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GDC09: Joystiq lunches with gaming luminaries


From L to R: Rob Pardo, Dave Perry, Neil Young, Gary Whitta, Brian Fargo, Will Wright, and Warren Spector

Story contributed by N. Evan Van Zelfden

Imagine sitting at lunch with Will Wright, Neil Young, and Warren Spector. They're each eating, laughing, and talking about game design with animation and enthusiasm. On the other side of the table are David Perry, Rob Pardo, and Brian Fargo.

Collectively, you have the founder of Interplay, Blizzard's top designer, the father of Earthworm Jim, the man credited with Deus Ex, an iPhone pioneer, and the mind behind Spore – guided in discussion by screenwriter and former game journalist Garry Whitta.

Also at the table, a dozen of the top game industry journalists sit quietly, taking notes and typing into small laptops. And excellent food is entirely secondary: it's the conversation that matters at this luncheon.

Last year, it was an informal gathering hosted by Perry, who's also just published a thousand-page book called David Perry on Game Design. This year, the lunch become an official part of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

It begins with a quote from Nolan Bushnell, remarking that going to a bar is social, but that sitting in a darkened room communicating with thousands of people virtually, isn't social.

"Who cares if it's real?" asks Will Wright. He believes that the interactions of online players bring joy and value, whether they're real or not. Warren Spector notes that people will let down their guards when they have virtually social interactions. But Wright looks to Guitar Hero and Rock Band, saying "Half the entertainment is off the screen."

Neil Young remarks that social games are becoming more of a feature in all games than a specific genre in and of itself.

"I feel, at times, we value innovation too highly," Rob Pardo admits

Wright calls Pokemon a "dreadful game," but says that the value comes from giving kids a social connection to talk about their creatures.

They talk about ESP. Then they talk about Warcraft. Spector talks about his wife, an accomplished science fiction author, who's completely addicted to World of Warcraft. Mrs. Spector has gotten to know a housewife in Poland, and a nineteen-year-old college student in California.

Which prompts Wright to ask: "How do you get more life experience through the conduit?" He muses that if people are able to convey more of themselves through the games, those connections become more valuable.

"I love fantasy," responds Spector. "The problem is when that's all we do. We don't need more games about space marines. Give me something a little different!"

"I feel, at times, we value innovation too highly," Rob Pardo admits. For the game industry, he say: "We don't teach lessons of execution."

Pardo has seen an exception. "Nintendo does a good job of being creative ... but always nailing the execution. They do that really well."

The issue of cloud computing is raised. Latency is a problem but none of the developers in the room feel constrained by the current hardware technology. Spector recalls the days of Ultima when people had ten megabyte hard drives. Ultimately, the designers agree, people just want the best experience.

Spector jokes that in 17 years, GameStop will need a bailout.

When retail is mentioned, Spector jokes that in seventeen years, GameStop will need a bailout.

Wright says that we're getting into the steep part of the curve for digital distribution. He calls the first eight years of the CD-ROM, before it really took off.

There's something comforting and familiar about the entire discussion. It's almost as if it's all been said before. Although the future of the game industry is always tumultuous, there's a feeling of déjà vu.

"It does feel like a golden age," remarks Wright. Perry responds. "It's the late eighties again." And Young concludes with the synthesis: "It's like an early version of the industry that's iterating really, really fast."

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