The 1992 Computer Game Developers’ Conference was held at the Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, California, on April 25th - 28th. Nearly 600 people from all over the world came to learn the latest poop on the industry.
We started off with a reception Saturday night hosted by Apple. It was well-attended and the mood was genuinely festive. The sense of community that was one of the fundamental goals for the conference has clearly been achieved; I observed a great many happy reunions of friends who hadn’t seen each other since the last conference. It was also obvious that there were newcomers to the conference; they sat in forlorn little groups, looking rather lost amid this sea of conviviality. I’m happy to say that by Tuesday such groups had long since disappeared as the newcomers were welcomed into the community and made to feel part of the group.
Sunday started off the conference editorial program, and the lectures and round tables were all well-attended. Indeed, the round tables, deliberately restricted to a maximum of 30 participants to preserve the intimate atmosphere, were all filled. This is clearly the most popular portion of the conference program. Fortunately, the board had kept open several time slots on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning for repeats of popular round tables, and so we were able to accomodate almost everyone who wished to be there.
As usual, there were some great lectures. The Fat Man’s lecture "Music, Art, and the Blue Sword of Gralfarniblurt" was a rousing success and an inspiration to its audience. My own "Lessons From Patton Strikes Back" was so good
that I’ll be printing a digest of it in a future issue, minus the food fight with two pounds of cake icing. Brian Moriarty wowed ’em with his analytical history of a critical phase in the development of the cinema (complete with film clips), and although he steadfastly refused to draw parallels with the world of computer gaming, any dolt with two neurons to rub together could make the appropriate analogies. Brenda Laurel ("Virtual Reality Update") dazzled her audience with her utterly unique combination of contrarian wit, profound insight, faux-sexual innuendo, academic rigor, and damn good horse sense. In "Battle of the Multimedia Platforms", Stewart Bonn, John Baker, Kelly Flock, and Bill Davis titillated the audience with good-natured competitive banter and some serious insight into where the Big Boys think multimedia is headed. Sid Meier’s round table was so popular that anybody who got there "only" five minutes early was turned away at the door, and the repeat session also filled.
There were, I must admit, a few problems as well. One speaker began his lecture by announcing that he hadn’t prepared anything but would be happy to take questions; he had to be rescued from the crowd by the riot police. Another speaker accidentally included in his slide set a photo with somewhat inappropriate content of a sexual nature which then prompted outraged howls from parts of the audience. Oops.
The banquet on Monday night featured a speech by John Perry Barlow. Mr. Barlow is a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and an insightful observer of the software scene. He offered us a serious and intricate speech, with none of the rah-rah that some members of the audience seemed to expect. Indeed, his pungent comments on the moral state of computer games surprised and stung some attendees. He was at his best talking about "testosterone poisoning" in computer games, and documented his points by quoting the box copy from Populous II, whose lurid prose provides as good an example of testosterone poisoning as I have seen. All in all, I thought it an excellent and thought-provoking speech for those big enough to handle serious moral jabs.
After the speech, we recognized products that the attendees thought worthy of note. This year’s approach was in sharp contrast with last year’s conventional awards ceremony. This year we avoided the elitist tone by refusing to think in terms of awards and instead recognizing products that the attendees thought to be worthy of note, for whatever reason. Another nice touch was the actual recognition. Rather than asking one person to come forward, receive an award, and recite a little speech, we instead asked everybody who worked on the product in any function to stand up and be recognized. It worked very well and the feedback we’ve received has been most supportive of the change.
We also had some prizes. Craig Fryar of Apple Computer gave away a Powerbook and MicroSoft gave away some development environments. Since this was a costume banquet, Brenda Laurel and John Barlow gave away prizes for the best costumes. There were some truly outrageous costumes there. Does anybody know who that huge fish was?
Tuesday was a slow day. People had been staying up late each night, schmoozing to the max, and by Tuesday morning sleep deprivation was starting to take its toll. Nevertheless, the town meeting at noon was well-attended and the board was kept busy taking notes of ideas and suggestions for next year.
For me, the best part of the conference lay in the private conversations with other game designers. I had some stimulating and intense discussions with Sid Meier, Will Wright, Dan Bunten, and Brian Moriarty. Two lessons in particular struck me: first, I was surprised to learn just how literate these top designers are. In a field dominated by video-think, these people are voracious and enthusiastic readers on all manner of subjects. There’s a lesson here for aspiring game designers.
My second shock was the skepticism about optical media expressed by the designers I spoke with. I had always thought of myself as the Lone Skeptic of CD, the crotchedy old fart denying the impending revolution like some crazy anti-prophet in the desert. I found myself defending my claim that compact disk technology won’t go big time until 1995 -- from people who thought that estimate too optimistic! Sheesh, it’s getting harder and harder to be a radical every day...
By all accounts, this was the most successful conference to date. The realities of interpersonal interactions guarantee that the comments I hear will be biased towards the positive; even so, the tenor of the congratulatory comments I received was stronger, deeper, and more heartfelt than in any previous year. People really seemed to mean it when they said, "This was the best conference ever!" More important, the written feedback forms bear out my anecdotal observations. The attendees were quite lavish in their praise, and the complaints were almost always tempered with reassurances that the conference as a whole was still a smashing success.
Next year’s conference will again be at the Westin Hotel -- our nomadic conference at last seems to have found a home. The board of directors has already begun its deliberations for next year and we’ve -- oh, but that’s a secret. You’ll be receiving a call for papers by September, and then a registration announcement by Christmas. If you missed the 1992 conference, you have a full year to kick yourself before the next one rolls around.