Christopher Harz reports back from the Game Developers Conference about what's new and what's hot.
This years Game Developers Conference was as big and exciting as ever. If there are downturns in the economy, they certainly werent evident in the San Jose Convention Center. More than 10,000 attendees packed every session, discussions were animated and the enthusiasm was palpable.
Its important to keep in mind that GDC is very different from other major annual gaming events, particularly E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo, www.E3expo.com), which is basically about marketing major games to retailers and the press. GDC is about game production, so whereas Microsoft may release its new Xbox at the upcoming E3 (May 12-14 in Los Angeles), for instance, it chose GDC to unveil its major new development toolset, the Xbox XNA. GDC lacks the huge exhibits of the E3, with all its bells and whistles, but it does not lack excitement or creativity -- it is hard to imagine a happier crowd than San Jose hosted, one given to cheers and whistles in response to seeing the stars of the industry take the stage, or when especially cool game sequences were shown on the giant screens of the auditorium. Attendees come to listen to -- and argue with -- more than 300 presenters giving talks on how to develop games faster and better, how to use new generations of hardware and software and how to strategize for tomorrows markets. The growth of GDC has resulted in the creation of two smaller, more intimate game conferences, the Austin GDC (www.gameconference.com) and the DICE Summit (www.interactive.org/Dice ). So what was hot and new at GDC 2004?
The Awards: Which Games are the Best?
The International Game Developers Assn.s Gamers Choice Awards are the Oscars of the gaming community, and reflect what the international game design community thinks are the best games available. The Game of the Year award was given to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, produced by BioWare (www.bioware.com), which also snagged the award for Best Writing. The Rookie Studio of the Year award went to Infinity Ward, for its Call of Duty, which also garnered the award for Best Sound Effects. The Game Design and Programming awards both went to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, by Ubisoft (www.ubi.com), a big win for the Montreal-based production group, which resurrected the classic title and upgraded it with astounding success. The Visual Arts award went to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Walker, by Nintendo. Finally, Game Innovation awards were given to Sony Computer Ent.s EyeToy: Play, Capcoms Viewtiful Joe and Nintendos Warioware Inc: Mega Microgame$.
In the spirit of egalitarianism and the Sundance Film Festival, there were also awards for independent (that is, low budget). The top honors for the Independent Games Festival went to Savage: the Battle for Newerth in the Open Category (by S2 Games, www.s2games.com/savage) and to Oasis (by Mind Control Software, www.oasisgame.com) for the Web/Downloadable Category. Savage combines FPS (First Person Shooter) and RTS (Realtime Simulation) game elements -- the player leads a team of humans while managing resources, developing a tech tree and trying out different strategies. Oasis is a MMUC (Mass Market Ultra-Casual) turn-based strategy game designed to be played in minutes rather than days. The player takes on the role of the Scarab King, who must recreate his kingdom before being destroyed by barbarian hordes.
Open and Web/Downloadable Category awards were also given for Design (to Bontago, by Circular Logic, and to Oasis), for Audio (to Anito: Defend a Land Enraged, by Anino Computer Ent., and to Dr. Blobs Organism, by Digital Eel) and for Visual Art (to Spartan by Slitherine Software UK Ltd., and to Dr. Blobs Organism). Both Technical Excellence and Audience awards were presented to Savage: The Battle for Newerth and Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, by Three Rings Design, whose principals dashed onto the awards stage with appropriate pirate outfits and demeanor.
The special Project Goldmaster prize went to Flashbang Studios of Tempe, Arizona, for Beesleys Buzzwords. AOL and Cartoon Network sponsored the prize; AOL will keep its subscribers updated on Flashbangs progress in developing an online game with a Cartoon Network character.
The originality and creativity of these award winners were in contrast to many of the other titles under development by major publishers. The gaming industry is mirroring the movie industry, which has become so cautious because of the increasing costs of films (which averaged $102 million last year for the majors) that it seems to confine itself to sequels and remakes. Many of the games being released now have a 2, a 3 or even a 4 after their names, and a great many are based on films or television shows instead of upon original storylines. Opportunities for indies do still exist. Studios without deep pockets can develop games for the cell phone market (where a game can still be done for $10K - $20K), the downloadable market (which has many online distribution channels) or they can win an Independent Games award and achieve national prominence.
Audio and Video: Making it Better
It seems that graphics cards improve enough each year that you have to run out and get a new one to play the latest games. If the games listed above dont stress out your rendering capabilities enough, upcoming games such as Half Life 2 and Doom 3 should push you over the edge. Graphics power has increased a lot in the past year for both game players and game producers -- in desktops, workstations and portables. For professionals, the new NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000 offers 256MB memory and third-generation vertex and pixel programmability, allowing both physical effects such as complex light refraction and surface effects such as porosity to be applied to game models in realtime. Such effects have been standard in the film vfx world for some time, but were unheard of in gaming only a few years ago. The change seems most dramatic in portables -- laptops, PDAs and cell phones that used to limp along with little or no GPU power can now blaze along. For instance, Voodoos ENVY m:855 laptop comes standard with a 64MB ATI Mobility 9600 Pro video card and 512MB of RAM to go with its AMD Athlon 64 processor, while IBMs ThinkPad R50 comes with 1GB RAM and a 128MB ATI Mobiity Fire GL T2. The IBM has dedicated drivers for major 3D animation programs such as Discreets 3ds max, Alias Maya, Softimages XSI and NewTeks Lightwave -- this is a serious animation machine. Cell phones and PDAs that had one chip doing all the heavy lifting now have separate chipsets for graphics rendering, finally allowing smooth transitions and 3D effects. Look for dramatic new generations of handhelds featuring ATIs Imageon or NVIDIAs GoFORCE chipsets.
The upgrade is even more dramatic for sound. The tinny sound effects of yesteryear have given way to surround sound with five or even seven channels.
Dolby (www.dolby.com) had a major presence at the show, with crackling gunfire and booming artillery attesting to its sound effects at major booths. Games such as Tony Hawks Underground (which takes you on the unusual career path of going from local skate punk to fortune and fame) feature full Dolby Digital surround on the Xbox and Dolby Pro Logic II (synthetic surround derived from stereo channels) on the PlayStation 2 and GameCube. The most amazing display was the ability to get surround sound from normal headphones connected to a game console or PC. Dolby has studied how the brain manages to get 3D surround sound effects from the ears (which are, lets face it, basically two channels). By reversing the process, Dolby has managed to produce the surround experience with normal headphones, even ear buds. Although it takes an intermediate box right now to connect to the headphones, the day is not far when this will be replaced with an IC chip, and this will be a standard feature.
DTS (www.dtsonline.com) is , of course, not about to let Dolby steal its thunder -- wildly popular games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (from Rockstar Games) rock with true discrete DTS 5.1 channel surround sound on the PlayStation 2. Players feel like theyre in the middle of a city, with sounds all around them. Its eerie to hear helicopters and the enemy sneaking up behind you while listening to surround sound -- the game effect is so much improved that switching back to normal stereo is almost insulting by comparison.
One game publisher commented, We may not be able to produce the best visuals yet -- there are still many generations of improvement ahead. But we can produce almost perfect sound. That is a really opportune area for developers to improve their game-playing experience right now.
Online has become the fastest-growing segment of PC and console games. Sony, which once issued an online adapter for its PlayStation 2 almost as an afterthought, only to see its sales beat all expectations, has heard the calling. Andrew House, evp of Sony Computer Ent. America (SCEA) gave an insightful presentation on his strategic directions: he called online console gaming the next frontier. He noted that although online titles represent only 9% of the total games out right now, they are selling three times as briskly as offline games. He said that online players are also much more loyal to a game, keeping it in play longer, and buying upgrades and extra levels. The buyers of the recently released SOCOM II: U.S. Navy Seals (www.socom-2.com), from Zipper Interactive, have already logged 47 million hours online in gameplay. Why? House said that players liked the sense of purpose and belonging that they got out of an online community, in addition to the action and storylines.
Community, House emphasized, was what made an online game successful. The ability to enable community functions now has to be foremost in the minds of game developers -- building chat capabilities (means to communicate), rest areas, the ability to learn and become part of the group, long-term postings of recognized awards and rankings for outstanding players, the ability for discussion and feedback to the hosting entity, the availability of artifacts to mark and distinguish community members (such as armor, titles and costumes), the ability to form smaller groups such as clans and a series of celebrations and events (a community rhythm) must be supported by producers and by game SDKs (System Developer Kits). House emphasized the 3 Cs of online gaming: Community, Content and Commerce. Sony has realized what has slowly dawned onto other online publishers such as Microsoft and Sega -- they are now in the gaming service business, not just the product sales business. Online communities need support, said House. Their thirst for additional content and experience is insatiable. Sony encourages helping the user customize his gaming experience. An emphasis on the commerce potential in a game allows the publisher to sell an ongoing array of moderately priced additional features to the players. The future is in mini-transactions, said House. Look at music and ringtones -- the music industry has shown the way. Sony also encourages feedback from massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) players (though this needs expert interpretation, as there can be a lot of whiners in a group that speak up disproportionately). Properly used ongoing feedback from players and in-game managers keeps track of the pulse of world, and can provide creative ideas for new gaming directions. I have yet to see a good game with user input outside of a MMOG, House commented.
Customer community loyalty is essential to the ROI on a game, House noted. With the growing costs of development and time to market, a loyal customer base can extend the life cycle of a game to 10 years or more instead of the customary five or less, he said, giving developers and publishers a much better chance to recoup their investment.
Kevin OHara, the community relations manager for the award-winning Star Wars Galaxies, echoed many of these thoughts in a separate presentation. He mentioned that its very challenging to listen to the community without giving undue weight to the griefers that seem to have endless time and energy for complaining. He mentioned that the community plays a key part in deciding on new game features. A new idea is first put to the players, and if they like it, it goes into an In Development section and then into a Testing section, and the community gives feedback at each stage. Its great to have the community tell us what doesnt work, so we can kick that out early without us finding out about it the day we go live with it, OHara noted.
There was a demonstration of the new Sony PSP, which is essentially a portable PlayStation 2. The PSP is the 800-pound gorilla of mobile console gaming, which will no doubt impact the market that has belonged to Nintendo and its GameBoy and GameBoy Advanced for many years. Unlike the GameBoy, the PSP will have online play built into it, both with a modem and with Wi-Fi capability. Expect to see future generations of gamers hang out at the local Starbucks tapping into broadband Wi-Fi to play head-to-head as teams. The PSP will be available in Japan this year, and in America in the spring of 2005.
Cool Tools and Toys
Cool hardware included Tapwaves Zodiac, a hybrid game console and PDA that runs on Palms OS. With its ATI Imageon chip the Zodiac runs surprisingly fast, smooth games, and you can also watch video that you can store on its removable media chip. Multiplayer action is possible with Bluetooth, and WI-FI is upcoming.
The Sony EyeToy is always guaranteed to draw a crowd. It is basically a camera that plugs into a PlayStation 2 with a USB cable, and then shows you (and your friends) on-screen. The set tracks your motions, especially those of your arms, so that you can interact with the included games, which all seem to include music and a lot of bouncing around. Whereas the first generation of games were on the simple side, more challenging sports-oriented games are now being released, including EyeToy: Sports, which contain 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. The great thing here is that this gets gamers off the couch and gets you some exercise, its even more fun with others, and its a bargain -- at under 50 bucks, this is a must-have. New titles include EyeToy Groove, which is a music and dancing experience, and Richard Marks, creator of the EyeToy, has a great many more good ideas (which hes trying out on his family first) that will be coming out soon.
There were a lot of great new cell phones, boosted both by better graphics power and faster support environments. Nokia and Sun Microsystems announced the upcoming release of SNAP (Scalable Network Application Package) Mobile, an online multiplayer gaming solution for Java games that is part of a major new Sun wireless toolkit being released this year. Mobile games have seen incredible growth in the last couple of years; you can now look for online mobile games to really take off in the coming months. Also look for a successor to Nokias N-Gage, which is a capable gaming platform but has drawn a lot of criticism for some of its less-than-convenient features, such as the uncomfortable way you have to hold it to have a phone conversation.
3Dconnexion (www.3dconnexion.com) showed its award-winning line of motion controllers. These seem to get better and better the more you play with them. The SpaceBall 5000 is a high-end trackball that is meant to complement a mouse while manipulating and editing objects on a workstation. It makes innate sense that you would work most effectively on something with both hands -- one hand to select and edit objects (or sub-objects), and the other to move around the scene or manipulate the object being worked on -- yet a lot of graphics professionals still use only one device to interact with their applications, switching back and forth between edit/select and navigation modes. Even better than the SpaceBall is the SpaceTraveler, which should win awards just for its cool design, which resembles a hockey puck with neon-blue lights running around it. Capable of motion in six degrees of freedom, the SpaceTraveler is compact enough so that any animator can take it on the road and use it with a laptop.
Serious Game Summit
A two-day session addressed the non-entertainment roles of gameplaying, and what jobs are available in those areas. A major area was corporate training and presentations, for in-house education as well as for external sales forces. Specific areas that are hot are job training, ethics training and advergames (to promote products). Higher education was another opportunity; the presenters mentioned that colleges have expanding eLearning budgets and are willing to take some risks on graphics projects, and so make good potential partners. K-12 education is an established retail market that already exists, and the home schooling market is growing beyond its present size of about 2 million children. The U.S. military, the largest single purchasing organization in the world, spends billions each year on gaming and simulation (out of an $18 billion budget for training). Advergaming such as Americas Army (which was developed for more than $8 million, for Army recruitment) is one growth area. Another is adaptations of existing games to create military games such as Close Combat Marines, Guard Force and SIMSAR2. Games and their byproducts are also in demand for presentations and visualizations in science and industry, for law firms (to make courtroom illustrations) and for government agencies at local, state and federal levels. One industry of special note is health care, which is trying to come up with easy-to-understand presentations for patient treatment.
Overall, the Game Developers Conference was electric and definitely in growth mode. For plans for next years GDC, see www.gdconf.com.
Christopher Harz is a program and business development executive for new media enterprises, working with digital animation companies around the world. He writes extensively for trade magazines on topics, including the New Internet, visual effects for films and television, online videogames and wireless media. Harz was previously vp of marketing and production at Hollyworlds, producing 3D Websites and video games for films such as Spawn, The 5th Element, Titanic and Lost in Space, and for TV shows such as Xena, Warrior Princess. At Perceptronics, as svp of marketing and program development, Harz helped build the first massive-scale online animated game worlds, including production of the $240 million 3D animation virtual world, SIMNET. He also worked on combat robots and war gaming at the Rand Corp., the American military think tank.