Future of video game industry taking shape at GDC

At this week's Game Developers Conference, industry's leaders will talk about where they're going, how they can work with Hollywood, and how to become more mainstream than ever.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

If ever there was a time for a famous futurist to be giving a keynote address at the Game Developers Conference, this is it.

When Ray Kurzweil, the author of The Singularity is Near and one of the most noted futurists around, takes the stage at GDC 2008 in San Francisco on Thursday to talk about "the next 20 years of gaming," he'll be weighing in at a moment in the industry's existence when the lines between games and Hollywood and advertising are blurring, when the term "gamer" encompasses 75-year-old grandmothers and when the barrier to entry to being a developer has never been smaller.

Ray Kurzweil

"I think the Kurzweil keynote should be very interesting," said Ron Meiners, community manager for the virtual world platform developer, Multiverse Network. "He's a very original thinker, and I'm curious as to his take on the gaming industry, how games fit into people's lives, (and) how games are changing people's lives."

One thing that strikes me about how video games are intersecting with people's lives in 2008, and it was made abundantly clear over the Christmas holidays, when it was simply impossible to find a Nintendo Wii for sale anywhere, is that finally, the medium is truly mainstream.

And while there will always be a significant segment of the industry that caters to and is serviced by hard-core gamers, what's becoming evident is that there's almost no one who is left out of what video gaming is today. And for those who are left out, that may not be true as the years progress. I suspect that that is something Kurzweil will touch on, at least briefly.

"It's a very exciting time in the game industry, in that we have this growing recognition of the important of casual and family-oriented content," said Jamil Moledina, the director of GDC. "You're seeing it in the $60 packaged (games) and in the $10 downloads. It's a perfect storm of factors poised to really expand the game industry."

One example of that, Moledina suggested, is the explosion of gamer-created content and social networking in online gamer communities like Microsoft's Xbox Live.

That rationale may well be why GDC's first keynote speaker, on Wednesday, will be Microsoft corporate vice president John Schappert, who will give a talk titled, "A future wide open: Unleashing the creative community."

For Moledina, organizing what is almost certain to be the biggest GDC ever--last year's event drew 16,000 people, he said, and it is expected to grow this year--is a huge job. There are hundreds of panel discussions scheduled, a huge trade show and, as always, GDC will actually be made up of several different events that are linked together throughout the week.

On Monday and Tuesday, the events will include several "summits," such as those on casual games, independent games, game outsourcing, and virtual worlds. As well, there's GDC Mobile, which focuses on games for mobile devices.

GDC: "Now there's a circus that goes on"
But with the demise of E3--formerly the world's biggest video game show--as a major event, GDC is now taking on an increasingly important role to publishers as a place to showcase their games, even if they do it outside the auspices of the conference itself.

"It used to be that GDC was just about going and listening to developers talk about the craft of making video games, said Brian Crescente, the editor of the influential video game blog, Kotaku.com. "That still happens, but now there's a circus that goes on, a halo, that surrounds GDC. It's essentially like a mini-E3."

That means many publishers and hardware developers are scheduling events in venues near GDC's home at San Francisco's Moscone Center that are unofficial but hard to ignore for game journalists or analysts who need to keep up on the latest and greatest.

"They're contacting me and saying, 'You're going to GDC,' they know journalists are going to be there, and they're taking advantage of that," Crescente said. "From my perspective, it's nice, because I get to see these things, but it also waters down the message of GDC."

For its part, he added, GDC organizer "CMP is sort of fighting to prevent that from happening, but it's hard."

Another interesting phenomenon, at least to longtime GDC attendees, is how the conference's now-permanent move to San Francisco has affected the social dynamics of the event.

For years, GDC was held in San Jose, Calif., at that city's convention center in the heart of its downtown. For the last few years, the conference has bounced back and forth between San Francisco and San Jose, but is now settled in the former.

"It still feels transplanted and uprooted after leaving San Jose," said Michael Steele, vice president of product development for C3L3B Digital (pronounced "celeb"), a start-up working on online games for the entertainment industry. "It will be a few more years until the new social patterns are established or settled. That makes it a little more exhausting and harder for the social connections to happen. (There's) no Fairmont (hotel) lobby, multiple buildings are far apart, multiple hotels are far apart, (and the) hustle-bustle of downtown (San Francisco) versus the relative quiet of San Jose."

And that's vital because GDC is always as much about the relationships and deals struck in the hallways and hotels as about what goes on inside the convention itself.

The Hollywood angle
Still, to Steele--who in addition to being a longtime GDC attendee is also among the guiding forces, as an advisory committee member, of the Austin Game Developers Conference, which is held in the fall--the content at GDC is very much indicative of the state of the video game industry.

"I see a trend that is continuing," he said, "the maturation of the game industry, and the cross-pollination with other industries as our target markets evolve...We used to have a lot of cross-pollination with Hollywood. It's still there, of course, but now we're seeing (that) with Madison Avenue...As games achieve more cultural relevancy in the West, we're getting the ad folks stepping in and learning about how we do things--e.g., how they can reach our audience. So GDC tends to be a nice place to see where those bellwethers are going."

To Moledina, two of the major industry bellwethers these days are Nintendo and Harmonix, the companies behind the Wii and Guitar Hero, which have both introduced new game controllers that have lured in huge new audiences.

"During the (recent Hollywood) writers' striker, we saw late-night hosts playing Guitar Hero," Moledina said. "There's certainly a greater knowledge and understanding that games can be a much more diverse art form. And that's the thing that the Wii has so successfully demonstrated....Harmonix and Nintendo are changing the perception of what hardware and casual accessories can do."

Yet some of the most impressive innovations on display during this year's GDC are likely to be aimed at the hard-core gamer market.

The one I think I'm most excited to see is LucasArts' forthcoming Star Wars: Force Unleashed, which is said to feature several ground-breaking technological advances that herald a future in which video games are more realistic than ever. Among them are technologies that make physics more life-like, as well as artificial intelligence that makes game play different every time.

As always, I'm also excited about this year's Game Design Challenge, a panel during which leading developers face off with concepts for a new game based on an unusual topic. This year, the topic is an "inter-species" game, that is, one that could be played by humans and another species. Past topics have included games about love, games that could win the Nobel Peace Prize and games based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

In some ways, it's hard to know before heading to the conference what will be the best events and content, as there is simply so much. This will be my fifth GDC, and I'm always excited to talk to the friends I've made during the event in years past, and to attend the best panels.

Of course, it is nearly impossible to attend everything, as many of the best sessions are scheduled against each other, and then there's the small matter of eating--and sleeping, since some of the best get-togethers are in the evening.

But as thousands and thousands of game industry people flow into San Francisco this week, there can be little doubt that the ideas that will dramatically change the way people the world over interact with games--and entertainment in general--will be in evidence. And that makes GDC among the most relevant conferences still going today.

Still, as the industry prepares to head to GDC, there's one well-known member of the community who won't be there.

To Peter Moore, formerly the head of Microsoft's Xbox division and now president of Electronic Arts' EA Sports division, GDC, while a vibrant event for industry innovation, is hardly the place for executives like him.

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