How I Spent My Wednesday: Gordon Walton on Austin Game Development

This atypical bit of straight reporting done as a courtesy for Kain Shin and Quoc Tran of the Austin chapter of the IGDA. If you’re not a game developer, your interest in this article may be lessened. Or heightened, depending. If you ARE an Austin area game developer, and you didn’t show up for the event, uh, read on!

This IGDA meeting was an initial pass at reviving the Austin IGDA get-togethers. Previously, they tended to be avoided by many developers since they were flooded by people trying to break into the games industry. “Hi, I love your work, and can you review the 12 design docs I have in my back pocket? Right here?”. This caused a backlash among some developers seeking to insulate themselves from the job seekers, and a backlash against the backlash from people who disliked elitism. The result: IGDA meetings attended by ten people.

So, as an experiment, this one was viral-invitation only; word spread via word-of-mouth and a few internal mailing lists and bulletin boards. Word of mouth spreads pretty fast; I had a couple of folks ask “Have you heard about…” the day before. Everyone enjoys belonging! Thus, we all departed for an undisclosed location. No, really. Midway Austin is completely in an undisclosed location. I lived 2 blocks away for 6 months and hadn’t the faintest idea it was there. I thought it was part of the nearby IBM campus or something. Free food and drinks were promised along with Guitar Hero 2 jams; the siren call of overworked geeks everywhere! Oh, and Gordon Walton was giving a talk. Did I mention Guitar Hero 2? (I actually went mainly to listen to Walton; this is probably proof I am asocial.)

My cell phone takes really bad photos. Sorry.

The meeting started slowly, and the 30-40 or so of us that were there broke up into small subgroups. I was seated next to Damion Schubert (who I knew, but didn’t work with) and Matthew Weigel (who I worked with, but didn’t know). Introducing myself, Matthew drew a blank until I explained that I was the Scott Jennings who posted a lot on internal mailing lists. That got a “Oh, THAT Jennings” response, to Damion’s cackling glee.

Gordon Walton’s laptop, providing the only color in the room.

Walton\’e2\’80\’99s talk (actually, a discussion, as he frequently solicited ideas from the audience) focused on an analysis of Austin\’e2\’80\’99s strengths and weaknesses as a \’e2\’80\’9ccluster\’e2\’80\’9d of gaming developers in competition with other such clusters (other clusters he identified included Los Angeles, Seattle and Shanghai) . He structured the discussion as a \’e2\’80\’9cSWOT\’e2\’80\’9d analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. For each point he elicited comment from the audience before giving his own opinion, which meant that the talk was illustrative mainly for how Austin developers saw themselves. (Hint: They view themselves as quirky, and dislike Austin’s airport a lot.)

Strengths include the aformentioned tolerance for quirkiness (as Walton put it, “we have a lot of freaks running around here who’d be run out of town on a rail in other places”), Austin’s quality of life and low cost of living, and the creative community. Oh, also, “hot chicks”.

Weaknesses? Austin is stereotyped as an “MMO development” town, and publishers are mostly located outside the area. As one said, no doubt from personal experience, satellite offices are the first ones closed. Another weakness included, as Walton described in his usual reticent and diplomatic manner, a sense of entitlement among its developer community. It’s been a long time since an Austin-based community has had a breakout hit, and many developers tend to rely on long-past laurels. “We’re good and we know it, we just can’t show you.” Another weakness is Austin’s size, and consequent lack of direct flights. Believe it or not, lack of connecting flights can factor into whether or not a game developer can score a publishing deal.

The Opportunities for the Austin community mainly revolved around restating the strengths, and better marketing them. Not too much of a surprise there. One opportunity that isn’t often noted is the local government’s embrace of game development as a growth opportunity, and (probably futile) hopes were raised about commensurate tax breaks.

Threats include, as one commenter starkly noted in a town not unknown for layoffs, “bankruptcy”. Again, the lack of “original money” being brought into the ecosystem as opposed to satellite offices of publishers located elsewhere was identified as a critical threat; as long as the decision making remained outside Austin, the community was at the whim of cost-cutting layoffs and outsourcing. And of course, it helped if Austin developers could create a hit or two, especially outside the MMO genre.

Walton closed with a few simple recommendations based on this analysis. First, Austin area developers must be successful. The Austin community has to give birth to a hit, a home run as opposed to the respectable singles and doubles of the past. Product quality has to be raised; it’s currently a chronic problem (admittedly, not one limited to Austin-area developers). Local developers have to be adaptable, continuously learning their craft and improving on it. And finally, a dose of humility is called for, instead of a sense of entitlement and arrogance.

Most of this is fairly basic. As a newcomer to the Austin area, I personally think quality of life is the key to attracting new investment. I know it’s why I’m here. I can afford a house! Try saying that in Los Angeles, on a developer’s salary.

Where all real discussion takes place: the smoking lamp

Afterwards Guitar Hero 2 was brought up on the presentation wall, and various people proceeded to rock out. I didn’t stay long, as we’ve had some long hours on my project that week and I needed some quality personal time with my Final Fantasy 12 party. (Sad, but true.) I hope to see more of these get-togethers. It was good to meet other developers outside of the MMO ghetto that I tend to inhabit. Whether or not the meetings are open to the public at large doesn’t really faze me, but if “elitism” encourages a greater turnout among the greater development community, three cheers for elitism!