A GDC 2006 Retrospective
The Game Developers Conference is, well, ... a conference attended by game developers and those aspiring to be one. Really now. It isn't exactly a cheap event; fortunately, however, the company I'm working for thought it would be a good idea to send zee Spun to San Jose this year, covering most of the expenses.
I had to pass on Will Wright's presentation due to some other appointment I had at the same time, but based on what I heard after chatting with some of the people who had attended the speech it wasn't as spectacular as last year's. Well, there's only so many times you can unveil Spore!
The Sony keynote was held a day earlier and the lines in front of the Civic Center were as long as you'd expect them to be. While Ken Kutaragi was probably sitting somewhere in Sony's HQ, hooked up to a hype generator and recharging his batteries for E3, Phil Harrison gave a presentation on what's in the pipeline for the PS2, PS3 and the PSP. I'll refrain from listing every single element now, as they've already been covered by other outlets earlier, and only comment on a few.
A few software samples were shown, most of them being more or less tech demos. Motorstorm 'surprisingly enough' didn't look like the movie that was shown at E3 2005. Well, who'd have thought that. And then there was the demo that showed ragdoll simulations with dozens of characters at a time instead of three or four. The term 'more of the same' probably was created solely for that one. Later one of the Insomniac guys showed up on the stage, offering some footage from Resistance. I still wonder if Sony thought there was a point to incorporating an absolutely generic FPS in their keynote, or if they were that desparate for playable content. Of course, I wouldn't want to pass judgement on the final game based on these two minutes - but it wasn't exactly two exciting minutes if you know what I mean.
Harrison also mentioned earlier in his presentation, that the PS2 sold faster than its predecessor at a higher price point, "which is good for the industry." Maybe I'm reading too much into this rather brief remark he made, but it certainly came across like a nice hint that the PS3 is likely to be in the $400+ price range.
I thought that at some point the inevitable and notorious David "I've got an opinion on everything and you'll know it by the end of the day" Jaffe would appear on stage, but he didn't. ... Just kidding, he, of course, did. Bringing along some footage from God of War 2, showing some parts of what is Sony's flagship title to demonstrate the company's commitment to its current platform and the will to keep the software support up for PS2 even after the launch of its successor.
Either Sony couldn't show a lot more or they didn't want to. None of the people I chatted with afterwards found the presentation overly convincing or exciting. I also got to talk to some Sony guys and their statements regarding Sony's plans for the next years came off as more interesting than Harrison's keynote content.
Satoru Iwata's keynote was pretty much the opposite. While Sony tried to impress with hardware&numbers and held a rather typical business presentation, Nintendo's president devoted the first twenty minutes of his talk to the development of their Brain Training games. That's not meant to say that he didn't provide some figures as well--the DS' sales in the past months were certainly too good not to mention--but the overall focus was talking about how the company intends to expand the market by reaching out to people the industry failed to attract so far, using Nintendogs and the Brain Training titles as an examples.
As charming as it was, people waiting for new details regarding the Revolution or even some gameplay demonstrations were in for a disappointment as Nintendo decided to keep everything under wraps 'til E3.
Despite a rather high number of appointments, I fortunately made it to attend a few sessions. Chris Hecker's and Chaim Gingold's (Maxis/EA) presentation on advanced prototyping certainly was worth a visit. Both kept the crowd entertained while pointing out the utmost importance of a clear focus when one is developing prototypes. Showing various Spore prototypes for the purpose of demonstration, they provided some criteria teams should keep in mind before they start coding.
The IGF Roundtable on the state of independent gaming was a great indicator of how indies still can't agree on what independence actually is, much less on the criteria for people entering the Independent Games Festival. Some are convinced that projects with a commercial background clearly aren't independent, others define independence through the creative freedom and control the developers have. Probably would have been more interesting if it hadn't been for one of the guys behind N to dominate the debate and put his stamp onto it.
Any buzz from the showfloor? Console platforms are becoming more appealing to smaller developers thanks to services like Xbox Live Arcade or devices such as the Nintendo DS. And since Sony also plans a comparable approach for the PS3 network, you can bet that people will line up in front of their door as well. Digital distribution is a hot topic in general. Many people expect Windows Vista to boost the development of PC titles again. And with shelf space for PC games in the US dwindling, it'll be services like Steam or TotalGaming.net to ultimately benefit from that. Rest assured that some more companies plan to launch their own distribution systems in the near future.
GDC was a quite an interesting experience. It may not be the small event it once was, but it's still a lot more focussed and enjoyable than crowded, (semi-) public shows like E3 or the Games Convention. And while there are booths and flyers, you're not being marketing-bombed like it's done at the other events. Let's not forget that the place is being frequented by game developers - and before you know it you end up sitting at a dinner table with people like Bob Bates and Ron Gilbert. (And I, in fact, did not make up this particular example.) Also had a great time chatting with Iron Lore's Brian Sullivan, Jeff Goodsill and THQ's Michael Fitch about Titan Quest among other things at separate events and the guys behind the IGF nominee Strange Attractors--a wonderful game with a fascinating one-button-control approach in case you haven't tried it out yet.
And I surely hope I can attend next year again as the show will return to the beauty that is San Francisco.