Despite Air Canada's best efforts to the contrary, I have survived another edition of the Game Developers Conference.
This year's GDC was held March 8-12 at the San Jose convention center, and was by far the biggest of the innumerable (two) editions of the show my poor starving freelancer self was able to attend. As usual, several trends emerged from the talks and the expo floor, some of which came up again and again, in lectures by people from every corner of the industry, to an almost surreal effect. While it is far too soon to make intelligent guesses as to which of these trends will revolutionize the way we work and play, and which will turn into next year's vaporware buzzwords, I have never been one to refrain from reckless prognostication, so I'll jump into the fray and tell you what I think are, in no particular order, the 5 most important concepts discussed in San Jose.
At best, this article will establish my reputation as a visionary and bring in heaps of praise and lucrative consulting contracts for years and years to come. In all likelihood, it will give you plenty of reasons to seek me out at next year's show, so you can stand beside me and look smart in comparison.
Other things to keep in mind:
Both the PlayStation 2 and the X-Box promise developers the Holy Grail of effectively unlimited 3D capabilities. The numbers are staggering: 1 trillion operations per second on the X-Box, 300,000 polygons per frame at 60 frames per second using RenderWare 3 with only one of the vector units on PlayStation 2, etc. Even if you apply a healthy dose of skepticism and cut these numbers in half, the net results still boggle the mind.
For developers, this changes everything. Instead of making feature decisions based on hardware ("this won't work"), they will have to make them based on design choices ("we don't have time or money to do everything the machine can support, so what do we really want?") Low-polygon character models will soon be a not-particularly-pleasant memory, like smallpox, powder-blue polyester suits and the New Kids on the Block. The technological quantum leap also suggests that these machines will have longer life cycles than their predecessors: it will take many years before anyone even approaches the X-Box's limits. From the dark side, publisher pressure may drive development costs even further into the stratosphere. ("The machine can take it, so please add these 1,200 additional features, won't you?")
Each of these machines comes with a caveat:
This was the single most pervasive idea at the show. Everybody talked about it, from Sony to Microsoft to Wild Tangent to Hasbro. (It made me feel pretty smart, considering that I suggested the exact same scheme to a broadband interactive TV project more than five years ago. Wait a sec while I pat myself on the back. Ahhh.)
There are several key reasons why distributing games as short episodes and/or time slices has everyone excited:
Of the U.S. households with internet accounts, 40% of those who have access to broadband connections (cable modems or xDSL) have adopted it. This rate of penetration is faster than that of the VCR.
Consoles are getting into the fray as well. PlayStation 2 will not ship with a modem (although it can accept a third-party USB device) because a broadband add-on is coming next year. X-Box will ignore traditional internet access entirely and ship with a 100 MB/sec Ethernet card. A massive installed base of broadband-enabled devices will make online distribution of demos, levels and even full games mainstream (especially for the X-Box with its 8 Gig hard drive) and will allow developers to create whole new genres of entertainment (i.e., 11-on-11 multiplayer football, massively multiplayer X-Wing dogfights, etc.)
Roller Coaster Tycoon was the best-selling game of 1999, and it came out at $29.95; Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire sold 600,000 copies in a month; Deer Avenger made the top 10. When a game is inexpensive, it can become an impulse buy, and once the impulse bug has hit a few hundreds of thousands of people, word of mouth takes over. Frogger's sales doubled from Year 1 to Year 2, and nearly tripled from Year 2 to Year 3. Yummy.
Low price points also make simpler games economically viable. Few people would spend $60 on a 100-level puzzle game on CD-ROM, but they will happily shell out $15 four times for the basic 25-level game and three add-on packs. Selling a piece of an episodic game online at 3-5$ also plays to consumer inertia (who will bother to cancel a $3 subscription?) and may have the additional side effect of making piracy obsolete (who will bother stealing a $3 game?)
Yes, the GDC is expensive. Yes, the food provided by the conference was unspeakable crud. Yes, the free shuttle service was woefully inadequate, with buses packed tighter than neutron stars going right by my hotel more often than not in the morning. Yes, I had to wait in line for an hour and forty-five minutes at registration because I never received my badge in the mail as promised, even though I paid online on December 23rd and showed up early. Yes, I do think that the conference is 20-40% overpriced. Of course, I would have appreciated if they had accepted my proposal for a lecture on speech interfaces and given me a free pass. I would also like to increase the value of the Canadian dollar, cure smelly feet and beat Roy Jones Jr.
Still, there is no substitute. See you there next year.
François-Dominic Laramée, March 2000