The Best (and Worst) of GDC 2009

Learn about what you'll be playing (or avoiding) this year as we look at some of the best bets and weirdest tech to come out of the 2009 Game Developer's Conference.

Game Developers Conference 2009

The annual Game Developer's Conference isn't about pomp and circumstance--it's about people banding together once a year and attempting to fit all their oversize brains into a single convention center. They sit on panels discussing distributed gaming possibilities, cloud computing, game physics...and, yeah, they occasionally stumble upon a booth that has Rock Band blaring or Street Fighters fighting.

Consider this a quick-hit list of some of the things that happened at this year's GDC, as well as my editor's-eye view of the oddities I encountered on and off the show floor during the 2009 conference in San Francisco. Read on for some of the big news and what to make of the cool gaming possibilities on the horizon for 2009. Not enough here? Don't forget to check out our sister site's extensive GDC coverage. It's easily digestible, and it collects all the stories in one convenient hub.

The Career Pavilion

What recession? My initial fear was that the only career opportunities here would be "nomad" and "tumbleweed." Fortunately that wasn't quite the case. Most of the people applying for jobs were college students looking for their first big break. We didn't get exact numbers, but I did poll a few recruiters on the show floor, and they said that while there weren't as many major recruiters at the show, many spry little companies are looking for upcoming talent. Of course, that isn't stopping people from applying for jobs with the big names. Here's the line to apply at Valve, for example--it was busting out the door (inset above).

On the other hand, I spoke with one person working on the next Halo game, and they're still looking for lead-level positions on the team. Anyone want to move to Seattle?

Indie Gaming at Its Finest

The Independent Gaming Festival is a big--and growing--portion of the annual conference. Some people come to the show to puff up their chests and act like abstract artists creating pieces that will stand the test of time. Others just want to create fun games. And maybe find a job.

Not only is the festival a way for students to polish their game-making resumes, but it's also a way for companies to cherry-pick among the best and brightest. Among this year's winners is the team behind Tag: The Power of Paint (pictured here). This inventive first-person shooter puts you inside a drab world. You use colorful power-ups to find new ways to navigate through the environment. Think of it as a cross between a color-by-numbers take on Portal and Mirror's Edge.

The Tag team consists mostly of graduating students (and a couple freshmen) who hope to continue working together after finishing their studies at Digipen's game-design school. Want to download the game or find out more about the team? Go to the Tag: The Power of Paint Web site.

OnLive--When It Goes Live

The Internet buzzed this week with the announcement of OnLive--the scene-stealer at this year's show. In a nutshell, it's a streaming video game service in which the data centers on the back end host the entire game. On your end, you can play on everything from your desktop PC or MacBook to a tiny thin-client "MicroConsole" that attaches to your TV. In other words: Imagine playing complex, power-hungry PC games on just about any machine.

We've analyzed, cross-analyzed, and generally overanalyzed the technology this week. Read our hands-on impressions of OnLive for even more thoughts on the service's viability.

Want to see OnLive live? Check out a video clip we took during GDC.

Dexter: The iPhone Game

What I'm finding fascinating about the upcoming Dexter mobile game isn't the fact that it's based on my favorite serial-killer TV series. Or the fact that it has a devious collection of minigames, such as analyzing blood splatter patterns or moving the iPhone back and forth in your hand like a hacksaw to...cut...things. I'm psyched by the fact that Icarus Studios, the company behind the project, has adapted its engine for an MMO to work on an iPhone. It's a full, immersive 3D world where you're stalking enemies, collecting clues, and delivering your own special brand of justice to the creeps of the world. Did I mention that the game lets you use your phone like a saw?

Click here to check out video of more of the iPhone games on display during GDC.

CryEngine 3: Cry Me a River

Y'know, the new CryEngine doesn't look a whole lot different from CryEngine 2. But that isn't the point. The fact is, the incredibly realistic-looking graphics technology can now run smoothly in DirectX 9 or 10, on your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. And to think that, about one and half years ago, you couldn't run Crysis (which uses the Crytek engine) at high resolutions on a $5000-plus machine at more than 15 frames per second. [UPDATE: Joke fail alert. A zero was accidentally omitted from the price. It should have read: "$50000-plus machine." This was intended to be an over-the-top joke about how system-demanding Crysis was when it first came out.]

Still, the cantankerous among us (namely, PCW's Game On blogger, Matt Peckham, and I) remain a little skeptical about the focus on hyperrealism when games should concentrate on being hyperfun. And playable. Just saying.

Nintendo's Knockout

Fans of the prizefighting classic don't have much longer to wait until Punch-Out comes to the Wii (mid-May), but in the meantime a couple of good and interesting tidbits surfaced this week. Among them: sneak peeks at a few upcoming titles for the Nintendo DS and DSi.

The more immediate news is that the Wii now supports SDHC cards through a firmware update. More important, you can offload game saves to said memory card and--gasp--actually play them off the card. Now if only the DSi would get a similar firmware upgrade when it comes to the States on April 5.

Want to see these games (and the Nintendo DSi) in action? Click this video ink.

Indie Gaming Rocks iPhones

There was a lot of noise about iPhone games cleaning up at the mobile IGF awards; but just around a well-hidden corner on the show floor, I found two other ingenious game makers that were porting stuff over to Apple's handheld. And yes, at this point, you might as well consider the iPhone/iPod Touch a gaming handheld.

The first game, Space Trader (left), is a 3D, space-ified version of the classic game Dope Wars--minus the dope. You travel the galaxy looking to buy commodities low and sell them high. (Just don't invest your credits in AIG Galactica.) An interesting point to consider: This game, built off a modded Quake III engine, is currently available on Steam for PCs.

The second game is the WiiWare hit Defend Your Castle. It's a goofy but straightforward take on the popular Tower Defense games. Porting the game over to the iPhone took three people about three months. Does that mean more WiiWare titles could theoretically make the jump? I can only dream.

After all, this week I also saw the new ARM Mali-200 processors--the same as you'll find in $100 handsets as early as this winter--running Project Gotham Racing (a sharp-looking Xbox game).

Banjo Hero! For Real!

This has to be an intricate joke, right? Wrong. It's a custom-built take on Guitar Hero--but with a banjo.

While some game-design students receive high accolades and fancy awards for creating mind-bending (and genre-bending) games, some industrious students from the Rochester Institute of Technology get to have my own special brand of props. Their game, Oh-No Banjo, is a "Banjo Simulation Game." You know, for all those people who want to rock out with their banjo out.

This gets a thumbs-up from me--and from Civil War reenactors everywhere, I'm sure. (But I have to give a half thumbs-down for not including the "Dueling Banjos" tune from "Deliverance.")

Another Take on 3D TV

When it comes to fooling your eyes into perceiving something in 3D, we've seen it all. Dual-layered screens. Battery-powered, blinking emitters. This time, crowds gathered around the Sony booth for a proof-of-concept approach based on the visual technology that's being used at IMAX theaters. (Plan on seeing "Monsters vs. Aliens" this weekend? Take note.)

As the reps explained to me, if a game can run in split-screen (for multiplayer) at fast frame rates, that game also has the ability to split the picture to create the illusion of eye-popping 3D. If creators insert an API, with minimal effort, into games such as MotorStorm and WipeOut HD, producing the effect is a simple matter of the gamer's toggling on the feature in an options menu.

The only things you'll need to make it work outside of the game code are a thin coating on a flat-panel display and a pair of specially polarized lenses. However, while prices for the technology are coming down theoretically, don't ask how much it costs. At this point, they don't know.

The Physics/PhysX Wars

Technology has been improving to the point where GPUs can make physics calculations. AMD has taken this approach for some time with its Stream Processing; nVidia, meanwhile, has acquired AGEIA and incorporated that company's technology into nVidia GPUs. Which design is better?

AMD says that its design is superior because it uses OpenCL, a common coding API, and because Havok (the well-known physics software engine) will work with it going forward. AMD's stance: Give people a unified standard.

nVidia says its design works equally well--if not better--thanks to its newly announced APEX tool, which allows developers to scale physics calculations easily whether they want to code the game to work on a wimpy Wii or on a powerful PC. nVidia's claim: It supports OpenCL as well, but PhysX is now certified on all the game consoles while OpenCL isn't.

Another point to consider: Does every developer want a unified physics engine across the board, in every game? Heck, no. They want their games to be unique and to have walls--and monsters--blow up in exciting new ways.

Adventures in Freaky Technology

You can find all sorts of oddball tech lurking in the corners of GDC. There's the indie game Mighter, which uses a Webcam to read your scribbles and create game levels for you to navigate. But how about taking that a step further? At the Vuzix booth, I got a taste of some wacky alternate-reality gaming possibilities.

Imagine looking at a set of Lego blocks. Then, when you train a head-mounted Webcam on it, you suddenly see in-game characters interacting with the real-world objects on screen. What seems like sci-fi fodder is possible through the CamAR, a USB camera that captures 800-by-600-pixel images. Strapped to the Vuzix iWear VR920 headset, it has the potential to put you right in the game.

Other also-rans at GDC include NeuroSky and Performance Designed Products. NeuroSky's brainwave-reading technology is a bit of a bust, if you ask me. It's a binary system that merely reads the intensity of thought. So, I could be thinking about how much I REALLY want a cheeseburger, and it could be thinking that I want to slay demons. What is impressive, though, is that Square Enix signed up to create a demo based on the technology. As with anything, deliver a killer app, and maybe I'll consider buying into this.

Now, for you Xbox 360 owners out there jonesing for a more Wii-like experience, keep your eyes peeled for PDP's Squeeballs. This product is a combo bundle consisting of a game and the Freedom motion controller. It brings the basic feeling of games such as Cooking Mama and Wii Bowling to a platform that looks a whole lot prettier. Expect to find it on store shelves this fall.

Attack of the Zombie Booth Babes

It wouldn't be a game-industry trade show if someone didn't dress up as a zombie (check) or as a superhot superheroine (double check).

Maybe I'm jaded, but after all these years I'd really love it if the models could break down the specifics on the pixel shaders in a game. Or talk about the ins and outs of hardware architecture. get the idea.

In all seriousness, though, I know that plenty of 'em are smart enough to do more than just stand there.Then again, how quickly did you skip ahead to this slide?

It's All About the Games!

With all this talk about technologies and goofiness, let's not forget what this show is really all about: the games.

I could sit here and wax poetic about all the demos around the show floor (and in nearby hotels), but I won't. Just know that within mere months a number of awesome games will be playing on a home console near you. Among some of the critical darlings were Batman: Arkham Asylum (I snuck a photo here when they weren't looking), Fat Princess, Punch-Out, a spate of new Battlefield games (three new titles!), and one of my personal favorites, the PS3 exclusive Infamous.

Go directly to GamePro's GDC 2009 hub for detailed impressions of all the latest and greatest game developments.

Okay, It's About the Swag, Too

Of course, the measure of many conventions is the assortment of marketing materials. Some are "classy" (like the Duke Nukem urinal guards celebrating the return of Duke Nukem to portable platforms), while some are genuinely cool, like the bloody iPhone cases in honor of the upcoming Dexter game.

Though I wouldn't risk reaching in and grabbing the Duke materials, I did snag a few things that I'd like to share with you lovely PC World readers. Keep a close eye on my Casual Friday column and on Twitter (gizmogladstone), as I will randomly give away to readers all the stuff that's starting to pile up on my desk.

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