2009 will not go down as my favorite GDC. In many ways, this year may have been the worst of the eight I have attended. However, to paraphrase Woody Allen, even when GDC is bad, it’s still pretty incredible. The problem was not one with organization or speaker selection or much anything else that could have been controlled by the people in charge. Indeed, GDC 2009 was more notable for what was not said instead of what actually was. More specifically, nothing even semi-official about the next console generation was mentioned anywhere. Even the rumor mill was pretty dry. Compare this year to, say, GDC 2004, and you’ll see a huge difference as all three manufacturers were already beginning to jockey for position. Furthermore, the online revolutions which have made GDC so fascinating lately (free-to-play, casual MMO’s, virtual goods, web-based gaming, social networks, etc.) are, at least from the conference’s perspective, old news now. Finally, an actual, profitable indie market is no longer a theoretical concept to be taken on faith – the success of Braid, N+, Desktop Tower Defense, Castle Crashers, and World of Goo proves the viability of micro-studios. Our industry can once again support the idiosyncratic visions of the type of single designer/programmers that served us so well in the ‘80s (Bunten, Meier, Wright, Molyneux). Cleary, these transitions are still just beginning, but there are few left who would deny that massive changes are underway. The problem for GDC, perhaps, is that with so many new avenues open, most developers are now simply focused on execution. Hopefully, we should have some fascinating post-mortem in a few years.
One final note should be made about GDC’s current format, one which I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. For years and years, the conventional wisdom was that the first two days of the conference were a waste of time, composed entirely of bloated tutorials that stretched single topics thin over a numbing 8 hours. However, over the last three years or so, the organizers have nurtured a collection of summits – for casual games, for virtual worlds, for indies, for mobile, for AI, and so on – that are now a smorgasbord of interesting speakers and topics jammed into flexible time slots (sometimes only 30 minutes). Instead of the paltry four or five talks per day available during the main conference, one can see eight, nine, even ten presentations a day by jumping from summit to summit depending on one’s personal preferences. This mixing and matching is aided by the reduced size of the conference on those days – most of the summits were all located along a single hallway in the North Hall. The growth and development of these summits has lead to an interesting inversion of GDC’s traditional balance – today, the first two days of GDC are actually more interesting than the “real” Wednesday-Friday conference.