Each year, as the first hints of springtime bloom vicariously, game developers make a beeline for the Bay Area, like, well, bees to honey. This year is no exception, as developers will be buzzing to the 19th annual Game Developers Conference March 7 through 11, hosted in San Francisco's Moscone Center West.
The Moscone Center West -
Site of this year's GDC
In this preview guide, we, the editors of Game Developer (operated by CMP Media's Game Group, which also produces GDC) present an independent look at the show, highlighting some of the changes taking place in this year's agenda, and each picking five lectures, roundtables, and tutorials that we think will be the most noteworthy, informative, or contemplative.
Although the conference has expanded over nearly two decades, mini-conferences continue to flourish within the body of GDC, with GDC Mobile returning to shed some light on the seemingly booming mobile games market. Additionally, the Serious Games Summit for government, health, education, and so-termed "alternative" uses - which spun off into a stand-alone conference in fall 2004 - will be held again at the conference. And the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) will sponsor a day-long Quality of Life summit to discuss the pressing issue of the often questionable working conditions in the game industry.
-- Simon Carless
Theme Track: Future Vision
One of the most notable new additions to the conference this year is a themed track called Future Vision. Although the complete list of speakers is not yet finalized as of press time, the conference brochure says the track involves "creative artists from a range of cultural media, such as film, music, design, and games, discussing their visions of the future of interactive entertainment."
This multimedia, multi-disciplined approach will enable prominent game creators - such as Will Wright, Parappa The Rapper's Masaya Matsuura, and Peter Molyneux - to share their ideas about what's coming to games in the near and far future, as opposed to dealing exclusively in analysis of what's happening now. The style of this track will also let speakers from outside the game business put forth some fresh perspectives and discuss their predictions for the game industry's future. Confirmed speakers include John Underkoffler, a science and technology advisor for feature films, including Minority Report and The Hulk, and Remington Scott, supervisor of computer-generated performance animation for motion pictures such as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Spider-Man 2, who will discuss digital human acquisition for next-generation games. And although nobody can actually predict the future, it's certainly entertaining to hear notable speakers draw from current trends, while doing just a little crystal ball-gazing of their own.
East Meets West
A huge emphasis has been placed on Japanese creators in this year's conference, since the conference's early pre-planning stages through the event's final lineup of speakers. Many of the world's leading titles are still developed in Japan, a country which has, at least anecdotally, a far higher percentage of the game sales market than comparable industries, such as movies or music. But Eastern game designers seldom have a chance to interact with their Western counterparts.
The event organizers have taken multiple steps to court more Japanese developers this year, beginning with a Japanese version of its web site (gdconf.com) to help attract attendees, and a consciously beefed-up list of prominent Japanese speakers. GDC promises simultaneously translated lectures from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi, Resident Evil 4 lead artist Yoshiaki Hirabayashi, Viewtiful Joe creator and Clover Studio president Atsushi Inaba, and Silent Hill producer Akira Yamaoka, as well as a rare audience with Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. Anyone who is captivated by some or all of these titles will appreciate this rare opportunity to hear about some of the aspects of development direct from the creators' mouths.
Game Developers Choice Awards, Conferences, and Keynotes
Following the fun and games that were this year's Spike TV Awards - an evening that awarded worthy nominees, but was otherwise adversely affected by its celebrity-emphasizing, creator de-emphasizing, MTV-Lite presentation, which left a sour taste in the mouth - the fifth Annual Game Developers Choice Awards hopes to redress the balance.
The awards recognize an IGDA-nominated raft of top innovators in a multitude of categories, from writing to audio to more specific accomplishments, such as First Penguin (awarding "the courage and bravery of a developer who tested the proverbial waters, uncertain of success or failure"). Most notably, the awards are voted on by IGDA members (although Snoop Dogg is absolutely eligible for membership), meaning your peers and colleagues select the winners, which makes the prize that much sweeter.
With the massive number of sessions to attend at GDC, it's almost possible to forget about the Game Developers Conference Expo; but the three-day show is free to GDC attendees. A reduced-price Expo-Only Pass gets you access, too. A gigantic range of publishers, developers, middleware companies, peripheral manufacturers, book publishers, and universities is prepared to pack into the Moscone Center West this year, so there will be plenty to check out. We're looking forward to the treasure trove of free key chains and brightly colored trinkets at the very least.
As for what else precisely is in store for the Game Developers Conference, rumors swirl of keynotes from at least one of the major hardware manufacturers, likely with new announcements of some kind. Whether this is strictly correct, we'll just have to wait and see, but it just wouldn't be GDC without a little rumor-mongering about what announcements major players such as Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony will make. Personally, we heard that Nintendo will be launching a Delorean-powered console time machine that boots up at 44mph, not the outdated, less efficient 88mph-but then again, we've been getting our tips from insalubrious street corners recently. So you're better off just turning up and finding out for yourself.
Independent Games Festival 2005
The Independent Games Festival, now in its seventh appearance at the Game Developers Conference, is showcasing another diverse and intriguing range of independent PC games-or rather, almost all PC, given this year's appearance of an indie console title, The Behemoth's 2D console side-scroller, Alien Hominid, which started life as a Macromedia Flash game.
Overall, there are plenty of highlights, from Chronic Logic's physics-based platformer Gish (an embryonic entry in last year's IGF), to massively multiplayer CCG Star Chamber, to Digital Eel's randomized space strategy sequel, Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space. There's even room for quirkier entries, including Veggie Games' Steer Madness, in which you play a car-driving cow who "rescues rabbits, delivers soymilk, [and] protests against fur."
Increasingly, we hear success stories from the IGF. Vicarious Visions, now converting Doom 3 to the Xbox, got a break as one of the early prizewinners. Last year's Project Goldmaster winners Flashbang Studios have completed a Sealab 2021 game for Adult Swim/Cartoon Network. And at least two other notable 2004 success stories have cropped up: Oasis has a deal with leading web-game developer PopCap, and Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates has already grabbed almost 10,000 monthly subscribers, as well as licensees in Germany and China.
The pot is at $40,000 in prizes, including two $15,000 grand prizes for winners of the Open (more than 15 megabytes) and Web/Downloadable (less than 15 megabytes) categories. And with another wide array of Student Showcase entries, the festival is one the most entertaining sidebars to this year's GDC. Check out the games, arrive at the IGF Awards (held directly before the Game Developers Choice Awards), and revel in the indie-ness of it all.
Editor Simon Carless's Picks
Rolling the Dice-The Risks and Rewards of Developing Katamari Damacy (lecture)
Katamari Damacy has been, without question, the sleeper critical hit of 2004, and it should be fascinating to hear Takahashi talk about how a deeply experimental and innovative title made its way to release through what the developers call "Namco's corporate system."
Academic Insights: What Researchers Can and Can't Tell You About Your Games (IGDA panel)
Dmitri Williams, James Paul Gee, Jesse Schell, Edward Castronova, Constance Steinkuehler
Is ludology ludicrous? Do only economists care about analyzing MMO economies? This panel seems like it will pose the right questions about academic research as a design resource, and should be well worth checking out.
The Future of Content (lecture)
"Will Wright discusses the future of content in the games industry," reads the description for this lecture. What a reduced statement for a man who conceptualized Sim City and The Sims, two all-time great games with almost completely differing gameplay. Wright is eminently worth listening to.
How Can MMOs Develop Mass Appeal in the U.S.? (panel)
The ever-controversial concept of a mass market continues to dog the MMO genre, and Sony Online's Rich Vogel chairs a panel which looks at what it'll really take for the first million-subscriber MMO in the U.S. - World of Warcraft, perhaps?
Audio Production for Halo 2 (lecture)
Marty O'Donnell, Jay Weinland
Halo 2 has some of the best audio ever used in a game, and this fascinating-looking lecture proposes to examine the custom audio engine for the title, as well as all the aspects of sound effects and music co-ordination that went into creating its audioscape.
Departments Editor Jill Duffy's Picks
Accessible Game Design: Reaching Disabled Gamers (IGDA roundtable)
Philosophically, and from a design standpoint, how can developers make an interface that is, literally, universally accessible? Michelle Hinn from the University of Illinois is prepped to use this roundtable to provoke discussions on universal design in the game industry. (And you thought females were disenfranchised from games ... )
Casual Games Summit (day-long tutorial)
Steve Meretzky, Dave Rohrl, Scott Kim, Patricia Pizer, Stephan Smith, Dan Scherlis, John Welch, Kent Quirk, Brad Edelman
Bring on the Tetris! Those of us who fall asleep during Monopoly matches and throw the game Risk after three monotonous hours - we believe in casual games. We believe in their profitability. This full-day tutorial is aimed at teaching how to make casual games for four major markets: retail, online, arcade, and mobile, although anyone interested in mobile might prefer to attend sessions in the Mobile Track.
Puzzle Pirates: Lessons From an Indie MMO (lecture)
Hopefully, Daniel James will wear his signature pirate hat. Even better, he'll weave the tale of Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates' origin - how it came into being since its appearance at IGF and how it survives both operationally and technically.
Uses and Misuses of Middleware (roundtable)
Though targeted at an intermediate level audience, my hunch is that practically anyone in the game industry (or who aspires to work in the industry) will benefit from this broad discussion of middleware - a term that is at times as extensive in meaning as it is in application. The meat-and-potatoes of this roundtable will likely come from attendees' questions, so arrive with lots to ask.
Counting Women: The Dollars and Cents Behind Female Gamers (IGDA panel)
Clarinda Merripen, Schelley Olhava, Aleks Krotoski, Mia Consalvo, Richard Ow
One can purport to analyze the purchasing power and buying habits of female players in order to increase market share, but the figures are always criticized, disputed, and nullified. I've yet to hear a totally convincing argument, but I also believe there's one to be made. Until I find it, I'll continue to attend lectures and panel discussions such as this one.
Assistant Editor Brandon Sheffield's Picks
Why Isn't the Game Industry Making Interactive Stories? (panel)
Andrew Stern, Neil Young, Warren Spector, Michael Mateas
This panel discussion will focus on what it would take for the game industry to create a mass-appeal interactive story, and in fact, whether it can even do so at this stage. With such an all-star cast, the talk should be entertaining at the very least.
Practical Implementation of SH Lighting and HDR Rendering on PlayStation 2 (lecture)
Yoshiharu Gotanda, Tatsuya Shoji
Two top guns from tri-Ace will share their tricks of the trade, specifically in regard to spherical harmonics lighting and high dynamic range rendering. As a programming track, this is a rare, almost unheard of look into the deeper end of Japanese game development methodology.
Composition & Sequential Storytelling: Using Film Language for FMV Sequences (day-long tutorial)
Even the most expensive CG cut-scenes will look like amateur hour if you can't direct. In this day-long workshop, Mystic Arts founder Justin Evans shares some techniques (composition, editing, and sequencing) from the film industry that should help create a sense of immersion and excitement in FMV work, or if all else fails, allow one to fake competence.
Gripping Game Design: The Mood and Ambience of Silent Hill (lecture)
Silent Hill is one of those few games that is universally lauded for its use of sound design to advance the video game medium beyond the stage of simply sounding like a movie. Producer Yamaoka will share his thoughts on the integration of sight, sound, interactivity, and engrossing storytelling, and possibly teach us about rock 'n' roll, if we're good.
Game Design Challenge: The Emily Dickinson License (panel)
Eric Zimmerman, Peter Molyneux, Will Wright, Clint Hocking
The ever-popular Game Design Challenge has returned-an event in which prominent game designers must create a concept for an unusual game with a specific theme. This time around, it's the poetry of Emily Dickinson. This session has a tradition of excellence, so if it fails to be simultaneously humorous and educational, the world may stop spinning.
Assistant Editor, Gamasutra.com, Quang Hong's Picks
Fable: Lessons Learned (lecture)
A grand vision from one of the industry's grand visionaries, Molyneux's big ideas will meet reality when he lunges into a postmortem of Lionhead's first console game. It should be fun to watch.
Experimental Gameplay 2005 (lecture)
In this perennial must-see, Blow goes outside the box and sometimes nowhere near the box, with ideas that challenge the tried and true and inspire the lot of us.
Overcoming the Challenge of Making a Creatively and Financially Successful New Game (lecture)
From a huge and complicated control console, to playing the cinema, to bringing color to a gray world, Inaba's ideas challenge fiscal common sense and still come out in the black. His wisdom in this lecture will focus in on the relationship between producer and creator, and how each one's goals can get in the way.
The Near Future of Media Distribution (lecture)
We've seen a new model emerge for the online distribution of music. Will games follow suit to iTunes ... or Napster? What can be said for next-gen consoles? This business-geared lecture might shed some light on the situation. Don't change that channel.
Feature Film Performance Animation and Digital Human Acquisition for Next Generation Games (lecture)
The further convergence of Hollywood and the game industry is highlighted in this look at producing more "realistic" animation for the day when The Lord of the Rings game will be visually indistinguishable from The Lord of the Rings movie.