Friday, March 12, 2010

GDC Day One: Dichotomies

 By Kirk Hamilton

So I'm looking over my notes from my first day at the Game Developers' Conference, and if there's one thing that strikes me more than anything else, it's the dichotomies. Indie vs. Corporate, Studio vs. Publisher, Casual vs. Hardcore, Old School vs. New, Divergent vs. Convergent, Auteurs vs. Teams, Writers vs. Designers, Art vs. Bottom Line. It's almost like there are two separate conventions going on.

I'm not sure that's different than any other large conference like GDC, but it is pretty interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing if that sort of divide runs through the festival for the next two days, too.  I'm pretty sure it will.

Anyhow, in addition to Gamasutra's insider coverage, if you really want a sense of the place, I recommend reading Matthew Wasteland's excellent posts at GameSetWatch. I'll probably write some more specific pieces about some stuff that stood out, but in the meantime, I can only offer you the impressions of one wide-eyed interloper, a rookie wandering the halls of giants, trying to take in as much as possible.
Immediately upon arrival, I met up with a big group of some of the most awesome people on the internet - the wonderful Michael Abbott, along with a handful of the groovy writers, designers, and bloggers that contribute to the Brainy Gamer podcasts (Wes, Ben, David, Manveer, Nels). I'm always down to evangelize for SF burritos, so I brought Papalote, and it was pretty much the best way possible to start my visit to GDC. Sitting on the grass and talking with these badasses was super-cool, and what struck me most, in retrospect, was how relaxed and thoughtful everyone was. A hugely different energy from the frantic, talktalktalkNETWORKtalktalk HEYSOMEONEIKNOWtalktalk energy that the developers (and, if it were a person, the conference itself) exuded.

But on to the GDC proper - the expo floor is an exhilarting, crass, and crowded tribute to the Art of the Sale. (Or, as Mr. Wasteland would probably say, the "Ert of the Sail.") Everyone is trying to tell you why their tech is the best, or how the process behind their game is the one you should buy into. But all the same, the openness of the booths, the way the spin-misters are also actual people who, exhausted as they may be, want to tell you all about their product, is pretty cool.

- The SixString demo was one of the lamest things I've ever seen.  Like, three "rocker" kids hanging out in a fake basement room play-acting like they're really into playing guitar hero on a black guitar controller (that, yes, doubles as an actual guitar). The screen is facing them, so we can't see the game, but I bet it has issues. Also, one of the kids plugs into a real amp (stripped of all logos) and pumps out a pretty weaksauce/fairly passable guitar solo. Mostly serves as a showcase for the utterly poo-tastic tone of the sixstring controller.  Sorry if it seems like I'm being harsh here, but it was so the-opposite-of-cool. Like, as weak as it is when the suits try to sell us KFC and Pepsi because we're "gamers" ... this was those same tin-eared fools trying to sell us their version of "music." Blerg.

The Cryengine 3 demo is impressive, and is running on both PS3 and 360.  Looks really slick, technically. Also, they've got a 360 running stereoscopic 3D - it looks really nice, but I'm still not paying $1000 for a 3D TV just so that underwater scenes pop more.

Assassin's Creed 2 has a big representation here, as does anything based on the Unreal Engine. Probably because so many different companies lent their tech to games based on the Unreal Engine?  The Eve Online booth is almost empty. There seems to be a line at Blizzard's booth that never quite goes away.

There's a cool back area, called the "Business Center," where I don't think rubes like me are welcome. I tried to go into the Epic booth, and a nice woman with sort of tired eyes told me "Dude, you are a nobody, and you shall not pass." Ouch. I'll be back next year, nice lady.

Somehow, at a bit after 2:00, I got attached to games writer/networking machine/cool chic Anne Toole. We met up after the IGDA women in games round-table, and pediconferenced a bit. Ha! I pediconferenced! Anne told me about the new Wii game she had written for, which is called "Rock of the Dead." Basically, it's House of the Dead, but played with a guitar controller instead of a lightgun.  They were doing a hotel-room demo, but there wasn't anyone there when we stopped by.

So, instead we went to the IGDA Writer's SIG, which was super interesting.  About 20 people in a room, folks from Richard Dansky (Ubisoft writer) to green no-namers who just wanted to get into the industry. There's a whole post in what I saw here, but suffice to say - in games, writers aren't treated any better than they are in film, and most game writers are designers first. Hopefully that will change, but at the moment, development cycles appear to be entirealy fucked towards writers.

Anyhow, after that, I stuck with Anne and went back to the Rock of the Dead room, and there were folks there this time. So, I got to experience my first hotel-room game demo. It was a pretty fun game - zombies and monsters attack you, and a they do, button prompts jump up that match up with a guitar controller.  I sucked at it, and the prompts were a bit overwhelming - also, the music was inaudible due to some jank speakers, so it was tough to get a sense of the music aspect of the game. As it stood, it felt more like we were just playing house of the dead with different controllers.

Could be really fun, though, and I really like the idea of getting some more use out of those gutiar controllers that are lying around, particularly since the SixString is going to render them obsolete. (/sarcasm) The guys demoing the game were really nice dudes, and they had PBR. Let Anne get back to her day after that, but it was great to get a look at the game, and to get a sense of how different the energy is if you come to GDC with a specific purpose. Thanks, Anne, for letting me tag along!

I picked up a copy of Kill Screen issue #0 at the bookstore, and felt really lucky to have grabbed one. It's really cool - I've read a few of the articles, and am loving the look, feel, and smell of it.  No seriously, it smells great! The content is great, though the opening pages focus a bit too much on defending the magazine's title - it comes up more than once, and reminded me of the way that new bands will talk about how they came up with their name, like they're convincing themselves it works. But I acutally like "Kill Screen," so go with it, guys! Save your pages for actual articles! I really liked L.B. Jeffries' piece about Ocarina of Time, as well as Kim Herbst's really effing cool drawing that accompanies it (It's the picture of Link on her site, along with a bunch of other great stuff).

- Random overheard snippet:"I've been looking for an excuse to play more games, so I figured hey, might as well do it for a living!"  Way to break the cliché, dude! -

Throughout GDC, there have been a bunch of good tweets going. I recommend Chris Dahlen, who had some pretty hilarious stuff to say about the IGF awards in particular.  Speaking of which...

After grabbing a beer with David, I headed to check out the IGF awards. I ran into Ben Abraham again, since we both had gotten there late. What I saw was pretty self-important, mostly boring nominees - basically like any other awards ceremony. Uncharted 2 wins best writing? You don't say! As much as I was frustrated by Brutal Legend, Tim Schafer shoulda won that one.

The teleprompter was weird, but the acceptance speeches were all short and to the point, and everyone was pretty stoked to win. There were a few interesting categories - Scribblenauts won for innovation, and also for best mobile game, which was cool. And the best list of nominees was the downloadable game category - PixelJunk Shooter, Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Plants vs. Zombies, and Flower.  What a great list!

It was great to see Flower win, too, and super endearing how pretty much all of ThatGameCompany went up to accept the award. Jenova Chen unironically thanked "The Internets" for their role in the game's success, and suddenly I understood how George Bush could've used that without thinking it through.

FarmVille continued its domination of, like, the entire GDC, by winning "Best Casual Game," which is a new category.  And seemed, like, invented to be given to FarmVille.  The guy from Zynga (Mark Pincus? Wasn't sure) had the gall to get up and tell indie developers that casual gaming was the last bastion for the indies, and that they should come up and work for Zynga. HA. Stay classy, dude.

Mega64 did some pretty funny interstertials sending up the various games of the last year. It was funnier to watch it in the moment than it would be to see it online, but all the same, their Batman: AA skit cracked me up.

Valve's Gabe Newell won the "Pioneer Award," which seemed like another made-up category, but still was cool.  He brought slides to his acceptance speech. HILARE. After talking a lot about how Valve works, he put up a screen with some questions he said he'd answer: "Who is the G-Man?"  "When is Half Life Episode 3 coming Out?" Etc. He made like he was going to answer them, then suddenly... a blue screen of death!  D'oh!  It was pretty funny.

Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik, and Robert Khoo from Penny Arcade got the ambassador award for their work with Child's Play, and were really classy, Holkins in particular. Love those guys. And Krahulik made a shout-out to his wife at the end that made me remember how big that guy's heart really is.  It was cool.

...cooler than when John Carmack got the lifetime achievement award.  Dude gets a standing O, comes up to give his acceptance speech and says, essentially, "Thank you for this award. You know, for all the talk of the artistic qualities of games, the real yardstick is how well our products sell. And I am happy to have made products that make money, and are easily marketable."  Like, seriously, that was his speech. Fitting, when you consider ID's games, but still, kind of jarring.

Then, at the very end, Warren Spector, who had done a totally fine job hosting (red bowtie notwithstanding), used his bully pulpit to reveal a trailer for Deus Ex 3. They cranked up the volume and the whole trailer was pre-rendered, and it just didn't do it for me at all. Struck me as tacky to end your hosting gig with a plug for your upcoming game. In fact, it mirrors the way that GDC seems stuck between being an honest discussion of game design and an excuse to try to sell, sell, sell.

And that was that.  I'm sure there were plenty of parties going on, but one of the benefits of not having paid an arm and a leg to get in is that I can go to the Moscone, take in the thing at my own pace, and get home in time to actually sleep.

Today should have some more really fun stuff, but interesting as it is to see these developers in high gear, running around in their element, the best parts have been the smaller conversations I've had on the side. Mostly, I'm just looking forward to talking with more of the incredibly smart, thoughtful, and in-the-know attendees. And yeah, maybe snagging some more swag,

Moscone awaits.


Anonymous said...

So, not impressed with the sixstring then?

Kirk Hamilton said...

Why, whatever gave you that impression? :P