Last week we spent five days at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California, at or rather around the Game Developer's Conference. While most visitors sit on a large selection of sessions, dissecting the technology and vision that goes in developing games of all sizes and varities.
We spend most of our time in corner suites at the St. Regis Hotel across the street from Moscone, checking out new games and interviewing various developers. Want to know what legwork's involved covering a massive gaming event such as GDC? Read on to find out.
A fairly slow day where we picked up our badges, checked out the press lounge and caught up with Fatshark, Bitsquid and the various developers hanging out in the Paradox lounge. Paradox had actually brought out three new game announcements to San Francisco, and they were all interesting in their own right. Dungeonland, a asymmetric dungeon crawler where the fourth player can take the role as the "AI director" or dungeon master if you will, from Brazil's Critical Studios. Red Frontier, a shooter inspired drop-in, drop-out multiplayer only real time strategy game focused on quick action, tactical skills and on the fly decisions. And finally, the 2.5D platform shooter bonanza The Showdown Effect from Arrowhead Studios. Also on display was the charming A Game of Dwarves that was announced back in January. Well, actually I did spend some time playing A Game of Dwarves, and I came away feeling like it's a game that I could sink countless hours into for seemingly no particular reason.
Next we paid Ngmoco a visit. Normally at trade shows it's hard to find the time to see mobile games, but we figured we might as well have a look. As something of a twist of fate we ran into Nathan Camarillo, a producer on Crysis 2, who now works on New York at Freeverse on a game called DragonCraft. And just like the title suggests you craft dragons to fight with your armies.
The day concluded with the Lollipop Chainsaw party starring Akira Yamaoka, James Gunn, and Suda51. A new level, the Fuji Fun Centre, was playable at the party and it saw us guide Juliet Starling through various Lollipop flavoured renditions of arcade classics. The demo was a little bit longer than what is normally the case at these kind of events, and featured only brief glimpses of what I perceived as the main gameplay ingredient (cheerleader taking her chainsaw to zombies). It is going to be interesting to see just how much variation Grasshopper puts in Lollipop Chainsaw.
Our most hectic day of the show started out as many other days. In a room at the St. Regis Hotel. We met with Spacetime Studios to have a look at their vampire MMO Dark Legends that is coming to Android very soon.
Next we paid Funcom a visit to see some new secret stuff on The Secret World. Lots of great stuff, and as is the custom we got an interview with Ragnar Tornquist that you should check out as soon as it goes online on GRTV.
We then hauled our behinds to the Sega Digital Day over at the Intercontinental on the other side of Moscone. Lots of games on site for hands on, including Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II and Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit. Naturally I gravitated towards Jet Set Radio (looks absolutely gorgeous in HD), and I also tried my hand at Virtua Tennis Challenge (android) and Total War Battles: Shogun (on iPad). The Sega event was very casual and came with what was possibly the best swag of GDC - a Jet Set Radio drink mixer.
From the Intercontinental we rushed back to W Hotel (next to St. Regis) for the Planetside 2 event. We were a bit late and judging by the name tags left at the counter as we arrived a lot of journalists missed or skipped the event. Anyway, Planetside 2 impresses with its scope of action, very few games have attempted to do what Planetside did almost a decade ago - we then thought it would be the future of shooters - now we get that plus the progression we expect from modern shooters in one package. The free to play model is sure to lure in lots of people, but then the game needs to deliver obviously. Free to play shooters was a very popular space at GDC, and even if Planetside 2 is different with its large scale server wide all fronts war with ground vehicles, space ships, and infantry action - it still enters a crowded space.
A block or two from the Planetside 2 event, Paradox were showing off War of the Roses live for the first time allowing for some hands-on time with the medieval take on Call of Duty. I found the action surprisingly tactical, and trying to avoid close quarter action as a crossbowman proved a difficult task. Fatshark had prepared a few pre-made classes (you will tailor these yourself in the full game), and there was sadly no cavalry in this code, but the game shows tons of promise and hopefully it will be developed to its potential.
After that it was back to the W Hotel for EA's Game Changers event. Everyone knew they were announcing Sim City 5 (or just Sim City as it turned out) - what we didn't know was that we would get about 90 minutes of speeches on how to change the world to go with about 5 minutes of Sim City. Fascinating stuff. Especially Davis Guttenheim's segment had me inspired. I must, however, say that EA kind of hit us over the head with how Sim City is a catalyst to change people's understanding of how the world works. It felt a bit heavy handed, even if the speakers were interesting to listen to.
The evening concluded with a shooter event that saw Medal of Honor: Warfighter become official. Cue a couple of real war veterans talking about their experiences and a gameplay sequence that felt just slightly more realistic than something out of the Modern Warfare series. It should be said that the game looks fantastic with the Frostbite 2 engine (Battlefield 3), and it will be interesting to see if the brand is strong enough to give Black Ops 2 a fight this fall. EA also outlined the plans for Battlefield 3 DLC, and the first pack (Close Quarters) is due out in June. We were way to tired to give it a try and honestly, we're more excited about the tank pack that is due out later as that is an area where Battlefield really shines.
The morning started out with a visit to Tony Hawk's hotel room at the Westin. The skateboard legend was hanging out demoing Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD, and he shared a few ideas for future titles (let's add guns!) and he's manager shared a story of getting stopped by Apple security trying to organise something with new iPad cases (the new iPad was announced this morning).
I have to admit I'm not a massive Call of Duty player, my camera man Nick, however, is just that. He sat down to play upcoming DLC maps for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 with Sledgehammer's Michael Condrey for about 45 minutes, and watching them play was far more enlightening than playing it myself. Collection 1 is the biggest CoD DLC pack to date with 2 Spec Ops missions and four multiplayer maps (playable in all modes including Survival). As the maps weren't playable online we were limited to survival on the playable multiplayer map (Black Box), and Nick and Michael made it to wave nine where things just got a little too hectic with juggernauts and Nick was unable to save Michael from bleeding out.
Black Box is a map set in Hollywood at the crash site of Air Force One. To add a bit of confusion the first Spec Ops map is called Black Ice, and it features some snow mobile action as well as some intense in door action at a secure base. The second Spec Ops map, the Negotiator, adds another twists as you fight your way out of captivity trying to save as many hostages as you can. The final showdown in a courtyard where you first needed to disarm a bomb was very intense, and saving all hostages is going to take a mammoth effort. If you want to know more check out the interview with Michael Condrey on the new maps.
Next we set sails for Dark Waters and Risen 2, however, what we played there is still embargoed. And we then caught up with Nippon Ichi representatives to discuss Disgaea 3 on PS Vita - they have a neat feature where the miles you travel playing the game will unlock experience in some kind of special mode. Sounds brilliant for a world traveller. They also revealed they have more plans for PS Vita that they are really excited about.
The final appointment of the day saw us play a bit of Mortal Kombat on PS Vita with Netherrealm and watch a demo of Lego Batman 2 with TT Games. The former was interesting as they had added a Fruit Ninja like mini game and a balancing game that uses the gyro. As far as the latter goes it is embargoed for now.
The evening was capped off with an awards ceremony marathon as the Independent Games Festival Awards (hosted by Monaco's Andy Schatz) and the Game Developer's Choice Awards (hosted by Cliff Bleszinski) ran for about two and a half hours. Fez took home the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at IGF, beating the much talked about Dear Esther (which did pick up the excellence in visual arts award) to name one of the other finalists. Game of the year at GDCA went to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with a fair portion of the development team on stage to accept the award. Valve's Portal 2 was also a big winner picking up three awards (best audio, best game design, best narrative). Most memorable that night, however, was Warren Spector, who held an inspirational talk to standing ovations as he accepted his lifetime achievement award.
The day started out at The Box a few blocks from Moscone where Square Enix were hanging out with some new DLC for Final Fantasy XIII-2, a playable version of Sleeping Dogs, Wakfu, Heroes of Ruin, and most interestingly Quantum Conundrum. I spent some time playing through the demo of the latter, and a preview will be made available on the site at some point. I think it's a game that will appeal to fans of Portal, even if it doesn't make use of the same kind of mechanics.
Other meetings followed in quick succession, we saw Tera, talked MotoHeroz on iOS with RedLynx, met Derek Smart and saw Line of Defense, and stopped by the St. Regis to see War, Inc. (another free to play shooter) from Online Warmongers.
The most fascinating appointment of the day was with a French company called Soft Kinetic. They showed off some of the next generation of motion control. They already seemed to have passed Kinect in terms of near controls (it tracked fingers as close as 15 cm from the camera), and we had a discussion on the implementation of the technology into smart TV's, smart phones, tablets, and public displays.
GDC is not all about meeting with developers and companies wanting to promote their upcoming products, there are also chances for more relaxed meetings and interviews and two such meetings took place in the afternoon as we had long chats with Ubisoft lead writer Richard Dansky (Driver: San Francisco, Outland, various Clancy titles including the upcoming Ghost Recon: Future Soldier) and composer Austin Wintory who composed the score for Journey and currently works on the Monaco soundtrack.
After several days working from morning to late evening it was nice to have a relaxing Thursday evening free of events. We had one or two cold ones and went to bed.
The last day of GDC was filled with appointments with smaller companies, and as the day concluded at 3pm we only spent five hours on the floor.
It was a day where we saw plenty of massively multiplayer experiences (or multiplayer experiences at any rate) - in the Hero Engine booth we saw the promising snadbox/themepark MMO The Repopulation, MMO slash trading card game Visions of Zosimos, and MOBA challenger Anmynor from Spain, we then took a distinct World War II turn with Reto Moto's interesting concept Heroes & Generals, and Wargaming's next big effort World of Warplanes. It's mindboggling to see how far World of Tanks has taken Wargaming and their enormous booth was a testament to the success of the free to play tank game.
Apart from the massively multiplayer angle Friday also had a distinct indie touch to it as we met with Australia's EndGame Studios and tried their innovative dual screen platformer Fractured Soul for Nintendo 3DS. We also had a look at Sarepta Studios' XBLA hopeful Shadow Puppeteer and the rather hardcore strategy offering of Longbow Games' Hegemony Rome.
Finally, we paid Collecting Smiles' Jens Andersson (formerly at Starbreeze Studios) a visit at his office where he has been developing Colors! 3D for the Nintendo 3DS. A rather neat little applications that lets you paint 3D images and share them.
Overall, the GDC week gave us plenty of impressions, and as always it gave us a chance at more intimate meetings with developers than what is the case at E3 and Gamescom. The larger publishers had a smaller than usual presence, and Sony for example only had a handful of titles on display and only invited US media to their small lounge at the Westin. Microsoft naturally spent their efforts on the Spring Showcase the week prior to GDC, and Nintendo had a modest booth that featured Kid Icarus: Uprising and a bunch of recently released 3DS titles. In addition there were lots of fascinating talks that we sadly had no time to listen to, but GDC has in a way reverted to being a conference mainly focused on issues the industry is faced with rather than large announcements and reveals.