03-31-13 - Some GDC Observations

From my very limitted view of GDC standing at the RAD booth.

1. Programming is dead. There were basically zero programming talks at GDC this year. That's sad, but also perfectly reasonable since programming is not the problem any more (*). (* = assuming that you just want to make the same old shit with different graphics)

2. Piece of shit mobile games that people have thrown together in a month look better than AAA games 10 years ago. It's not just that GPU's are so much better, but the free engines are really amazing these days, and the content pipes are so much better, and there are so many more decent 3d artists that can just make tons of content.

3. Game developers look like human beings now. If you looked at a GDC when I first started going, we were all classic troglodyte nerds; unwashed sweatshirts and open backpacks with slide-rules falling out. We were all vampirically pale from being locked in a dark box surrounded by our giant CRTs. (more generally I'm noticing that the average fitness level (on the west coast anyway) is way up in the past 5 years or so).

4. Mobile is dead, downloadable is king. I do an unscientific random sampling every year just by asking the people who stop by the RAD booth what they're working on. For the past few years it has been mobile mobile "we're making a game for ios and android", tons of kids and startups and indies trying to get into mobile. That seems to be gone, and the new gold rush is "downloadable" (PC, XBLA, etc).

5. Games are tacky and tasteless. One of the worst things for me standing at the booth is just hearing and seeing games all day. I don't play games much, I never watch TV with commercials, and I never watch things like cable news with all the excessive HUD and overstimulation, I find all that stuff abusive of my senses. Games are stuck in this awful "bling bling whoosh blammo" flashing and fast-cuts and just really tacky aesthetic. It's just like TV ads, or a bit like standing in the slot machine section of a casino (which is surely some level of hell).

6. I saw one really amazing game at GDC that stood out from the rest. It had all the players instantly smiling and laughing. It was fun for kids and adults. It created a feeling of group affinity. Everyone around wanted to join in. It was even beneficial to the body. It was an inflatable ball. Personally I had the "holy shit what we make is total crap" (actually worse than crap, because it's actively harmful to the body and mind) epiphany some 10+ years ago, but it just struck me so hard standing there with all these shit games around and people having so much more fun in the most basic game in the non-electronic world.


Hook said...

Re: programming is dead

Yes. When we were hanging out that one night with the other tech nerds, notice how the conversation kept coming back to design, business, and production. Because those are actually the hard problems today.

Contrast this with GDC 15 years ago, when almost everyone were still dealing with very similar tech problems: lighting, texture mapping, triangle throughput.

Re: mobile

Each year I try to figure out the narrative of the conference. Three years ago it was all about Facebook and browser games. Two years ago it was mobile and Unity. Last year it was Unity and downloadable. This year it seems to be fear/stagnation while everyone waits to see what's going to happen with AAA consoles. And yeah, the Steam gold rush is entering its third year.

cbloom said...

Yeah. I mean there are a lot of interesting game tech problems that I would love to work on, but they just aren't the important problem for any one game. (and they're getting really hard, where they might take 5 years to solve, with no guarantee that you get anything for that time).

John Ratcliff said...

I wrote my rant about how you shouldn't let your kid grow up to be in the game industry because, hey, it's unstable, unpleasant, and generally icky, and, low and behold, less than 24 hours later massive layoffs and a major studio is shut-down.

I feel like fucking Nostradamus.

Kim Pallister said...

While it true that it seems that programming has moved from the forefront, is another element the age of the circles we travel in? I had dinner with numerous friends who now run their own studios etc. If you talk to a bunch of 25 year olds, would the conversation be different? Maybe part of it.

Another thing might be where we are at, HW-wise. The PS4 talk was turning people away, guys with talks on optimizing mobile perf were getting moderately full.

I agree with Brian that the fear/stagnation and next-gen anticipation were certainly themes. That and the whole gender-equality discussion.

Charles point about decreasing ROI for hard problems is a good one - if this drives where people invest their money & time, it's not going to help the stagnation problem.

cbloom said...

There's a trend that's been building for a long time now, that the whole AAA $50M and 5 years to make a game model is bananas and wasn't gonna last. It's got to fragment into the "hollywood blockbusters" that are still crazy expensive (maybe even more so) and then the indie movies that aren't such huge productions.

nothings said...

If you are correct, then RAD's current business model is fucked.

NeARAZ said...

@nothings, I was actually wondering about that the other day!

I think at least one part in why Unity has become quite big out of this "obscure mac-only engine with zero chance of success", is because we did change the game how engine is licensed. We weren't the first ones to do that (torque has been doing very similar licensing before), but quite possibly the first toolset that's also quite okay to use.

As far as I can tell, RAD's business model is still the same as it has always been. Except now there are no prices on the website, so I can't really tell ;)

nothings said...

Yeah, it's actually something I've been wondering about for a while. Just a good opportunity to mention it publically!

David said...

There are a lot of really really hard tech problems still out there, but it seems like it's mostly the domain of technical indies at this point.

James S. said...

Actively harmful to the body and mind?

Easy there.

Are there any games you DO like?

checker said...

As the, uh, designer of the inflatable ball game you witnessed, as well as being biologically responsible for at least one player on the leaderboard, I still think there's no better time to be a digital game designer. So there.


cbloom said...

"I still think there's no better time to be a digital game designer"

Well that may be so, but that's just because nobody wants to pay me for my "walk around outside, do some gardening, read a book, watch a BBC documentary, do some coding, sing songs with your children, exercise, play with the cats, do woodworking, have sex, gourmet cooking, yoga" interactive experience.

"I still think there's no better time to be a digital game designer"

I also agree with this in the sense that *making games* is a super fun game and a much better use of computer time than playing games.

Being on a computer is so incredibly harmful to the body and mind that what you're doing on it has to be of immense value (relative to non-computer activities you could be doing) to make up for it.

Karl Schmidt said...

Weird, I went to a few programming talks. But for a long-time distant observer and first-time attendee, I was disappointed with the lack of technical talks (that weren't thinly-disguised advertisements)

But then again the industry has moved far beyond my 'golden age' where I was a teenager and dreamed of working on the games I played (Quake series, etc) - so I missed that boat simply because nothing stays the same. Same thing with GDC, times have changed and like others have said, the hard problems are less and less technical ones.

Hook said...

Game budgets by AAAs are rising and consolidating into a few studios/publishers. There are almost no third party indie studios of note left -- Epic is probably the last major one. Even the major studios are shutting down satellites (Ubi Vancouver, Sony Liverpool, R* Vancouver, some others I can't remember).

Indies and indie success stories are rising, and the mid-tier is absolutely collapsing. There are very few bets being played in the mid-tier, and in the past 12 months we've seen several publishers go under; many developers shutter; and almost no new mid-tiers to replace them.

Right now if a company is trying to target game developers it will have to either go for volume (Unity/Corona/etc.) or raise its prices to offset the loss of customer base (and to compensate for a rise in game budgets -- middleware prices have gone up maybe 100% in the past 20 years, but game budgets have gone up by a factor of 10-20).

carl said...

clboom what games have you enjoyed

old rants