I spent the past week fully immersed in the 30th annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Along with at least 26,000 attendees, I searched for interesting people and events that could tell me about the future of the game industry. As press, I felt the increasing pressure to head to press conferences rather than attend talks. I had many requests for demos, particularly virtual reality games, and a number of events to attend for the game engine producers. This year, I felt like I saw a very small slice of things across four full days, but I didn’t leave the GDC disappointed.
The game industry is full of innovations and bright people, including the luminaries like Epic Games chief executive Tim Sweeney, who has more than two decades of game graphics and engine experience, and the students from 11 universities who attended the Intel University Games Showcase on Thursday night. Without further adieu, these were some of the best moments that made an impression on me or inspired me at the Game Developers Conference.
Ninja Theory’s Hellblade
Ninja Theory is making a highly realistic psychological thriller called Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. At the center of it is a Celtic female warrior, Senua, who is battling madness while on a journey into the Viking heartland. The game studio showed off an amazing demo of real-time performance capture of a live actress at Epic Games’ briefing at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
In the demo, actress Melina Juergens played Senua in real time. As the actress’ facial movements, speech, and image were captured in real-time, they showed up on the big screen as Senua, the character in the game. The actress spoke in real time, and the voice was transformed into an echoed voice of Senua. Every time the actress blinked in real life, the character blinked in the animated world onscreen. When she spoke and screamed, the character did, too. And when her eyes watered up with emotion and fear, the same happened to the virtual character. It was highly realistic.The demo was built in seven weeks using tech from Ninja Theory, Epic Games, Cubic Motion, and 3 Lateral.
3 Lateral scanned 100 different expressions from which they constructed a digital double of Melina that could reproduce every expression that Melina could make. Melina was photographed in a wide variety of lighting conditions, and her body and clothing were scanned into the computer model. Clothing, hair, and fur were simulated. Xsense and Ikenima captured Melina’s movements. Ninja Theory set up a scene in the Hellblade world with Epic’s Unreal Engine, and Epic made sure the lighting was realistic. Cubic Motion in the United Kingdom created a “facial solver” that could translate video of Melina’s face directly to the facial rig in the animated scene in real time.
Epic streamed the synchronized body, face, voice, and scene data. The imagery takes a big step forward in crossing the “uncanny valley,” or the barrier in computer graphics where the more artists try to create a realistic human face, the more it seems something is wrong with it. Kim Libreri, chief technology officer at Epic, said that the demo used commercial off-the-shelf hardware and Unreal Engine 4.
Muslim representation in video games
This panel that included Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail was sadly the only session I was able to attend. (I will look at videos in the GDC Vault later). And predictably, the Muslim representation in video games is pretty sparse and stereotypical. The moderator showed scenes from a variety of games, including the scene from a war-torn city in a Call of Duty game, where the signs are both in Urdu and Arabic. The oversight: Arabic isn’t one of Pakistan’s primary languages. The panel closed with a hopeful message about how diversity can provide the answer to questions that arise when you don’t have a member of a minority group to keep your game team informed.
Many people believe it’s perfectly fine to have Muslim enemies in all of the contemporary games that we play. But that shouldn’t be the only depiction of Muslims in video games. I believe that this panel was important not just because it affects a lot of American Muslims or a lot of Muslims, period. It also affects a minority group that is relatively powerless in our country. I believe that how a country treats its minority groups tells you a lot about that country and the level of freedom that it encourages or tolerates. I’ll have more to show about what the panel talked about later.
Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine
This VR demo was short but sweet. I got a look at it at the Nvidia booth with an HTC Vive. The Millennium Falcon zipped in from space and landed right near me. It was a massive ship. Han Solo spoke to me via loudspeaker, and he dropped off R2D2 just as some First Order stormtroopers arrived. R2 gave me a lightsaber. I activated it using my hand controller, and it buzzed to life. It felt exactly like a figured a lightsaber would. I held it near my right ear and it buzzed, with haptic feedback. And I waved it in the air. The stormtroopers started shooting at me and I held the lightsaber up, moving to block the laser bolts as they came straight at me. It was the classic kind of experience I had always wanted to have. And it worked beautifully, right down to the point where I wrote my name in the sand.
Kink.com takes porn to VR
I visited the Upload Collective VR incubator’s party during the GDC. Off in the corner was Kink.com, a porn fetish web site that is experimenting in virtual reality. A friend talked me into checking it out, because, you know, I would never do that on my own. I walked into a line full of guys. One guy walking out said, “Enjoy your anal.” The woman with me said, “That’s kind of inappropriate.” I then spoke with the representative from Kink.com, who asked if I had written about VR porn before. I proudly said, “Yes, VR Bangers.” We discussed the competitor, which was making 360-degree 4K porn videos. Then I tried on an Oculus Rift headset with Kink.com’s stuff. The guy asked me what I wanted to see, and I gave a non-answer. He chose one and then I quickly said, “Uh, can you change that.” In the next one, I was viewing a sex scene from a first-person view. But something seemed weird about it. The woman on top of me seemed like she was a giant. She had to be something like eight feet tall, given the dimensions of the scenery around me. I laughed and pointed this out, and the rep said they were still experimenting with the proper dimensions.
Valve’s game creators have always had a good sense of humor, and they’ve used it to introduce us to virtual reality. The Lab was a set of mini games for the HTC Vive. It had some hilarious cartoon graphics, mixed with a sense of presence. In the first scene, I was on top of a mountain (a real place called Vesper Mountain) with a robot puppy that looked like something from out of portal. The dog would fetch sticks. I picked them up with my hand and tossed them, and the puppy brought them back. As I looked out over the cliff, I had an evil thought. I tossed a stick over the edge of the cliff. The dog happily pursued it, running down a steep patch to pick it up. It climbed back up and motioned for me to do it again. I tossed it out further off the edge, and it did the same thing.
Then I teleported to a new scene inside a warehouse. It was like a scene out of Portal. I put these balls into a big slingshot-like device. The balls talked backed to me, as if they were sentient. I placed the robotic sphere inside the slingshot and fired. It screamed as it flew into boxes and knocked down a bunch. I proceeded to repeat that process, until I had fired a bunch of balls. Occasionally, a sphere struck a drum of gasoline and exploded.
Then I went into a room where I had to dodge laser bolts coming at me from tiny little drones. They were firing at me from all directions, and I fired my own laser back, making them explode. I also played with a bow and arrow, shooting at cartoon characters attacking my castle. That was a bit harder but equally fun. It was a truly fun way to experience VR, and I think it could be a great tutorial for the uninitiated.
Dead & Buried
This virtual reality experience is one more example that shows that shooters can be really fun in VR. I demoed the Oculus Studios title with Oculus’ Jason Rubin. We teamed up against two others in a saloon shootout. Using the Oculus Touch controllers, I grabbed my guns and pointed them at the enemies in the saloon. Laser lights pointed where I aimed. I pulled the triggers and tried to gun down the enemies. When I ran out of bullets, I had to gesture toward my belt to reload. I had to physically duck in order to hide behind virtual cover. I popped my head out and picked off the enemies. Then I got a hold of a grenade launcher and took out the enemies that were hiding behind objects. It was a hoot, and I was all sweaty when I returned to the real world.
Game engine wars
The game engine wars are getting increasingly complicated. Everyone wants to win the hearts and minds of developers. And they’re doing so using a variety of ways. Amazon launched its Crytek-based game engine, Lumberyard, as a free giveaway. The engine is just one part of the stack of services for Amazon Web Services. MaxPlay, a brand new engine maker, announced that its engine is made for the cloud and can take advantage of any number of processors in cloud infrastructure,and it also allows multiple developers work to on the same file as if it were a Google doc. King, meanwhile, said that it was making its 2D game engine, Defold, available for free as well. The point was to let other programmers work on it and debug, allowing King’s own teams to benefit from the larger number of engineers. It also meant King could give back to the community, said Thomas Hartwig, chief technology officer at King.
Meanwhile, Unity announced a number of new features that showed its own game engine is progressing up the food chain in terms of 3D graphics quality. Epic showed off the aforementioned features and noted that it had gained 1.5 million new users after it made its engine available for free (with royalties on game sales) a year ago. And Crytek announced CryEngine V and said that game developers could “pay what they want” for licensing the engine. All of these maneuvers showed just how Darwinian the game engine business has become.
Sam Barlow’s victories
Indie game developer Sam Barlow had to rely on the kindness and income of his working wife when he was busy making Her Story, a detective crime interactive story. Her Story uses full-motion video to tell the story of a missing man and police interviews with his wife, Hannah Smith, portrayed by British musician Viva Seifert. Barlow went a long time with no income and a hope that he could publish his game and tell a unique story that no one else could.
Barlow got the last laugh as he won the top honor, the Seumas McNally grand prize, at the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference. He also won the award for best narrative and other awards. He went up so many times that Barlow eventually said he had run out of things to say. Barlow is going to be giving a talk at our GamesBeat Summit conference in Sausalito, Calif., on May 3-4.
My old buddy Tom Ham of Create Advertising Group pulled me aside and insisted that I look at a game. I figured it was just one more VR demo. But I humored him. It was called The Walk, and Create VR re-created the legendary experience of a French tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, crossing the chasm between the Twin Towers on a tightrope in 1974. I had heard about this demo before, and I had even walked a faux plank in VR before as well. So I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I willed my mind to resist being sucked into the illusion that I was really walking a tightrope.
But as soon as they fired it up, I looked out at the view of the wire reaching out to the other tower. And my body was fooled. I tried to walk out on the wire, which was in reality just a wire streched across a carpet. But I put my hands out to steady myself and almost fell. I put my foot on the wire and I wobbled. I laughed and felt a sense of vertigo as I looked down. I quickly looked up again and started placing one foot in front of the other. I wobbled some more as I walked forward, and I willed my brain and body to obey. My foot slipped off the wire and it hit carpet. That helped me remember that I was in a VR demo, not on top of a wire connecting two skyscrapers. As I finished and pulled off the headset, Ham was laughing at me and I laughed back. I felt defeated by VR, but in a good way. It was the perfect demo of presence, or how virtual reality makes you feel like you’re someplace that you’re not.