Monday, August 24, 2009

GDC 2009

Overall impression

This years European Game Developers Conference, a gathering of developers, sponsors, exhibitors, media and publishers, was held in Cologne, Germany. It directly preceded the first gamecom convention (see my previous post for a rundown).

The main sections were Business, Game Design, Production, Programming and Visual Arts.

I will more or less write about the GDC as a whole rather than listing single Sessions. Overall I was missing more of those useful insider information bits. Most presentations seemed a bit generalistic to me, but there were a few in depth sessions and especially the panels sparked interesting discussions. Sadly there was very little on game art. In my opinion this is a flaw since art is an essential part of a game. Art most likely grips the attention of players before gameplay, story and other features are even considered. To those working in art departments I recommend checking out the fmx and Siggraph instead.

Art and Graphics

Since I'm the art kinda guy I was pretty disappointed at what the GDC had to offer in regard to art direction and art asset production. There was one session on art direction held by Victor Antonov, which I already attended on the fmx earlier this year. I can highly recommend his Creating Visual Identity for Games for anybody interested in creating fitting and unique visual styles for games. Antonov worked on high profile titles such as Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. He does wonderful architectutral and industrial designs, so be sure to search for him on the web. Here are some links to interesting articles about his design philosophy:
http://gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=16475
http://www.catmoo.co.uk/blog/2009/07/25/develop-2009-the-edge-panel-architecture
Concept art: http://half-life.wikia.com/wiki/Viktor_Antonov
Since we're already taking about art direction in games, I can highly recommend researching the art direction of Team Fortress 2:
http://www.conceptart.org/forums/showthread.php?t=104694
http://features.cgsociety.org/story_custom.php?story_id=4338
http://www.primotechnology.com/2008/02/25/gdc-08-the-illustrative-world-of-team-fortress-2/
Video: http://www.eurogamer.net/videos/team-fortress-2_graphical-style

As beautiful as all the art might be, it wouldn't show without a proper engine. One of the keynotes was dedicated to Crytek's new CryEngine 3. Here's an older but still intriguing video about it:


The outsourcing company Streamlike Studios showed some insider information about their art pipelines. So did Bioware Development Director Dorian Kieken on a more general scale with his What Is a Living Plan and How Can We Achieve It? lecture.
It was interesting to see that more and more studios are using a combination of project and asset management tools. Even more so in the art department, because artists tend to neglect planning and using orderly task lists. Hence it's a good idea to keep the whole asset approval and management process quick and easy to use. Kieken recommended Hansoft, an online solution for agile and iterative project management.

Having worked quite a lot with online and offline project and asset management tools myself I'd say as soon as the project starts to get big there's no way around commercial solutions. There might be matching alternatives in the future, but right now especially commercial project management tools are way more streamlined their open source counterparts.
As for simple file collaboration and asset management, there are always free and stable version control systems to be found on the net (e.g. subversion). And an open source wiki is more than enough to manage your game documentation. Some payed solutions like basecamp and unfuddle might be good for general purpose project management, but when it comes to games, it's a lot more complicated and I'd actually recommend using a proprietary software instead, even derivating from an open source solution.
Actually if anyone does have some good free project management tools that can be linked to an asset management environment, please comment and I'll be glad to discuss or post a more detailed article.

Online and Social

A lot of the sessions were about online gaming and especially social gaming with facebook games being the number one topic. It's a very new platform but growing rapidly - no surprise with facebooks 250+ millionen users. I'm actually keen to see facebook's userbase exceed the world's population someday ;)
Basically game concepts for social platforms have to stay low profile with focus on social features rather than game features. To be successful, they must be easy to adapt for new users and supply a rich palette of opportunities to interact with other users. There are some leading examples for more complex social online games that have been successful: FarmVille and Mafia Wars. Quite a lot of smaller games are also successful, a remarkable adaption of the match-3 gameplay mechanism is Bejeweled Blitz.
An interesting fact is that a lot in social gaming can be achieved by experimenting. The risks are low, and once something gets accepted by a large part of the community it's ready to be used as a commercial gold mine. For example selling virtual poker-chips. Once introduced, poker players were willing to spend a lot of money on buying them. There are some games that use ads for money, but most revenue is produced through micro-payment by the users.
To sum it up: Social platforms are the playground to be for young developers. Also it's a good idea to connect browser games to those platforms to broaden their userbase.

Are clouds the future?

With technologies like onlive and Gaikai buying expensive gaming hardware seems to be a thing of the past. All you have to do is get a cheap standard computer and connect to the cloud by a user account. It might still take a while till those cloud and server based services might run smoothly for high end gaming, but the industry seems to be slowly getting there. A drawback in user freedom, and with having subscriptions to games and software users actually don't own their packages anymore. On the positive side everyone will be up to date and there's no more data loss once your console, software-disc or home computer dies.
Now what does that mean for developers and publishers? No one can say for sure yet, but I guess developers will have it easier to get their games out there and publishers can market their gaming products more easily. It seems like a win-win solution with cable companies also gaining, and even the big distributors like Walmart will likely still have enough products to put on their shelves - at least for the time being.

Mature Narrative

We're talking mature games here (for mature minds), not adult entertainment (e.g. boobies). There was one keynote about mature gaming, held by David Cage (CEO & Founder, Quantic Dream) called Writing Interactive Narrative for a Mature Audience. While the keynote was rather polarizing and sensationalistic there was an interesting core statements that are true for the whole game development community. If we want games to be considered art we have to stop making them similar to toys. Now in my opinion games are neither mere toys nor sophisticated works of art per se. They can be a lot, but above all they're games. If something is more like an interactive movie it shouldn't be called a game, but rather interactive entertainment. Still, the lines blur and I don't want to sound hair splitting, so let's stick with the term games for now.
I embrace the idea of introducing mature topics and more elaborate characters and storylines to games, but not at the cost of gameplay. Mass Effect 1, and probably 2 as well, introduced a solid SciFi story combined with good RPG action gameplay. Admittedly they borrowed a lot from Alistair Rainolds Revelation Space setting and the action oriented gameplay wasn't as smooth as a 3rd person shooter, but the overall mixture of story and gameplay elements made Mass Effect an outstanding experience for a lot of mature gamers:


Notable examples are also May Payne and the upcoming Alan Wake, by Remedy Interactive:


And Heavy Rain:


Business and Production

Since games aren't only about fun, business and production talks are essential to the industry. There were quite a lot of interesting presentations and discussion panels about how to pitch to publishers, how to get game ideas realized and what to avoid before and during production. Bostjan Troha the CEO, ZootFly gave an interesting speech about projects cancellation and how to avoid it. Important tools are strong project planning,  due-diligences and persistence. These keypoints were reflected by some other speakers such as Hilmar Veigar Pétursson (CEO, CCP) with his Eve Online presentation CCP: Winning the War.

Conclusion

There's a lot more to the GDC than just the panels and presentations. The exhibitors area is also worth checking out. Especially the school booths, because there really weren't any talks about game development education. It's still more or less about doing internships and business contacts if you want to get into the industry. Since the gaming industry is a lot about tangible results rather than sophisticated ideas, streamlined academic courses with a combination of game designers, artists, producers and programmers have a high chance of actually breaking into the industry.
The GDC Europe 2009 was a truly remarkable combination of talent, interesting projects, talks, networking events and exhibitions. For everyone who's remotely interested in interactive entertainment, this was one of the conventions to be in 2009.

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