The Brief: GDC 09 Coverage

GDC 09: The Changing Face of Game Development and Market Trends

New Development Trends for Game Developers

This was perhaps the most exciting, invigorating Game Developer Conference I have attended, and I’ve been attending GDC since1995. There is a growing shift in the way we think about games and develop them – from new technology and tools, to new distribution models. We are in a state of re-invention where development, business and finance models are completely giving way to a renaissance movement that will challenge the current composition of gaming (more on this Gaming Renaissance Movement in next issue of The Brief).

Of course the big news at GDC was the unveiling of OnLive, and much of the company details have already been written about. What is most impressive is that Steve Perlman has been stewarded the company for seven years, working in stealth mode on its on-demand digital distribution concept.

Unbeknownst to anyone outside the company, they arrived at GDC with over 100 patents filed and 100 employees – a complete, fully functioning company. They currently have 16 titles and 10 publishers lined up including EA, WB Games, THQ, Ubisoft, Epic Games, and Eidos.

What I find most interesting are the listed investors: Warner Bros., Maverick Capital, and Autodesk. Now, the Autodesk connection is intriguing because it clearly positions them in the center of cloud computing for game design. With OnLive’s eventual support of Indie developers it might just be a good place to be. OnLive is also partnering with Nvidia to take advantage of some graphics capabilities on the server optimization.

Of course there was also Zeebo and David Perry’s newly announced company that have slightly similar solutions to OnLive. No matter what the scenario here, it has added a new twist in digital distribution that has broad-reaching implications for the industry.

On the tool side there was Emergent, flush with cash and a new product Lightspeed, its game development technology. The company is working to creatively meet the needs of a new breed of developers with their tools and outreach support. At the show Emergent was showcasing some of these new developers who, with small development teams have been able to create graphically-rich level designs in incredibly short time frames: Killswitch created their demo in 10 days, Game Mechanic Studios created theirs in 3 weeks and WhiteMoon Dreams had theirs completed in 4 weeks.

Similarly, 3DVIA is another company working with developers and doing proactive outreach. Virtools is a gaming visualization tool that has been around for many years. It enables developers to create games in weeks and days, rather than months or years. At the show the company was highlighting the work of Little Chicken Game Company, Zoink Entertainment, Sarbakan and Studio Walljump.

Realistic facial animation is finally becoming a reality thanks to companies such as Image Metrics, Mova and Captive Motion. The success of Benjamin Button was a huge plug for these technology solutions. More game developers are now looking to incorporate deeper character interaction and expand game storytelling with engaging facial characterization.

Another interesting company at GDC was NeuroSky which is developing biosensory devices for a number of industries including games. The company’s MindSet product is a sensor-equipped brainwave headset that responds to a person’s brainwaves. NeuroSky’s devices read brain outputs such as sight, muscle movement, and emotion enabling a person to use these extra dimensions directly in game play.

Most notable was a company called Southpaw Technology. Their product, TACTIC, is easily set to revolutionize the 3D asset management industry – and not just asset management, but content pipelines and workflows in general. Their current client list runs the gamut of industries and includes Blizzard, Digital Domain, O Entertainment and Lockheed Martin.

There were so many great technology tool vendors making incredible leaps in production processes at the show, it’s hard to highlight them all. There is a clear trend swelling in the industry for tools that meet the diverse requirements of developers.

Changing the Stereotypes of Gamers

With the proliferation of all these new models, markets, and creative talent abounding, I still find myself having to put my arms up in defiance. In the midst of all the excitement and energy of GameBeat and GDC last week, there was something that irked me to my core.

First off, I must say what a terrific event GameBeat was. It had solid discussions and quality attendance. However, in one particular session an analyst made a comment that I still can’t seem to shake. In trying to explain the meteoric growth of the Wii Fit, the analyst said, “Who would have guessed the Wii Fit would appeal to so many fat housewives”.

There was a nervous laughter from the audience after the comment was made, yet no one responded. Then, several days later in a GDC session, the same analyst made the exact same statement.

There are several things wrong with that statement. I understand he was trying to get the audience’s attention and went for shock value, after all Wii Fit was the number one ranking game in January, selling 777,000 units. I personally don’t own a Wii Fit, but I have many friends who do and I know they enjoy interacting with their kids. I certainly wouldn’t call any of them fat or “housewives”.

That isn’t even what bothers me. As I said, he was going for shear shock value. What disturbs me more is that, as analysts, it is our job to unearth the hidden gems and anomalies that may turn into growth trends. The market indicators are there, gaming is morphing into something well beyond what it was just a few years ago.

More To Gaming than Hardcore

All you have to do is look around at some of the biggest investments made in the industry in the past 2 years: Club Penguin sold to Disney for +$600 million, Big Fish raised $83 million while already being profitable. Rock Band has surpassed $1 billion in sales in only 15 months. Jagex’s Runescape has been played by over 150 million people. Along with Runescape Jagex also have FunOrb, a mini-multiplayer game site with 35 titles, and the soon-to-launch Mechscape, a science fiction browser based game. Impressively, all of their technology is created in-house and developed completely in Java.

These brands are not targeted at the hard core gamers with the latest Nvidia graphics chip running on a dual quad core PC. None of these games even employ the use of heavy 3D graphics. That is not to say there isn’t a huge market for real-time 3D graphics, but it remains the game play, creative imagery, storyline and social components that keep consumers engaged and coming back.

The Casual Game Association (CGA) estimates the casual games market to be $2.25 billion in 2008. Jessica Tams, managing director of the CGA notes, “The consumer profile playing casual games is about 50/50 women and men, with 74% of the market over 35 years of age.

Marc Doyle, Co-Founder and Editor of Mediacritic was also one of the analysts on the GDC Metrics panel. Mediacritic has become a benchmark for publishers, in some cases using its aggregate scoring system to determine success fees in developer contracts. Marc was blasted by several people in the audience for the fact that Mediacritic only ranks AAA-type games, leaving out huge gaps in some of these growing categories. To his defense, he’s doing what he knows. However, there most definitely needs to be additional rating categories to target some of these expanding market segments.

Is Dark Knight a better movie than Slumdog Millionaire? For that matter, is Twister a better game than Monopoly? Is Barbie a better toy than Pokemon? Is Poker a better card game than UNO or Bridge? It all depends on who you ask, their individual preferences and their frame of mind. Are we still so myopic that we can’t see where this is going? Entertainment has no defining demographic, it simply is.

It is time for us as an industry to think a little more outside the box. It is not enough to be the established technology provider or the established publisher. With the current market conditions we must grow to support this dynamically expanding infrastructure.

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