Game Developers Conference Picks & Pans

With the 2008 Game Developers Conference now in the rearview, I can finally grab for the aspirin bottle and reflect on what I've learned this year from GDC. To start, WiiFit showed that I really need to hit the virtual gym more often. I've discovered that Pink Floyd laser-light shows aren't dead, and some companies (cough Microsoft cough cough) could be back to some of the old tricks. It's time to aim a flamethrower at this trade show. Ready to take this game to the next level?

The Big Trends

Battlefield Heroes
"Free" Play: First, kudos to Electronic Arts, which made a good call on Battlefield Heroes. The mega-publisher's ballsy move takes one of its biggest franchises and offers up the newest game gratis. Well, almost free. Ad banners will populate the Facebook-like game lobby and, if I'm willing to pay for in-game upgrades, I can rule that battlefield.

EA is tinkering with paid perks like increasing how quickly my character gains experience. Would you pay a couple extra bucks just so that you don't become some 13-year-old savant's cannon fodder? If I get the chance to crush yet another child's dreams, yes.

"This Game Brought to You By..." Hey, if I can watch an episode of Lost--commercials and all--why not play a game that pops in a commercial before you play? That's the concept behind Wild Tangent's Orb service set to launch in April. Look, I know the idea sounds slightly nuts, but people are complaining about shelling out 50 bucks to play a ten-hour game. I'd suffer through lame erectile dysfunction ads if I get to play great games like Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts without a cover charge. Don't want to see the ads? Drop in some money, instead. Spend enough, and you'll just own the game outright.

Independent's Day: A huge--and growing--part of the game industry is the independent movement. That trend would make the Independent Gaming Festival the Sundance of gaming. This is where tomorrow's big talents get discovered and the tenth annual competition at this year's GDC was no different.

Crayon Physics
Two of the crowd favorites: Audiosurf, a game where you race around futuristic tracks created by your own music files; and Crayon Physics Deluxe, in which you draw objects on-screen to solve physics puzzles.

Independents Go Mainstream (To Get Screwed): First, the good news: We're seeing growing support for pajama programmers on all the major platforms at this point. Why, in the past week alone Microsoft and Nintendo both rolled out new Indie services that will bring hundreds of new games to market. Now for the really bad news: I caught up with a couple indie developers at a bar grousing about how Microsoft is now turning the screws on small-potato developers. In the past, one said, developers claimed 70 percent of the profits and Microsoft would pocket 30 percent. Now, the tables have turned and the split is now 60-40 with Microsoft taking the lion's share. "Well, guess it's time to start working on the PlayStation 3 version," he said.

When I hit up Microsoft the next morning, its response was, "Xbox LIVE Arcade has long been known as the premier destination for digitally distributed original and classic games--making it a very appealing platform for game developers. We don't disclose details on our business contracts, but what we can tell you is that we work closely with all of our partners to provide the Xbox 360 community with the best entertainment possible while making publishing a title on XBLA an attractive prospect."

In my world, a non-answer equals an admission of guilt.

Intel Said/Nvidia Said: Two companies deliver new enthusiast-level PC motherboards.

One tackles the problem of cross-platform support (AMD and Nvidia multi-GPU support) and the other provides a *gasp* decent integrated graphics solution.

Now if only these two competitors would learn to play nice long enough to build boards that can do both.

The Cost of Living: Everyone keeps complaining that it costs a small fortune to play PC games. Well, Intel proves that it isn't impossible. Using off-the-shelf parts--and not cutting itself any discounts--Intel built a game-worthy computer for $650 and proceeded to play Crysis with it on the show floor.

Speaking of Playing Nice . . . This week saw the sprouting of yet another bureaucratic hydra head in the gaming world.

The PC Gaming Alliance has some really noble goals. Its member are looking at industry-wide problems like lowering system requirements and improving baseline computers. The member roster could use its considerable muscle to dictate long-needed standards. The problem is that the organization is only an advistory board. Great. That's about as effective as a war-torn nation's interim government.

Not Phoning It In: Not so long ago, cell phones were gimpy gaming machines. Well, they are primarily made for calling friends--not shooting them. This year saw a number of big innovations and high-powered mobile options. We even got a sneak preview of what Google Android-based hardware can do. So long as I don't have to crunch my meaty hands on some tiny keypad to play, all is good.

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