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GDC 2006: Bigger and Badder Than Ever

Christopher Harz attends the biggest and baddest GDC ever and tells us what he found with contributions from Dominic Cianciolo.

With each year, GDC becomes an increasingly more important event for anyone interested in keeping on the cutting-edge of the gaming industry. Courtesy of Christopher Harz.

With each year, GDC becomes an increasingly more important event for anyone interested in keeping on the cutting-edge of the gaming industry. Courtesy of Christopher Harz.

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) this year [March 20-24, 2006] came back to San Jose, California, and everyone seemed glad of it. The San Jose Convention Center was packed with an energetic and serious but happy assortment of people that constantly streamed back and forth between a very crowded show floor and an overwhelming array of multiple tracks of panels and presentations that covered every conceivable aspect of game production. The GDC has a very different culture than its larger brother, the E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles. The E3 is all about the presidents how many copies of major game franchises can be sold in a toe-to-toe slugfest between giant gaming companies. The GDC is all about how games are made and the audience will cheer as wildly for a game produced independently on someones credit card as they will for the latest and greatest version of a major blockbuster.

The Diversity of Gaming

The first thing that really hits you is the sheer diversity of the game industry nowadays, as you look through a conference brochure with panels on Serious Games, Casual Games, Mobile Games, Online Games, games played by individuals or by fifty thousand people at the same time, Simulations, RPGs, MMOGs, FPSs, Gaming Environments (such as Second Life) the list stretches on and on.

To walk through the GDC is to walk through the history of gaming, all in the same place. Many mobile casual games are similar to the state of the art games of the 1970s, with relatively crude graphics and 2D characters (sprites) and flat face-on backgrounds think Space Invaders. The online mobile games resemble the games of the 1980s, with 2 D characters and backgrounds and a lot of movement seen in view, but with obvious limitations to the number of polygons per character that are dictated by the rendering power and bandwidth of the medium (cell phone or PDA); a lot of inexpensively produced indie games are at this level, as well. The online games for PCs and game platforms resemble the best-resolution games of the 1990s thousands of polygons, dozens or even hundreds of characters running around the screen, and decent quality audio.

The high-end games for 2006 are in a category all their own, defining a new generation. They incorporate features that were only dreamt of a dozen years ago very detailed surfaces with deformation, reflective lighting and high-resolution texturing and hair (or fur), very fast motion, and true 3-dimensionality for characters and set elements. The characters have detailed faces, and can show different emotions, which may play a crucial part in the game.

Supporting all this detail requires a new generation of hardware, including CPUs (Central Processing Units) that may be dual core or better (the new Sony PlayStation 3 CPU has 9 processing cores on it, making it a state of the art grid computer), GPUs (Graphics Processing Units, which have evolved from simple graphics boards to being highly specialized processors with independent memory and power), and storage the few kilobytes of years past have evolved into the gigabytes available on a game stored on a DVD (around 4.5GB) or the new generation of BDs (Blu-Ray DVDs hold up to 25GB in single-layer format). An Xbox 360 or PS3 easily outclasses the aircraft military simulators that are their forebears, and which cost tens of millions of dollars. Welcome to the new millennium.

Face Robot was the hottest software advance buzzed about at GDC. Especially its $95k price tag! © Softimage.

Face Robot was the hottest software advance buzzed about at GDC. Especially its $95k price tag! © Softimage.

Character and Story Development

What has remained constant across history and gaming platforms is the need for a compelling story and characters. But how the story can be told and how complex the characters are has changed a lot recently. It is of course possible to produce a great story without high-res graphics. As Dr. Jim Gee, one of the Serious Games presenters, noted, Look at Final Fantasy 4 it has crappy graphics, but its a great game! But there are some limits to this. Think of trying to produce Jurassic Park III with sock puppets the story would lose a lot of its impact. Characters in games have become a lot more detailed, just like the digital creations in movie blockbusters. They now have hair and clothing that can move, and their movements can follow the laws of physics they no longer look like something out of South Park. But the biggest change evident at the GDC this year is in the faces. Faces can now be photorealistic in a game (in fact, some games allow you to map a photo of your choice onto a game character you can literally be in the game.) Faces now move while speaking, and show emotion.

Whereas animation of bodies has been perfected over the years, with techniques such as motion capture in common use, detailed animation of faces (including mocap) is still a relatively new art, and a very demanding one, as humans can pick up very subtle cues from faces. Capturing facial movements has turned into an industry of its own. High-end tools are starting to emerge, such as Avid Softimages Face Robot, which can simulate how facial tissue slides and deforms during emotional episodes. The full-up version of Face Robot costs $95,000, which may be daunting for some studios. Softimage is investigating a rental program to help small studio budgets; another alternative is for studios to outsource such work to specialty boutique shops.

Like any event, Autodesks greeters just shows the extent companies will go to get peoples attention. Courtesy of Christopher Harz.

Like any event, Autodesks greeters just shows the extent companies will go to get peoples attention. Courtesy of Christopher Harz.

All these high-res models and sets have led to a new appreciation of Digital Asset Management (DAM), with much more detailed labeling and more re-cycling of complex models than was common a decade ago, when digital creations often disappeared when their creators left to go to another company. There is also a lot more attention being paid to the production pipeline, according to Rob Hoffman of Autodesk, the home of Maya (version 7), 3ds Max (ver. 8), Kaydara (ver. 7.5), Motion Builder (ver. 7.5) and other game toolsets, and also to the interoperability of different tools. In the past, studios tried to make everyone use the same tool, said Hoffman. Nowadays, artists use whatever tools allow the most efficient creation of the parts theyre working on. There are no one-product pipelines any more.

A major contributor to Autodesks interoperability is FBX, its universal file exchange format, which offers easy import and export not only between different Autodesk products, but also those of Softimage, LightWave and other toolsets that game producers might prefer. This is important for todays collaborative workplace, noted Hoffman, and also for our community of third party developers, who continue to produce comprehensive libraries of specialized plug-ins.

Autodesk is completing 64-bit versions of its products. It is in a strategic partnership with Intel and NVIDIA to assure a tight fit with next generation processors; it also works closely with Boxx, which produces high-end workstations with dual or even quad duo core processors and multiple GPUs that provide serious horsepower for creating ever-higher-resolution gaming environments. The bar keeps getting raised, Mayas Bob Orman noted. People see films like the Matrix series and expect to see those same effects in new games.

Early games tended to be in the here and now a lot of them were FPS (First Person Shooter) or sports games with minimal storylines. With the increase in resolution comes an increase in story detail and subtlety. A number of the new games let you play from the viewpoint of different characters an interesting development with social consequences that await future research. And story introductions (also called cinematics or cut scenes) that used to be rudimentary (sometimes just consisting of a board with writing on it to explain the storyline) can now be 10 minutes or more long they have in effect become mini-movies, made possible by the storage capacity of DVDs.

The new Blu-Ray DVDs will up the ante again (the Sony PlayStation 3 is expected to have a BD player), with the ability to contain different versions of a game in different languages. The Writers now play a much more important role in the game development team, and are getting awards to acknowledge their new prestige.

Best Games of the Show

So, which games were the best? Each year, IGDA, the International Game Developers Association, holds an open nomination program, to let the game development teams be judged by their peers. The game with the most buzz and the winner of five Awards was Shadow of the Colossus, by Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE), which won the Best Game category, and was also judged best in Character Design and Game Design. Guitar Hero won for best audio, a category that gives some recognition to an aspect of gaming that is often overlooked: the sound and music. Guitar Hero also won for Game Innovation. Double Fine Productions won the Best New Studio category, as well as Best Writing (for its Psychonauts game).

Introversions retro-stylish-action-strategy title Darwinia took the top prize at the Independent Games Festival. © Introversion.

Introversions retro-stylish-action-strategy title Darwinia took the top prize at the Independent Games Festival. © Introversion.

Awards were also given to games produced with more modest budgets, at the Independent Games Festival. Introversions retro-stylish-action-strategy title Darwinia won top prize (which included $20,000, enough for a lot of Pepsi and Pizza). Darwinia made a major sweep, also capturing Technical Excellence and Innovation in Visual Arts, resulting in lengthy euphoric on-stage outbursts from Introversions bow-tie-bedecked British team. The Innovation in Game Design went to Braid, a time manipulation game by Number None.

Because so many low-cost games use existing game engines, there are now modding awards for games based on the most popular engines. The winners this year were the cyberpunk Dystopia (best Half-Life 2 mod), the ancient Chinese action game Path of Vengeance (Unreal Tournament mod), Rose of Eternity Chapter 1 (Neverwinter Nights), and Last Man Standing Co-Op (Doom 3 mod).

It really strikes you, as you sit in the audience and hear the cheering for a game created as a labor of love and distributed via the Internet: these guys are REALLY into this and, this could never happen at the E3.

Winners and losers celebrated with equal gusto at after-hours parties, which featured such oddities as attractive models in neon lights walking on stilts next to a series of female contortionists (Autodesk really goes all out for this), and a pirate band singing sea shanties (black eye patches and pirate hats were handed out at the door). Partygoers from both major and minor studios sat happily side by side, consuming their favorite diet (Pepsi and pizza) and talking about any and all aspects of game creation, on large screens or small.

Mitch Lasky, who was ceo of Jamdat before it was bought by Electronic Arts, talked to the GDC attendees about the growing popularity as well as the sophistication of mobile gaming. © Electronic Arts Mobile.

Mitch Lasky, who was ceo of Jamdat before it was bought by Electronic Arts, talked to the GDC attendees about the growing popularity as well as the sophistication of mobile gaming. © Electronic Arts Mobile.

Mobile Games

One of the better keynotes was that of Mitch Lasky, the ceo of Jamdat before it was bought by Electronic Arts (he is now an svp at EA). The history of mobile games is reflected in the history of Jamdat, which started with a staff of six firm believers in mobile games surrounded by a sea of skeptics. Mitch says the worth of Jamdat went from a value of zero to $684 million in 6 years. Jamdat did a survey of peoples favorite mobile games; the top (roughly equal) answers were Scrabble, Tetris, Doom, Poker, Super Mario Brothers, Pac-Man and other.

Jamdat will continue as a soup-to-nuts shop at EA, creating content, publishing it, and doing the distribution and marketing. Lasky was an early believer in a different numbers game the concept that small revenues (a few dollars or even cents per game) multiplied by an incredible number of total platforms can make a real business model. There are now over one billion cell phones in global use, and the number continues to rise.

Major Trends in the Game Industry

One new trend discussed at the show is the insertion of advertising into games. Ads in games have been very limited in the past, consisting mainly of billboards advertising car makers that were inserted along the roadways of racing games. It was too good to last. Advertisers (worried that TV ads are getting to be much less effective at reaching a young adult demographic armed with TiVo units to skip over their messages) are increasingly looking at games to pitch their products.

Mitch Davis, the ceo of Massive, predicted that advertising in games will reach over $1.6 billion by 2010. Massive allows advertisers to swap ads in and out of videogames, which are played online; their clients include Coca-Cola, Subway, Honda and Gillette. The simple billboard-style ads are becoming subtler. In one game, the player has to pull into a BP gas station to re-fuel; in another, the game character can interact with ad elements to win an iPod.

Serious Games, games used for learning, are another interesting trend, and continue to get a lot of attention. Two full days were dedicated to Serious Games at the GDC this will be covered in a future article.

In the past, major game designers have relied greatly on creating products that extend entertainment franchises created in Hollywood. While this has been very profitable, it is becoming less so due to rising costs. Squeezing margins are both higher studio franchise fees and increased financial demands by films stars to appear in games. As a result, major game designers are less frequently licensing Hollywood stories as they seek to maintain profitability. At one GDC seminar Neil Young, vp/gm of Electronic Arts in Los Angeles, outlined his firms vision to create a development arm within Electronic Arts similar to those found in Hollywood studios.

GDC attendees also coalesced around their identity as storytellers separate and distinct from their filmed entertainment counterparts. It took cinematographers several years of the digital video revolution to accept the aesthetic of the new format and stop trying to make it look like film. It has taken somewhat longer for game designers to accept that their games stories should have filmic qualities, but that they should not be films themselves. As highlighted by game design guru Ernest W. Adams during his seminar, films have clear beginnings, middles, and ends. But because a games player ultimately drives its story, a game can have multiple middles and multiple ends. The idea of a traditional three-act structure simply does not apply.

Since Autodesk now owns both 3ds Max and its competitor, Maya, it has a very dominant presence in the majority of high-end games. I asked the Autodesk team members at the show for their take on industry trends. One strong one, they believed, is increasing collaboration for games, which today can often be co-productions between different studios in different countries, especially as costs go above $10 million. Another trend is that strategic partnerships are becoming crucial to staying in touch with emerging game developer needs.

Intel, for instance, which used to just supply hardware for workstations, is now in tight relationship with dozens of game developers. Autodesk, in addition to partnering with hardware makers, has also appointed staff liaisons with major game companies such as Electronic Arts and THQ. Finally, the team believes that the lines between films and games keep getting more blurred. Game companies now routinely arrange acting lessons for their creative staffs, to show them the fine points of emoting, and their cios are getting lessons from their film VFX counterparts in how to run 24/7 render farms to produce highly detailed digital scenes. Underscoring the trend: there is now a lot of hiring of film producers, artists and animators by game houses.


The gaming field is expanding rapidly, and evolving in many different directions. The lines between games and other media such as feature films are becoming increasingly blurred. New revenue models are starting to emerge, including the sale of digital assets such as clothing and cars in online games, or the insertion of ads as billboards or actual game story elements. The major games are becoming increasingly complex and expensive, and are more and more the province of large studios with deep pockets, but there is still a lot of opportunity for startups in the mobile game area. Creative videogames and the Game Developers Conference are alive and well.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

Dominic Cianciolo is a filmmaker and digital artist living in Valley Village, California. His work has screened on television, online and in film festivals worldwide. Hes directing a commercial for the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, which airs in April and May.