GDC 2005: Generation Wrap-Up in San Francisco

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.

SF 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.

SF 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!

  • Andy Patrick

    Interesting note about Half Life 2… I loathe, detest, and despise Steam, with a passion… had it not been for HL2 being SO GOOD I’d have rather pulled teeth out than had the slightest encounter with Steam.

    HL2 did everything right except “blurring the lines between single player and multiplayer”… the RIGHT way of doing that is PGR2, where there’s no requirement to connect to Live but if you do, even in single player, there’s a lot of benefits.

  • http://greggman.com greggman

    I’m really curious about that whole passion thing. Don’t passionate people work crazy hours? I’m not suggesting in any way that people should be required to work long hours. At the same time, I also can’t imagine working in any creative industry without expecting some crazy passionate core driving it. Maybe it’s just the stereotype in my head but whether it’s a painter, writer, composer, artist, movie director, musician, or game developer the person with the passion just can’t stop because 8 hours are up. How do you reconcile that with 9 to 5?

    There’s also risk / reward issues as well. 9 to 5ers in most industries generally get their salary and that’s it. Developers get royalties. Sure, most developers never see royalties because their games are not hits but the point is they are willing to take that risk. They risk working more hours for less money in the hope that they will be the next Carmack with 3 Ferraris (or David Perry with a Viper).

    One argument would be that for people that just want to work 9 to 5 (ie, take no risks) there should be less reward (ie, no backend). I’m not sure if that’s the answer either, in fact I don’t know what the answer is but my impression is movies and TV work just as crazy yet no one complains about it. Way is that? Maybe because those are not for 18 months? But they are in many ways a similar endeavors. Could it be that creative projects are inherently not 9 to 5 but that it’s basically not been until recently that common creative endevors took so long?

    I’m just rambling but I can’t imagine the game industry as a 9 to 5 business and so I’m trying to work through both that gut feeling and the desire to also have a life outside of game development.

  • http://www.gamedevblog.com Jamie Fristrom

    Could you give us a link to the Oberg slides?

    Yeah, if crunching is a good thing, how come Shiny games tend to suck? (Four years making *Enter the Matrix*, presumably a lot of crunching, and all they ended up with was that?) On the other hand, *Call of Duty* for the PC was done without crunching. (We need more *Call of Duty* like examples.)

  • Bruce Oberg

    here are the slides for my “The Picture Worth a Thousand Bugs” DAG talk:

    http://www.oberg.org/gdc2005_bruce_oberg_final.zip

    these are the final slides i used. there are several “hidden” slides – things i cut for the sake of time. the conference proceedings include a slightly earlier verion of the same slides (i had to submit a set several weeks before the talk).

    enjoy!

  • http://www.gamearchitect.net Kyle Wilson

    “Developers get royalties. Sure, most developers never see royalties because their games are not hits but the point is they are willing to take that risk.”

    No, most developers never see royalties because we’re salaried employees. If our next game turns out to be the next Halo or GTA3, we’ll get sincere thanks and maybe an extra company trip to see Star Wars Episode III, but we aren’t going to be buying any fast cars and we’re certainly not going to be cashing in and retiring early with our millions.

  • Paul Higinbotham

    Regarding the “whole passion thing” comment by gregmann, it always amazes me that many people think there are only two kinds of developers: passionate-productive developers who work 12-16 hours a day because they love what they do, and 9to5ers who care about nothing but a paycheck and when quitting time is. There seems to be no room for an intelligent, passionate developer who works 8, 9, 10 productive hours a day week after week, month after month, with occasional crunch times as needed.

    It is my experience that the 12-16 hour/day developers tend to write the worst code that break builds and require the most bug fixes and rewrites. Sure there are times when you are on a roll and want to work a late night to finish something up. But continual long days are not passion but usually panic and sometimes despair.

    I used to force myself to grind through a difficult problem hour after hour until I somehow completed it, because I wanted to be seen as dedicated, passionate, on-time. The funny thing is that almost invariably once I stopped went home and relaxed (washing dishes, cooking dinner, cleaning bathrooms, whatever) a satisfactory solution or at least a good approach would just come to me. Then I would go back to work the next day and rewrite what I previously grinded out … big waste of time. I now take regular walking breaks (admittedly difficult to do under tight deadlines), write better code and waste less time.

    Unfortunately many long hours are worked to either a) Look good to management or b) Hide the fact that you are way behind on schedule, clueless, and severely panicked (oh yeah, I’ve been there).

    By the way, I really really like HalfLife2 … just an awesome game. Maybe I was one of the fortunate few but Steam wasn’t a problem at all for me. Also I like the idea of the developer getting most of the cash reward for a great product rather than the “evil publisher”.

  • http://www.gamesfromwithin.com Noel Llopis

    “Also I like the idea of the developer getting most of the cash reward for a great product rather than the “evil publisher”.”

    Oh, as a player and a developer, I’m totally behind the idea of the developer getting a good chunk of the money. If Steam had just been a digital distribution channel, it would have been awesome.

    My objection is that they bundled a bunch of other questionable things (auto patching, multiple downloads, etc) and made it into a service. To play, you basically need to connect to their server and “authorize” your copy of HL2. So in a way, the $50 doesn’t buy you the game, it buys you the right to play the game while the have the server up and running and they don’t change their policies.

    I would have been all over it if Steam had been a way for me to download HL2 instead of buying a copy in the store and everything else had been the same.

    Frankly, it’s not that different from the registration system of Windows XP, and that’s what finally tipped the scale for me and made me switch from Windows to Linux permanently a few years ago (and I’m kicking myself for not switching a lot earlier).

    The whole idea of games or applications (Microsoft Office, Visual Studio, etc) becoming services that you pay a monthly fee (or a per-use mini-fee) completely horrifies me. And no, I don’t play MMORPG games for that reason too (and the fact that I would get too addicted).

  • Paul Higinbotham

    Well, Ok I do see your points about Steam. You don’t really own HL2 in the sense that you can re-sell it on EBay when you are done with it. You only purchase the right to play it. This doesn’t bother me too much since I never re-sell PC games (XBox games are another matter). I can see how the required internet connection for authentication/authorization can be a problem. I normally have a reliable internet connection but one time it went down for a week. Supposedly you can still play “offline”, but somehow it lost my authentication and wouldn’t let me play until my internet connection was back up. Also it does kind of bug me to know that everytime I play it is recorded on some Valve server.

    But despite all this I really enjoyed the game, and in fact am playing it a second time (very rare for me).

  • http://www.gamesfromwithin.com Noel Llopis

    “But despite all this I really enjoyed the game, and in fact am playing it a second time (very rare for me).”

    Oh, yeah, go ahead and rub it in! You’re going to make me break my own principles and go out and buy it if you keep this up :-) I did really like the original Half Life and I was really looking forward to this one.

    Must… resist….

  • http://www.timedoctor.org Dan Olson

    Managers who intentionally schedule around crunch scare me almost as much as people who tell me that the industry is horribly broken because crunch exists. I like Paul’s “middle ground” between the two stereotypical extremes… while hoping that managers *everywhere* are actively doing what they can to avoid extensive crunch, recognizing that it doesn’t really do anyone any good.

    As far as passion for the industry, I’m sure there’s a lot of room for it so long as you don’t take online reviews that pan your game personally. My first console game just shipped this month and I’m proud to have worked on it, even if it has gotten critically panned. In an industry that’s so unglamorous most of the time, it’s hard to be content without at least a little passion.

    The Sly Cooper talk sounds interesting, thanks for the recommendation (and the link).

  • Paul Higinbotham

    Noel, I must say I admire you sticking to your principles. Unfortunately I don’t have that kind of integrity when it comes to a cool game I want to play (gas guzzling, polluting personal conveyance vehicles are another matter … big pet peeve of mine).

    In addition I have enough sympathy for what Valve is trying to accomplish (fighting piracy, moving power from the publisher back to the developer), that I am willing to overlook the less desirable aspects of Steam.

    Still I sympathize and agree with many of your concerns regarding software services. Large software coporations are slowly owning us. I am so entrenched in Windows I don’t know if I could make the switch to Linux. In a lot of ways I miss the old days…

  • http://www.gamesfromwithin.com Noel Llopis

    Frankly, in the case of HL2 is not so much about principles but about how I like to play games. I’m a fan of older games and every so often I like to dust them off and give them a whirl (for example, recently I’ve played Monkey Island 1 on SCUMMVM and the original The Lost Vikings on DOSBox). I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do that with Half Life 2.

    Don’t even get me started with gas-guzzling cars! For the record, I want to say that I put in about twice as many miles on my bicycles than I do on my car every year :-)

    As for Linux, all I can say is give it a try. You’ll be surprised how little you really depend on MS Windows: you get great email programs, browsers, office programs (compatible with MS Office), and a full development environment for many different languages. And even emulators for those few pesky apps (Quicken in my case). Yes, games are lacking (although not completely missing), but that’s why I keep an old Win98 partition, and my PS2 is getting more and more of a workout every day.

    Here are some no-risk ways of trying Linux with a live CD:

    http://www.mandriva.com/products/move

    http://www.knopper.net/knoppix/index-en.html

  • http://www.gamesfromwithin.com Noel Llopis

    “Managers who intentionally schedule around crunch scare me almost as much as people who tell me that the industry is horribly broken because crunch exists.”

    I don’t think anybody thinks the industry is horribly broken because crunch exists. It’s the fact that crunch is considered a normal aspect of game development, and, to a certain extent, a badge of honor that is a huge problem.

    As for the industry being horribly broken, do you know of any other industry that has a 35% turnover every 5 years, and with about 60% of the people having less than 5 years of experience. I think those facts (taken from the IGDA QoL whitepaper and the latest GDmag salary survey) speak for themselves.

    As for the topic of “passion”, apart from the money issue that Kyle mentioned, I think an even bigger issue are team sizes. Working with a team of 10-15 people, you really feel that you’re doing something together and you can put a lot of yourself into it. When you’re one out of a hundred, it’s much harder to be motivated and feel like you’re really making much of a difference.

    But that’s a separate issue from crunch anyway (or should be). Even for the things I’m most passionate about (game development being one of them), I have to pace myself or I’ll crash and burn really quickly.

  • Andy Patrick

    I like the concept of a distribution system that prevents piracy, downloads updates for me, gives more money to the developer, etc.

    I detest Steam because it took FOUR HOURS to install the game (on a 2MBit connection! A friend is on a 56K modem and he had to leave it running overnight, NOT good fun); I’ve occasionally not been allowed to play even in single-player because it couldn’t connect to the Steam server; and the object that I bought for 30 pounds will not exist forever – I can (and do) still play old Spectrum games that I bought in 1985, what’s the chances I’ll be able to play Half Life 2 if I decide to load it up for another blast, in 20 years time?

    On passion… I am passionate about making games. But I’m paid for working 9-5. You can’t eat passion, or pay the rent with it. If I’m required to work ridiculous hours (as opposed to occasionally staying late to finish some stuff off because I want to and I’m in the zone) I expect more money, simple as that.

    And planning to crunch? It amazes me that this happens (it’s even happening on the project I’m working on right now). I find it absolutely staggering. If you plan to fail, you will fail. If you plan to crunch, you will probably crunch and crunch and crunch and crunch some more.

  • Matthew UK

    Firstly, I agree that Steam killed Half-Life 2. I enjoyed the first play through of the game but haven’t gone back due to Steam requiring me to login time and again and I have too many passwords to remember already. I’m sure there’s an option to remember the password but why should I even have to go through the process of finding out how just to play?

    Greggman’s comments on working longer for less pay but greater (royalty) reward may still apply to certain companies in the industry but this is changing. Team sizes for next-gen games are getting much larger meaning that the royalties are spread thinner and the reward in this regard diminishes. Some companies don’t even give royalties anymore and either just pay a little better or offer a set bonus based on overall company performance.

    My point here is, as we move to the next generation of game development the rewards for an employee are going to diminish. Working 9+ hours a day wont come with a big reward at the end but you will probably still be required to put in those 16hr crunch time days.

    Getting a game out on time with your team working 8 hour days is possible. I have been in the industry several years and still experience crunch times but I can see why it happens. Publishers continued reviews and decision making during the development life-cycle are a big cause of extra work, the other is a lack of solid management from within the developer itself. Many still rely on people promoted into the positions of Producer and Project Manager from other code/design/art areas. They usually have little experience in management and therefore cannot help a team work efficiently within an 8-hour day.

    There is no easy solution to the problem of overtime but it can be easily minimised by managing your publisher properly and ensuring the people running your team are trained to do so. There are other areas that help too that I wont go into but they include things such as flexible working hours and our continued reliance on milestone snapshot releases.

    Thanks for listening.