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The Game Developers Conference 2003 in Review

Leslie Bishko ran herself ragged jumping from one session to another at this year's GDC. Here she recounts the excellent panels, presentations, fascinating facts and new trends.

This year's Game Developer's Conference showed that games are maturing. All conference photos and images courtesy of the Game Developers Conference. Photographer: Robin Hood Dial II.

This year's Game Developer's Conference showed that games are maturing. All conference photos and images courtesy of the Game Developers Conference. Photographer: Robin Hood Dial II.

The Game Developers Conference (March 4-8, San Jose, California, sponsored by the Gama Nework) gave me a peek into the world of games from the inside out. While Im a 3D computer animator, Im brand new to playing games; looking at games from the point of view of a production artist was a great way to learn. I found that game developers are extolling the virtues of engaging story, vivid graphics and principles of animation as hardware and technology limitations rapidly melt away. Games are finally maturing, and developers are poised to take things to the next level.

The conference sessions are categorized into several tracks: Visual Arts, Programming, Game Design, Audio, Business and Legal, Production, and IGDA (the International Game Developers Association). There was also a two day Academic Summit to address curricular issues and industry/academia relations, and GDC Mobile, a mini-conference focusing on the rapidly expanding mobile games industry. I attended mostly Visual Arts sessions dealing with art direction, story and production techniques like modeling, rigging, animation and facial animation.

The game developers community votes on who receives the Choice Awards.

The game developers community votes on who receives the Choice Awards.

The conference hosted the 3rd Annual Game Developers Choice Awards, where Metroid Prime, by Retro Studios, took the Game of the Year award through a peer voting process within the game developer community. Also featured was the Independent Games Festival, recognizing both independent and student game developers with cash prizes. This years winner was Wild Earth from Super X Studios, developed in five months on a $5,000 budget.

Must Attends

The highlight for every attendee was the keynote address, Fleshing Out Middle-Earth: Weta Digital Creatures, presented by Wetas former CTO Jon LaBrie and Adam Valdez, animation supervisor for The Fellowship of the Ring, and animation department head for The Two Towers. We got to see how they made Gollum, including a blooper of Gollum wearing a hot-pink spiky mohawk, and another shot of him playing an electric guitar on his knees. Never mind the translucent skin shader or motion-capture methods; I was awestruck by the matrix of 850 morph targets used to animate Gollums face, and the amazing inverse kinematics foot rig that kept his feet and toes glued to the rocks. We also learned that a high level of detail was put into the Ents (which took 40 hours per frame to render), but in the final cut we lost some of the close-up shots that would have shown this off. For the scene in which the Ents destroy Isengard, Peter Jackson gave the animators free reign to improvise with knocking things over and slaughtering Orcs. He then staged the camera movements based on their animation, as if it were live-action footage.


Keynote speakers Jon LaBrie and Adam Valdez revealed fascinating details on how Weta designed Gollum and animated the Ents destroying Isengard (left). Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson spoke via satellite to the Choice Awards attendees. The Two Towers © 2002 New Line Productions, Inc.

I favored sessions on production techniques that would teach me fancy new 3D tricks. Two sessions that met my needs in this area were Extreme Character Rigging: When Less is More by Steve Theodore of RAD Game Tools, and Character Rigging and Animation, by Martin Coven and Mookie Weisbrod of Inevitable Entertainment. Theodore proposes a very practical, economical approach: you rig the character on a scene by scene basis, giving it functionality according to the demands of the scene as opposed to creating an all-purpose rig. On the other hand, the rig Coven designed is the hot-rod of all-purpose character rigs, offering tools for animating characters intuitively and efficiently. Weisbrods walk cycle demo using this rig was one of the best animation demos Ive seen. A former ILM animator who worked on Star Wars, Weisbrod demonstrated how the tools intersect with the animation process and included pointers on timing and movement dynamics. Both sessions brought home the point that animators who get involved in the rigging process ultimately have the kind of control they need. Given the amount and value of material these presenters had to offer, their sessions could have been at least two hours if not longer.


Game Developers Choice awards went to Metroid Prime ( & © 2002 Nintendo) and Wild Earth (© 2003 Super X Studios).

Learning the Nuts and Bolts

Other sessions I attended in this category were Built to Move in Max 5 by Paul Steed of XBox and Facial Animation for Game Characters, by Tito Pagan of Wild Tangent. Steeds full-day tutorial focused on low polygonal character modeling and weighting verticies to bones. He demonstrated that specific vertex placement at the shoulders, elbows and knees can assist the enveloping process and keep these trouble spots from collapsing when limbs are rotated. Pagans talk was geared to real-time online animation. He emphasized that online games can now handle sophisticated facial animation created with bone rigs.

The panel session State of the Art: Building 3D Environments and Models Review Panel supported the less is more approach taken in games such as The Two Towers, Ico and Steel Battalion, where color, design and efficient use of textures are handled creatively. The panellists want to see more procedurally created environments in the future, replacing the current use of cross-poly trees and sprites. They were also excited about the creative possibilities of non photo-realistic rendering techniques.


Great Animation and Storytelling, with former Will Vinton Studios director Mike Wellins gave us a fun look at editing concepts and how to create snappy animation. With classical and stop-motion animation, snappy is easy and fun, smooth is hard. With computer animation, smooth is easy, but snappy is tedious. And, as we all know, there is just too much float in computer animation. Unfortunately, I dashed off to another session before I got to hear Pixar animator Andrew Gordons talk on how he animated Mike in Monsters, Inc.

A Review of Current and Future Animation Issues didnt quite live up to its name, but a few important points were discussed among the panelists. The general rant was that limited game technology is to blame for bad animation. The reason theres little, if no anticipation in games is that game designers feel the player needs instantaneous response when they hit the joystick. This poses a dilemma for animators trying to make things move the way they should! As long as animators work directly with the programmers early on in production, they are able to attain their goals.

This sentiment was echoed repeatedly through several sessions on art directing. Artists need to talk to the programmers as early on in development as possible. The sooner this happens, the more the game can evolve around the art assets. Artists were encouraged to learn scripting languages, as scripting ones own tools can empower you to get the job done faster without relying on someone elses time and availability. Making good use of visual research and pre-production were also supported emphatically, although most often production schedules dont allow enough time for this. At the Art Directors Panel, Linda Lubken reported that several binders full of reference material were compiled for Oddworld, and the walls of the studio were covered with designs. Highly detailed spec sheets were created early on in production and were of great help with workflow, client approvals and achieving high quality results.


Chris Hecker of definition six encouraged players to use their shadows to interact with games he presented. Here attendees play with Sean Barrett's IGJ game Supermodel Shootout. © Chris Hecker.

Indy Focus

The dynamic Experimental Gameplay Workshop, led by Jonathan Blow, game designer/programmer, was a series of short presentations by programmers who independently coded their own experimental games. This venue is meant to support and bring exposure to the creative possibilities of working independently. Says Blow, "If we experiment now, on a small scale, we can shape our industry."

As part of this session, Chris Hecker of definition six presented the Indie Game Jam 1: 14 games that were programmed in his barn in Oakland using Zack Simpson's Shadow Garden software. Each of these games is projected on a screen and players cast their shadow to interact with the game. A camera feeds the live shadow information back into the game. The resulting full-bodied interactivity of these games ran the gamut from simple elegance to downright goofiness. Some interfaces involved hitting buttons with your hand, or using your shadow to cover as many elements on the screen as possible. Two games were based on physics simulation -- the user could separate shapes connected together, or squish shapes to fit them through a maze. There was also real-time Scrabble, and Rock, Paper, Scissors. Other games in this session included a Japanese e-mail program complete with voice recognition and calligraphy, and a game that was played in a Swiss university building in which a team of players had to locate a virtual bomb.

Beyond Shoot 'Em Up

Profiling the Female Gamer: A Look at How She Buys and Plays was well attended and delivered well-researched material on both marketing and game design issues. Gender differences in learning styles are a factor in getting women to play games. Women want to know how a game works before playing it, whereas men learn by doing -- they are attracted to the challenge and risk of fiddling with the controls until they figure out how to play. The industry has catered to the male learning style in game design, thus alienating women and a huge percentage of the market. Game interfaces need to be smarter, more intelligent and intuitive to attract more female gamers.


Daniel Greenberg, creative director at Universal Interactive, led a roundtable discussion on Videogame Violence: Rights and Responsibilities. While this session was geared more toward informing game companies on game ratings and legal issues, participants articulated several broadly agreed upon values. Parents need to control at what age their children will watch a violent game and be active in teaching about violence and contextualizing it. It was also revealed that most gamers who become aggressive do so out of inability to control the game, rather than learned behavior from the game itself. Comic-book writer Gerard Jones discussed how violence and aggression serve a psychological and cultural function in his lecture, The Social Significance of Games: Killing our Monsters. In older cultures we embraced violence and aggression as parts of the whole being both good and evil were a part of life. Todays cultures are potentially subjugating our dark side without providing an outlet. As a result, violence and aggression are coming out as part of pop culture. Jones articulated this observation but leaves it up to us to decide whether this is a good thing.


Peter Molyneux applied some self-criticism to his company's sequel Black and White II. © Black & White Studios 2003.

Peter Molyneuxs presentation The Good and the Bad: A Second Chance, showed how the developers at Lionhead are tackling aggression and power in their upcoming release of Black and White II. With over 400 people in attendance, Molyneux described some of the flaws with the first Black and White, as well as changes and features in the upcoming sequel. The sequel offers you a choice between good and evil, and you can effect entire civilizations and cultures by either building a village into a city with fortress walls, or by going out and destroying other populations. It takes the premise of Black and White further, from just morphing individual characters to transforming entire civilizations into either good or evil. Conceptually and visually, the scope of this game is broad.

It's All About Story Now

Ill wind up this review with a story, as there was a good deal of attention to this topic at the conference. The general sentiment is that the medium has matured to the point where character development and story will become the main point of engagement for most players. Lecturer and screenwriter David Freeman of Westwood Studios presented 34 Ways to Create Emotion in Games, an exhaustive presentation of Interesting and Deepening techniques that apply to characters, dialogue, relationships, scenes and plots. Freemans Character Diamond was a particularly useful way to approach character development. The character bible method, in which one lists many personal and historical factors that go into a character, can result in a detailed profile that may be disconnected or lack an integrated whole. The Character Diamond boils this process down to 3-5 traits, which allows you to look objectively at the dynamics of how these traits create interest and depth in a character. Look for Freemans 34 Ways in his upcoming book, Creating Emotion in Video Games.


Lee Sheldon, veteran television writer/producer (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Charlies Angels), led All Stories Great and Small, a full-day tutorial addressing narrative structures for a variety of game genres and types. Sheldon feels that stories in games should enhance gameplay instead of fight against it, as well as allow the player to participate in the development of content. He introduced four types of narrative structure for games: Traditional, Branching, Web and Modular, concluding that these formats all work well, but work best in combination. He also feels that game rewards should be delivered through story, as opposed to keeping score with numbers. While not all games need to have meaning, we need to have balance in the market place. His parting comment: Imagery without meaning is empty and artless.

These are just a few samplings of what the GDC has to offer, but its all I could fit into five days. Because the medium of games is so young, conferences like this one enable you to witness and participate in the development of the medium in a very concentrated format. GDC is still a good deal smaller than SIGGRAPH, so participants dont have to feel like just another node in a crowd simulation. I hope to go again next year!

Leslie Bishko is a computer animator and associate professor of animation at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. At GDC, she presented Making Characters Move: Expressive Character Acting through Laban Movement Analysis with colleague Jana Wilcoxen.