GDC and the Game Industry – an Outsider’s View

Black Gate Games CEO John Gould talks about his
experiences as a first time attendee of GDC

For those of you who don’t know who I am, hi, my name is John Gould.  I am the founder and President of Black Gate Games, a new fledgling game studio in historic Franklin, TN, just south of Nashville.  I’ve been interested in game development since I started writing simple text adventure games in BASIC on my Apple IIc, but it wasn’t until I discovered the Platino game engine several years ago that I really started to get serious about making games, specifically for mobile platforms.

Shortly after founding Black Gate Games and acquiring the Platino engine to help us jump-start our game development aspirations, I decided to travel with our Senior Producer, Elonka Dunin, to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.  I had been to technical and industry conferences before but my experience at GDC was quite different from any other conference I had been to before.  And after taking a few weeks to absorb and process everything that had gone on there, I thought it might be interesting to describe the perspective of someone who had always looked at the game industry from the outside, not truly realizing what it would be like to be immersed in that world as if I were an insider.  I’ve spoken with a lot of people who feel as I often have – as if the gaming industry were behind a very large, very thick wall and that you could only imagine what was going on by what got thrown outside of that wall by whomever or whatever was in there.  Hopefully, this will help to demystify the mystique a bit and encourage others to take part in the game development industry.

First off, let me say that, had I not had some gentle handholding from a couple of pretty amazing women, I would not have had the earth-shattering experience at GDC that I did.  Elonka Dunin and Peach Pellen, both very well-known members of the game development community, were gracious enough to lead me through the minefield of distractions and throngs of people, introducing me to everyone from studio heads and industry decision-makers to long-standing idols of mine and people who work at companies that have been making games since before I was born.  I have to thank both Elonka and Peach for a profound experience that would never have been possible without them.

In the 4 weeks since I returned to Nashville, I’ve had time to reflect on my own views of the game industry and how they changed in that one week.  There is an interesting dichotomy that I’ve noticed in myself and other people interested in getting into game development in that it seems like it should be such an accessible industry and yet there’s an air of celebrity and elitism that makes it seem inaccessible.  I think that it stems from both a sense that game development, as an entertainment industry, has the same sort of celebrity culture and mystique as film, television, and music, and also from the realization, as one tries to get into making games, that the industry has matured to the point that only top talent and established players have any chance whatsoever at success.  This was certainly my impression being an outsider for so many years, and the more I talk to people in and around Nashville, the more I have noticed this view in other aspiring game developers.

If you take anything away from this screed, it should be this:  I was dead wrong.

The most striking moment that I had at the conference was meeting with Richard Garriott, who released his first game in the famed Ultima series in 1979 and has been a leader in the industry ever since.  I have been a fan of the series for nearly 30 years and meeting Richard was a thrilling experience.  Elonka introduced us on the floor of the expo at a booth where Garriott’s new studio, Portalarium, was showing off the latest build of their new game, Shroud of the Avatar.  Richard and I had a very normal, very natural conversation and we talked about everything from his game to my new company to his views on email and Twitter.  The next day, I met up with Starr Long, whom I spent some time basically interviewing while he showed me some gameplay.  Again, we had a very normal conversation about what the game was about, how they had made some design decisions, and what they were working on in terms of story and background of the game.

Throughout the conference, I had the opportunity to speak with numerous game industry veterans, including developers, studio heads, artists, musicians, and a myriad of other talented and creative people.  Without exception, when told that I was starting a new studio in Tennessee, every person I spoke with was extremely encouraging and offered as much advice as they could on everything from how to find good talent to how to decorate the office.  Everyone I met was extraordinarily welcoming and excited to hear about the new company and new ideas.  It was extremely gratifying to talk to people who had been making games for years express to me what amounted to validation that I was making the right move in joining this industry, and it has inspired me to truly dedicate myself to this endeavor and to do whatever it’s going to take to succeed.

Finally, I want to touch on one more important thing that came out of the conference.  As many people have noticed, last week, we decided as a company to formalize our leadership team by promoting Elonka Dunin to the role of COO, overseeing daily operations and supervising our development projects, and Peach Pellen to CTO, directing development of the Platino Game Engine and related tools and making decisions about the technologies we will be using to develop games and other related applications.  Among other things, my experience at GDC made it absolutely clear to me that I had somehow managed to find not only one of the most well-known, respected, and talented Producers in the game industry in Elonka, but also one of the most skilled, knowledgeable, and hardest working person I’ve ever met in Peach.  It was the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make to put these two wonderful women in charge of everything that is going to make Black Gate Games a success going forward.  I don’t have any idea how I managed to get so incredibly lucky as to be able to bring the two of them together, but I’m more confident than ever that founding this new company was the right move and that we will be seeing some very special things coming out of our brand new office in Franklin, TN in 2015.

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