GDC 09 / Day one debrief

Well, I survived. I’m sitting somewhere warm with my shoes off, curling my feet against carpet, and still processing my introductory experience with GDC. I think most of you can guess that it’s pretty overwhelmingly amazing. The layout takes place between two buildings of the Moscone center, at least for today. Today will take me to two hotels and additional areas within said buildings, and Wednesday opens even more doors still. While navigating just these two, though, I was treated to an environment that is just plain odd. Everywhere you are, people are talking about videogames. Everywhere. This is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination for you, reader, or me, writer of videogames. On top of that, you meet people and a common greet is “so what have you been playing?” and then you reply accordingly. How much better a world it would be if this were more universal! However… I, having replied Street Fighter 4, got a judgmental “come on!” from a rather known writer who will even be making a speech later this week. Pshaw, I say! The game is fun and online play just makes it that much more entertaining! PLUS I’m getting really good and can almost do this combo that… you don’t care do you?

Suffice to say, things are off to a great start. No HUGE announcements today (though there were a few), but there are still four more days of this so let’s all hold onto our butts. I did soak in quite a bit on the independent gaming scene via panels from interesting folk. The panels themselves are pretty much exactly as I imagined them, spanning a range of people, all of them scrunched together in small chairs with little space between rows. It was like being on a high-ceilinged airplane where a good talk was the ride.

First, I got a not-so-thorough but entertainingly quick run through of the twenty finalists for the IGF (Independent Games Festival) awards which will be given out today. Some of them look absolutely worth your time. Some of them look a little generic with a distinct visual flare that makes them shine a little brighter than a normal game would. A few that really grabbed me: Carneyvale Showtime where you are basically a mannequin that grapples and swings, Mightier which involves your printer and a scanner to progress, Pixeljunk Eden which you likely know, and Retro/Grade which is basically a backwards side-scrolling schmup but you really have to just see it to get it. I’d write more on these games but I just want to tell you more about the rest of the day. If you have means of checking these out, do it. There, happy?

I later listened in on some research involving downloadable games. Simon Carless, chairman of the IGF, did his best to put together some numbers regarding the enigmatic sales of downloadable games. He presented it in a way where independent developers could decide which platform works best for them. Many of his numbers were accurate or backed, and many of them were educated guesses, and he was clear on which was which. The bottom line ultimately seems to be that while some options can offer you the chance to make a lot more money, expectations of the audience also need to be kept in mind. Sure, an iPhone game will be accessible by millions of iPhone owners, but what good is that if you’re charging $20, a price they’ll never pay? Maybe Xbox Live Arcade is more up your alley because that price, while high, isn’t as high as when tacked onto an iphone game. A lot of things to consider, but among iphone, XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, and PC, there was no clearly superior option. Not so surprisingly, this stands to be true with the consoles themselves.

Petri Purho then got to talk post-mortem about Crayon Physics Deluxe, and how prototyping is what ultimately led him to creating the game (the core was originally an aspect to what he called a “shitty” Lemmings ripoff game). For those not in the know, Crayon Physics has you doodle contraptions to get a ball from point A to point B. Hearing a developer’s thought process and response to how gamers operate within the world they create is always interesting. In his powerpoint, he had one slide that simply read “Players are lazy ass bastards,” talking about how he wanted people to get creative with solving the puzzles in the game, and instead found the quickest and easiest route and called it a day. He also has it in a bit for people who copied his idea after having watched his YouTube trailer, which came out probably a little too soon before the game itself.

I closed the day listening to Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock, makers of Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations, talk about what it takes to be independent and get your game noticed and selling. At the same time, he took the opportunity to get a little soap boxy and make some jabs at choice publishing groups (one of which an audience member also had similar experiences), some advertising means, and even us media and the way we can be about things. Namely, we choose what we want to cover and don’t branch out much. Though after saying that he was fair and said that if we covered what everyone else wanted we’d just be writing about The Sims all day. He also wanted to dispel the idea that modern games have to cost absurd sums of money by showing how much they spent on a game compared to how much they actually made. This led to a lot of jokes about him settling on making only $10 million rather than a big publisher’s typically-demanded $30 million, saying that should still manage to get him a Porsche or some similar brand car. It was witty and poignant, but it also kind of made a monetary divide between he and I, I can’t speak for the rest of the hall. Still, it was a very informative presentation and certainly did its part to make the creation and selling of a game a less daunting task than it’s typically perceived to be. Of course… this is one company to how many that shut down regularly? Especially recently?

Between these, I did a lot of wandering. Microsoft has up a spot where they have a few random Xbox 360’s playing some random games, as well as a couple PC’s hooked up to Games for Windows Live. A couple had some IGF finalists playing, which was a fun little diversion. Downstairs were beanbags that were eternally occupied. My aching feet we jealous as crazy. The rest of me, though, was stoked to be there, and knowing that there’s even more to see and do today just keeps that excitement going.