Holding the Bag: How I Gamed GDC’s Top Social Game Developers

When i circled the Social Game Developers Rant in my GDC schedule as a must-see session, i had no idea that i’d wind up improvising my own rant in front of the thousands of attendees. The story of how that happened is an interesting study in the attitudes of the game industry’s top iconic figures, and how their influence flavours the way the rest of us see the social games space.

Game Developers Rant

Image from last year’s rant unceremoniously ganked from Jason Della Rocca’s blog and used here without permission.

Respect is Earned

“No F@%$ucking Respect! Social Game Developers Rant Back” was held in one of the largest spaces at the Game Developers Conference: room 3014 in the West Hall, which seats roughly a billion people. The lunch time session promised informed, thought-provoking and entertaining rants from a line-up of the usual suspects:

  • Ian Bogost, wry academic and creator of the Cow Clicker parody of social games
  • Brenda Brathwaite, opinionated champion of (sometimes manipulatively) emotional games
  • Trip Hawkins, a cool and collective business maven who happened to found Electronic Arts
  • Chris Hecker, game graphics guru and indie advocate
  • Steve Meretsky, best known to me for his work in interactive fiction back in the day
  • Brian Reynolds, comparitively mild-mannered designer of some pioneering 4x games (and token Zynga panelist)
  • Scott Jon Siegel, a Playdom designer who was billed as the panel’s youngster, but who actually had more experience in social games than anyone else on the panel (a point he made abundantly clear in a loud, fast-paced, and HILARIOUS “bonus rant”, my favourite moment in the whole session)

Floating in the background was Jason Della Rocca, former IGDA chief who, i should point out, knows me. Moderating the panel was the equal-parts energetic and abrasive Eric Zimmerman.

Pay to Play

As i entered the room, a CA (volunteer “conference associate” who checks badges and collects session feedback forms) was handing everyone a plastic coin from an orange bag. i was intrigued, and rubbed the ersatz booty between my fingers while the first delegates slowly trickled in. A slide on the A/V screen explained the point of the coins: the person who collected the most coins from the other players in the room by the halfway point of the session would be invited to the front to do a “guest rant” on social games.

Yes

i didn’t really want to rant, dear readers … but i DID want to win the game. i looked around the room at the hundred-or-so delegates and quickly calculated the amount of glad-handing and baby-kissing i’d have to do to amass enough coins to win. i knew i was up against the likes of Jane McGonigal, who despite being featured in two or three other GDC panels and talks that week AND a recent Colbert Report episode was nonetheless salivating over the chance to grab the mic yet again. i knew i was no match for Jane’s celebrity, eagerness, and feminine wiles. What chance did a chubby nobody with lunch stuck in his teeth have against a Colbert alum?

Clearly, my only recourse was to use social engineering to win the social game.

The Game Was Afoot

i strode back to the entrance, to where the deliciously young and impressionable CA was handing out the coins. In an urgent voice, i said “Excuse me! Chris Hecker, one of the panelists, said he only really wants about half the room to get these coins. He sent me to get the bag and run it up to him at the front of the room.”

Then, with no skepticism or suspicion, the CA pleasantly purred “sure,” and handed me the bag.

Gasp

He HANDED me the bag. The bag with all the coins. i had all the coins.

My heart racing, i rushed back to my seat at the other end of the cavernous room. i have never shoplifted before. i’ve never possessed an illicit substance. i’m known to my small segment of the industry as being unfailingly honest, often to my detriment. And here, through the uncharacteristic use of cunning and deceit, i had snatched the entire bag of plastic coins that GDC’s social games industry powerhouses needed to run their social game. i tried to judge how best to cram the coins into my body cavity to hide them, and decided instead to furtively stuff the bag into my backpack before giddily awaiting the coming storm.

A Vote for Jane

Meanwhile, my impromptu nemesis Jane McGonigal had started campaigning for coins. At that time, she apparently didn’t have a rant idea either – she, like me, just wanted the coins. She came closer to my row, and appealed to the crowd to give her their coins. i, mad with secret power, tried to look casual as i turned to face her in my seat and said “you’re not gonna win.”

“Why not?” she said, annoyed. This was Jane McGonigal, after all. Why wouldn’t she win?

“Because i’m gonna win.” It was a bold claim from a guy casually kicking back in his seat, surrounded by delegates who still had their coins. Deciding not to waste any more time on my cryptic claims (which were just my misguided attempt at good-natured smacktalk), she spun around to bring her coin campaign to the delegates in other rows.

The Jig Was Up

Meanwhile, at the front of the room, i heard either Jason or Eric snap “what do you mean someone stole the bag??” Oh crap. The doe-eyed CA, realizing he’d been duped, started scanning the rows of seats for me, patrolling them like a prison warden. i kept my head low and stared at my backpack on the floor – the very backpack that burned with ill-gotten gold. Soon, my pretties … soon, it would all be mine.

Hiding

i exhaled heavily when the rants finally started. Only about an eighth of the attendees had actually received coins (thanks to me), but Eric never let on. He cheerily explained the rules a few more times, never letting on what had happened, and then the ranting began. Panelists after panelist took to the mic to plead their cases on the validity of social games. At the halfway point, Eric announced that it was time to learn the results of the game: who in the room had collected the most coins from the other players?

A few murmurs of “i have five coins” and “i’ve got a couple” kicked things off. Jane McGonigal jumped up and proudly presented her handful. Eric seemed pleased that the winner was someone he knew and could trust not to be an ass on the mic.

And then i stood up.

On the chair.

And, holding the orange plastic bag aloft like Perseus presenting the head of Medusa, defiantly proclaimed “I HAVE THE ENTIRE BAG.”

Perseus

It was exactly like this, except that i had pants on. …. and i have a much bigger cock.

The room erupted. Some people laughed. Some jeered. Some guffawed. i was beaming, incredibly pleased with myself, like a toddler who’s just learned to take off his own diaper. i fully expected Eric and the other panelists to smile along with me. Aha! We are social gamers, this was a social game, and somehow this delegate had managed to convince, through social contrivance, the impressionable CA to hand him the bag of coins.

It recalled the massive coup in the MMO Eve Online, in which social maneuvering led to a devastating take-over of one of the game’s most powerful cabals.

Taking Crayons, Going Home

Through my squinty smile, i scanned the faces of Jason, Eric, and the panelists. It was not a pretty sight. They were scowling. Actually scowling. “You took the whole bag?” they said, disgusted.

“Well … yeah!”

“That was against the rules, though.” This last came soberly. “It was against the RULES.” Zimmerman petulantly wagged a finger at the slide.

“No it wasn’t. It was a social game, and i gamed it socially. The CA handed me the bag.”

“B… but you have to get the coins from other players.”

A hurried debate broke out about whether or not the CA was a player, and whether or not i had taken the coins “legally”. My interpretation of the rules was that the player with the most coins wins, and i had the most coins. Someone else spoke up and said “We don’t even know he has any coins, though. He’s just holding a plastic bag. He might not have ANY coins.”

The weight of the coin bag pressed heavily against my palm. i was irked. Not only did the bag contain coins, but it contained nearly ALL the coins – enough for the hundreds in attendance and then some. And they were MY coins. Not only was i denied my hero’s welcome and a pomp-filled invite to the front of the room … now i was being accused of CHEATING, and worse … of not even having all the coins.

Someone in the audience shouted out “Who do you think you are – Zynga??” The crowd laughed.

“Show us,” said someone on the panel. “Show us the coins you supposedly collected.”

My fist tightened on the orange plastic bag. Through knitted eyebrows, i raised the bag over my head and showered myself in a cascade of gleaming, glittering plastic coins. It was like that scene from Flashdance, except with a chubby fully-dressed nerd instead of half-naked Jennifer Beals. When the torrent of winnings finally dripped dry, i casually tossed the empty bag on the coin-littered floor and held my hands out plaintively to appease the room.

Eric spun to address the panelists. “What do you think? Should we let this CHEATER do a guest rant?” To a man, every single one of the panelists gave me a thumbs down.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til It’s McGonigal

i had been robbed. And Jane McGonigal, flaxen-haired upholder of the game creators’ true intent, was named the winner.

Stephen Colbert vs. Jane McGongical

McGOONNNNIGAAAAAALLL!!!!

Jason J Kee Twitter

During the session, a few Twitter friends rushed to my defense.

Two twists in this story came one after the other: Jane was invited up to speak, and brought two friends with her. i later learned that the organizers considered this a cheat as well. In another unexpected turn, Eric came up to me during the rants and mouthed “Do you still wanna say something?” i mouthed “Sure.” Then he mouthed “Okay, but keep it to ten words or less. TEN WORDS. Ten.” He held up ten fingers. “Ten.”

“Sure – okay.” i nodded. Had he actually said what i thought he’d said? He was going to let me do a rant? And he wanted me to keep it to ten words? What could i possibly say in ten words??

10 Things i Hate About You

In Ten Words

Eric stayed true to his promise. Just before the final ranter, Ian Bogost, took to the stage, Eric announced that “in the spirit of mischief”, he was going to let me do a SPECIAL MINI-RANT. The key word, of course, was “mini”. i jogged up to the front and grabbed the mic, then turned around to face the enormous crowd.

Woodstock crowd

i looked at Eric’s eager face, at his pleading eyes, and remembered his rule: ten words or less. i felt the metal of the microphone that had been burned up, spat in, and blessed by the panelists before me. And as Eric made the hand-over-hand “hurry up” motion frantically from the front of the room, i decided to break another rule. i gripped the mic and said to myself “from my cold dead hand, Zimmerman.” And then i proceeded to rant for as long as i damn well pleased.

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison

Sing it, Jim.

Given the same opportunity, what would you say? What kind of rant could you improvise in front of a room stuffed with some of the most talented and well-known game developers in the business, and at GDC, the Mecca of your industry? The scheduled panelists had months to write and practice their rants. i had moments. Predictably, nothing i said was particularly Earth-shattering, but the point i tried to get across was this:

We like to brag about how the games industry brings in more money than the film industry, but as soon as someone like Zynga makes enough money to trigger our envy, we invent interpretations of the game rules to say it’s not okay. Zynga is standing on a chair in the middle of a crowded room showering itself with coins, and instead of applauding them for their ingenuity, we’re crying foul and pointing to the ways in which they’ve broken the “rules”.

Meanwhile, we are breaking the very same rules: the addictive qualities of Facebook social games can be found throughout all our games. i talked about how i had skipped three real-world Hallowe’en parties to stay home and collect the spooky furniture set in Animal Crossing, and how i had spent an ungodly number of hours chasing after the legendary dogs in Pokemon Silver. In both cases, i had to decide on my own that these games had become a chore rather than a source of fun and entertainment, and i stopped playing them.

Animal Crossing

In the amount of time i spent playing Animal Crossing, i could have MADE Animal Crossing.

But this is a case of the pot calling the kettle addictive. Zynga is no more culpable for introducing addictive hooks in games than any other developer. At GDC, years before Zynga’s triumph, the Casual Games Summit speakers all talked about how they needed to make their games more addictive. One of the most popular and profitable game portals for tweens, AddictingGames.com, makes absolutely no bones about it.

Jane McGonigal bent the rules to bring her buddies up to share her rant time, but her shenanigans were sanctioned by the industry guard. i, a relative newcomer, bent the rules by taking all the coins, was accused of cheating, and was barred entry into the club. Tellingly, for all the complaining we do about Zynga, their GDC session on developing games for 43-year-old women was standing room only.

For all the spectacle, for all the drama, and for making an enormous ass of myself, i don’t regret a single moment of it. If anything, bucking convention and winning the coin game reminded me that the greatest gains are made by subversion, disruption, and going against the grain.

In short: break the rules, get the coins.

85 thoughts on “Holding the Bag: How I Gamed GDC’s Top Social Game Developers

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