GDC 09 / Day three debrief

Dear Tim Schafer, if you are reading this, thanks. You still rock and tell your wife I apologize for interrupting your leisurely stroll to, I assume, your hotel room. All the same, thanks and you rock twice. See everyone, I gave him a business card and I was a bit of a slobbering fanboy about the whole thing and… nevermind I shouldn’t reveal that to you.

Let me talk about day three.

When it comes to conventions, I’m used to things being firmly established and then exploring things after feeling them out on that first day. Grasping the lay of the land, the culture of the other convention goers, etc. GDC, though, blew up today. Registration lines, once either moderate or flat out empty, were now brimming with people. Two new doors opened to massive halls that had in them exhibits aplenty. I still don’t know where what is except maybe Nintendo and OnLive booths being as massive as they were. I knew this was coming, but I wasn’t ready for it in the least.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with it immediately. Satoru Iwata took precedence over just about everything, and it was a keynote speech that was worthwhile more on principle than actual content. He went over the design philosophies at Nintendo, but more specifically Mr. Miyamoto’s. I don’t think anyone was too terribly disappointed with his choice in lead designer. It was neat hearing how he likes to “kidnap” non-development employees, shove a controller in their hand, and study what they do or don’t enjoy about a game. It was interesting that he was outspoken about how he doesn’t want Miyamoto revealing his hobbies, interests our pastimes outside of work for fear of competition knowing where to seek inspiration. It’s the kind of policy that I’d imagine he’d have at least some embarrassment over, but I seem to have a flighty imagination. Regardless, he revealed the process via some footage of game developers getting dance lessons, and all in an effort to give them rhythm, which then gives them an anchor point from which to make games like Rhythm Heaven. It was a fun anecdote, and Miyamoto’s design process is certainly interesting to hear about, but it wasn’t anything particularly new for anyone either. The Man has spoken for himself on numerous occasions. He also had some helpers come up. We saw a Rock n’ Roll Climber video and we saw the new Wario Ware Snapped for DSi.

Then I had to deal with it. I bleated out a Neo-esque “whoa” upon entering the exhibit hall, greeted by a Sony “booth” that showed tons of Home-themed text bubbles with various typical internet quips. It was adorable, certainly, but also not. Walk just a little ways in and there is a luminous white structure that is unmistakably Nintendo’s booth. I spent my next chunk of time working my arms out giving Punch-Out!! and Excitebots a little demo time. Bots is a good time. It’s a solid racer, and it’s kind of neat that the goal is to acquire as many stars as possible rather than simply ending in first place. It makes your goal a little different, but it still feels like a straight forward racer regardless. It makes good use of the Wii steering wheel, though. For my thoughts on Punch-Out!!, see below. In sum, it’s good but not that new. Only the presentation seems to have gotten a significant overhaul. That, and the obvious control scheme. I also got a little personal time with Wario Ware Snapped, which is the best way to have a goofy fun time AND feel like an idiot when all your actions in front of the camera are played back to you 100 percent context free. Where you were once swatting flies, you’re now epileptic. It’s solid gold when it isn’t you.

That was followed by a visit to Codemasters/NetDevil, who booked a suite on the top floor of the St. Regis hotel to show off their upcoming MMO, Jumpgate Evolution. This game looks quite awesome. You get to fly ships, and you can pretty much do what you want from there. Ship stuff as a space trucker, be a mercenary, fight for a cause… all kinds of stuff. It’s pretty great. The game has some RPG-esque aspects, but attributes and experience in the traditional sense are none of them. In theory, a brand new rookie can outmaneuver and beat an experienced “Level 40″ guy. The level really only suggests his literal time and likely resources and equipment on hand. The visuals are solid, and the game has a shaderless mode so even laptops with integrated graphics can join in on the fun. That said, the game was rocking across three 22” monitors and topped off with full on flight sim accessories. Scott Brown toured us through the game, and it looked like a whole lot of potential was there. What were not there, though, were other players. That may have added a bit. As it was we got a demo of the interface, the flying, and shooting down some AI baddies. Overall not bad, but it will be great to see it in a really crowded scene.

Next up: Epic Games. This one was really predominantly for the techies, but not bad overall. Mark Rein and Alan Willard took us through the engine updates we explained not long ago. The lighting system is indeed impressive, where an effect that once required multiple light sources now happens naturally with a more realistic single source. The data management and collecting the engine does will be great on the back end, but besides the lighting, these changes won’t have too much of an effect on we who hold the controllers and play. Others came up to the front to show their new technologies and how well they fit into the Unreal Editor’s environment. Stuff from putting flash animations in your levels to using text code to conjure up textures at very minimal space. Again… doesn’t much matter to the player, but could mean better environments for development and thus better games.

I capped things off catching the end of a presentation by Chris Hecker, a former indie developer who contributed to Spore, and has written quite a bit on just how to make these videogame things true art, or to have some real meaning. While I didn’t catch the all, what I did see was the discussion by a man who was still not entirely sure how exactly to do that despite years of “research.” He’s not alone on the matter, but he raised up many descriptions of ways developers attempt to  bring about meaning, and showing pros and cons. I won’t name them here, but just think of games with linear stories where the player is guided as one extreme, and full on sandbox freedom being the opposite, and everything in between. The panel was focused on how user generated content, or UGC, would contribute to it, and of course used Spore as an example, but also the “narratives” that come about from games of Quake or other deathmatch games. His argument, or rather what he wanted to argue, was that the meaning was the thing that links those two forms of individual expression. The bond between the headshot and the freaky alien you make in Spore. He sounded on to something, but then everyone who talks about how to really elevate the medium sounds at the very least on to something. No one seems to really get it, and that seems to at least stem a little from the fact that it seems hotly debated what exactly there is to get. I’m not about to offer an answer here, but it’s something I’m always interested to hear more about. You have, essentially, moving pictures, sound, and music that are, to a large extent, dictated by the actions of the person experiencing it. There’s something there.

Then things lightened up, shallowed down and got to conferring awards. I won’t rattle off winners of either the IGF or the GDC awards, but I will say that Jason Rohrer did a great job of setting up a tele-prompt flub, and Tim Schafer was a fantastic host, teaching how the similarity between downloadable games and ghosts does, in fact, tie directly into small strippers.

You had to be there, it was great. See you tomorrow.

Oh, and a video of Hideo Kojima sneaking with Mega 64 guys was pretty classic too.

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