What GDC showed about the post-pandemic future of video games
Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What GDC showed about the post-pandemic future of video games

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Good morning! GDC is the gaming industry’s biggest networking event, and three main topics dominated the week. I’m Nick Statt, and I’ve been counting down the days (hours? minutes?) until I return to New York and get to resume playing Elden Ring.

On the ground at GDC

The Game Developers Conference has descended on San Francisco this week. The conference marks a return to in-person events for the tech and gaming industries after two years of largely all-virtual gatherings and a paradigm shift in how we work, play and socialize.

GDC isn’t known as a prime outlet for major gaming news. But it is one of the primary networking events for the global games industry, and the conversations and panel discussions at the event act as a bellwether for the ever-changing field’s technical, cultural and artistic shifts. Among this year’s biggest topics: the pandemic’s effects on how games get made, the reckoning over studio labor practices and workplace culture and the impending disruption (or lack thereof) of Web3 technologies like NFTs.

GDC has been a very COVID-conscious event. GDC organizers have gone to great lengths to ensure the event is adhering to California and San Francisco’s strict public health guidelines, even when it clashes with the city’s loosening restrictions.

  • Although San Francisco dropped its indoor mask mandate this month, GDC requires attendees wear masks while inside the sprawling Moscone Center. Organizers also implemented a strict vaccine mandate, with no exceptions.
  • Lines to acquire blue wristbands confirming vaccination status have stretched down the block all week. GDC employees have also been policing mask-wearing indoors to ensure compliance, while numerous panels have featured virtual speakers.
  • GDC is San Francisco’s largest in-person event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its success will likely influence the size, scope and policies of future tech and gaming gatherings.

The pandemic and the workplace are central themes this year. Beyond the COVID-19 precautions of the event itself, the pandemic and its effects on work have become inescapable subjects for many of the event’s panels.

  • Game developers at GDC have given prominent talks explaining how their studios adjusted to full remote or hybrid work, while cloud computing giants Amazon and Microsoft announced full suites of new game development tools designed to make remote work easier.
  • A number of panel discussions have focused on the growing labor movement within the game industry, including how the pandemic instigated changes like shifts to four-day workweeks, talk of unionization and reckonings over workplace harassment. The Communications Workers of America also set up a booth exhibit, including a Nintendo-inspired “Collective Power” magazine, promoting labor organizing.
  • “If your team is considering a four-day workweek, the most important thing I would suggest to you is to consider unionizing,” said Saleem Dabbous, the studio director of Montreal indie developer KO_OP, during a panel. “Because you can't trust people like us who are giving this talk right now as business owners.”

The rise of Web3 and blockchain gaming is proving controversial. A niche but fast-growing corner of the game industry is convinced tech like NFTs are the future, and this year’s GDC has not been spared the heated debate.

  • The organizers of GDC conducted a survey last fall that found that roughly 70% of polled developers have no interest in NFTs. Regardless, the NFT and blockchain gaming panels I’ve attended have been packed to the brim, mostly with devout believers but notably a handful of vocal skeptics.
  • Blockchain gaming firms like Gala Games have purchased prominent ad space at GDC, including sprawling banners over the escalators at the Moscone Center’s West Hall. Yet many of the panel discussions and talks have been infused with skepticism, including “Play-to-Earn … Is It Real or a Farce?” and “How Web3 Games Work (and Sadly Don’t).”
  • If NFTs and blockchain gaming do catch on, it doesn’t mean traditional gaming goes away, argued consultant and former Zynga designer Jordan Blackman in one of the more balanced talks on the subject, “it just means that the overall size of our entire industry can grow.” Blackman urged developers to approach Web3 with an open mind.

The return of GDC has made clear that the game industry, like the world at large, isn’t ever really going back to normal. In-person events will have to prioritize safety to ensure attendance, and the way we talk about work and entertainment will be infused with the pandemic’s effects for many years to come. Not even the mythical blockchain will change that.

But events like GDC are, now more than ever, good reminders that these industries are full of real and passionate human beings, and not just the Twitter profiles and Zoom headshots we’ve become accustomed to.

— Nick Statt (email | twitter)

A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP

If you’re a CEO these days, odds are that your CIO understands something you may not: your company’s cybersecurity strategy is fundamentally flawed, and has been ever since your organization began using cloud-based services.

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People are talking

Building a game is one thing, Wordle creator Josh Wardle said. Managing a viral hit is something else:

  • "Basically, I think of myself as an artist, I really enjoy creating things. Running a gaming business is not interesting to me."

Chronological feed or algorithmic? It should be up to you, Jack Dorsey said:

  • "The choice of which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone"

Malaysia actually isn’t interested in introducing crypto as legal tender, Deputy Finance Minister Mohd Shahar Abdullah said:

  • “Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are not suitable for use as a payment instrument due to various limitations.”

GAO’s Karen Howard said blockchain won’t help elections:

  • “We talked to a number of experts who all indicated that they did not believe blockchain was the magic bullet answer for making voting systems more secure.”

Making moves

Autodesk is buying The Wild, which helps engineers and architects work in AR and VR, for an undisclosed amount.

Sundar Pichai is meeting with Margrethe Vestager next week to talk about competition and other digital issues.

Artie Minson is joining LeafLink as president and COO. Minson is WeWork’s former president and COO.

Erin Lynch joined Hero Digital as chief creative officer. Lynch was most recently the SVP and executive creative director at R/GA.

Suzy Monford joined Focal Systems as chief strategy and marketplace officer. She was previously the group VP of Ecommerce at Kroger.

Instacart cut its valuation from $40 billion to $24 billion. It's a tricky move to make in an increasingly tough market, and another sign of pandemic-darling startups coming back to reality.

In other news

The EU's Digital Markets Act is done. This is a landmark piece of tech-industry legislation: Among other things, it requires messaging apps to interoperate, changes the rules around advertising transparency and self-preferencing, and would basically upend the entire app store model. If it passes, it'll go into effect in October.

Apple is getting into hardware subscriptions, sources told Bloomberg. It’s creating a subscription service for iPhones and other devices instead of charging the full cost up front.

Meta is doing 3D ads now. The company partnered with VNTANA to let brands advertising on Instagram and Facebook convert their 3D content into ads.

Google is trying to improve the way product reviews show up in search results by highlighting more in-depth details and reviews from people who have actually used the products.

Cabs are coming to Uber’s rescue in New York. The company made a deal to list taxis on its app, which could help address its driver shortage.

The Frosties NFT scammers have been arrested. Two people allegedly behind the rug pull were charged with wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.

Google thinks its pay is competitive, even though an increasing number of employees disagree.

Google Search will help you book medical appointments. It’s working with MinuteClinic to help people schedule a check-up or same-day visit.

Google’s bidets are going away

Facebook lost its laundry, leftover and valet service. Now, Google is losing its beloved bidets.

Google’s reason for getting rid of the bidets isn’t particularly dramatic; they just don’t comply with the state’s code for commercial buildings. Regardless, employees are upset about it and even challenged the company’s decision to remove the bidets. “We’re going to need to lobby to change the California building code,” one worker joked. Guess you can’t always get what you want.

A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP

As a business leader, you need to understand that zero-trust is not just another buzzword. It’s a fundamentally different mindset that you will need to embrace — and the sooner you do so, the better.

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