GDC 13: New directions and the search for enlightenment

GDC 13: New directions and the search for enlightenment
Michael French

By Michael French

April 2nd 2013 at 3:04PM

Develop's EIC reviews the major trends in San Francisco last week

If I were desperate for an intro to this GDC review I could crudely draw analogies with the games industry's creative gathering and it coinciding with Easter week.

After all, how symbolic for the show to take place the same week as a religious event celebrating rebirth and hope.

I don't have to reach far to see other allegories: In the opening days, publishers were crucified by typically-outspoken indies, a raft of hardware companies were on hand throughout to sacrifice the format-holders' sacred cows, and faithful attendees swamped the Moscone Center to pay worship to games gods like Kojima and Romero.

But I don't need any messy and blasphemous writing devices to tell you that, despite the absence of new consoles - there in spirit, but not physical form - this GDC was one of new testaments and the pursuit of enlightenment. 

Meetings, random chats and interviews actually kept me personally from the sessions. But colleagues attended numerous talks, and I've since read more lecture write-ups than I would have had a chance to attend anyway. 

Our discussions with a real cross-section of the trade and the things we witnessed made it pretty clear there were a number of major themes dominating discussions at the show.

The following is a mix of trends and thoughts (some contradictory) that seemed clear to me after my yearly pilgrimage to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference. 

FREE-TO-PLAY IS GOING TRIPLE-A

In an increasingly fractured market there are less and less outright villains in the games business, save for one business model: free-to-play.

Those that don't find F2P creatively satisfying are the most vocal, and most recently that debate has spilled over into consumer commentary as companies like EA make this a more aggressive part of their business (and for good reason). 

Well, tough luck for the haters: free-to-play isn't just maintaining an edge over the market at the moment, those games are getting deeper, more complicated, better looking and richer (in all senses of the word).

They are more like core games than ever. In fact they are borrowing the best ideas from core games, marry short-form play cycles with bigger and more expansive game worlds, deeper content or more complicated game mechanics.

You could see it in the conference itself. Once upon a time sessions would have been on 'is F2P evil?' - these days it has a track all of its own. The naysayers are in the minority (I spied one provocatively-titled session about why F2P corrupts games on the schedule), and everyone else wants to go to CSR Racing's sessions to find out how they did it so well, and so fast. One F2P exec drily pointed out to me that 'social', 'casual' and 'mobile' had all gone through the same arc in GDC terms.

You could see it in the games being shown. The Drowning from DeNA's Swedish studio Scattered (headed by Ben Cousins), is aiming to make a FPS for the audience that is lapsing from consoles to tablets.

Meteor's Hawken, fresh from a beta launch, is still growing and expanding - and is finding friends in high places as shown by this Nvidia tech demo.

Elsewhere the move on the awkwardly titled 'mid-core' audience, a huge part of Zynga's 2013 battleplan, is further proof of this. 

You could also see it in the biggest games being played in the world right now. In fact, so vast is F2P there's a three-way tie to define which is the biggest game of the moment.

Is it League of Legends, which some said to Develop could be the most popular game on the planet based on time players spend per session? Is it Candy Crush Saga, which might be the most popular game base on total number of users each day? Or is it Puzzle & Dragons, the most sizeable game in terms of revenue generated each month? 

The firms behind all three popped up in conversations at the show, fittingly. Riot Games (League of Legends) had the most attended stand at the recruitment fair. King (Candy Crush) unveiled a new brand identity via old-school billboard marketing around the Moscone. And GungHo (Puzzle & Dragons) came to GDC to meet the media just as Japanese giant SoftBank announced plans to acquire it.

We all know the market forces that have allowed all the above to take hold. The top games all take advantage of or are run across open, or at least more accessible platforms like PC, Facebook, mobile. None of the free-to-play hits are on incumbent formats or (for now) from established players. (Although I saw one under wraps free-to-play game from a well-known name that will prove how deep this model is moving into the core of the industry.) None of this model is especially new. Nor is its increased sophistication and polish, but the acceptance of this was new to GDC, making it more certain as the shape of things to come. 

BUT EXPENSIVE GAMES STILL MATTER - IF ONLY WHEN COST EFFECTIVE

Off the back of spiraling power for F2P and momentum for indie games (or not - see below), the conventional wisdom is that the premium pay-upfront download or disc-based game at the other end of the spectrum is under pressure. 

In terms of volume, yes, there are less on the market.

But at GDC it was clear that there are still a number of major players in this business - be that Ubisoft or EA (which used the event to announce Battlefield 4) or the many technology and engine firms still pushing high-end visuals - and there always will be.

The key to this business now, however, is milking production cycles for all their worth.

Ubisoft, for instance, held a talk explaining how it has skilfully used up to seven studios to pump out hits like Assassin's Creed, Far Cry and Watch Dogs.

The secret for these publishers has been to try and make the big hits, but at a reduced cost base. Publishers need to deliver better margins all the time to prove to shareholders, bankers and analysts that they can keep improving revenue and profits.

One exec told me that adding DLC and season passes to $60 dollar games - in essence making them $100 games - has only worked so far for their titles in this since.

Like in F2P, only the committed core spend on these extras and you can't budget a game on the assumption many will (unless you make microtransactions the core of the model). 

At GDC the solution was best epitomised by the presence of Hideo Kojima. 

He's arguably games development's most prolific procrastinator (amongst other things). A conservative estimate says that his previous game, MGS4, grossed around £200m in its lifetime. But that was Konami's last major hit on console. And was released in 2008. It needs more of these, more regularly.

One way to address that is also getting in on multi-site games development: Kojima's session unveiling Metal Gear Solid V was a showy PR move after weeks of mystery. But the nuts and bolts of this production are what what characterised this trend for me at GDC: Development of the game hinges on establishing a Los Angeles production studio to help complete the game, plus using his team's Fox Engine technology across a suite of Konami games including PES.

With the budgets for current gen and next-gen games broadly the same, the margin pressure needs to be found at a cost level. And if you looked around the show, especially the expo, this was one of the important issues when it comes to traditional core and triple-A titles.

THE MYTH OF MICROCONSOLES IS JUST THAT

Something that added to mist of uncertainty around those big games has been the sudden swathe of new hardware formats moving into games.

There has been huge excitement around the 'unconsoles' or 'microconsole' market. Apparently this will disrupt the console business. Some purport to put cheap Android games on TV, others add more to existing platforms, some are new platforms in their own right.

Many of them are riding waves of Kickstarter cash to market. And many of them were at GDC either for their first public showing or to further promote their viability as a development platform. I had decent time with a bunch, including Ouya, Oculus Rift and Sifteo (the latter has been around for some time but is a great example of an independent firm bringing a new hardware to fruition). Things like GameStick were at GDC too.

What is impressive about this hardware is that they are all helping to dismantle the idea that big manufacturing operations are something only for the rich, or the established market players. Affordable processors and willing production partners in regions like China are reminding the games industry that it doesn't take much to go from idea to prototype to product. 

The real question is about what happens when that product is ready to deploy. And unfortunately, as idealistic and well made all the devices I saw, they seem to have a niche destiny. They are platforms made by developers for other developers. They likely will only be bought and used by developers or the hacker elite - any extra sales to consumers will just be a bonus. 

I certainly felt that mood from the industry, too. At first last week I was quite invigorated by the Ouya team's enthusiasm when I met them and saw the device (indeed, I think there is some smart stuff still to discuss about how Ouya is approaching the software side of its business and digital retailing, ironically not its cheap console). But later in the show, both specialist press journalists and games firm VPs point blank laughed at my questioning as to whether they took things like Ouya seriously too. 

I can't disagree with the cynics on this: It takes things like real software exclusives and genuine differentiation to make a platform really work. This wave of cheap hardware isn't defining any market trend, it's following in the wake of the wider momentum around tablets and smartphones.

While it's important that these open platforms are out there waving the flag for a more accessible world of games development, a lack of unique content doesn't give much hope yet for major success. These formats have little point of differentiation.

Now, there's an argument out there that these devices will all fail, and it will be their competing successors that will dominate. But once Apple, for instance, moves in with its own 'console' the 'microconsole' label becomes irrelevant - and the idea of a vast platform targeting mainstream shoppers connected to a controlled distribution platform comes back into play.

And with existing consoles and mobile formats targeting or already haven to indies and smaller firms, I can't see why the excitement around new hardware will last.

INDIE WARINESS STARTING TO SET IN

The New York Times put GDC on its cover yesterday, and said the show proved 'indies had grabbed control' of the industry. 

That's a great story for a show attended by 23,000 individuals, but I don't think it's actually true.

If anything the wave of optimism about ambitious, smaller games and the deserved praise for games like Journey have created an Indie Distortion Field, if you will, that seems to filter out some of the pitfalls any business faces.

Criticising this area of the industry, forever nascent, seems snobbish or mean, I know - but from what some people have said there's cynicism just about to step in here from industry observes, and a contingent of indies too.

I see a lot of broken companies ahead that either haven't realised or don't want to acknowledge that dreams and crowdfunding may only carry you so far. For a huge chunk of indies their optimism is misplaced or misguided - the games industry hasn't stopped being a hit driven indie because Notch can roll up and hire Justice (or last minute replacement Skrillex) to DJ his GDC party.

In fact the continued dollar-raking success of Mojang, which announced during the show a deal for Minecraft kids books, only rams home the challenge ahead for small games developers.

Today's hot microteam might also be tomorrow's rotten publisher, or even at least a juggernaut brand holder that erodes into the time that could be spent on your game - just look at what Minecraft is doing to the traditional games business right now. 

Taking that point of view tends to cast a different light on the PR-pleasing moves by Sony and Nintendo to get closer to small developers that were announced last week. Many hailed these announcements as proof of indie power, or great for that community.

To me, those strategies seem very horse-before-cart for a hardware manufacturer. I'm not confident that indie games will sell hardware in any great way. Embracing indies might score media attention, but we've seen how headlines for Vita and Wii U don't sell systems either.

Shouldn't Sony and Nintendo be investing in building audiences for the likes of Vita and Wii U as well as investing in convincing developers to take them seriously? Why were these strategies not part of their launch plan?

While it's true that credibility for games platforms often starts inside the industry, it seems a bit too after the fact that SCEA will now abolish concept approval - a process which made enemies 10 years ago who have since switched to mobile. And Nintendo has only suddenly realised that the reason apps have taken off is the versatility of web development? That speaks more of its own problems than any huge movement in the creative side of the games business.

When the dust settles on those specific strategies, I reckon it's going to look like long-game relationship building for the format-holders hoping to build their contacts book. These are measures to befriend the stars of tomorrow before they get famous, and hopefully convince them to invest in the consoles of tomorrow.

Right now, Vita and Wii U are struggling and some cheaper games with heart-on-sleeve artistic sensibilities won't turn the Titanic, so to speak. 

EMOTIONAL ISSUES POINT PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT

Well, the truth is that the games industry is actually far, far, far from enlightenment. The business that makes big bucks out of commentary-less war games and is scared to put female characters (let alone gay ones or people of colour) on game artwork still has a long way to go.

But last week the once-fringe arguments about gender and representation become central talking points during out-of-show GDC discussions, which is a good start at least.

GDC organisers helped make this happen - adding an Advocacy track to the event made the debate a foregone conclusion.

Yet it's the passionate reactions to things that happened which prove that the debate is moving on, and making topics like 'women in games' and gender representation something many were aware of and, best of all, could not ignore.

A variety of sessions called for more diverse characters, or better treatment of sex in video games, but the best if-you-missed-it example was this: the 12-hour stretch that saw the Twitterati call out foolish choices by the IGDA to have dancers at its massive party just hours after Brenda Romero and contemporaries received a standing ovation for discussing the role women can have in games and the bloody-minded stereotype some have battled.

Although it is happening slower than is really acceptable, the industry is changing. Perhaps that's best summed up by Romero, who said the following when collecting a Lifetime Achievement award at a special Microsoft Women in Games even held off-site during conference week: "Yesterday there was a line at the women's bathroom - I couldn't have been happier."

(Or maybe that quote proves there's little changing at all - Google that quote and you'll see she made a similar joke back in 2007).

Either way, more needs to be done - and last week at least gave hope by shining a light on the ideal of progress. Let's pray the spotlight precipitates that, and doesn't stifle it.

XBOX ABSENCE TELLS US NOTHING ABOUT NEXT-GEN

But from one minority to the other: the core game market.

If you're from this part of the industry - and pretty much almost everyone at GDC was or had been at some point in their life - the most asked and unanswered question of the show was around next-gen consoles.

While Sony was there and shared some more detail about PS4, the biggest questions were around Microsoft.

Windows and Windows Phone had a presence at the show, but let's be honest - no one in games really cares that much about them in comparison to the next Xbox.

And the next Xbox, still presumed to be out by the end of the year, is still to be unveiled. By missing the last big developer event before launch, a frustrated contingent say the firm is losing 'share' in the face of Sony's activity.

Or rather: a frustrated media, it seems. 

I asked a number senior people running well-known studios point blank about the next Xbox and I alluded to it in conversation with pretty much everyone else. On the record, no one is saying anything. You might get a polite smile. The message is clear: the NDAs have been signed at the highest level. This next-gen discussion doesn't start until Microsoft's lawyers say so.

As for what the media thinks? The truth is that impatient journalists (like myself) will cover it when Microsoft is ready to talk. 

I think the suspicion that there's some internal disarray at Xbox might be right. But it's also worth bearing in mind that the firm may have not wanted to spend on a costly trade show presence and reveal before the close of its current quarter on March 31st. It could even be hastily changing or beefing up plans as a reaction to sudden changes in the market around which ever villain you want to pick, F2P, pre-owned, DRM, etc.

The real question is - if Microsoft really has briefed people, has it spoken to the right people? Sony and Nintendo, as discussed above, have gone after the indie dollar. My discussions with F2P and online firms suggested they knew less about the Xbox, if anything. The console developers know the most, but arguable that group matters the least these days.

So Microsoft's mistake may be the very thing everyone criticising it for missing GDC said it needed to be doing: preaching to the converted. 

In that sense it is true that Xbox needs to be investing in the progressive future of the games industry that walked the halls and held the stages of the Moscone Center, not just talking to its best friends that often dispatch just a handful of staff to GDC each year.

As I'd hope my GDC review has shown, last week's show was more inclusive than ever, busier than ever, and the most diverse yet. New formats and technologies are popping up overnight - some of them won't be in business come GDC 14. 

For next-gen consoles, momentum appears to be suggesting that unless a more progressive platform-holder emerges after these months of silence and turmoil, they might awaken too late to find the industry changed around them. And by then it'll be too late.