Evolving at GDC 2004

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Evolve. The theme this year at the 18th annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) at the San Jose Convention Center has struck a chord with the video game development community. It defines the next stage of advancement and growth.

“Consumers have high expectations from game developers and the games they produce,” said GDC Director Alan Yu, about the current state of video games in the consumer market. “At the same time, video games themselves are becoming bigger and more expensive to make.”

This year, over 10,000 industry professionals attended GDC, the world’s largest conference dedicated to the art, technology and business of game creation.

“GDC is the gravity point for game development professionals, eclipsing all other events as a place for the introduction of innovation in games,” said Yu.

Providing a forum for game developers to explore new techniques in the creation of video games, the conference offered more than 300 lectures, panels, tutorials and roundtable discussions covering all aspects of game development.

GDC is also the location where the Game Developer Choice Awards and Independent Games Festival are held. The awards ceremonies celebrate creativity, artistry and technological accomplishments. Picked by industry peers, this year’s winners of the Choice Awards include Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty and game of the year, BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Video games were once perceived as an insignificant form of entertainment in the larger pool of high-profit film and music industries. Coupled with stereotypical images of video gamers as pimply-face teenagers with bad clothes and poor social skills, video games, at one point, were even shunned by a majority of young adolescents.

But the duckling has matured, and is now the hottest commodity in pop culture, generating over $10 billion in 2003.

At the Sony PlayStation keynote presentation, even quasi-celebrity William Hung, from American Idol, was present as he demonstrated the next installation of Eye Toy games, Eye Toy Groove. We even found him on the GDC showfloor at the PlayStation booth.

As video games seep into pop culture, pop culture itself is looking more and more like video games. Music videos, TV commercials and even movies are adopting video game aesthetics.

And it’s become an international phenomenon. “Take a look around,” said Yu, “The [developer] community is now composed of [more] women and international developers including Europeans and Japanese.”

The shift from geekdom to ultracool didn’t happen overnight, but it nevertheless took many in the gaming industry by surprise.

“The change … [is] shocking as people become more conscious of games as a legitimate entertainment medium,” said Yu. “It’s now cool to play video games!”

Despite the spectacular accomplishments made by game developers over the past couple of years, there are still problems facing the development community.

One underlying concern of the development community, which was addressed at GDC, is how to maintain creative momentum. “When you’re working on a game with a $6-7 million budget over the course of a two-and-a-half or three year cycle, companies will want to bet on a return of that money,” said Yu. “So that takes sound fiscal and creative planning.”

Another concern for the game development community is the growth in mobile gaming and the ability to support and develop for that market. “Everyone has a cell phone [these days],” said Yu, “and a lot of people play games on their cell phones. It’s figuring out how games on cell phones can tap into the consumer market.”

With the largest technology companies supporting GDC this year — including Sony PlayStation, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Intel, Nokia, nVidia and AOL — it’s hard not to take a second look at what game developers are doing.

“I see these companies celebrating our community,” said Yu. “I think they see developers as the most important part of the gaming community, and that they are there supporting us.”

The growth in the gaming industry equates to a more diverse developer community. One of the tutorials added to GDC 2004 in light of the increasingly diverse community and expansive technological innovation and resources, was the Serious Games Summit. The two-day summit covered the junction of games, learning, policy and management in a time when major corporations, government and military institutions, educators and nonprofits are turning to games and commercial entertainment technologies as new approaches to solving problems. The outcome is a new field where computer and video games are applied to more “serious” purposes than entertainment. It represents a growing financial outlet for game developers, where projects can produce social returns in addition to economic ones.

For video games to integrate into other industries and particularly into pop culture, responsibility on the part of the game developing community is required in order to prevent big-money companies from impeding creative innovations.

“It is up to the development community to be responsible. The key is how to be innovative in such an environment,” said Yu about non-game industry corporations’ investment into video games. “I don’t see it as a conflict. But more as a drive to continue developing original IP, having developers and publishers innovate and continuously looking for new and novel ideas.”

Building on its commitment to the developer community, GDC 2004 came away with an accomplishment well-fit to its theme. “We were able to identify the theme and carry it through,” said Yu. “Evolve. That includes everything: business, creative development and processes. In the end, everything came together, and we were able to hit the right note.”

Reach Jennie Sue at jsue@asianweek.com.

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