This year’s GDC, for a change of pace, was held in San Francisco. It was also the last GDC dealing mostly with the current generation of consoles. Yet again, GDC managed to live up to all expectations. I walked away totally exhausted, but at the same time energized and inspired and full of new ideas.
It seems that this year’s GDC came and went and somehow I never got around to writing a quick report. Part of it was due to decompressing after a very exhausting event; part of it was catching up with things at work and all the stuff going with the change to High Moon; and part of it was just due to other commitments (there, now you see what a terrible runner I am). But I figured it was better late than never, so here we go.
I first have to comment on the location. This year’s GDC was in San Francisco instead of San Jose like it has been for many years. I went in with an open mind thinking that San Francisco would be pretty cool but that it would have the drawback that I wouldn’t know my way around as well as in San Jose.
In the end, however, I felt that San Jose was a much better location. I didn’t particularly care for the area (Market and 4th through 6th Streets). Things felt very busy and spread out, and it didn’t have the sense of community you got in San Jose. As soon as you step out of the conference center you become just another person in the street, but in San Jose, just about everybody walking around in the evening was a game developer. Fortunately, we’re going back to San Jose next year. Yay! I missed not going to Bella Mia this year (and I didn’t even make it to The Stinking Rose as I had hoped to).
Clearly, the underlying theme of GDC 2005 was the console generation change. I started writing a few thoughts about it, but it’s such a big topic that it deserves a whole article on itself. I’ll put it up this weekend. For now suffice to say that it’s going to be a huge change. The PSX to PS2 console change was nothing compared to this. Fasten your seatbelt because it’s going to be one bumpy ride!
Interestingly, another subtle theme brought up in many talks, either directly or indirectly, was customizable gaming. Allowing players to play their own music, put their own pictures in the game, skin their interfaces, control how their characters evolve, choose the layout for their buildings, and create custom paint jobs for their cars. That’s nothing new, especially in the PC world. We’ve been doing that for years. Still, I think it’s finally hit the big time and that’s going to be a required feature going forward.
I have a friend who was playing City of Heroes last year. He thought the game was OK, but the part he had most fun with was actually playing around with the character creation setup. It really was amazing what you could do with your superhero characters. Maybe it was a bit too much to do before you even get attached to your character, but it certainly looked a lot more interesting than clearing another sewer of rats or beating yet another bad guy somewhere.
Personally, I never really cared much for game customization. Sure, it’s fun to see your character change in an RPG, but I really couldn’t care less how my car looked in Need for Speed, or whether I could choose the pants for my character in a third-person action game. I think this might be a generational thing though. I grew up with TV that you had to watch when things were on, and you didn’t even have that much choice of what was on. Now kids expect to watch what they want whenever they want to.
The cell phone ringtone business is huge. Something like a one-billion-dollar business. That’s just amazing when you consider how quickly it got there. So not only are people wanting to customize their gadgets, but they’re willing to pay for it. Tattoos and custom clothing are also huge and that’s one way people have of expressing themselves. Even though Allard’s keynote was a horrible waste of time, that’s the most interesting point he made (yes, I didn’t get a free TV, was it that noticeable? I would have still thought it was a terrible keynote, though).
I definitely don’t like the trend towards seeing games as services though. Call me old fashioned, but I like my game to be in a box (or hard drive; digital distribution is even better), and I like to know it’s going to be there when I want to go back to it. The idea of games requiring internet connections, auto-updating themselves, and blurring the distinction between single and multiplayer totally puts me off as a player (although I admit it sounds like lots of fun from a technical point of view). Case in point: Half Life 2 was at the top of my list of games to buy, but Steam simply killed it for me.
The highlight of the show this year was again Will Wright’s talk. I kept telling everybody to get there early, but it totally blew my mind when I saw a line coiling around the convention center a full twenty minutes before the start of the talk. I guess the organizers got caught by surprise also. Those who know me know I can’t stand to wait in line. But this one was well worth it. The talk was simply indescribable. Will has the most understated way of giving a talk: he doesn’t yell, gesticulate wildly, or resort to fancy multimedia or loud music with smoke machines on the stage. Yet somehow he manages to be extremely engaging and interesting from the very beginning. I said it before and I’ll say it again: “I’ll go to any talk Will gives, even if it’s about the most uninteresting subject imaginable. Somehow, he’ll make it interesting.”
And this year was no exception. He emphasized the importance of procedural content in this next generation, and to drive the point home, he showed a demo of his latest project, Spore. I thought it was extremely cool that he looked into who has experience with procedural generation of content, came across the mod scene in Europe, and recruited a team of demo-makers to prototype his game.
Will also emphasized the importance of customizable content and also of leveraging the content created by other users in your own game (in this case automatically, without you having to download anything). We’re going to see a lot more of that in the next few years.
Other than Will’s, what were some of the outstanding sessions this year?
I totally loved the Bruce Oberg’s talk “The Picture Worth a Thousand Bugs” about how they manage the game state for Sly Cooper 2 at Sucker Punch. That’s one of those areas that I’ve never seen implemented correctly and it’s always a big mess of spaghetti scripts and random code all over the place. Instead, they organized into a very clean and effective dag system, which allows them to visually display the state of the game and set up game flow in a very easy way, as well as fast-forward and rewind the game state for easier bug tracking. Go read his slides now.
Eric Malafeew’s talk on “Data-Driven Programming Made Easy” was very interesting also. That’s a topic I’m very interested in because of all the architectural and system consequences that it has. It’s great to learn about how other teams solve certain problems in their games. Besides, my wife and I are huge fans of Amplitude, so I had to find out more what’s behind the scenes.
Some of the other really solid talks were the one on the “Age of Empires 3 Graphics Engine” (they had eight full-time programmers on graphics alone!!), and Matt Noguchi’s “Halo 2 Content Management” talk (any self-respecting console game should have something very much like that, including data hotloading).
Finally, I also attended the IGDA Quality of Life Summit. There was nothing new, but it contin
ues to be very necessary to keep bringing that topic up and discussing it. It saddened me to see a room packed with over 300 people across the room attending the “infomercial” session on the Windows Developer Day, and have only about 50-60 people in the Quality of Life session. Still, that’s a lot more than there were at the white paper unveiling last year, so at least it’s a positive trend.
The summit included a panel of several game developers to discuss the issue of crunch time. I was hoping to get some heated discussion going, and it seemed it was going to be that way when David Perry and Julian Eggebrecht stated that game development is all about passion and that passionate people are going to crunch and that’s how great games are made. Just as a point of reference, David was quoted in a magazine a few years ago saying “Never trust a programmer with a tan”. Then somebody in the audience confronted them by asking what measurements they took to verify that crunching in their past projects actually increased productivity instead of making things worse. From there on there was a lot of humming and hand waving and back pedaling to the point that the whole panel sort of agreed that crunching is not always good or necessary.
It was a pleasure to actually see Steve McConnell speaking at the summit. Sure, my perception was colored by the fact that I finally got to meet my hero face to face and even got to chat with him briefly after his session. The point of his talk is that by improving our development practices we can develop games for less money and with less need for overtime. Of course, even if we did, some people would argue that crunch time would not go away, which is very true. The causes of overtime run a lot deeper than that. Still, it’s a necessary first step. My main regret is that very few people got to see him, but what he had to say was very applicable to the industry as a whole. It’s also a great trend to look beyond the games industry for solutions to our problems. Kudos to IGDA (and Hank Howie from Blue Fang Games in particular) for bringing Steve to GDC.
GDC lived up to all expectations yet another year. I walked away totally exhausted, but at the same time energized and inspired and full of new ideas. Now it’s time to do some more research, put them to good use, and ship a great game with them. Don’t forget to submit your own talk ideas for near year’s GDC to give back to the community and contribute with your own experiences!