Here's my report on this year's GDC:
The conference was at the San Francisco Moscone Center this year, and reportedly had about 5000 people (about 20% larger than what it was last year at the San Jose convention center). The main difference in demographic is that the conference is really getting an "international" flavor, with many attendees (and even some speakers) coming in from other countries. For example, it was not uncommon to see talks that were being given by Japanese speakers (such as execs from Nintendo and Capcom). The speakers would give their talks in Japanese, and we could all wear headsets to hear a real-time English translation. It felt very United Nations!
Online games continue to be a big subject of buzz at the GDC, but the focus has been shifting more towards web/downloadable and wireless games these days. At the various "Online Game Developers" gathers, there were usually three times as many web/downloadable people as MMO developers. Mobile/Wireless games are also definitely being talked about, though there's a debate as to whether or not they really qualify as "online" games or whether they're a separate category. Folks also generally agree that Mobile games, while simple to develop on a single platform, are enormously difficult to make compatible with the wide variety of hardware types out there. Plus, marketing these games is still extremely tough, since a typical user will only download a game from their provider, and the provider's marketing is usually limited to a single page with a list of game titles in text, with nothing else to really base a decision on. Top games in this space seem to be those that have a cool branded title (such as Spongebob or a sports franchise), and really nothing to do with whether or not the game is any good.
In another section of the conference, there were a few dozen independent games showcased, and I was impressed with the attention that these titles are getting in the marketplace. Though the conventional wisdom is saying that a game needs to have huge production values in order to be viable, the web/downloadable space is proving that there's still very much a market for the games by smaller development teams. Some of the games showcased were written in Flash by teams of 1 or 2 people, but since they were very fun and easy to download, were getting literally hundreds of thousands of downloads. For example, the Metanet "N" game, written entirely in Flash by a team of 2 people, has reportedly gotten 500,000 downloads. The top downloaded title in the world right now, from what I was hearing at GDC, is one called "Diner Dash". Though some of these games are freeware, many are making money. The most common model on these games is to allow 60 minutes of free gameplay, and then require the user to buy the game for $19.99 if they wanted to continue playing (personally I think that's too little time and too high a price point, but it seems to be pretty industry standard at the moment).
In terms of popular talks at GDC this year, a few of the big ones were:
- A talk by a Microsoft exec, at which HD TVs were given to 1000 random attendees
- A talk called "Heart of a Gamer" by Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo (I didn't attend, but heard afterward that it was excellent)
- "Game Design Challenge": This was a repeat of a concept initiated last year by Eric Zimmerman of "GameLab", a studio studying experimental types of gameplay in New York. Eric chose three big name game designers -- Will Wright of Maxis/EA, Peter Molyneux of Lionhead, and Clint Hocking of Splinter Cell, who had all signed on to the premise of, "I can design a game around any concept" -- and gave them all a challenge concept to see what kind of game design they could come up with. They prepared before GDC, and then each had 10 minutes to present their concept, with audience applause then determining the winner. Will Wright was the returning champion. This year's game concept was "The collected poems of Emily Dickinson." Despite the seemingly dry material though, each of the three designers came up with completely different and genius design ideas. Clint came up with a complete game design based on a symbolic language, with the idea that the player was a muse trying to inspire Emily to write her poems by surrounding her with the proper symbols. Peter had a working demo of a 3D world that involved a player wandering through Emily's house and trying to build various objects described by her poems. And Will had a hilarious concept that combined the Microsoft "helper" paperclip, USB memory sticks, and an AI Emily that would pop up on the desktop and be emotional at you or criticize your writing real-time. Will's concept won, though I personally voted for Clint. :)
- Will Wright on "The Future of Content". At this packed standing-room-only session, Will demoed a project he's been working on for years, called "Spore". It was an amazing engine that combined several "Sim" concepts into one seamless experience. Imagine starting off at the microscopic level, playing a rotifer-like creature that's basically playing PacMan, avoiding enemies and eating food. Then the creature can be grown and evolved to a more complex being, and the game view changes to one of an ocean. The creature continues to evolve, emerges onto the land, and then the game becomes a "Populous" style, as the player encourages it to develop sentience and tools and culture. Then the game switches to a "SimCity" style and the player grows the city and economy created by its creatures. Then the game again pulls to a higher view and it turns into more of a "Civilization" game as the player has cities war against each other. Then the view again pulls back to a global level as the evolved creatures learn to fly, and then reach out to other worlds, and the game moves to a Terra-forming / "Master of Orion" format. Then the player can start exploring other stars in the galaxy, which is where the multiplayer aspect kicks in, so players can download worlds that were created by other players. The game engine seemed to seamlessly handle zooming out from galaxy-level all the way down to microscopic level, tuning displayed details depending on what it was that the player seemed to be most interested in seeing. If the gameplay turns out to be as cool as the demo that Will was showing, it's going to be one hell of a product!
Oh, and the results of the IGDA Awards ceremony were as follows:
Best Game: Half-Life 2
Audio: Halo 2
Character Design: Half-Life 2
Game Design: Katamari Damacy
Technology: Half-Life 2
Visual Arts: World of Warcraft
Writing: Half-Life 2
New Studio: Crytek (Far Cry)
Innovation: Donkey Konga, I Love Bees, and Katamari Damacy
More information on the above is here: http://www.igda.org/awards
The "Independent Games Festival" is also getting a lot of attention, for games that may not have the production values of the above titles, but are still damn good games in their niche (it's being called the "Sundance Festival of the video game world"). About 30 games are chosen for display at the conference, and their teams get an expenses-paid trip to GDC to demo the game. Then from that set of games, two awards are given in each category -- one an "open" category, and one for "web/downloadable", which goes to games that are no larger than a certain number of megabytes (15 MB I think).
Innovation in Game Design:
Wik and the Fable of Souls (web/dl)
Innovation in Audio:
Steer Madness by Veggie Games (Open)
Global Defense Network by Evertt.com (Web/Downloadable)
Innovation in Visual Art:
Alien Hominid by The Behemoth (Open)
Wik and the Fable of Souls by Reflexive Entertainment (Web/Downloadable)
Alien Hominid by The Behemoth (Open)
RocketBowl by Large Animal Games (Web/Downloadable)
Alien Hominid by The Behemoth (Open)
N by Metanet Software Inc. (Web/Downloadable)