Let the games begin at GDC

More than 12,000 game professionals to meet in San Jose, Calif., this week for annual conference.

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
5 min read
The heart and soul of the video game world will descend on San Jose, Calif., beginning Monday as more than 12,000 industry professionals arrive for the Game Developers Conference.

GDC, as everyone calls it, doesn't come close in size to E3, May's industry marketing blowout in Los Angeles, which draws tens of thousands. But many feel this week's conference is just as important, or more so, than E3-- given its endless networking parties and steady stream of panels and keynote speeches involving video game giants like "The Sims" creator Will Wright and Nintendo President Satoru Iwata.

And with the industry hip-deep into the next-generation video game console wars--with Microsoft having already launched its Xbox 360 and Sony announcing it's delaying the PlayStation 3 until at least November--some are expecting Nintendo to make a significant announcement, perhaps pricing or timing for its Revolution at GDC. Last year, Nintendo announced the Revolution at the event.

Still, for many, the conference is an opportunity to get a first-hand look at the processes behind the games, and to learn from their peers.

"GDC is important as a conference because it allows game creators an opportunity to kick around ideas and analyze their own industry," said Souris Hong-Porretta, vice president of interactive media at Entertainment Media Ventures in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Unlike E3, the electronic entertainment marketing machine, GDC's a conference 'by game developers for developers.'"

Simon Carless, editorial director of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra.com, agreed and said that GDC offers attendees unparalleled access to their industry's leaders, something many professionals in other fields may not get.

"GDC is important because you get to hear the leading game creators talk about the creative, technical and business process," Carless said. "That doesn't necessarily happen in other creative industries."

Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra.com are both owned by CMP Media, which runs the Game Developers Conference, though Carless said he has no role in organizing GDC.

This year, said Jamil Moledina, GDC director, the conference has a couple of main themes.

First, Moledina said, is the game industry's increasing focus on broadening its market beyond hard-core gamers.

"There are all kinds of really accessible ways to play games," he said, "so it's about getting people that don't normally consider themselves gamers to play games. Everyone sees movies, but they don't necessarily call themselves movie people."

Second, he said, attendees will see a wide variety of panels and talks about the convergence of the film and game industries.

In any case, one thing which many feel sets GDC apart from the endless number of other game conferences is its inclusion of two mini-conferences that take place Monday and Tuesday: GDC Mobile, where dozens of companies will be on hand to discuss the state of game development for mobile devices, and the Serious Games Summit, two days of discussions about games designed for education, health care and other non-entertainment purposes.

And ultimately, GDC's focus on the entire development chain is invaluable to many who come year in and year out.

"It's about getting people that don't normally consider themselves gamers to play games."
--Jamil Moledina, director, GDC

"As the game industry matures in its technology, business models and process, the professional conference begins to play an even more important role than ever," said Michael Steele, vice president and general manager for live game services at Emergent Game Technologies, a Los Angeles-based developer of platform tools for interactive games. "GDC is special because of both pedigree--it's a long running, well-established traditional meeting place--as well as the professional development: the sessions. New ideas, new ways of doing business, new techniques, etc., are talked about freely and shared openly."

Among the most anticipated sessions are the annual experimental-gameplay workshop, where designers submit new kinds of game ideas that are then showcased before audiences primed to critique and learn from them.

Some of the many hit games that have made their public debuts in the workshop are Namco's monster hit "Katamari Damacy" and 42 Entertainment's "I Love Bees."

"It's been the source of some very innovative ideas," said Ron Meiners, a contract community manager and veteran of game companies like Ubisoft Entertainment and There.com. "It gives designers a chance to stretch the limits in a context that's even potentially meaningful. Given the economics of the industry, it can be difficult to create meaningful, new ideas about games. The workshop serves to remind the industry of the foundation of games--creative new ways to play."

Another GDC mainstay is the Game Design Challenge. The panel, now in its third year, is organized by New York game studio GameLab's Eric Zimmerman, and is certain to attract a standing-room only audience.

The panel's conceit is to present top-flight game designers with a challenge: to design a game concept for something the industry would probably be too scared to actually make. The entrants' designs must be fleshed out but are unlikely to be made.

In 2004, Wright won the challenge to make a game about love with "Collateral Romance," in which star-crossed lovers have to find each other by crossing the field of battle in the famous war game, "Battlefield 1942."

Last year, Wright won again, topping "Black and White" creator Peter Molyneux and "Splinter Cell" lead designer Clint Hocking with his concept for a game about the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

This year, Zimmerman has tasked three new entrants--Epic Games lead designer Cliff Bleszinski, Midway studio creative director Harvey Smith and "Katamari Damacy" creator Keita Takahashi--with coming up with a concept for a game that could win the Nobel Peace Prize.

But GDC is also as much about the hard-core inner workings of the game development process as it is about high-concept ideas. Thus, the conference schedule is filled wall-to wall with panels such as "3ds Max--Complex data mapping production techniques," "Advanced light and shadow culling methods," "Artificial intelligence in computer games--present and future" and "How ambient experiences can take adventure gaming to the next level."

Still, for many, GDC is about having a chance to reality-test new ideas and projects with peers and see what others have done in the past in similar situations before having to show them to potential retailers and marketers at E3 in May.

"Because of the risky nature of what we do, technically and fiscally, we are all a little scared," Steele said. "There is security in the validation of hearing how a well-established studio solved a problem you are facing."

Meanwhile, with the biggest GDC crowd in the conference's history expected to jam the San Jose Convention Center and meeting rooms in nearby hotels, some are worried that organizers will repeat the mistakes of last year when, for example, Wright's talk about his next game, "Spore," was scheduled in a room far too small for the hordes who wanted to attend.

And that's because Wright is about as big a celebrity as the game industry has.

"I am fond of saying," said Steele, "that Will Wright doesn't even realize yet that he's the Jimmy Hendrix of our generation."

Moledina said everyone who wants to will be able to see Wright speak.

"Wright's keynote will be in the civic auditorium, which has a 3,000-seat capacity," Moledina said. "I was there last year (for Wright's talk) and couldn't get a seat. So no, that's not going to happen again."