The Game Developers Conference will draw more than 20,000 people to San Francisco next week, and it will be like dropping another quarter in the arcade machine to play games like Platform Wars and Battle of the Game Engines.
With so many developers attending, the platform, tool, and engine companies are jockeying to be noticed. They want the developers to use their stuff, and not the others, because it will bring great games and tons of users to their platforms.
This battle for the hearts and minds of developers is bigger now.
“We saw a bit of that creeping in last year, and we’re seeing it in full force this year,” said Katie Stern, director of GDC Events, in an interview with me. “It’s exciting that they think of GDC as a place where they want to get their message out — that we have the right audience for them, and it’s where they want to make their big splash. We’ve heard from a few folks that they use GDC strategically as a launch site for new campaigns for whatever they’re announcing.”
The biggest news coming next week is a sponsored talk by Phil Harrison, vice president at Google and former bigwig at Microsoft and Sony, about Google’s plans for the game business. Google even teased the event on YouTube to make sure developers show up.
Hoping to head that off, Microsoft this week demoed its Project xCloud, which uses the Azure cloud to enable players to play high-end games on any device. At the actual event, Microsoft will be throwing a number of parties and receptions touting its love for diversity, accessibility via the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and other underrepresented communities in game development. Valve also announced a beta of its Steam Link Anywhere technology in advance of its own disclosures next week.
In another sponsored session, Amazon’s Rich Hilleman will talk about the company’s vision for games at 10 a.m. on Monday. Facebook and its Oculus division will be out in force pushing their news. Tim Sweeney of Epic Games will once again tout the Unreal Engine and its progress in creating digital humans, or animated people who are so real you can’t tell them apart from real people.
Down the street, in a less expensive venue outside of GDC, Unity John Riccitiello will show off his company’s latest Unity game engine technology — in competition with Epic. And Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable, maker of SpatialOS, will tout tools that enable small developers to make massive online worlds. Narula recently had a spat with Unity, but things are said to be patched up.
Nintendo will show off some indie games, but Sony seems particularly quiet in terms of a presence at GDC, beyond a number of celebratory God of War talks. Perhaps Sony is plotting the revelation of the PlayStation 5 at some other place, later in the year.
Who can forget that GDC was once the place where Bill Gates unveiled the original Xbox design (2000) or that former Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata talked about the Wii or Brain Games in keynote speeches? Now, the GDC lets the platform companies duke it out in sponsored sessions.
“As we see more and more of these big players have their own user conferences and things along those lines, they’re used to having their own crafted, curated experiences to create these kinds of messages,” Stern said. “It made more sense for us as a show to allow them a platform to do that in their own way. That’s why we don’t do the keynotes and product announcements. As part of the show content, they can be considerably more meaningful. We can allow them the opportunity and space to do it in a way that’s unique to their brand and their voice and how it fits within the broader GDC context.”
While GDC is where the platforms and tool makers win over the allegiance of game developers, it’s not so much a place where the big games of the year are revealed. There are some secret briefing sessions, of course, but the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3, in June in Los Angeles) remains the place for big game revelations.
With all this jockeying, it’s easy for press people like me to forget about the sessions. I had to look through 400 sessions to see which ones I had to attend. But it was a little pointless because so much of my time will be taken up covering the game engine wars, the platform wars, doing interviews, and seeing game demos. If you see some great sessions, please flag them for me.
I am looking forward to seeing some games for the first time and doing interviews with a number of interesting people in the industry.
I’ll be excited to see who gets some special recognition at the Game Developers Choice Awards on Wednesday night, where we’ll see a replay of the Red Dead Redemption 2 versus God of War awards battle.
But in the past few years, I have always enjoyed the #1ReasonToBe panel. It started as a women’s panel, and it has evolved into a global diversity session where developers give their existential reasons for being game developers. It’s always moving and generates standing ovations.
Rami Ismail, the cofounder of Vlambeer, organized the session once again this year, but he once again had trouble getting visas for his panelists to come to the U.S. This is yet again a direct result of President Donald Trump’s tight immigration policies. Ismail has been so fed up with this process that this year he created the GameDev.World event, which will be an online-only conference in June that will feature game developer talks translated in real time into eight languages.
I’ll sit in Ismail’s session again, shed some tears, and get my fill of immersion in gaming culture at GDC 2019. While I’m sure that one day I’ll be able to watch it all online, I wouldn’t miss attending this event in person for the world.