accountable

Dealing with online trolls was a smaller issue in the grand scheme of things, though. The hurdles developers face are more tangible issues that threaten the existence of the video game industry at all levels. That manifests in a number of ways, including a current lack of funding for independent developers, as Another Crab’s Treasure Creative Director Caelan Pollock explains.

“We are seemingly entering a time where it is a lot harder for indie games, especially, to get funding like they used to,” Pollock tells Digital Trends. “I think that’s really concerning, not just because I like it when me and my friends have money, but I also think indie games being funded is an important part of the games industry ecosystem in general. It’s where a lot of interesting creative work comes from that you don’t see in AAA. So I think those sort of medium, small games not being able to get made at the same rate is something that’s concerning to me.”

What if we had people-first studios?

With such a tangled web of problems, it’s easy to see why developers were so hesitant to give a sufficient answer to the “If you could change one thing …” prompt. But as I spoke to developers, a common theme did emerge: Developers want more help and accountability from executives at the top of the industry.

“Systematically, I would change the way businesses go about supporting their employees,” Vela says. “I would love to see people-first studios always. And I know there’s going to be arguments for the bottom line and ‘you can’t have a business if you don’t have money!’ I get that, it’s the system we live in. But what if we had people-first studios? What if we listened actively and empathetically to our employees and made changes based on the feedback that we got? That would be great!”

Xalavier Nelson Jr. gives a speech at Game Developers Conference 2024.
Game Developers Conference

As to what meaningful support from major players looks like, that means different things to different people. For Vela, it boils down to leadership holding itself more accountable. Tales of Kenzera: Zau Creative Director Abubakar Salim, on the other hand, wants to see the industry’s power players help foster a more creative vision of the video game industry that isn’t exclusively focused on profit.

“[I want] more of these companies in these big roles that have the power to change a lot to make the leap and change!” Salim tells Digital Trends. “You look at something like the EA Original program; they gave me a shot to make this, which is already touching many lives and inspiring people to make games. We need more of that, and we need more people in these positions of power to make those kinds of daring choices that feel risky but, at the same time, champion art. The more we lean into that, and the more we get away from commerciality, the better content we’ll receive and the much nicer people will be.”

Though GDC began with a guttural scream that drew some eye-rolls from online observers, feedback like Salim’s shows that developers at GDC weren’t just shouting into the void. They came to the show with a laundry list of complaints but also an equally long list of actionable suggestions. Developers were unified in a shared belief that change, no matter how small, is both achievable and worth fighting for. And while I didn’t hear the same answer to my prompt twice, everyone ultimately seemed to want the same thing – something that voice actress and SAG-AFTRA chair of the Interactive Negotiating Committee Sarah Elmaleh summed up in a single-word answer to my question about the one change she wanted from the industry.

“Sustainability,” Elmaleh said without so much as a second of hesitation.

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