Next week is the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and there are so many things I want to do there that I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’ve got interviews booked, talks to attend, press events to cover, and exclusive parties to go to. It’s such a first-world problem to have. One of the reasons I have this issue is that GDC has grown so much from its roots as a geek gathering where developers came together to discuss their craft. It has morphed into place where you have to be if you’re in the game business. That business has expanded so that it includes not only the hardcore PC and console industries but also free-to-play, mobile, social, and online businesses from around the globe.
I hope this column will help you set your expectations for the event at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. The GDC has become a strategic battleground, where platform owners vie for the attention of developers, who can make or break game systems. With 23,000 attendees and tons of press attending, companies are using GDC as a place to make a splash. They are making big commercial game announcements. Electronic Arts, for instance, has an invite-only event on Tuesday night where everybody expects it to unveil Battlefield 4, a title that EA hopes will break Activision Blizzard’s grip on the multibillion-dollar first-person shooter market. My schedule is so loaded with such stuff that, if a surprise news story breaks, it will wreck my beautifully orchestrated timetable, which is set up from morning to midnight, Monday through Friday.
The battle between the two juggernauts — EA and Activision Blizzard — is so multifaceted that you feel like you have to pay attention. Last week, EA chief executive John Riccitiello resigned because his attempts to sell more games of existing franchises to jaded consumers failed. If one of these companies gets a bright idea, like Activision Blizzard did with the hybrid toy-games for Skylanders, it can become a new multibillion-dollar business. GDC is wonderful because it is full of creative people who can come up with those ideas.
The problem for the paranoid journalist or attendee is that you just don’t know where to start when it comes to covering the bases at an industry event where there is just too much cool stuff going on. I thought I’d share my secret thought process on how to cover an event like GDC just because it might tell you what’s happening in the game business and what some of these important events say about the state of video games.
I am so tied up with these events that I have stopped taking meetings. And some wise PR folks have figured this out, so they’re briefing me on news I can write about this week, before the show. That’s why I have five stories to write at night before I go to bed. A few years ago, the debut of OnLive’s service details at our very own GamesBeat@GDC was the star of the show, with hundreds of news stories linking to it.
It used to be that I would look at the keynotes and figure out what the biggest companies in the industry were doing in order to set my schedule. Apple would occasionally disrupt GDC by holding a (seemingly) non-game event such as an iPhone or iPad press conference in the middle of the show. Normally, companies try to position themselves so that they are part of the flow of GDC events. But Apple worked against the tide, like only Apple can. But this year, Apple isn’t doing anything (big), and there are no keynote speeches. (I still remember that speech where Bill Gates introduced the first Xbox in 2000.) Fortunately for the game hardware makers, Apple has no nasty surprise waiting for them this year.
Now I want to know about the small companies that are there to disrupt the big guys. It is interesting for me to know about the doings of companies like Unity Technologies (and its new alliance with Sony), Oculus VR, and Ouya. I also want to see cool stuff, like the latest demos from Epic Games, Crytek, and the promises of visual heaven from folks like Bungie. And I want to know about issues, like women in games, crowdfunding, crunch time at companies where people work too hard, and — the perennial crowd favorite — sex in games. I’m also intrigued by the Experimental Game Workshop, where developers go to show off avant-garde gameplay.
Among the hundreds of talks, I’ve noticed some technical gems like “Techniques for Aim Assist in Console Shooters.” I’ve never felt like I had enough time at GDC, but I always felt like I had some time to walk the show floor and soak in the environment. I’m going to feel pretty obligated to hit some of the major talks. Sony, for instance, is going to give a sponsored talk on designing games for the PlayStation 4. Such talks may prove to be for the geeks, but once in a while they generate some news that everybody will want to know about. How can I not go to a talk about the PS4?
Well, odds are good that the room will be so crowded I won’t be able to get into that session. And, in fact, I’m going to refuse to tell anybody where it is if they ask me. I also feel obligated to accept when a company offers a secret hands-on meeting in a hotel suite for the debut of a major game. I feel like I have to attend meetings with celebrity game designers that come from faraway places. That leaves me with exactly zero time to roam and discover.
But that’s the thing about the game business. It’s those random meetings, sleeper sessions, and chance encounters where you can get a great idea that makes it all worth it. If you have a chance to break loose from the schedule and wander, do so. You probably won’t regret it. Just try not to go where you will get trampled.
Some folks are giving off-the-record dinners with a small circle of folks. Those invitations are rare, but when you get them, you feel like you have to attend. You can catch up with old friends at these events and get their take on the important news of the day. It’s hard to gauge whether these meetings are more valuable than waiting in line to get the last seat in a crowded session. Then some folks swear that you have to attend a party, particularly ones at swanky nightclubs with loud music and celebrity rock bands as special guests. I don’t always put these ones at the top of the list.
Sometimes I attend sessions to mark the passage of time. Last year, Google promised it would unify the Google+ social network, Chrome web browsers, and the Android app store (now Google Play) into a single platform. At Google’s session this year, I would hope they follow through on it. And sometimes, the absence of a session is meaningful. At a graphics conference this week, Nvidia canceled a talk on Project Shield, its handheld Android gaming system. Next week, I believe Nvidia may also keep a low profile. This thing is supposed to launch in a very short time, and I’m wondering why it isn’t ready.
This year, I don’t see anything that is going to steal the show. If you’re really scratching your head, here are some interesting “must see” sessions.
The Game Developers Choice Awards. You’ll learn something just from who gets cheers and who gets booed. It’s hosted by funny man Tim Schafer, the head of Double Fine Productions.
The emerging landscape of African game development. There is a lot of hope tied into this session.
#1ReasonToBe. A session about women in the game business and lingering sexism. It includes female notables such as Brenda Romero, Robin Hunicke, and Leigh Alexander.
Scapegoats no more: Improving the public image of games. Some leading thinkers like Ian Bogost, Michael Capps, and Daniel Greenberg will examine violence in games.
Classic game post-mortem: Myst. For old folks like me, co-creator Robyn Miller will describe how he made Myst, one of the first breakthrough games on CD-ROMs on the PC.
Experimental Gameplay Workshop. Stars like Keita Takahashi will show off cool gameplay prototypes.
Brave New World: New Bungie IP. From the makers of Halo, the next big game is Destiny.
Photorealism through the eyes of a fox. Hideo Kojima, a gaming legend, talks about photorealism.
Designing Journey. Jenova Chen, the creator of one of the most compelling non-violent games of 2012, describes the making of Journey.