Two Thoughts on GDC 2009

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.

7 thoughts on “Two Thoughts on GDC 2009

  1. I think no next gen consoles were being discussed because no party sees a lot of profit from it. Nintendo is quite happy with the status quo and will probably the last to update their hardware. Microsoft is happy with its position relative to Sony; they’re making more money now and are the console of choice for “hardcore” gamers. Sony is so deep in the red that it can’t rationally go to another system for years.

    Plus, I don’t think developers want to go to the next system. Each hardware iteration is a serious investment in terms of creating tool chains, maintaining/building engines, and so forth. The status quo may be boring, but is more profitable.

    Plus, there is the unanswered question of “what’s next?” Will the mass market respond to a console that looks “better” rather than “incredibly better” on a 1080p display? Certainly things can be improved on all platforms, but I don’t believe that there is currently a jump that would make the typical consumer interested.

  2. Re: free-to-play/microtransactions being old news, I’m inclined to agree. However.

    I think that this year’s GDC was/is a turning point for the genre, as this is the first time we’ve actually seen real-world, concrete examples of Western developers taking the concept seriously and really aiming at putting a AAA free-to-play title in the hands of the mass populace.

  3. I think, given the current economic climate, companies will be pushing the next generation back as much as they can get away with.

    At the moment, video games are one of the few prospering industries. Why? Because during the boom times, people made the expensive investment of the consoles (and they are expensive) and now they are reaping the benefit of a relatively cost effective form of entertainment.

    If they release the new consoles before people are ready to shell out, the whole market will suffer. People won’t only not by the consoles, but they may stop buying games for the current generation – knowing that they are buying second best and should save up for the new console.

  4. The AI guys certainly felt a let-down after the AI Summit on M/T. There really wasn’t all that much for us the rest of the week. Sure, Chris Jurney had a lecture, but the powers that be managed to schedule that across from one of the 3 AI roundtables (they do this every year). Even outside of the AI sub-field, there weren’t many appealing programming sessions unless you are trying to make sparkly graphics or something. Therefore, I second your notion that there was a serious inversion of content.

    And since we have already been asked to do the AI Summit again next year, it may happen again. *shrug*

  5. I’m pretty cynical and didn’t expect any official news of consoles – as Scott said, for all those reasons and more.

    I do agree, on the programming front I found zero talks I was desperate to attend outside the AI summit. I think I did one additional one. I found it much more interesting to go to ones on game journalism, or do my own areas – game preservation, censorship and QoL stuff for instance.

    Nevermind, maybe next time (if I go) there’ll be better programming items to go to (and more complelling design ones) which are not graphics, graphics graphics. It might not be *all* about the presentations at GDC, and I’d agree, but it is a good idea to get something out of sitting down for a few hours!

  6. I agree, this generation of consoles is definitely going to be the longest ever… which is really great for everyone involved. Consumers, developer, and publishers.

    Well, maybe not Sony…

  7. Well, Sony will get a longer time getting back the money it costs to make their machines 😛

    And for their next one, they’ll get a longer time figuring out how to make their console not only high-performance, but also cheap to produce.

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