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The Game Developers Conference: Alive for 2005

Christopher Harz ventures back to the Game Developers Conference, which is quickly becoming the premiere event for the gaming industry.

GDC lacked the intimacy of previous years, but this annual gathering is still the epicenter of excitement and creativity. Courtesy of the Game Developers Conference (left). Photo credit: M. Alamares

GDC lacked the intimacy of previous years, but this annual gathering is still the epicenter of excitement and creativity. Courtesy of the Game Developers Conference (left). Photo credit: M. Alamares

You can count on the Game Developers Conference as being an epicenter of excitement and creativity, and this years event was no exception. More than 10,000 attendees raced down the hallways of the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, trying to figure out which of three or four simultaneous sessions they wanted to attend. You got the sense that games might seem trivial to the public outside, but from the earnest, shining faces and the evangelical tones of the crowd inside these hallowed halls for five days, you got the sense that gaming was not just a technology, but an art and a lifestyle this is what really mattered.

This years show in San Francisco lacked some of intimacy of the much smaller San Jose Convention Center; look for the GDC to return to San Jose next year. The show started with two days of Serious and Mobile Games two new gaming areas that are experiencing tremendous growth. The main show continued for three days, with a show floor and dozens of panels on every possible facet of gaming creation.

The GDC is about game production it is very different from its cousin, the E3 expo, with its huge booths and budgets, although the differences seem to decrease somewhat every year. The E3 show is about suits and sales, and marketing presentations to retailers about why they should buy the latest version of a console game. The GDC still honors its roots, the days when small groups of fanatics could turn out a cool game on a credit card budget in three months. Most new console games now cost more than $5 million, and are produced by giant gaming companies such as THQ or Sony, but you can still glimpse the original traditions colorful T-shirts and wild hairdos are standard, casual is in, Armani suits are frowned upon, and discussions of the coolness factor of a game still outnumber considerations of profitability.

The biggest surprise winner at the Choice Awards was the nonviolent Katamari Damacy, created by the softspoken Keita Takahashi, a sculptor-turned-3D-artist. © 2004 Namco Ltd. All rights reserved.

The biggest surprise winner at the Choice Awards was the nonviolent Katamari Damacy, created by the softspoken Keita Takahashi, a sculptor-turned-3D-artist. © 2004 Namco Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Awards: Which Games are the Best?

So what was hot and new at GDC 2005? The International Game Developers Associations Gamers Choice Awards are the Oscars of the gaming community, and reflect what the gamers themselves think are the best games available. The most talked about games at the show were the big-budget Halo 2 (Bungie/Microsoft), Half-Life 2 (Valve/Vivendi), and World of Warcraft (Blizzard), though Final Fantasy XII, Tom Clancys Splinter Cell Chaos Theory and Doom 3 also got a lot of buzz.

The biggest surprise was Katamari Damacy, created by the soft-spoken Keita Takahashi, a sculptor-turned-3D-artist at Namco. No shooters or ninja warriors can be found in this game the player assumes the role of Prince of All Cosmos and rolls around a ball of sticky debris (called a Katamari). As you roll over more objects, the ball gets bigger and bigger, like a snowball rolling down a hill.

The winners of the IGDA awards this year were Half-Life 2 (Best Game), Far Cry (New Studio), Halo 2 (Best Audio), Half-Life 2 (Character Design), Katamari Damacy (Game Design), Half-Life 2 (Technology), World of Warcraft ( Visual Arts), Half-Life 2 (Best Writing) plus Donkey Konga, I Love Bees and Katamari Damacy (Most Innovative).

In the spirit of egalitarianism, there were also awards for independent (that is, low budget) games, in the spirit of the Sundance Film Festival.

GISH won the Open Category of games, while WIK captured the Web/Downloadable grand prize, netting each of the game development teams $15,000.

One of the GISH developers from Chronic Logic ran through his acceptance speech, saying, I-want-to-thank-everybody-that-worked-on-this-game-and-I-would-like-to-propose-to-my-girlfriend. The camera cut away to show the girlfriend in the audience jumping around wildly (she accepted). The next winner wryly commented that he wanted to thank his wife for not leaving him during the ordeal of creating the game.

The PSP (PlayStation Portable), about to be released in the U.S., was ubiquitous at the conference. © 2005 Sony Computer Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

The PSP (PlayStation Portable), about to be released in the U.S., was ubiquitous at the conference. © 2005 Sony Computer Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

Sony

Andy House, vp of Sony Computer Entertainment, emphasized Sonys commitment to online gaming, and the 3 Cs it considers important for online: community, content and commerce. House believes community is what makes an online game successful. Sony was one of the first companies to recognize that online games are as much about service functions as they are about rendering graphics polys, and has put a huge effort into enabling community functions such as chat rooms and instant messaging, gathering and meeting areas, postings of awards and rankings for players, and the ability to form clans and membership groups within each game.

A number of PlayStation improvements and add-ons were demonstrated at the show, including the PlayStation 2 Performance Analyzer, a tool for conducting detailed performance analysis of games during development. The PSP (PlayStation Portable), which is finally becoming available in the U.S., was of course visible everywhere. Sony hopes that the unique features of the device, such as wireless multiplayer gaming via Wi-Fi (802.11b) and graphics every bit as good as those of the PS2, will help it capture a major chunk of the mobile console market that Nintendo has had pretty much to itself. New productivity tools for the PSP included a hardware development system that enables developers to create and debug PSP software efficiently over a network, and provides wireless LAN capability and battery emulation monitoring, to meet challenges that game developers for Sony have not had to worry about before.

The real buzz, though, was about the next generation PlayStation. Sony has a lot at stake in its rivalry with the Xbox, and has clearly lined up some major guns on its decks. One of these is a brand new CPU chip, the Cell (co-produced with IBM and Toshiba), which is not only comprehensive (234 million transistors), and fast (rumored to run at 4.6 GHz), but is supposed to have a new type of chip-to-chip architecture that supports distributed processing, leading to speculation that a number of such chips in Sony products in a home could pool their processing power in future applications. The power of this chip exceeds that of government supercomputers of the past. Many that can still remember gaming chips with a few thousand FLOPS (Floating Point Operations Per Second) will be astonished to hear the Cell is theoretically capable of reaching 256 billion FLOPS, or GFLOPS for short. In addition, Nvidia is providing a new GPU (Graphics Processor Unit), on which they have been working for over two years. Nvidia previously provided the GPU in the Xbox console.

In the future, the experience of computer entertainment systems and broadband-ready PCs will be fused together to generate and transfer multi-streams of rich content simultaneously, said Ken Kutaragi, president/group ceo, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., describing Sonys vision of the future.

J Allard of Microsoft talked about the High Definition Era to come and Xenon, the next generation Xbox.

J Allard of Microsoft talked about the High Definition Era to come and Xenon, the next generation Xbox.

Microsoft

Microsoft has drawn even in new Xbox game sales with Sonys PS2, and is now also preparing for the Next Generation battle. J Allard, Microsofts vp, talked about the future of gaming to an SRO crowd, though he offered precious few details of what he called the coming HD Era. The High Definition Era will of course have much richer content than has been available. It will also see online play changing from a novelty to become a necessity, mass entertainment become personal entertainment, wired becoming wireless, and communities as consumers becoming communities as creators of game content. Allard said that the next generation Xbox, which appears to be called Xenon, will support a trackable achievements system.

Essentially, these are gaming merit badges that you earn when completing an especially hard bonus level or beating a live opponent. For players that want to buy in-game equipment such as a new set of rims for a car in Microsofts Gran Tourismo game, the Xenon will feature an online marketplace with the ability to host Micro Transactions.

Microsoft will also create a Games Card that is unique for each player, with information about his/her game, music and entertainment preferences, scoring, and so on, that can be used on cross-platform games.

One of the companies that is tightly coupled with the next generation Xbox is Discreets 3ds max division, which is already orienting software adaptations for creating games on the new console. Many of the most popular recent Xbox titles were developed using 3ds max, including Halo 2 (Bungie Software), Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (LucasArts) and Tom Clancys Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (Ubisoft).

Mobile Gaming

This may be known as the year when mobile gaming came into its own, with a separate series of panels for this topic, and a palpable buzz about how much this market is growing, from essentially nothing 10 years ago to a billion dollar market today. In a sense, development for mobile games is a flashback to what designing for videogames in general was like 20 years ago, with small budgets, extreme limits on memory space, limited graphics, working predominantly in only two dimensions. This also makes this an exciting area for independent game developers, who can rise to overnight fame on the wings of a successful mobile game.

One trend for mobile is the wider availability of Macromedia Flash for cell phones, termed Flash Lite 1.1. The popular Flash animation tool, with a user base of many thousands of developers worldwide, has been available on Japans DoCoMo i-Mode phones for some time, but has recently become almost universally available, with partnerships with Samsung, Nokia and other mobile phone producers.

One revealing panel was a gathering of telcos (telephone companies, which ultimately control mobile games). From the discussions between Asian and American phone companies, it became clear that the latter still do not understand the so-called DoCoMo model of doing business with cell phone games. The Japanese decided to step back from the production process, essentially giving the producers great freedom to produce whatever they wanted to DoCoMo just collects 7% or so off the top, and reaps the benefits of customers spending all that extra time on the phone (and paying for downloads). DoCoMo and other Asian companies provide ever greater bandwidth for mobile gamers, resulting in very colorful content with 3D motion.

The American telcos, by contrast, tend to remain control freaks they have candidate games carefully reviewed for content, release a handful of new games at regular intervals (the rule of thumb seems to be to release about a dozen a week), and keep the total number of games available to a few hundred (in other words, older games that arent hits are quickly dropped). Bandwidth in the U.S. remains a problem, with the result that games there tend to be a generation behind what excites players in Singapore or Japan.

One of the surprises that emerged from the panel was that what the playing public still overwhelmingly wants (and is willing to pay for) is casual gaming very simple games that can be quickly learned and played in short amounts of time. The highly publicized introductions of many complex games such as MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) on cell phones have so far not caught on with the public, according to the telco representatives on the panel. One example of a multiplayer game that was released with much hoopla was The Lord of the Rings, but it appears to have totally bombed.

For the time being, it appears that the small screens and limited graphics of cell phones still put a real limit on how absorbed mobile gamers are willing to get. Game developers are working hard to come up with better interface controls and new types of content that enable cell phones to deliver the same compelling experiences as game consoles and PCs, since successful MMOGs have two qualities that phone companies really want a very loyal fan base and lots of hours per week spent connected.

Whereas mobile games first grew into prominence with European and Asian commuters that spend long periods on public transportation (where talking on cell phones is frowned upon), the telcos reported that the biggest growth of mobile gaming is now in the evenings cell phone games have become a part of home family life.

Woman Magnet: Donkey Kong Jungle Beat had female gamers lined up at the Nintendo booth to try out a pair of bongo drums with a small microphone between them, interfaced with a scrolling game. Photo credit: Chris Harz.

Woman Magnet: Donkey Kong Jungle Beat had female gamers lined up at the Nintendo booth to try out a pair of bongo drums with a small microphone between them, interfaced with a scrolling game. Photo credit: Chris Harz.

Cool Tools and Toys

One of the GDC presentations showed a rather novel GUI from a gaming team at MIT, which inserted a pressure-sensitive pad into the back of a wall-mounted urinal, which in turn was connected to a flat-screen display at eye level on the wall. Aiming a squirt gun into the urinal allows the player to score points in the game action on the screen. Its good to see that the super-smart MIT crowd has no shortage of creativity (or free time).

Another novel gaming interface, and one far more friendly to women gamers, was the Donkey Konga setup found in the Nintendo booth. Consisting of a pair of bongo drums with a small microphone between them, the interface allowed interaction with the Nintendo Donkey Kong Jungle Beat scrolling game beating the right drum made the gorilla character in the game run right, the left drum made him move left, beating both at once caused him to jump, and clapping your hands above the microphone caused other movements such as reaching for vines or grasping bananas. Some have claimed that female gamers are not as enamored of PS-style hand controllers (with their many buttons and toggle switches) as male players, and have asked for different interfaces. Whatever the case may be, women gamers were lining up at the Nintendo booth to use this musical game interaction device.

The crowd pleasing EyeToy offers fun and a workout. © 2005 Sony Computer Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

The crowd pleasing EyeToy offers fun and a workout. © 2005 Sony Computer Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

The Sony EyeToy continues to be a hit, and always draws a crowd. Basically a video camera that tracks the players motions, it enables a natural and lively interface with a variety of games, including EyeToy: Sports, which include a downhill racing game where you both have to grab at things with your hands and duck your head periodically to keep from getting whacked. Richard Marks, the creator of the EyeToy, has a real winner on his hands, and at less than fifty bucks this is a great gaming accessory that doubles as an exercise machine.

3Dconnexion showed just how good a motion controller can be sort of a mouse on steroids. Their SpaceBall 5000 is designed to be used by game creators in conjunction with, not instead of a mouse, and allows fine, quick movement in 3 dimensions it interfaces with more than 100 popular programs used by animators, such as discreets 3ds max, Adobes Photoshop, or even Microsoft office. Twelve programmable buttons allow the assigning of functions or macros, and the companys 30-day trial period allows the user a risk-free opportunity to improve his productivity.

One sure sign that mobile games are growing up is that Alienware is getting into the market. Alienware is the lovable company that makes totally over-the-top super-high-performance PC desktops and laptops for gamers, with liquid cooling, custom light effects, hyper-amped clock speeds for the processors and terabyte memory storage. It has just announced an agreement with Kyocera Wireless Corp. to co-develop advanced gaming accessories for mobile phones. Alienware and Kyocera Wireless intend to provide a console-like gaming experience on Kyoceras innovative CDMA wireless phones for gaming enthusiasts.

God only knows what these turbocharged cell phones will eventually look like, but Kyocera has a large stable of games, from industry superstars such as JAMDAT Mobile, Superscape and Tetris.

With the ever-increasing resolution of character models in games together with their clothes, hair, weapons and vehicles it was inevitable that the physics would have to get a major upgrade. Physics, the software routines in the game engine that enable objects to move realistically, obeying gravity and other laws of nature, have been rudimentary in the past, with characters falling at unrealistic speeds, for instance, or all of the characters in a scene having identical movements.

Physics were a hot topic at this GDC, with the introduction by AGEIA Technologies of the first hardware-based physics accelerator. The company has introduced its PhysX chip, an all-new category of semiconductor called a PPU (Physics Processing Unit), which gives highly accurate movements to tens of thousands of objects in a scene, and gives us all one more abbreviation to have to remember. Epic is among the companies that has taken advantage of this new capability, by including PhysX support in its popular new gaming engine, Unreal 3.

SpaceBall 5000 is a mouse on steroids. Courtesy of 3dconnexion.

SpaceBall 5000 is a mouse on steroids. Courtesy of 3dconnexion.

Serious Games Summit

A two-day session addressed the non-entertainment roles of gameplaying, and what jobs are available in those areas. Serious Games typically lack the budgets of entertainment games, so they usually do not develop their own game engines (which can cost upwards of $5 million and 3-5 years of time), but instead lease popular game engines such as Unreal, Doom, Quake, Half-Life, Far Cry, Gamebryo, Stalker and Titan for game play.

A real star of the Serious Games arena is Americas Army, which started out as an advergame, to publicize the U.S. Army, but has become so wildly popular (over four million registered players!) that it is now being used for actual training for the military, including giving new Army recruits some basic training before they hit base camp, and even enabling training in new weapons such as the BDM (Bunker Defeating Munition) or a new type of combat robot. The Americas Army team continues to add play levels and fresh content to the game, which is coming out this summer on Xbox and PlayStation.

The Serious Games sessions had an incredible number of attendees from major companies and branches of the government, including the Army, Navy, Air Force and even the Secret Service. Many groups want to take advantage of the training potential that games have to offer, especially for the generation of young adults who has grown up with videogames.

It seems that many government organizations have suddenly discovered that a) military school training is too short, and is probably irrelevant to what the troopers need to know in the field, anyway; b) almost nobody reads any more, especially the thick, boring military manuals that are supposed to educate young soldiers and homeland defense personnel. They have tested videogames for training, and have found it to be very effective. As a result, there is a lot of funding from government sources for serious games - one of the sessions was specifically on how to apply for and get military contracts for gaming initiatives.

The star of the Serious Games arena was Americas Army. What started out as an advergame to publicize the U.S. Army, has now become wildly popular and is being used for military training. Credit: U.S. Army.

The star of the Serious Games arena was Americas Army. What started out as an advergame to publicize the U.S. Army, has now become wildly popular and is being used for military training. Credit: U.S. Army.

A number of companies specialize in serious games for government applications examples are Visual Purple (www.visualpurple.com) and BBN Technologies (www.bbn.com). Others create games for both entertainment and serious applications such as training. An interesting example of such a company is BreakAway Ltd. (www.breakawayltd.com), which has generated games such as Incident Commander for the Department of Justice and First Responders, Colligans: Now Playing in Your Neighborhood! For schools, Code Orange for emergency medical management training, and Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom (published by Sierra) for the entertainment market.

One of the main challenges with GBL (Game Based Learning), according to several of the panels, is how to test performance improvement within the game, rather than by conventional paper and pencil tests.

Summary

The Game Developers Conference was as great as ever, with major breakthroughs in Serious Gaming, mobile games and graphics, and the promise of much more to come by GDC 2006. A goodly number of the innovations generated here will influence our world, in entertainment, training and cultural habits, for many generations to come.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced video games 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.

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