United We Stand

We found our seats just moments before the opening keynote presentation of Unite 2014 began, but it only took a moment to survey the crowd and realize something was off. “Where are all the women?” Nae asked, hovering somewhere between disappointment and incredulity.

She was right. A sea of men, punctuated by a handful of women, filled the auditorium.

I began nervously thumbing through the schedule. Out of almost 100 speakers listed across every panel comprising the three-day conference, only two were women.

“Oh boy.” 

* * * * * *

Unite is the official conference for game developers who work with Unity, a game-development toolkit and engine that has empowered millions of people to learn how to make games for the first time. With a robust free version and accessible development features like JavaScript support, Unity successfully broke down the barriers to making modern games and forced the hand of the old guard of expensive, license-based game engine providers to change their business models dramatically.

I am one of those developers who lacked the experience and resources to get started and finally found the toolkit I was looking for with Unity. I’ve learned a lot over the past six months, starting with simple clones and moving into different spaces altogether. When I heard that Unite was coming to Seattle, I figured I couldn’t afford not to attend. If I was doing this whole game-development thing for real, I reasoned it’d be worth the price to rub shoulders with other established developers and make the most of conferences like this one.

Instead, I left feeling like I’d received a three-day sales pitch—and it cost me ten times more than every other independent conference I’ve been to, combined.

* * * * * *

The two-and-a-half-hour keynote began on time, with Unity’s CEO David Helgason briskly running through some big numbers and painting a picture of a bright future ahead for Unity and its developers. But before long, the presentation descended into a strangely tone-deaf presentation about “casual gamers,” the apparent scourge of the game-dev scene. Some new in-game advertising features were announced, including an option to “buy back in” to a game by watching a full-screen, uninterruptible video ad before jumping back into the action.

The example given shows Sonic the Hedgehog running straight ahead through a lush, vibrant world, only to collide with a bad guy and stop running. Some options were displayed: start over, buy back in where you died with in-game currency, or watch a video ad to continue. To its credit, the video ad -- absolutely devoid of context or relevance to the game itself -- began playing full-screen almost immediately. I cringed. Sonic’s been through some rough patches in the past, but not even the most washed-up platformer mascot deserves a fate this cruel.

Ads can be distracting enough in games, particularly on mobile where their integration often causes hiccups in performance or completely broken functionality. But a full-screen, unskippable video is an outright killer of any sense of flow in a game, and the notion of having to watch a commercial to keep going with a game seems like an absolute death sentence for engagement. This scares me because I get the sense that casual gaming is still seen by Unity (and by the many developers who clapped and cheered for this feature) as a fringe market instead of what I see as the millions of potential gamers who aren’t being targeted properly. Too many games are made by too few people with too myopic a perspective, and that, I think, is the biggest hurdle to growing the gaming audience.

Wanna win new customers and make more money? Start educating and hiring different people to work on games. Stop closing doors on new ideas and new people. And I can’t believe I even have to say this, but ask yourself whether your latest cash-grab “feature” systematically obliterates any shred of hope that players could possibly engage with and enjoy your game on even the most tenuous level.

* * * * * *

No medium of expression can mature without the freedom of any participant to take risks and communicate whatever concepts they deem important. Censorship, whether by an oppressive authority or a silent majority, is anathema to artistic growth.

It’s probably fair to guess that nobody at Unity consciously wants to stifle growth. The company lives and dies on how well it acquires new developers who eventually pay for premium licenses and spend money in the asset store.

But with women supplanting teenage boys as the largest game-playing demographic, why are the content creators still so overwhelmingly male when they serve a much broader audience? And why is there still such a lack of awareness about how exclusive and tacitly discriminatory game-development culture continues to be?

Unite took place in mid-August. This was well before #gamergate and Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian’s latest Feminist Frequency video highlighting women as background decoration, all of which resulted in both of these women having to leave their homes out of fear for their safety. But even if it took these concurrent events to raise public awareness around the misogynist rancor that seems to exist at the core of gaming, it’s not like these issues are new. Women have historically been a significant minority in game development (a statistic that is improving, albeit very slowly), and threats against women in gaming circles have persisted over the years, even if they weren’t publicized at the time. For example, Anita Sarkeesian has long been the target of threats, and it was recently reported that an anonymous bomb threat was made in March at this year’s GDC unless an award for Sarkeesian’s critical works was rescinded. Make no mistake: gaming hasn’t been a safe space for a long time.

Gaming has a diversity problem, and it’s approaching critical mass. As games diversify and slowly convert everyone and their grandmother into a candy-crushing, bird-flinging participant, the industry’s ugly history can still be felt. With people being hacked and receiving credible death threats over expressing an opinion or sharing a legitimate critique of the medium, it’s clear that those uglier elements feel threatened by the diversification of players and the games they play. It’s exactly why big platforms and organizations, and the historically indie-friendly Unity in particular, need to take action to make their spaces more inclusive and to raise awareness around the problems that plague this industry. As it stands, Unite was a massive, missed opportunity to talk about inclusiveness and diversity in games.

* * * * * *

I could’ve written a very different piece about attending Unite, The notes I brought home with me detail the clever new compiler that takes C# code, converts it to C++ and then rewrites it as JavaScript for its new WebGL functionality. I could talk about the massive overhaul to Unity’s historically terrible GUI functionality, or the brilliant new skybox-derived lighting system that automates the hell out of bringing a scene to life. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the small handful of great talks from game makers, like Sam Farmer’s excellent presentation about creating a cohesive visual style for his upcoming noir-adventure, Last Life; but even that session fell victim to a middleware sales pitch from a marketing “evangelist” in the second half.

If there’s one factual takeaway from Unite that I feel warrants sharing, it’s the news from a Q&A session that there’s still been no progress in reducing the cost of entry for independent developers. Unity Pro starts at a flat cost of $1500, which is a very steep investment for a hobbyist or an indie who’s just getting started, and in spite of stiff competition from Unreal and CryTek, Unity appears unwilling to budge. As a developer bootstrapping every step of his learning and development process, this sort of policy scares the hell out of me. It only adds credence to my fears that Unity is targeting AAA developers as their top priority right now, and the values and people who got the company to where it is today are increasingly being seen as an afterthought. I hope I’m wrong, because I really like using Unity, but at some point the economics are going to become an issue.

* * * * * *

I find myself thinking back to the other indie events I’ve been to over the years. I was an avid participant in Austin’s monthly Juegos Rancheros gatherings, and I made a point of hanging out at the Fantastic Arcade festival every year I was living in Texas. Juegos Rancheros even once hosted a free, all-day seminar about how to break into the indie development scene, which in hindsight was the moment where I realized I might actually be able to pull this whole thing off. All of those events were free.

In San Francisco, I attended the Lost Levels Unconference, an inclusive and open forum for people to share ideas and start conversations around topics that they feel warrant attention in games. While big money was changing hands during GDC at the Moscone Center, I was outside in a big park on a beautiful day meeting lots of great people and hearing new perspectives on how this medium can be used for good. I saw awesome speakers like Zoe Quinn, Maddy Myers and Samantha Allen talk about whatever the hell they wanted, and I left feeling like this was a community I could really stand behind.

In Seattle, I’ve joined a few great meetup groups for indies and Unity developers, and those events—whether they’re exhibitions of new games, critique circles, work sessions or presentations from local developers—have all been invaluable, and free as well. And recent newcomers like Invisible Arcade offer a great way for local indie developers and their supporters to come together in a friendly, inclusive social setting.

And last month, I attended the Full Indie Summit up in Vancouver, British Columbia, a two-day series of lectures and social events surrounding things that really matter in game development. There were no high-concept talks around programming tips or advanced shader techniques; instead, the best talks were about using games for social good, building a sense of community and staying happy while pursuing your own vision. There was no sales pitch; there was just community building and camaraderie. I left feeling a whole lot smarter and better-equipped for the next challenge, but most importantly, I left with a sense that I belonged to something.

The combined cost of all the above events: $30.

I’m not saying conferences should be free: they cost money and they take time, and there’s obviously a market where people will pay a premium to participate in something they perceive value in. For example, I’m a regular and willing PAX-goer, which now runs over $100 per year. But I keep paying because I feel like I’m getting a lot of value out of my being there. With Unite, I felt like I paid a premium in order to be sold to the entire time. And maybe that’s just par for the course when a platform owner also runs its own conference to promote its platform.

But when you charge hundreds of dollars to attend, you start pricing a lot of different voices out of the conversation. You exclude those who don’t have the means to be there, which inevitably results in a more homogeneous community. And if you’re trying to construct conferences as a place to foster connections, share ideas and push your platform forward, you need diversity in ideas and backgrounds to make that happen.

* * * * * *

Gaming has always been a hostile place to people who are different from the so-called “core gamer,” the younger, often white, almost-always male demographic. But as markets grow and accessibility improves, more people from more backgrounds are flocking to games of all shapes and sizes—and that means more people are becoming interested in making their own games.

Unity has had the comfort of existing in a relatively noncompetitive space as the de-facto independent game-maker’s tool of choice, but things are changing quickly: console platforms are opening the doors to all kinds of developers, rival engines and dev kits are rapidly beating Unity in pricing, and for the first time, indie developers are in a powerful position of choice when it comes to deciding what to build with and where to publish.

Whether Unity realizes it or not, it’s on the verge of losing its home-field advantage. Unite could have been an opportunity to signal a sea change within the organization of better awareness and inclusiveness, a chance to demonstrate that it understands where the greatest challenges exist for new and upcoming voices in gaming. Instead, it delivered a decidedly status-quo presentation and turned a blind eye to the real-world problems and massive changes that are sweeping the games industry.

I don’t know where Unity will be a year from now. But I do know that I believe it’s much more important for me to invest my time and money into building communities and sharing knowledge with people who care about making games a better place for the people who play and create them.

Whether by tacit omission or passive negligence, Unite spent almost no time addressing the most relevant issues to independent developers. Instead, it charged a premium to attend a series of sales pitches, a terribly uncomfortable awards show and an overwrought afterparty. I was looking for progress and next steps in independent development; I left with the uneasy realization that the indie community I know and love is, at best, misunderstood by Unity, if not considered outright irrelevant to its business needs.

I won’t be going back to Unite, and I’d urge anyone who’s considering attending to think twice before signing up. If you care about making a positive difference in indie development, there are countless communities filled with other engaged and motivated people who would really appreciate your time and effort. The last thing you should do is pay to have a company pitch products and services that promote the status quo while disregarding your interests and values.