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GDC 2010 Highlights

The Game Developers Conference 2010, held in San Francisco, was, and always has been, a dazzling mix of everything from surprising game announcements to swathes of coding talk and inevitable programming jokes. It is after all, as the name would imply, more of a conference than a convention or press event, and as such, has produced a number of interesting takes and thoughts on the games industry as a whole and in its various sectors – but it also wasn’t without a few hot scoops and trailers. Basically, a whole lot of things came to pass, so I’m hoping I can summarise some of the highlights to take away from this year’s GDC.

Although GDC is no E3, it had its fair share of game teasing and trailers. Activision enticed attendees into a seedy bar, complete with strippers (clearly they know how to catch the attention of gamers) to promote it’s reboot of the True Crime series, True Crime. Set to take place in Hong Kong, according to attendees the gameplay showed off a certain sense of “verticality” and over-the-top, yet fun action sequences. Keeping within the crime theme, Mafia 2 was given a look, and appears to be very pretty, essentially feeling like a GTA set in the early fifties. Disney Interactive and Black Rock Studios offered up its answer to the question: can a racing game have more destruction and general insanity than Burnout? – Quite possibly, in the form of Split/Second, a driving game which focuses more on the theatricality of a race, rather than concentration on the speedometer and gears. Bethesda also pursued this explosive introduction method, with its trailer for the class-based shooter Brink; with rocket dodging and all, there’s little to complain about here.

It appears Lara Croft’s next scantily clad outing isn’t, thankfully, another tired reboot, but a simple downloadable game available for the PC, PSN and Xbox Live, titled Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light – definitely something to watch out for, especially at a time when developers are starting to understand the pulling power of a well produced downloadable title, as they are proving increasingly profitable. One of the more significant trailer unveilings was that of Square Enix’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the 3rd game in the universally adored RPG/Shooter Deus Ex series, although it was all CGI, no gameplay in sight – regardless, I’m certain it had many fans giggling excitedly amongst each other, stuporous in anticipation of further info promised for E3. You’d never of guessed it but Harmonix are releasing Rock Band 3 this Christmas, this time fronted by Green Day – nothing new here, but after all, it sells remarkably well. Somewhat more intriguingly, Power Gig: Rise of the SixString aims to offer a similar experience to your Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands, but provides you with an actual working guitar. Although the thought is admirable, I’m not sure how well it’s going to work or whether you’ll be bullied for having to learn guitar with a video game – either way, at least it’s a drizzle of originality, and could, possibly, help our degenerate, pathetic excuse for a generation.

GDC 2010 was host to a number of Microtalks discussing everything from programming, to how to make more bucks, and in amongst it all were some interesting little speeches. Brent Fox, the art director of NinjaBee, the downloadable game company, confidently spoke about the death of the physical incarnation of games stating “I think GameStop is not going to be around shortly”, and asserted that GameStop would be lucky to have even three years. Naturally, this would be convenient for his company but I’m not so sure about the prediction. Sure, downloadable services will increasingly take a larger market share – but at the same time the industry as a whole is growing as well, and one can’t deny the necessity of a physical copy to satisfy a market full of consumers who love to collect trinkets such as action figures and limited editions. On top of this, many hypothesize that we don’t, psychologically feel a downloaded copy is worth as much as a tangible disk.

BioWare lead cinematic designer, Armando Troisi, revealed that over 700 plot hooks were transferred from Mass Effect to its sequel. BioWare also announced it’s commitment to producing “richer RPG features” for Mass Effect 3, having listened to and understood the feedback they had received, commenting that they feel they accomplished the kind of tight combat they were aiming for, but might have lost something of the RPG genius that BioWare bring to their games, in trying to achieve something more foreign to the company. Also revealed, were details on the upcoming DLC for Mass Effect 2, Kasumi’s Stolen Memory, which utilises the sub-story idea used for the all the of original team’s members, to delve deeper into the emotions and intricate stories behind characters, this time, specifically, a female human thief, with a misplaced goatee, due to be released April 6th.

Of all people, Naughty Dog (the developers behind the multi-award winning Uncharted 2, acclaimed for its cinematic qualities) creative director Bruce Straley, announced to GDC that cinematic cut-scenes are “counter to our medium”. Straley used his speech to highlight the difficulties with cut-scenes and say that while they may be necessary, it is important to use them correctly and only when a scene is deemed dramatic enough.

Peter Molyneux, amongst others, spoke about Fable 3 in more detail, and the thought behind removing many of the franchise’s classic RPG features. Molyneux claimed that action-adventure games such as Grand Theft Auto, where there’s much less of an emphasis on stats and numbers, are the “natural home” for emotion and drama, which he sees as the key features of the Fable series. However, I believe his almost unhealthy obsession with the hunt for interaction and emotion, has somewhat clouded his vision of how a dramatic, emotionally engaging game can be created – he seems to be insistent that they key lies in some sweeping change, like the removal of RPG elements, and not a refining and improvement of issues like menu systems and in-game interaction. Nevertheless Fable 3’s unique approach to the series, still holds my interests, especially along with the news that the glorious John Cleese plays your butler – “Your role-playing elements have shuffled off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile! This, my friend, is an Ex-RPG”.

Playfish CEO, Kristian Segerstrale gave a speech entitled “The Relentless March Toward Free” focusing on the power of social/casual games – however, the Imperial March crept into my mind on account of the ever-increasing evil genius of money-printing genre. He stressed that the free-to-play model shouldn’t be feared, as it is by far the biggest growth opportunity for the industry, and noted the trend of increasing accessibility to games over time, due to lowering of prices and other such barriers. One of his most thought-provoking quotes was the notion that “Facebook is the YouTube effect for games”. Justin Smith also spoke about the phenomenon of social gaming; an industry that is projected to almost double it’s worth this year on last year, with the 400 million Facebook users – 200 million of which are already playing games monthly. Smith had a lot to say on the business, and noted that imminent introduction of Facebook Credits, its in-house payment system, would further increase developers’ (for this platform) ability to draw money out of our pockets.

Trailers and keynotes weren’t the only delights for curious eyes on offer at GDC 2010 however; on the floor there were numerous technologies and ideas being shown off to developers and consumers alike. InstantAction, despite having been announced a while ago, continued to impress – the technology builds off of the success of viral videos which can be embedded anywhere, on any website and advances the concept onto embedded games. InstantAction was actually shown allowing Assassin’s Creed to run through a Facebook account. Obviously there are restrictions and download times, but the fact that this sort of thing is being developed and seriously considered, means we could witness some dramatic changes in the way games are played, and dealt with, sometime soon. A similar technology, also further unveiled at GDC, was OnLive – the idea cynics love to hate. OnLive aims to negate the need for consoles or a high end PC, with all the number crunching taking place at remote servers, allowing you to stream games at a high quality, with the caveat that you have to pay monthly fee as well as purchasing the games. Sceptics still remain wary of whether the service will be able to deliver – we’ve only to wait for E3 and the release date. The service is due to begin June 17th in the US for $15 a month for both PC and Mac.

Just in case none of this was ridiculous enough, Virtual 360 Adventures presents the Virtusphere, a glorified, oversized hamster-ball that supposedly immerses the player even further into a game – fun idea, but I can’t quite see it being in every living room too soon, though it may be destined for an arcade-type environment. The iPhone had it’s own summit this year as well, to mark it’s importance and integral position in the industry, particularly for small independent developers, and many clever apps were exhibited – one company even had a remote-controlled helicopter, operated by the iPhone.

Arguably the biggest news of the event, at least in Sony’s eyes, was the display of further details on the Playstation Motion-controller, now officially the Playstation Move. The produce of Sony’s bandwagon trip also includes a “sub-controller” unashamedly similar to the Wii’s nunchuk, with an analogue stick, which is unsurprising given that it’s the only way to maintain control in an even remotely precise fashion and allows developers to simply build off of any work done with the Wii. The only pricing that’s been announced at this point is the starter kit, which includes the controller, a game and the camera at $100. Along with all of this, Sony, who have already said they believe the strength in their product lies in the games lined up, released a long list of developers committed to developing Playstation Move enabled games, including all the major publishers. It was also announced, presumably to try to break down the conception that motion controllers are gimmicky and childish, that Zipper Interactive’s re-acquired SOCOM 4 will be able to utilize the Move – however the motion controls fare, there’s no doubt the association with such a title does it a lot of good. Sony then proceeded to announce all its answers to the Wii’s most successful first party, motion-control based games – Sports Champions and interestingly named, Motion Fighters, as well as the next Tiger Woods game, and original little spaghetti-western movie themed rail shooter, called, The Shoot. Despite these fairly substantial announcements, Sony maintains they have saved the best for E3 in June.

One of the main objectives for GDC is also to bring Indie game developers for networking and a chance to demonstrate their labours of love. Capybara Games’ Nathan Vella, used his time to argue that  eventually, indie games will win out against major publishers, and pointed out the increasing quality and success of the sector year on year. Area 5’s Ryan O’Donnell, on the other hand spoke about the decreasing quality of game journalism, and the incessant and unnecessary call for 24 hour coverage (I write this as I struggle to finish up the summary before nobody cares about what happened at GDC anymore), meaning less quality time allocated for Indie games to be discussed, reviewed and featured. Team Meat’s Tommy Refenes’ little rant was more down my street, as he complained about the App Store and iPhone and it’s failure to stand up as precise gaming medium, asking the question who’s beaten Megaman 2 on the iPhone?

A few independent games caught my attention, specifically Limbo, a black and white eerie puzzle/platformer, which despite the colour design, makes brilliant use of light and silhouette imagery, Shank, a side-scrolling brawler, with more than just a little bit of gratuitous violence and crisp art style, which was allowed a little face time at GDC, having been announced PAX 2009 and finally Super Meat Boy, remake of the successful flash game Meat Boy, which will be released for Xbox Live, WiiWare and PC – the genuine love and passion stuffed in these titles is immediately recognisable; be sure to check out these unique games soon.

The Independent Games Festival Awards alongside the Game Developers Choice Awards play an important part, in recognising the outstanding achievements of developer teams and individuals during GDC, and rewarding brilliance in the Indie sector. At the IGFs, Limbo picked up a few awards, but Monaco, the original, top-down burglary game, won the grand prize of $20,000, and best of luck to them! While at the Game Developers Choice Awards, Uncharted 2, not content with its already bulging trophy cabinet after the DICE awards, swept up five more awards, including Game of the Year. Deservedly, Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum received best game design and Best Debut Game was won by Torchlight. In terms of individual awards, John Carmack, the legend behind classics such as Wolfenstein, Quake and Doom and co-founder of id Software, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for his extensive contributions to the industry, while the Pioneer Award went to Gabe Newell, co-founder of much-loved Valve. Speaking of Valve, on a side note, they continued their sneaky Portal 2 detail leakage, through the medium of puzzle, when, during Gabe Newell’s keynote, a blue screen of death appeared, with a code hidden within, believed to read “Suspend until E3” (you get the idea).

The Game Developers Conference, despite its lack of elaborate announcements and demonstrations, remains a hugely important event each year. I would go as far as to say, that its continued presence is critical to the success and growth of the industry, as it largely focuses on networking and peer recognition – neither sidetracked by major companies and raw commercialism nor consumer impressions. Keynotes such as DICE’s, on how the best selling Battlefield 1943, was made “in spare time” under a new philosophy born out of common sense, shed light for the entire industry on ways of thought to keep innovation alive while increasing profitability. Sure, the big news this year, the Playstation Move, hardly screams originality, but it’s events like the Microtalks and Indie games summit which grant much needed exposure to issues, new ideas and great games, making sure some of the most inventive and fast-growing sectors are understood and valued.

Social gaming was a key theme this year, and undoubtedly we will see more and more decorated game designers slip into this lucrative market and increase its value yet further – indeed, Will Wright, creator of SimCity predicts Social games will grow to acquire a 25% market share. Even seminars such as thatgamecompany’s (developer of Flower), on the difficulties of development and how to combat these problems in order to achieve a better end result, are vital to how development studios big and small, work together in the future, maintain the energy and vigour that was there in the beginning of the development process. Cliff Bleszinski, design director of Epic Games, managed to sum up the notion of DLC and way it should work quite uniquely: “Save your fork, there’ll be pie. The game is the fork and the pie is the DLC.” – without GDC where would we get such pie-related wisdom!? It was clearly a eventful occasion this year, and having followed all the news, keynotes and teasers, I almost feel like the premise of Sid Meier’s speech, the man behind the Civilization series, on the psychology and player’s perception of gaming, “Everything You Know Is Wrong” rings very true.

March 15th, 2010
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