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Austin Game Conference 2005 Report
On October 26-28, the Austin Game Conference was held for the third time at the Austin Convention Center. Over 2000 people attended from diverse areas of the game industry. As in the past, the conference featured high-quality presentations from established game developers. The expo was roughly twice the size as last year, which made it just big enough to be interesting, but still small enough that you could actually spend some time talking to people.
GameDev.net is proud to once again be a media sponsor of the AGC this year, and we had several people in attendance to cover the show (as well as man our booth!). What follows is a summary of the sessions that we attended.
The Future of Online Gaming
This going to require overcoming some technical challenges:
We'll also need to deal with other players that can negatively affect the online experience, as well as outside forces (e.g. a certain lawyer) that are trying to disrupt the industry.
The common theme regardless of the platform is the persistence of the world, which is why players will want to be able to access the game at home, at work, on the train, etc.
What persistence means in a cross-platform context:
Challeges from the business side include:
One solution is to make the subscription free but charge for periphery services (e.g. digital item sales, such as Station Exchange). Another is to offer a basic subscription for free, but charge for a premium subscription with additional features.
Speaking of digital item sales, some points:
The next biggest group is "Cardcore" players – gamers who play casual games in a hardcore way (e.g. investing thousands of hours in poker games).
The mobile games market is immature compared to the traditional game business. So it's important to exceed customer's expectations so that they'll come back and recommend the games to their friends.
64% of wireless subscribers already play games on other platforms, so there is a good opportunity to attract more of this group to mobile games.
Three of the pillars of game development to focus on to be successful:
As always, making the game fun is the most important factor. According to NPD, people stop playing games because they lose interest (55%), or have a dim view of the gameplay quality (31%).
Make Every Gamer A Repeat Gamer
The most important feedback is from customers and potential customers. Too often, decisions are made based on feedback from people who are already drinking the Kool-Aid: people in the office, professional reviewers, and others in the value chain. Try to put yourself in the potential customer's position as well.
21% of customers heard about it from a friend (74% from the carrier, either via ads or the website).
Next-Gen Graphics on Windows Vista Revealed
Windows Vista and DirectX
The Windows Vista Display Driver Model:
Direct3D 9.0c will work on Windows Vista:
Direct3D 10: Advancing the Platform
The first step was to address stability, consistency, and small batch performance, and to prune legacy fixed-functionality to streamline the API (they'll provide sample code that wraps this functionality for easy in porting).
Stability is necessary since Vista will be using graphics all the time.
To address consistency, they are reducing the number of optional features, so doing caps queries and developing multiple code paths or building for the lowest common denominator will (mostly) be a thing of the past. The 300-page specification that IHVs will have to adhere to is also much more strictly defined and consistent, and includes things such as near-IEEE floating point compliance and precise FP32 sampling/blending/math conversion rules. This should lead to algorithms producing the same results on different cards.
By removing redundancy and moving state validation to creation time, they addressed some small batch performance issues. New features will help with this as well.
The second step was to evolve the programming model, and the third step was to evolve the architecture and enable new classes of algorithms on the GPU. The rest of the presentation focused on these changes.
Direct3D 10 adds 3 new pipeline stages: input assembler, geometry shader, and stream out. More on these in a moment.
It will also introduce Shader Model 4.0, which provides a common shader model for the vertex, pixel, and geometry shader. It provides:
Direct3D 10 also introduces resource types and "views":
It also introduces resource arrays (Texture1D/2D Arrays). These can be dynamically indexable in shaders.
The input assembler supplies types with adjacency information (line/tri strips and lists with adjacency – trifans have been dropped). It also provides PrimitiveID (visible to geometry and pixel shader), InstanceID (visible to vertex shader), and Vertex IDs (visible to vertex shader) which are passed down the pipeline
The geometry shader joins pixel and vertex shaders, and presents some interesting possibilities:
Finally, the stream output stage defines how the output of the geometry shader is used:
State objects have been introduced to reduce state-change overhead by grouping state in immutable objects that are cacheable in hardware. They are several types of state objects:
Up to 4096 of each time can exist on the device, allowing you to create as many as you need at initialization, and then set them as needed without paying the typically high cost of state changes.
Constant buffers have been added to minimize the overhead of sending shader constants to the device. They are managed much like vertex or texture data, with efficient updates via lock/discard or Update. They can even be rendered to.
Miscellaneous new features include:
The Direct3D 10 API itself has been highly streamlined, and represents a completely new version of D3D. Some of the changes it includes:
The Direct3D 10 Effects API has also been updated. The runtime has been completely rewritten for better performance and a smaller footprint. It segregates run-time data from load-time/author-time reflection data. The Direct3D 9 Effects is also being updated to allow the same effect file to work across both versions.
To review, the performance improvements offered in Direct3D 10 include:
Because Direct3D 10 requires Windows Vista and a new generation of hardware, it should be thought of as another platform target. In fact, Microsoft is treating Windows Vista as a game platform launch, and will even have launch titles for it.
Direct3D 10 will be entering public beta soon. Vista Beta 2 will include the runtime, and the SDK will be shipped in sync. The full reference rasterizer implemented, and Direct3D 10 class hardware on the way
Microsoft is encouraging developers to get involved:
Introduction to XNA Studio
This presentation focused on the two main efforts related to XNA Studio: XNA Content Build, and XNA Studio.
XNA Content Build
The XNA build tools create a relationship database among assets by monitoring existing build tools (which it does not replace). It also adds extensive logging.
These tools will allow you to easily identify which assets are and aren't being used, and since they monitor when assets are updated, they help speed up incremental builds by only updating assets that depend on the modified assets.
By themselves, the XNA build tools can only provide relationship information on a very course level. DCC and other tools can opt-in to work with XNA and provide more detailed relationship information.
It is built on top of the recently-released Visual Studio 2005 Team System. This product adds easily extensible work items, which are directly integrated into the IDE. The work items can be accessed from multiple interfaces (e.g., Excel, Visual Studio, custom tools, etc.). It includes a brand new scalable and robust source control system. Check in has been integrated with work items, and check in rules can be extended to fit your team needs. It also includes support for build automation and reporting.
To this, XNA Studio adds features specific to game studio collaboration, in particular asset management and work items. Game specific tools can time into the Team Foundation Services, and asset management can be integrated into DCC tools.
It enable code style checks for content, customizes the system for game content, and adds things like asset viewers, diffs for non-ASCII assets, etc.
Because asset management and work items are managed using .NET and web services, XNA Studio should work well for geographically distributed teams.
The entire XNA Studio and XNA Content Build system was designed such that a team can take parts of the system if you don't want to replace existing systems.
It's not clear at this point how XNA Studio will be productized (i.e. variant of Visual Studio 2005, add-in, free tools included with the SDK, etc.). The beta will be available at GDC 2006, so these details will be sorted out by then.
What would a GameDev.net conference report be without photos with comments courtesy of John Hattan?
Here's a couple of folks from Association of Shareware Professionals talking about "Maximizing Your Downloads". I took some notes from the presentation and will probably put 'em up later.
Best moment was when they presented a slide showing various places to get game development information. Top of the list was GameDev.net, followed immediately by flipcode. A couple of folks pointed out that flipcode is now deader than Colonel Sanders, so we're now the top of the heap. Woohoo!
The finest freebies were available from gametrust, a portal for online casual games. They started out with some free bling.
They later went with rubber purple and pink gorilla balls (and yes this is the first instance of the phrase "purple and pink gorilla balls" on the internet, I googled). Not sure what morbidly obese purple gorillas have to do with anything, but they were fun and I was drawn to take a couple.
Ms. Rhino has touched an Xbox 360, and you haven't. Bask in your bottomless envy, those of you who have not touched one.
Microsoft has definitely decided to target the new Xbox away from the hardcore gaming market. While it'll still have its predecessor's share of 3D shooters aimed at boys, it's a broadband kind of thing and will have some good high-quality downloadable casual games available. The game you see above, Hexic, will be pre-burned on the hard drive when you buy it. The game is also available for PC's and lots of cellphones.
The Austin Game Conference was the conference of the low-rent banner. IGDA Writers' SIG came in second place with some printed-out letters and a handful of safety pins.
The winning entry, though, came from id Software with their "Quake Mobile". While the banner itself is of higher quality than that of the Writers' SIG, id got the vote for being a multimillion dollar company that publicizes itself by taping a plastic banner to the side of a tacky rented hummer-limo, parking in front of the convention center, and inviting people to see what the inside of a limo looks like.
An hour later, the driver took down the banner, put up a banner for something else, and drove away.
Exceedingly lame, guys.
Finally, here's the view from the GameDev.net booth (though this was one of the rare moments there wasn't a person standing there). Sit and stare at this picture for eight hours, and you'll learn the wonders of running a tradeshow booth.