As one who seems to spend large amounts of his waking life apologising to others, these last few days spent at the Develop conference have been a refreshing change. There, unusually, I listened to numerous speakers apologising to me. It wasn’t even for the normal reasons like a poor PA system or blurry powerpoint projection. Shockingly, these speakers were sorry for being clever.
Develop is an annual Game Developer gathering which this year had a particularly strong programme. Artists, producers, writers, animators, musicians all come together in sunny Brighton to discuss their craft and ingest large amounts of food and drink. Packed into the clammy conference rooms of the Hilton hotel, these leading thinkers and doers shared their insights, techniques and crippling, paranoid insecurities.
Ken Levine, creative director of Bioshock at 2k Games took part in a panel discussion with the rest of his team in which they detailed the depth of the approach taken in developing this unusually rich and intelligent game.
Levine, a charismatic speaker, gave a compelling account of the development of the work which took in Ayn Rand, objectivism, art deco design and mise en scene - each of these elements by a squirming apology for his own perceived pretentiousness.
Jonathan Smith, always an insightful and entertaining speaker delivered the best talk I’ve seen him do in ‘How to make children cry’. Smith is VP of publishing at TTGames who produce the acclaimed LEGO Star Wars series of games.
He showed some extraordinary footage of research interviews and playtesting with children that went in to developing their working thesis of ‘LEGO-ness’. Upon unveiling his ‘LEGO Manifesto’, a set of principles from which the game was created, he too finally caved and said sorry for being a too pretentious.
After further unpacking the fascinating thinking behind his notion of the game as teacher, he reminded us lest we get too intoxicated by his ideas that at the end of the day they were still making a ‘fucking platform game’.
Finally, Matt Southern from Evolution Studios came out as a Cultural Studies lecturer turned Game Director. His brilliant talk which illuminated the value of scholarly cultural theory to Game design was interrupted throughout with winks and apologies for coming across like a ‘twat’. Matt even had some material about him thinking he was better than us, ‘because he’s read all those fancy books...’
As the most toxic pretension is usually dealt from those least conscious of their audience, perhaps we should be glad of a little self-awareness in our keynote speakers? Maybe, but this was more than humility - this was executive insecurity.
Are there any other industry conferences where lectures are transformed into confessions? Seeing these brilliant artists relentlessly caveating every informed cultural insight with an insipid apology was depressing. Is this really what the education system has done to the kids on the front row of the class? Leaving headline speakers apologising for having read too many books? If they can’t comfortably come out as being intellectuals at an industry conference, where can they?
The best conferences are about brilliant people bring brilliant at you over a sustained period. Levine, Smith and Southern need to get together for a group therapy session and draw a line under this. With so many factions lining up to attack the games industry, its most inspiring and inspirational figures really should lay off themselves. These are the people we should be putting in front of parents, critics and young people who are struggling to be interested in being interested. C’mon Ken, Jonathan and Matt - relax, take us dancing with your ideas. Your industry needs you more than ever.