Thursday, March 15, 2007

The annual geek show for game developers

This year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC 2007) was held in San Francisco (CA) on March 5-9th. I was there for three days and stayed at the Chancellor Hotel on Powell Street at Union Square, smack in the center of SF. I have been in San Francisco a number of times and I absolutely LOVE this city. It’s easy to walk around and find things to see and do, to take the cable-car or cabs and people are friendly. This time around, I did not have time to go to any of my usual salsa clubs (Roccapulco, the Glass Kat or Café Cocomo), and I’ve taken most of the touristy pictures before, so I mostly walked back and forth between the hotel and the Moscone Center, which is the big convention center in SF where all major exhibitions and conferences are held.

Union Square

This was my fifth GDC so I know many of the game developers and other industry folks that come to this event. Historically GDC has been held in San Jose but they tried moving it to SF a couple of years ago but then moved it back to San Jose last year. Now it’s back in SF so I guess the event is growing. GDC has been organized for 21 years now and there has been a separate 2-day mobile conference, GDC Mobile, for at least the last 6-7 years.

Mobile gaming is maturing and there has been a weed-out and consolidation of companies in the industry the past couple of years. Playing games is the forth most used mobile service or function among 15-19 year-olds. 80% of Sony Ericsson phone users start and play a game on the phone at least once. One of the industry challenges is however to get mobile users to search for and download more games to their phones, not just play the ones that are already preloaded. Industry luminaries often discuss the fact that only 5-7% of the users also purchase and download games and how this can be increased, but we start getting feedback from some of the leading game developers, publishers and operator customers that Sony Ericsson phones are the ones generating the most game downloads among mobile users, which is of course a positive story to tell.

Embedding high-quality, intuitive and addictive games is of course key to stimulate replay and interest in playing more games. Sony Ericsson preloads roughly 70% 3D games on its phones, demonstrating the game-playing capabilities at their best, and mobile 3D game titles are also becoming a normal part of the game portfolio among professional game developers and publishers. Puzzle, sports and arcade games are most popular preload genres on mobile phones due to instant casual and intuitive game-play. Role-Playing Games (RPG), adventure and strategy games are less popular for preload since they are too advanced for most casual, mobile gamers who usually engage in game-snack instead of hours of continuous game-play.

I was of course at the event this year for press interviews as an official Sony Ericsson spokesperson, and I managed to attend a few presentations and lectures at GDC Mobile, but there were a number of other activities that helped me really enjoy this tradeshow. These included having American breakfast (French toast or buttermilk pancakes with fresh fruit and maple syrup) and watching people at Lori’s Diner – a 1950’s decorated restaurant with typical jukebox, music, old cars and signs, a gas pump, waitresses in 50’s dresses and aprons, and booth seating with red sofas – located in the upper left corner of Union Square, and attending a party hosted by Vivendi Games Mobile and dinner at a fabulous Italian restaurant. I had tickets for a couple of other industry parties (the Nordic Gaming event and a huge Sony party) on Wednesday night, but jetlag all of a sudden hit me so hard that I could not stay awake for the life of me after dinner with colleagues, so I skipped the parties altogether and went to bed.

Two other activities not to be missed at GDC are the exhibition and industry awards.

GDC Expo

There was quite high activity in the exhibition hall. It was fun just to walk around and see all the geeks absorbed in various games on different platforms and devices. One of the stands with the most visitors all the time seemed to be the PlayStation booth, perhaps thanks to their many video game and PSP (PlayStation Portable, for those of my friends who are not familiar with the acronym) stations where people could play new games.

7th annual Game Developers Choice Awards
The Game Developers Choice Awards honor the outstanding achievements, innovations and risks taken in the game industry to make a difference in the art and science of making great games. Nominations are made and the votes cast by developers working in the trenches all over the world. The South Hall of the Moscone Center was jampacked on the Wednesday night with enthusiastic and cheering game geeks who gave standing ovations to some of the most appreciated and loved game creators.

This was a really cool event, very professionally presented by IGDA, International Game Developers Association. Nominations and awards were presented for best Innovation, best New Studio to overcome hurdles as a start-out, best Writing in a game (story, plot construction, dialog, branching narratives etc), best Game Design, best Audio, best Character Design, excellence of Technology in a game (graphics programming, artificial intelligence, networking, physics etc), best Visual Arts and Best Game of the Year (released in 2006).

Hosted by Double Fine’s Tim Schafer

There were also four awards given to individuals:
  • for exhibiting independence in thought and action while experimenting with alternate / emerging forms of digital games (the ‘Maverick’ award, given to Greg Costikyan, CEO of Manifesto Games),
  • looking back through history for bravery of a developer who tested the waters and served as a lesson and inspiration to the rest of the game developer community over the years (the ‘First Penguin’ award given to Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris back in the 80’s which later became almost like a game-genre of its own with many popular follow ups and variants, also for mobile in the past few years),
  • for significant individual contributions to building community, sharing knowledge, speaking on behalf of developers etc (the ‘Community Contribution’ award given to George Alistair Sanger, The Fat Man-Music and Sound Design for Games), and last but not least
  • for career and achievements as a developer and having had an undeniable impact on the craft of game development and games as a whole (the ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award). This award was given to Shigeru Miyamoto, Senior Managing Director of Nintendo. He’s the creator of several well-known and loved video games series such as Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda and Pikmin (not to be confused with Pac-Man!).

Shigeru Miyamoto, happily accepting and giving a short thank you speech in Japanese for the ‘Lifetime Achievement’ Award and several of the other “Best…” awards

I wish I could have stayed longer than three days in San Francisco and had some time off to go dancing and exploring more parts of the city, perhaps even visit my friend Vinay, who this particular week had gone to Yosemite Park with his parents from Mauritius, but some other adventures were waiting for me in California. Stay tuned for reports…

Video interviews from GDC

No comments: