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'Game Developers Conference' (GDC) Day 1-4 Coverage

by Ben Zackheim on March 31, 2004 @ 1:23 a.m. PST

Game Developers Conference is pretty titillating. No, I’m afraid GDC is one of the few conferences with booth babes who are fully clothed and well-versed in C++. But there’s another kind of stimulation to be found here. A sense of community amongst people who love the same thing -- making games. Our man in the field was present at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) held in San Jose, California, checking out titles such as Fable, Serious Sam 2, Far Cry, Tribes Vengeance, Painkiller...

DAY 1 – THE INVISIBLE STORM

I’m sitting in the mostly empty halls outside the exhibit room. The floor doesn’t open until tomorrow morning but there are some tutorials and some such events going on somewhere around here that have drawn in the die-hard GDC fans. I call them wanderers (of which I am certainly one). They wander the halls looking for people they know or people they recognize. You’d be surprised at how many rock stars there are in the industry. John Romero is nowhere to be seen but his shoes have been filled well with the likes of Warren Spector, Doug Church and John Carmack. Many of the wanderer’s type on their laptops hiding in their 800x600 safe haven, collecting their thoughts, maybe even reading the latest biz news so they can hold their own in a conversation. Yes, there’s some flirting going on as well, but its awkward. Painfully so. Let’s not get into it.

Then there’s the other kind of early attendee. The team. These are the folks who work together all day and night through the weekends on their latest project so they can get to GDC where they’ll spend all night and day with each other, through the weekend. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t want to know how they do it. Though I envy their camaraderie, I am also frightened by it. I don’t know how they can take each other. Perhaps they barely are? But this is the kind of dedication we have to making games. This is also the kind of dedication we have to stick together and remind ourselves that we’re a community. GDC is necessary. The boys and girls who slave away for shit pay and lowball kudos deserve this time together. If this is what they need to do to recharge then, hey…

Perhaps Doug Church, of Looking Glass fame, says it best when he writes in his conference bio “He’s been coming to GDC for 10 years and still finds it a pleasing blend of frustration and exhilaration.” I agree. To me it’s a great opportunity to see that absolutely nothing has changed since last year while, at the same time, being a unique chance to see the potential for next year. And that’s the spine of it. GDC isn’t about 2004. It’s about where we’ve come since 2003 and where we’re going in 2005. How can you be discouraged when future games are being born from ideas hatched right here and now? Where is the discouragement in seeing partnerships hardened? There is none. For now, the sky’s the limit.

DAY 2 – DO YOU WANT TO PLAY A GAME?

There’s a certain sense of validation upon looking up at a 30 ft tall banner with the Nvidia fairy on it. Isn’t that where an ad for a cool video card belongs? It’s one thing to see it in a little magazine, or a tiny logo in the bottom corner of the latest Dell brochure. But to see that logo and its virtual chick look down on all of us makes me feel so, so… mainstream.

On to our first game. A current release granted, but I saw it on a 10 foot wide screen at full resolution. So there. Far Cry. This game will be even more spectacular than the ever-growing hype lets on. There are twists and turns in the story that really surprised me. I thought the game stuck pretty close to realism but apparently you will be coming across some seriously inhuman (and high polygon count) bad guys. I didn’t get the context for one of the scenes I saw but all I can tell you is the guy was 15 feet tall and made me want to run. The demo I saw showed off the AI and environment with a high tension moment in the bushes. The player crouched in the vegetation with a dagger and waited for the bad guy to practically step on him before he popped up and slashed him. The moment reminded me of a cross between Half-Life’s surprises and Thief 2’s stealth. Brilliant! The crowds consistently surrounded every display of the game, solidifying its status as the one to watch in the coming month.

Speaking of fun games -- Day 2 of GDC is the day where the dreaded “pass-by greetings” go down. They’re usually pretty bloody, with one person walking away, shoulders hunched in pain, while the other busily pounds on his cell phone. For those who don’t know the pass-by it goes something like this. Two developers (with fleeting acquaintance) approach each other quickly. One tries to look away but the other catches his eye at the last millisecond. A big smile (not necessarily disingenuous) slaps onto each face like a flipped pancake and “Hey man! How are you?” comes out of their mouths at the exact same time. They keep walking – one guy quickens his pace, the other kinda sorta wanted to shoot the shit. He’s the one with the grimace. He moves on, probably to do the same thing to someone else. It’s a nasty business but its all part of being at GDC. Too many people, too little time. If you aren’t on the priority list, you get a pass-by.

Which brings me to a word of advice. If you plan on going to GDC someday make meetings beforehand. Don’t go unprepared. This being my third time I knew better than to show up thinking I’d find something to do, or someone to meet. It’s just too easy to get overwhelmed and lose focus otherwise.

On the topic of being lost, Tribes Vengeance sat unnoticed for a day. Stuck in the Microsoft Direct X 9 booth in the middle of the floor, the game was not highlighted. But sometime on the second morning word must have gotten out that this gem was hiding in plain sight. Soon enough the display had a steady stream of fans. I got to play it for awhile and first off, I can tell you that the old Tribes feel is still prevalent. But the updated graphics look amazing, crawling forth from the Unreal engine. And the level design is even more impressive. Since you have a jet pack the designers cleverly made the inside levels remarkably vertical. The physics engine is solid if a little overdone. You can push just about anything you see all over the place. Huge barrels can be shoved over the ledge to crush an opponent (though the crushing part wasn’t ready for the show). I got a run-through of the first level of the single-player game and it’s an exciting romp through a HUGE level with HUGE rooms that allow you to take full advantage of your rocket pack. The game is supposed to be released in Q4 and from the looks of it that might be about right. There were some bugs and a lack of polish that gave away the game’s status. Still, with some spit shine Tribes Vengeance will be a sleeper.

I didn’t have to go far to find Painkiller. Painkiller is a FPS with some promise. From the 15 minutes I got with the game I could tell that the designers wanted to give the player a different feeling at the helm. You can’t go too fast as you maneuver through dark and stormy nights with a shotgun, surrounded by monsters. The weapons have a heavy feeling to them and the bad guys scatter with every blow. The Havok engine physics is fun to watch with close shotgun blasts blowing your enemy across the ground. The death animations are amusing with a lot of twisting and writhing. If I had to sum up my feeling of the game I’d say it’s a dark Serious Sam. The gameplay is frantic and the environments are huge with great looking bad guys. All in all I’d say Painkiller shows enough promise to hold its own in the crowded FPS field. We shall see, eh?

Speaking of Serious Sam, I got a good look at a couple of Serious Sam 2 demos, as well. The engine has clearly gotten an upgrade with the color palette still sticking out like a blood stain at the north pole. The biggest improvement seems to be the physics engine. SS looked great but it wasn’t known for pushing the limits of environmental behavior. One of the demos showed a number of barrels being dropped down a cliff with huge staffs sticking out of it, making the barrels jolt all over the place as they fell. It’s a lot like the Half-Life 2 demo moment when the barrier breaks and all the barrels drop down the wall. This demo isn’t as impressive but I’d say it’s on par with what Far Cry is trying to do with its environmental interaction. You’ll be able to distract and destroy your enemy with the environment around you. As if the intense shoot-me-up of Serious Sam wasn’t enough to keep you busy, now you get another layer of fun to grapple with. Oh well. Oh yeah, and you thought the bad guys in Serious Sam were big? Nope, they can get bigger…

Day 3 – FABLE!

I went to a Microsoft party that wasn’t actually packed to the hilt. Which is surprising since the much anticipated Fable was being shown on multiple screens. Why this room wasn’t overflowing is beyond me. The two chicks at the door were hot enough to pack it all on their own. One of the two fine ladies came up to me with a tray of ink stamps. “Which one do you like?” she asked. I was going to say “You” but realized she meant the tray of stamps. She wanted me to choose one for her to stamp on me (an ode to the “choose your own path” theme of Fable, I suppose). There were nice little heart stamps and nasty sword stamps. Wanting to impress her with my liberated ways I chose a heart stamp. This is why I was so lonely in high school.

Oh yeah, the game. It looks amazing. Each of the monitors showed the main character at different stages of his life. Interaction with NPCs is beyond even Morrowind, with your actions having an incredible effect on the world around you. When designer Molyneaux got up to speak he walked us through a sequence where your character goes around town naked. Some NPCs were disgusted, some laughed, some ran away and some were intrigued. It was when he pulled a Michael Jackson and ran into a school with only his underwear that I was really impressed. The kids scattered and the teacher was outraged. The demo was short but highlighted the unbelievably deep dialogue and gesture menu that allows you to make your mark on the world. Details like a woman dousing the street lamps at dawn and merchants selling their goods dotted the landscape. Molyneaux says that if you see it you can interact with it. You can destroy that house, go inside it or buy it. I got to play a little bit and I can tell you, if you thought Black & Whites control scheme was elegant you haven’t seen nothing yet. Combat is simple to engage in and yet remarkably deep with a number of spells and weapons to choose from. The cool-factor on the arsenal is off the charts with a bow and arrow routine that will set a new standard. In standard Lionhead fashion there will be no running around for hours in the massive environment. You can use portals to get around, though I’m the kind of guy who likes to explore every nook and cranny. Also, in standard Lionhead fashion, the choice is yours. Out of all the games I saw this year I’d say Fable is the one I’m looking forward to the most.

DAY 4 – GOODBYE TO THE FLOOR

I spent some final moments on the floor, chatting and checking out the latest middleware, software and hardware offerings. Nothing really stood out as being a revolutionary step but perhaps that’s not the point of this GDC. The theme of this year’s conference was “Evolve” and maybe that’s where the industry is right now. Small steps are being taken – with a profound sense that big strides are just around the corner. Will the next gen consoles be the next breakthrough? The next-gen offering from Nvidia? The next Unreal engine? My money is on a game, unnamed and unknown to all of us except the small team working on it.

Seeing these devoted and talented people run around the floor for a few days was a treat. GDC has me thinking how close we all are to still being kids. At what point did each of us turn that corner where playing games became making them? When did the business lingo and fledgling nomenclature of the game development world take the place of “that game is so damn cool!” Don’t get me wrong. These folks love to play games. But they can’t look at them the same way they did as kids – and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Adults with the wisdom and discipline of age, but with the wide-eyed wonder and boundless energy of a kid. What other industry can match that talent pool?

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