GDC looks back for 30th edition with all-star microtalks

Kicking off the Game Developers Conference 2016 in style, an all-star set of microtalks took us through the major trends the game industry has seen across 30 editions (and 29 years) of the show.

Kicking off the Game Developers Conference 2016 in style, an all-star set of microtalks took us through the major trends the game industry has seen across 30 editions (and 29 years) of the show.

Introduced by a video featuring all-stars from GDC's history - from Pac-Man's Toru Iwatani to Cliff Bleszinski, CGDC founder Chris Crawford kicked off by showing how much things have changed from his days developing on the Mac IIX to iOS and Mac development now.

He pointed out that in constant currency terms, the computer he had to buy was 5 times as expensive as today's best dev hardware. The barrier to entry has lowered massively.

Using other data, Crawford showed how much the possible market for games has expanded - from 0 smartphones to 2.5 billion, from 330,000 Internet hosts to 1 billion. But he noted in a self-deprecating closing remark - "there is one rock of stability that will never change - my popularity."

Next up was Quest For Glory co-creator Lori Cole, talking about the history of adventures, starting with - appropriately enough - Adventure. She then cycled through Infocom, the foundation of Sierra Online - noting the diversity of storytelling and male and female-friendly adventures like King's Quest, and pointing out LucasArts' landmark games like Day Of The Tentacle.

Was the end of LucasArts' adventures 'the death of adventure game', Cole mused? She noted that it was perceived at the time that "they didn't appeal to the mass market", but "they didn't really go away".

Smaller companies have continued to keep the company alive, and Telltale and Double Fine have come back - alongside things like Thimbleweed Park and Cole's own Hero-U. She ended: "Adventure games are alive and well, and they're still very fun to play."

Graeme Devine - currently of Magic Leap and formerly co-creator of The 7th Guest. He kicked off by pointing out some of the classic issues around getting online - via Prodigy, or installing games - via floppy discs. He noted: "CD-ROM offered vast possibilities for everyone", and it was believed that it would be used for vast amounts of text - but that just wasn't that exciting.

It was only when the Multimedia PC standard was introduced that things really took off. Devine and his partner were inspired by Twin Peaks and Clue, and put everything together to make The 7th Guest. In fact, The 7th Guest and Myst kicked off the CD-ROM revolution - and Devine was front and center for it.

Following him was Phil Harrison, who discussed the history of the PlayStation. He noted that his team were inspired by Ken Kutaragi to take CGI quality graphics and CD-ROMs technology to make the PlayStation. At that time, cartridges cost $15 each and took 6-7 weeks to ship from Japan. It was "really hard to innovate" because of cost - so CD-ROMs were the way to go.

Harrison explained how the team showed PlayStation at CES 1994 and doubled the RAM from 1MB to 2MB specifically because of developer feedback. The team spent $50 million to build the first PlayStation - with ten of billions of dollars back to Sony and developers as a result.

The name PlayStation was contentious in the U.S. - some wanted to call it solely PSX - but it got through in one piece. Of PlayStation, he noted: "The cost of development and the market opportunity were nicely aligned", and the platform allowed innovation, especially including user-created experiences like Net Yaroze.

Raph Koster - Ultima Online co-creator - then took us on a 50-slide rollercoaster through the history of MMOs, from Bartle and Trubshaw's MUD to Kesmai and Simutronics.

By 1993-1995 projects were initiated to "bring visuals to virtual worlds", ending in games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call. Koster noted that World Of Warcraft - while brilliant -  "nailed the form down and collapsed the possibility space" - and telescoped ideas from these games out into social world and other areas.

Koster mourned of the core MMO creator: "We said that some day, we would give way to AR glasses and mirror worlds" - and noted "there sure wouldn't be Minecraft without MUD". He concluded that MMOs did indeed swallow everything: "What's Twitter but guild chat for the world? We are all avatars now."

Next up, DMA Design co-founder Dave Jones  documented the creation of the first Grand Theft Auto. Jones showcased the design highlights from the original 12-page design document for the 10-person game created in 1995. He noted that many of the things suggested back in the original still hold today. He pointed out you can get out of cars and steal other ones, and then run around - an increasingly telescoping concept.

GTA was a bottom-up design, and highly iterative, "driven by what we were having fun with day to day during development". It was a simulation and a sandbox - "every player's experience could diverge" within the first 10 seconds. Jones mused - what makes a world, and not a movie set?

Working through small things in GTA's design led to a deep design tree - but in open world,  "if you get it right, that's when magic happens". He concluded: "We are the only medium that can deliver open world experiences."

Ken Lobb - Nintendo and Microsoft veteran - then came on to discuss digital distribution and the creation of Xbox Live Arcade. It started with interest over making arcade games in a standalone digital version. It blossomed - starting in 2005 - into a major innovation time for digital distribution.

Lobb described how Xbox Live Arcade came about, and ended by suggesting that the curation issue is the one thing that developers and publishers should be looking at in the short - not long-term.

Following him, EA's Chelsea Howe discussed the rise of social games, noting that at its peak, around 1 in 4 people on Facebook were playing Zynga's smash hit Farmville. She noted that "time and attention" becaus the most important thing, rather than immediately monetizing. So some "dark design trends" started, with Facebook feeds being flooded with cries to help friends win in games.

Howe noted that the rise of social games begot "the real-time feedback loop of data", and find out the "startling differences" between what people say and what people actually do. She also suggested that gamification - both in and out of games -  has some short-term wins but long-term drawbacks. But in the end, social games faded out - and mobile games took over.

Fruit Ninja creator Luke Muscat followed on, talking about smartphone games, pointing out that over 19,000 games were submitted to the iOS store in January 2016 - a gigantic amount.

He noted that the scope of smartphone games is so, so large, we now have accessible technology and games - and so critique and discussion of games is now accessible. Kids and family can now get involved in making games, because everyone plays games.

Next up, Tim Schafer discussed crowdfunding - and the rise of Kickstarter. He noted that the old publisher model was fairly messy, with not much of the royalties going back to developers, and the ability for your game to be cancelled. "The huge wave of love and support" that came with crowdfunding was a massive help, and he believes that being as transparent as possible helps players to understand how games are made.

The next stage is crowdfunding and profit sharing, which Schafer has used to fund Psychonauts 2 via Fig - and he believes in crowdfunding, since it enables "creative people to make projects that wouldn't have existed any other way".

Next up, EVO co-founder and developer Seth Killian discussed the rise of eSports, noting in starting that "player passion is the atomic element that powers all of eSports".

Killian is excited about the future of the medium simply because you can now build deep competitive games that scale with your interest. So instead of a big marketing launch and a slowly declining player base, you can get games that grow long after launch and "in some cases accelerate growth, years after launch."

So, Killian suggests you can get ecosystem stability, turning games from entertainment into "a way of life". Games may continue being viable for a decade or more, and it allows players to "attain a stable competitive orbit" in a constantly changing set of games. In conclusion, these eSports are a "new renewable energy source" in the games industry.

Finally, Oculus' Palmer Luckey came on stage to discuss the history and future of VR - noting that "a few years ago, nobody believed in virtual reality". He agreed that even now, you might not believe in VR, but almost everybody is still "thinking about virtual reality". Palmer noted, honestly - you can't have insight into how things worked in the past in VR, there's no history you can build on.

He suggested that, as well as successes,  "there's going to be a lot of failures" in VR, admitting that in the currently bubbly climate "nobody's really had to fail" yet.

But he's clearly excited about the future, and says in conclusion that he hopes to be back at GDC again in another 30 year or so - greyer but explaining how things worked out for VR and AR.


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