GDC 2013: Top 10 moments from the conference
30th Mar 2013 | 01:55
Game developers, audio pros, console makers and more
GDC 2013: Top 10 moments from the conference
The five whirlwind days of GDC 2013 have finally come to a close. The Moscone Center is now gutted, the costumes and crazy hats we saw this week long been taken off.
Over the course of the conference we saw a number of exciting bits of hardware, sat in on some fascinating talks, and got to see a side of the gaming world rarely put in the public eye - that of the developers who create the games many of us love to play and build the hardware we use to play them.
We rounded up our top 10 moments for the show, which you'll find as you read on.
1. Android-based Ouya console debuts
When the Ouya raised $8 million on Kickstarter, the tech world couldn't help but sit up and take notice. The Jelly Bean based console dreamed a dream of letting anyone "make great games for the television," and thousands bought in.
Based on our hands on time with an early version of the system at GDC, we do think it could become both a facilitator for fabulous indie titles and the best way to experience Android games. However, as far as achieving mainstream success and rattling the shutters of house Xbox and house PlayStation, we doubt it.
2. Sony's lips loosen over PS4 features
So Sony didn't up and show a PS4 at GDC; not that we expected that or anything. That's likely a reveal best saved for E3 2013. But it did open up about a few of the system's features, and some of them are exciting and insanely clever.
A room full of potential PS4 developers got a run down of the system's architecture, design philosophy and online features. However, as local multiplayer fanatics, we loved hearing that the system will use its controller tracking to automatically swap split screen, should players rearrange themselves on the couch.
3. GameStick gives hope for a viable console alternative
Along with Ouya, GameStick showed us that gaming can be affordable, manageable and competent all at the same time.
Granted we didn't get to play with a finished GameStick unit, but we got a good look at what's to come plus plenty of background about what PlayJam, the company behind GameStick, wants to accomplish with its US$79 system.
It's all about targeting casual to mid-core gamers, those who simply want to enjoy a game without geeking out over hardware or spending more than $80.
The final unit will include a slot to insert the HDMI stick, meaning you can literally take the entire console with you. It's ready to play wherever there's a TV. Whether you're looking to escape the in-laws, unwind at a hotel or simply want a way to play games without the fuss of a mega-console, GameStick could be your ticket to gaming Nirvana.
4. AMD on the attack
Nvidia was there, as was ARM. But the biggest fighter standing in the graphics ring at GDC was none other than AMD, the chipmaker behind the PlayStation 4.
The company gave us a peek at its next high-end graphics card, the Radeon HD 7990, showed of the cloud gaming-ready Radeon Sky Series, and talked to TechRadar about why Sony approached it to power the PS4.
We appreciated AMD's gumption, plus the fact that EA played its Battlefied 4 demo on it as it announced the game, and we look forward to hearing what else the company has in store.
5. Facebook tells everybody how much money its games made
Two billion dollars. That's how much Facebook paid out to its game developers in 2012. Guess those games aren't so "free-to-play" after all? Of course, making money just makes you hungry to make even more money, so Facebook was sure to communicate how eager it is to start hosting games of every genre.
The talk was more than just a pitch: It was a peek into the way Facebook sees itself, which is as the "connective tissue" between the mobile and desktop gaming experience. It was also a history lesson in social gaming as well as a lamentation of the "dark days" of Facebook gaming, a.k.a.when FarmVille notifications were running rampant in everyone's feeds.
6. Some 'Battlefield 4' for ya
EA Games has had a tough couple of weeks. It released a great game, Sim City, only to have it be plagued by server issues. Then it gathered dozens of journalists to watch a video debut of Battlefield 4, only to have it leak as we all waited in line. Oh well, at least the video was great.
First of all, the graphics are terribly impressive. It looks to be a next-gen, hardware pushing title. EA won't confirm it, but we're certainly looking at a PS4 and Xbox 720 game here. It's been confirmed for current gen systems as well as Windows, so this video is likely from a high-end PC. The video also has some very clever editing, using a rather oddly chosen pop song as a framing device. Give it a click and see.
7. Oculus Rift rivets the crowd
The first thing you noticed before running into the Oculus Rift booth itself was the line. When we went by on the very last day of the conference, some attendees had waited in a queue for up to three hours to be fitted with the virtual reality gaming gear.
Though their Hawkin demo – which included a stomach-dropping free fall - only lasted a few minutes, those who ventured into VR had trouble putting their experience into words.
One attendee told TechRadar: "This is one of those things that is going to change everything," and from the mounting line, excited post-demo conversations and after-conference chatter, we're starting to think Oculus Rift really could revolutionize gaming as we know it.
8. Activision enters the uncanny valley to complain about dessert
A yogurt parfait is supposed to be half fruit, half yogurt, right? At least that's the way Activision understands it. At GDC, it took the opportunity to demonstrate its latest facial animation technology, rendering a talking head that seems to have some choice words for an unseen waiter.
Amusing choice of subject aside, the demo is pretty unbelievable, especially given that it was rendered in real time. It's also pretty creepy, approaching what's known as the uncanny valley, where animated representations go from amusing to unsettling. Hopefully Activision will find a good, non-frightening way to put this tech to work in a game. And hopefully it'll improve the quality of the frozen treats in its cafeteria. The makers of Call of Duty deserve better.
9. Microsoft opens up about Windows Phone
Sometime's it's OK not to be first...granted, you want to get to the top, but if you can do it in a way that's sustainable for the long haul while creating something utterly your own, that's typically the better path taken.
Microsoft seems to be doing just that with Windows Phone. We talked with a pair of Redmond employees who gave us the rundown on the company's developer-based approach to flushing out its app and game ecosystem. They also talked about Windows Phone's position behind iOS and Android, and how while it's not ideal, the company is confident it's created a viable third OS that customers will come to appreciate.
Windows Phone has it's problems to be sure, but we valued the time we got to spend hashing them out.
10. The watering hole of the devs
For all the seminars, summits, panels and press conferences, GDC is largely about mingling and meeting for many of the developers in attendance. They're drawn to the promise of a groundbreaking indie game, the opportunity to hang with their industry idols, and the chance to leave with a new lesson and a phone full of new contacts.
Though it didn't pack along the Xbox 720, Microsoft did make up for it a little bit by throwing up a "lobby bar" in the main entrance of the expo hall where attendees could relax with a drink, play on an Xbox and connect with one another.
We met more folks than we could count just standing around here and had a number of exuberant conversations - the stuff that always makes conferences extra worthwhile. Maybe it was the beer, but we left Microsoft's spot feeling like we'd made some GDC compatriots we'll welcome next year.
Yes, GDC is about the developer industry, but as someone posed to us: "'Game drinking' is close to 'game developing,' right?"
GDC 2013: Complete conference coverage
Read our complete coverage of the conference below
Hands on with Ouya, the $99 Kickstarter console
Last year, the Ouya was but a twinkle in the eye of Kickstarter, promising Android gaming on your television aided by a slick controller. Gamers responded by pledging an astounding $8 million in support.
Now an early version of the the Ouya is here at GDC, and we sat down to give it a go. Does gaming have its dark horse? Can it turn the console cycle on its head? Or will it be footnote in the book of talking a big game? We're still not sure, but read our hands for some first impressions.
Microsoft talks Windows Phone apps and the OS hierarchy
Games, games, games. With all the games talk, we wanted to take a detour and explore one of the more intriguing OSes on the market - Windows Phone.
The folks at Microsoft were nice enough to chat with us not just about developing for the system but where it stands in the larger OS landscape, especially against Android and iOS.
The way Microsoft sees it, they've got some catching up to do when it comes to apps, but it might just have a way to work around that.
GameStick makes a semi-appearance
OK, the units weren't final and we couldn't use the controller to play anything, but we got our first hard look at the Android TV gaming console and we have to say, we're very intrigued. Though the dev units leave much to be desired, the white versions we saw (which served as models for what the final retail units will look like) were quite appealing.
The price can't be argued with either, and we liked the simple nature of the whole outfit.
For $79, this may be one unit we don't need to save up to invest in.
Sony shows off PS4 specs at GDC
Just when we thought GDC would come and go without a peep about the new PlayStation 4, Sony managed to slip attendees a little look-see.
A room full of game developers and press got some new details about the PS4's hardware, controller, as well as the online and social functions.
Senior Staff Developer Support Engineer Chris Norden unveiled the news under an overarching theme of a "frictionless and seamless" gaming experience on the PS4.
AMD shows off the Radeon HD 7990
Watch your back, Nvidia - AMD is readying a powerful dual-GPU graphics card, and it's not afraid to show it off.
The chip maker gave a GDC press conference the first look at what is says is the world's fastest GPU, bringing it out in public for the very first time.
Though final specs aren't yet set, the theory behind the machine is intriguing enough.
AMD also showed off a new series of cloud gaming cards called the Radeon Sky Series, getting its GDC presence off to a rousing start.
Facebook gaming now a $2B industry
If you're a member of the preferred social network, and of course you are, you know that games are almost as popular as cat videos and writing "yum!" on picture of someone's dinner. Facebook may have curbed the number of posts about missing cows and mafia recruitment, but those titles are still around, and doing big business.
How big? Try $2 billion big. That's how much cold hard cash Facebook paid out to developers last year, and at GDC it's hosting the Facebook Developer Day to get the ball rolling on more titles. It's a call to action, if you will.
Sorry guys - no Xbox 720
You're bummed, we know, but it looks like Xbox is skipping out on this year's Game Developers Conference and won't show its next-gen console this week.
We received word from a Microsoft spokesperson that the company has no plans for this week...like, none. We'll look forward to a standalone reveal probably next month or in May.
The legend of Assassin's Creed III's animation lives on
It's always great to get the 411 from the people behind our favorite games, and we got just that with Team Lead for AI and Gameplay Aleissia Laidacker from Ubisoft Montreal.
Laidacker took place in a summit on AI in games, but kindly spoke with TechRadar afterward about the work that went into Assassin's Creed III and the influence its animation style has on upcoming titles, including Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.
Let's just say the work accomplished in AC3 should live on for a very long time.
GameStick starts with a partnership
GameStick, the tiny TV console we very well might see this week, got GDC going with an interesting and potentially very potent announcement about a partnership between the system's developer, PlayJam, and Pivos Technology Group.
Together, the two companies plan to bring about a hearty media center, meaning users won't just have games to play, but a home entertainment hub as well.
We're hoping to get some hands on time with this Kickstarter project this week, so check back in for more.
Take a look at what we're expecting to see at the show
It's almost time once again for developers, producers, manufacturers, programmers, designers, artists, audio professionals, insiders and journalists to convene in San Francisco for five action-packed, game-centric days from March 25-29.
Known in long form as the Game Developers Conference, GDC is considered the largest and longest running professionals-only event in the gaming industry. This is where deals are made, new games brought to life and new systems are taken on test runs.
Now in its 26th year, GDC, which boasted 22,500 attendees in 2012, helps to set the tone for the indie gaming industry the whole year long. While lesser-known developers and manufacturers are given a stage all their own at GDC, this year will be markedly different thanks to two major new systems.
Not only will the PS4 and Xbox 720 dominate conversation and lord over the conference like a last-level boss, we might even get the chance to play with one of the systems for the first time following its announcement.
You'll have to read on to find out which one (don't worry, we let you know soon enough) and what else we expect to see at this year's GDC.
GameStick to make an 'alternative' console splash
We hear about Ouya and Valve's Steam Box all the time, but what about other "alternative" gaming systems looking to take on the bastions of gaming (we're talking Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, of course)?
A little Android console and Kickstarter favorite called GameStick could leave a big impression on GDC if its makers decide to out the system in public for the very first time.
We don't have complete confirmation, but with a "number of announcements" planned for next week, we wouldn't be surprised if GDC is the setting the system makes its debut. There's also a none too subtle hint GameStick has been working with ARM, and there should be an announcement on that front as well.
New game - probably Battlefield 4 - from EA
EA needs a win... badly.
Thankfully and perhaps karmically the game developer has a press event scheduled for the evening of March 26. While we have no hard and fast word from EA what we'll see then, it's looking like Battlefield 4 is the title it will trump out for all the world to see.
The company, along with DICE, has created a teaser site for the game, one that beckons viewers to come back March 27 for the first look at gameplay. While very little is revealed on the site's homepage, it promises that as more users login, the more it will reveal.
For those needing instant gratification, the wait is almost over.
Some 'splaining from SimCity crew
EA's release of the latest SimCity was a disaster, let's face it. The company servers were totally unprepared for the always-connected roll-out and EA is now doing its best at damage control.
But what went wrong from EA's perspective? What are the flaws that EA needs to address, in the short term and in the long term, to make sure something like this doesn't happen again? Do the merits of the game help overcome the launch's horrendous short fallings?
A number of people who helped build and design SimCity will be on hand at GDC, and we know the topic of the release is going to come up. What we don't know is how the people at the heart of it will respond, and that makes for some very interesting viewing.
Playtime with PlayStation 4
Two consoles will be on everyone's mind at this year's GDC: the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720.
To tackle the former first, Sony already unveiled its next-gen console during a Feb. 20 event in New York City, but we expect there will be plenty of PS4 talk time at the San Fran conference.
Our ultimate wish is for the company to roll out the not-yet-seen console at GDC, but we're really not counting on that happening.
Creating buzz is still the name of the game for Sony, and we fully expect the company not just to talk up its new system but also to give us more clues as to how gamers, developers and others in the industry can take advantage of the new console.
Graphics for the PS4 and the Xbox 720 will also be hugely important to gaming en masse , so Sony might reveal a lot more about the console's capabilities and what games we can expect on the system at launch during GDC.
On the flip side, since no one has actually handled the PS4, it leaves a lot of room for smaller systems to take charge and boost underdog games along with them.
If people aren't talking PS4 (and Xbox 720), they'll be thinking about both, so look for announcements and ideas on development leaning heavily on the big boys.
Xbox 720 talk
As of now, we don't know when the next Xbox will launch or even when Microsoft plans to unveil it. Heck, without official word we can't even confirm that the Xbox 720 - or whatever it's called - is in the works, though there are some very strong indicators that it is.
Regardless of whether it's announced before GDC or not, the next-gen Xbox will, along with the PS4, be the buzziest system at the conference. The same questions we were asking before the PS4's launch apply - what games will we see on it, what are its processing power and graphics like and what does it mean for systems moving forward?
There's word that game developers are already fiddling with the 720, so we could hear concrete confirmation of just what games are heading to the system during the conference.
The PS4 has already set the bar for the Xbox 720. Can the latter live up to and even surpass its competitor? We imagine quite a few lively debates will take place on the topic.
What's really interesting about the Xbox 720 (or Xbox Infinity or Durango, other names we've heard used to describe the system) is that it has the potential for gamers to continue playing on their phones, laptops and tablets.
With greater mobile integration comes a whole world of possibilities and platforms for developers, artists, and audio experts, just to name a few. We could really see and hear some exciting stuff on the mobile gaming front all stemming from the possibilities afforded with a new Microsoft system.
Redmond representatives will be in the building during those days, so we should be able to gather what the Softies have going for their next console, as well.
Check out this nifty video TechRadar put together with all that we want to see in the next Xbox:
Free-to-play, not pay-to-win
When you hear the phrase free-to-play, what games come to mind? FarmVille, Mafia Wars and Smurfs Village? Or Team Fortress 2, League of Legends and Star Wars: The Old Republic? This year GDC will host a conference on the F2P model - games that don't charge players for the initial dive in, but start shaking the cup for in-game items and character progression.
This business model gained a foothold in the industry beyond games your Facebook friends spam you about. Massive multiplayer games, such as Star Trek Online and DC Universe Online, that faced waning subscriber interest have found new life with a F2P option. Other games like Hawken and Monday Night Combat have been F2P from the beginning, and seem to be striking a perfect balance of offering free entry while getting players to chip in for reasonable rewards.
But GDC's F2P advisory board is mostly experts from the realm of browser games. While the folks behind successful Flash titles such as Marvel Alliance and Bingo Blingo obviously understand the marketplace, we're interested in the roll F2P can have for AAA 3D titles. Valve is attending, so maybe someone from the TF2 hat department can chime in?
Hands-free gaming developments
Handheld controllers will never go out of style, though we'll certainly see them evolve over the next few years.
While we do expect there will be some intriguing ergonomic additions to the controller and keypad ecosystem demoed at GDC, we'll be looking for the ways users can manipulate play while keeping their hands folded, stuffed in pockets, or cradling a slice of pizza.
The company is one of the leading developers in eye tracking and "gaze interaction," coming up with a system so users can rely just on their eye movements to maneuver PC applications.
The tech isn't just great for gamers looking for new ways to interact with their players and virtual realms - the implications for special needs users are also an exciting front for the gaming industry to explore.
Tobii's influence, which looks to be taking hold, should be something the gaming industry keeps... um... an eye out for, so we anticipate others to take notice and/or show off their own tech come GDC.
Here's a demo video of the eye tracking tech from Tobii as used in Angry Birds:
The best of Best in Play
The GDC has always had its Game Developers Choice Awards, where games industry professionals choose the highlights of the show. Now, for the second year in a row, the GDC will kick off award season early with the Best in Play awards.
Best in Play is for independent developers to show completed or in-progress titles in February. The winners, as chosen by GDC board members and the editors of Gamasutra, will receive full access to the GDC show, and special placement at the show.
Best in Play gives indie developers a head start, and gives attendees a heads-up on great titles to check out that they otherwise might have missed. We look forward to seeing the titles that make the grade.
The story of story in gaming
It seems like every year games find ways to grab players not just with visceral thrills and flashy production value, but compelling characters and situations. As gaming grows as a medium, more and more emphasis is being placed on narrative.
Do gamers need a compelling reason to go for that hard-to-reach gold coin or decapitate just one more zombie? The folks of GDC sure think so. There are a half dozen or so lectures on video game story telling, including "Rethinking How We Build Games and Why: The Papo & Yo Story" and "Emotional Journey: BioWare's Methods Bring Narrative into Levels."
BioWare is a real frontrunner in storytelling through gaming, but recently met with a shocking amount of flack from gamers over the conclusion of its Mass Effect trilogy. The developer actually released a downloadable addendum to the game's ending, hoping to satisfy fans with an ending-expanding prologue.
Is Mass Effect 3 a cautionary tale of placing too much emphasis on narrative? Or was it just growing pains for a maturing medium? We're curious to see if this comes up in BioWare's presentation.