02/27/2008

“The Beginning Of The End”: San Francisco & GDC 2008 Part 2

by Matthew Hawkins

GDC Day 3

… Which meant the expo floor was open, and the convention was finally in full swing…

It felt a bit like E3, at least from what I?ve seen, but a bit scaled back. Actually, it felt like DigitalLife, but with, you know, actual names you recognized and gave two shits about. Like Nintendo, who had a fairly big presence, built almost entirely around just two things: Super Smash Bros Brawl and Wii Fit…

Sony had perhaps the biggest booth. It’s kinda funny how, out of the big three, Sony of all people appears to be the most indie developer friendly. Aside from already having flOw and Everyday Shooter, the former haven of smaller, more independent fare, Xbox Live Arcade, is now overrun by major publishers, while Nintendo… well, there is the upcoming WiiWare, which absolutely no one knows about (though I would finally hear the details later on; more on that later)…

But Sony being Sony, in addition to showing off their authoring tools, took the opportunity to show off the hottest game for the system at the moment, Devil May Cry 4, on their gigantic plasma displays, with couches for those to kick back and play. But on one of the TVs was Echochrome, that MC Escher-esque game that I once went ga-ga about in these parts a while ago. So the chance to give it a spin was a real thrill…

… The gameplay, for those who don?t know already, is all about perspective, as in playing with it. You have a dude, that basically looks like a wooden drawing model, that moves around a path, going back and forth, and to get him to go places you have to shift the camera around, to give the illusion that the separate parts of the backgrounds have merge, which then actually translates in the game space. It was fantastic, though unfortunately the demo was super short. Plus, I asked the Sony rep demo-ing the game a bunch of questions, and he clearly did not give a fuck. I was then passed along to the head-PR lady, who was also kinda clueless. So typical of Sony. By the end of that first afternoon, Ectochrome was gone, replaced by, you guessed it, Devil May Cry 4!

Gran Turismo 5 was another game that was being heavily pushed, but not just Sony, but Logitech, who has a new fancy-schmancy steering wheel. Which meant plenty of opportunities to suck on the virtual fast lane (sorry, but that game is too hard for someone weened on Daytona…

The PSP was also represented. The clear winner for me was Patapon, though I was also super impressed by the new God of War…

Here we have my new pal Phil, along with his creation, in the indie games pavilion…

Aside from games, you also had all sorts of wacky hardware, like this three dimensional, haptic mouse, called the Novint Falcon…

… Basically, you use the ball to navigate the game?s space in three dimensions, by moving along the X , Y, and Z axis?s. Furthermore, it can transmit feedback depending on the environment in the game. For example: the device?s demo has you moving a virtual hand and touching balls of varying surfaces, like liquid, molasses, rock, sandpaper, etc. The effect was surprisingly convincing.

Along with the controller are some games tailor made for it, plus there?s an SDK for other game makers out there to take advantage of it in their titles (there?s already a Half Life 2 mod, of course). The one original game that caught my eye was a Katamari rip-off; one level takes place in some character?s dream, and you have to collect all these letters…

… It was really awesome, but unfortunately, the rest of the game is simply a shameless Katamari clone, nothing more, nothing less, though with none of the aforementioned level?s creative spark (well, there was also a Tron-looking level, that also seemed kinda neat).

And here’s controller by NeuroSky that allows you to play games WITH YOUR MIND!!!

… The lifting of the x-wing was, more than anything, cute. I didn’t get a chance to try out the PC controller, due to the very long wait and my tight schedule, but (unsurprisingly) the wait for the cell phone version wasn’t nearly as long. Once again… say it together now: you can read all about it over at Zedge!

Hey kids, why play Guitar Hero or a stupid old HD flat screen, when you can play it on a dome!

Why? I have no idea. Actually, the tech is for big events, like concerts. Which they decided to show off at the GDC for some reason. Next.

There were tons of different software packages on display, though a large percentage of them were related to motion capture…

Oh, and here’s Half Life 2 via third person, a mod created by a DeVry student…

… Why? Because not everyone likes, or can even play, games via first person, due to motion sickness. Like me! It’s not perfect though. First off, as you can see, you’re not playing as Gordon Freeman. Even though you are still Gordon in the game. Why? Valve never made a Gordon character model! But the grunt you play as still moves just like him, since all movement is based on physics, so you move along silky smooth. Except when going up ladders… you kinda just float up and down. Reason? Valve never bothered to do a walking up or down ladder animation.

And here’s some demo for some software for the Wii featuring a very slick looking corridor shooter. Too bad it?s not a real game…

Around mid-afternoon was my appointment with SNK, who like D3 the day before, was in a remote location, at a hotel suite. I went in hoping to maybe check out KOF XII, which they sadly did not have, aside from a video (but HOLY SHIT DOES THAT GAME LOOK FUCKING AMAZING), though did have something I totally could not have ever expected: Metal Slug 7!

Yes, it?s for the DS, and I only played a little bit, but what little I played was pretty damn awesome! It simply felt like Metal Slug, for lack of a better descriptive term. The game was not only a surprise to myself but SNK USA as well; they had no idea that they would be demo-ing the game, so they had zero information, such as what team worked on it and the like. But the action was fast, fluid, and over the top, as a Metal Slug game should be!

From what I could tell, you had the standard side-scrolling missions, but there were also shorter object oriented missions that took place during portions of already completed levels. It was hard to tell what was what since everything was in Japanese. BTW, for anyone who has seen gameplay video of it in action, over at snk-capcom.com… that’s me playing it.

Another shock was hearing that KOF 98 Ultimate Match is actually coming out in the US! Who would have thunk it! Though I still say the title should be King of Fighters 98: Dream Match REALLY DOES Never End…

The Samurai Shodow Collection was also on-hand, which I knew would be in advance, which is why I also planned on asking why in the hell Samurai Showdown Zero or X, whatever the heck the one Joe Salina has, is not included. But on the box it stated a Samurai Showdown 6 in the line-up. Yet when I mess around with the game, it was nowhere to be found. WTF. The SNK folks were also confused (they had simply assumed 6 would be part of the package and never actually checked to see it was there). But after some messing around, it was? in the options menu or something. I hate it when they do that. But yeah, its there, so finally Americans can play as or against the sexy samurai maid or the weird robot/puppet show.

Also met JC Flecher, the dude who runs WiiFanboy.com and DSFanboy.com. Really nice guy. As well as Jason Napolitano, plus another dude, whom I forget, but I do remember him wearing his GAF name, avatar, and tag, screen captured and printed, alongside with badge. It was then revealed that all four of us are GAFfers, and that there was going to be a NeoGAF meet-up later that evening. I was originally going to the Game Developers award ceremony that night, but the chance to actually meet GAFfers in the flesh, especially since I?ve already done so with Insert Credit/Select Button and YayHooray was too good to miss.

A couple of tourist-y pics, after the SNK thing, and on my way to lunch; some shots of Union Square…

… Sorry, but San Francisco’s Union Square totally kicks the ass of New York’s Union Square. Not to be a hater and all, but…

As for the IGDA VIP luncheon, the topic of parties came up. I explained that I was going to abandon the awards later that night for the GAF-get-together and was strongly advised against such a move by the boys from Jersey, Coray Seifert and Nick Smolney. I was told that it was am absolute do-not-miss affair; aside from supporting the scene, the ceremony itself is always supremely entertaining, either in a good way, or in a ?holy shit, this is horrible? way, often in the form of cheesy sketches and in-side jokes, which if you get will make one feel even more grossly uncomfortable. Never mind how jokes are rarely funny at award shows; what passes off as “humor” these days in games, as well as the massive proliferation of shitty game related web comics out there has more than proven that video game folks, God bless their souls, are not necessarily the funniest people on earth.

Though the reason why I had to go was because, apparently, it?s the last year in which CMP was handling the ceremony. The word is next year G4 will be taking it over, where they will surely fuck it up like everything else they touch. They were already on-hand this year covering the entire event, and the feeling was not so good. Imagine next year when they somewhat run the show? its hard to believe anything worse than the ultra-shitastic VGA that Spike TV does, but anything is possible (plus G4 did single-handedly destroy Tech TV). Oh God.

Then someone mentioned the White Wolf party scheduled for the next evening. Pretty much every press person got the email invite, and almost everyone rolled their eyes and some of the claims, that it was supposed the talk of the town afterwards. But because I wasn?t there, I would find out that it sorta was; there were naked women all over place, including one of the game designers Okay… I like train wrecks and all, but even I have my limits.

Afterwards was a talk by Jonathon Blow, the creator of the upcoming time-shifting platformer Braid for the Xbox 360, and a rather vocal, as well as somewhat controversial, member of the indie scene. Originally his topic was called “Design Reboot” and would have offered new ways of approaching design, but because he did that once before and doesn’t like doing the same thing twice (drat), instead Blow decided to tackle a question that was somewhat posed in a Halo 3 review in the recent past, in which the author stated that games were on the cusp of being something big, and almost on the level of other respected forms of art and expression, such as film or literature, but for that to happen, it needs to “stop pandering to the player’s demand for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s intellectual and emotional life.” But how?

In Blow’s opinion, games should… actually, need to be more meaningful, to have more emotion. Unfortunately, the current idea of idea of making a game more “engaging” is by adding dynamic story elements, such as in Half Life 2 (the “you are IN the story!” approach, with shit happening to you all around and you’re expected to keep up… other games have done the same thing, even before HL2, but most will agree that it had done it the best, thus far). Well, unfortunately, that’s really not the way to do it. On a basic level, telling a story in such a manner is extremely disjointed; the key to good storytelling is in its pacing, which has to be tight, yet flow seamlessly, which is impossible to in a game without constricting the player to a large degree, that in turn hinders the gameplay. In any movie, there’s never a scene in which the main character is stuck doing the same thing, over and over again, or even dying and coming back to life, and once he or she has figured what is up, goes back to business, as if there was no real set-back or disruption to the narrative flow. Half Life 2 has thus far been the most successful at achieving a balance, but it still suffers from that later example, and that’s simply not good enough. Also, the story is still far from brilliant, and the acting, still pretty lifeless and robotic.

Though Blow also questioned the intent of most games, Personally, I don’t find pandering to one’s desire of mastery such a bad thing. After-all, what are games if not a means to explore one’s desires and live vicariously through one’s virtual self, as he blows someone, or something‘s head, clean off? But Blow clearly has real issues with such a motive.

Well, we play games to have fun, obviously, but what exactly is fun? There are different kinds. Blow gave two examples and compared them, which in this case was sports vs. slots. In sports, we engage in a physical activity that has very clearly defined rules. There’s elements of interaction and ability, to name a few. In the end, sports are ultimately a positive form of fun, because, again among many other reasons, you’re getting exercise! Now how about slots? There’s no skill, no strategy, no real interaction, it’s all chance. It’s basically gambling, which inherently is not such a positive thing.

Blow feels that it is important to give “natural” awards, not “artificial” ones. One example of an artificial award is stupid crap that fills the screen if you do something correct or something. Whether it be number on screen, or an explosion of bright colors and sounds. Blow’s definition of a natural award is the moment of realization, like when you solved a particularly tricky puzzle, that rush of “holy shit, I KNOW NOW!!!” Needless to say, its far earlier to deliver the flash than the substance. Blow noted that none of the puzzles in Portal took that long to solve, but each time when he did, it was extremely satisfying.

For Blow, the key issue is how games need to be less fun, but more interesting. And designers need to have a better idea of their intent, or at the very least, be honest, be “pure” about it. All food for thought. BTW, anyone interested in the full rundown of his presentation can simply go here.

Afterwards was a presentation on Wii Fit. Unsurprisingly, it was tough getting in, being Nintendo and all, everyone wanted to check it out. But it was worth the hassle; the hour long look at the development of the hardware and software was pretty fascinating, though unfortunately, again it being Nintendo, everyone was expressly forbid to take any pictures. Granted, I’m pretty sure most folks, even diehard gamers might be bored to tears by pictures of a controller in development, one that is basically a glorified bathroom scale. But still.

Easily the most interesting aspect of the Wii Fit board’s development is how at one point they tried using the innards of the Nintendo 64′s controller as a key element, as a means to reduce cost (Nintendo is all about trying to make shit as cheap as possible, for obvious reasons). In the end, they had to do away with it, but still, its the kind of outside the box thinking that gets gamers’ wangs nice and hard. Though the real visual highlight, the one that made everyone at least think about sneaking in at least one snapshot, was at the very beginning of the presentation, in which speaker Takao Sawano, who served as project manager, presented this ultra detailed diagram for what would be Nintendo’s new system at the time, one that detailed all the things Miyamoto wanted to address. The three key areas were activities that allow players would be able to athletic competition, which became Wii Sports, activities that allow the player to just enjoy playing simple, not necessarily competitive, games, which became Wii Play, and activities that allow the taking care of body management, which is what Wii Fit would become.

That last part came from Miyamoto and how he actually enjoyed weighing himself, and monitoring his health, which he felt could be turned into a game, or at the very least a fun activity. Problem was, his team was no necessarily convinced, but you know, if Shiggy says it will be, make it so. The first real challenge was figuring out the hardware, which as noted earlier, had to be cheap, but also durable. Numerous versions were created for testing purposes, with features constantly being added and subtracted, such as rumble (in the end, not powerful enough to be worth the bother). At one point, the Wii-mote was used in tandem, like how the classic controller has to be connected to one to work, but they realized that most folks would be afraid to have it on the floor, where it might easily be stepped on. At a certain point, the team went to the service center, where they receive and repair broken Nintendo products, to figure out why stuff breaks and to prevent it, to avoid unnecessary hassle for the player (hear that Microsoft?).

Ease of use was always key, hence why one really neat feature is how the game has a basic calorie/weight counter that is supposed to be used everyday, but so people don’t have to go through the hassle of taking out whatever was in the Wii before, then popping in the Wii Fit disc for just a few minutes of use everyday, the software installs a lite version that just does the quick and dirty thing, in the form of a channel. Neat! As for the issue of whether people would actually want to weigh themselves in the living room, naturally, well there’s also a bunch of neat games that are basically exercise that really brings the package together. My fave might be the jogging one, where you run in place; the board is not even used, and instead you simply hold onto a remote, and as you swing it around, it translates to running in the game. You basically run around an island, and the length of each run can range into the miles, so… like it is in most gyms… you can actually change the channel and watch something else on TV while the game keeps running. It’s little things like that which makes you realize that Nintendo thinks of everything! Even though it?s not necessarily true. One final factoid (Seriously, is any of this of any interest to anyone?): the Wii Fit board has a maximum capacity of 1320, so there’s no reason why any fattie out there shouldn’t get this thing! Yes, believe it or not, I am legitimately excited for this thing.

The presentation ended with a look at some possible other applications for the board, which was the whole point of the presentation, to inspire other designers out there, but we all know that hardly anyone will touch the thing, or do anything truly interesting with it. Which unfortunately is the case for the Wii in general…

Anyway, after the Wii Fit presentation, I went to the expo floor to conduct some interviews, and after munching on the free hamburgers some booth was giving out to all the attendees (Christ I gained so much weight from last week alone), it was 6:00, end of day three. Which meant a trip to Moscone South, for the award ceremony…

… Time for another bit of random name-dropping: before the show began, I met Mike McWhertor, from Kotaku, who apparently reads this site! Awesome!

Anyway, the ceremony itself was pretty neat, rather straightforward and to the point, with some bits of humor, though some of it was pretty decent! It was actually two different awards put together; the Independent Games Festival ceremony and the Game Developer’s Choice Awards, with Mega 64 doing vids for the IGF (like this one… and Secrets of Bird Island btw is the tits), and various Zero Punctuation segments being used all throughout the second half (though none of them were new, for all you Yahtzee fans out there, sorry).

As for the games that were nominated, man, there was a ton of cool shit in contention for the various prizes, at least on the indie side of things (some of which I’ll be going over in my next post), though I was mostly rooting for Fez, which did nab excellence in visual art! Yeah!!!

… The top prize went to Crayon Physics Deluxe, and if you haven’t check out for yourself already, I will be going over it next time once more, so prepare to have your mind blown.

The second half, the Game Developer’s Choice Awards, on the other hand… eh. Some of the nominees were excellent, and some were questionable, and the awards went to a few of the latter, which was total bullshit in my book. First off, instead of flOW or Everyday shooter getting best debut game, the award went to… Crackdown?! WTF. Best audio should have also gone to Everyday Shooter, no fucking doubt; the winner was Bioshock, which like all the other nominees, like God of War 2 or Mass Effect, is that same lazy, boring, wannabe Hollywood score that we’ve heard over, and over, and over again.

Oh, and Ralph Baer was recognized with a pioneer award, which was pretty awesome. So overall, a decent affair. One that was also filmed by G4 for broadcast in the coming week. I’ll be shocked if they get a solid 10 minutes that’s suitable for their brain dead audience. Either that or they’re going to have to add a heavy dose of Carmen Electra in postproduction.

… Okay, not to go off on a tangent, but Christ does G4 suck! I know I’m overstating the obvious, but I watched a solid week’s worth of their programming while Washington, since again, I didn’t have shit to do, and man…. aside from the also aforementioned Ninja Warrior, and another similar show, the Unbeatable Banzuke, all their programming is horrible. I think Attack of the Show is the worst; aside from being a televised version of Wired Magazine (okay, from back when it sucked… I’ve been told its not so bad now, though I wouldn’t know, since I haven’t touched an issue in years… actually, I did check out that anime/manga issue from a few months ago, and refuse to go back, due it being so fucking stupid), they clearly do not have their finger on the pulse of jack shit. They did a story on Anonymous vs Scientology and they seriously had no fucking idea where Anonymous comes from! Hello? 4-chan?!?! Holy shit is that retarded. As for their viewers, when they asked them if they would go back to network television now that the writer’s strike was over, a whopping 60-something percent said yes! So they were watching it in the first place?!?! Alright, rant over…

After the show, I went over a bar to meet some new folks… the NeoGAF meet-up. Why the hell not, right? And I met a few cool folks that I have somewhat forgotten about, since I really don’t frequent the place anymore, even though I really should; all major gigs have originated from being noticed there, and the same was the case with pretty much everyone there that night! Anyhow, finally met Roberto Garcia-Lago, who writes for Gaming Age proper, and Cameron Davis, who works for Krome Studio, the makers of the best Transformers video game to date (which I know is not saying much, but still). And that was pretty neat. Anyhow, I bought them a round of beer, in exchange of them mentioning my site on their nightly podcast, and I think the sudden influx of hits to my site the next day is indicative that it was money well spent.

Didn’t stay long since I was starting to get a bit worn out from all the show and the constant socializing after-wards (cue “I’m getting old” comment), plus I was getting a bit hungry. So I decided to finally check out the Jollibee that was across the street from the convention center…

… Now, I had learned about Jollibee from Joe Simko’s trips to the Philippines. It’s an American styled fast food joint… from the Philippines… with a happy bee as a mascot. Sold!

I had both one of their hot dogs, the original JollyDog, and a burger, or the YUMMY BURGER WITH CHEESE! HOORAY!!! Both items had this weird sauce that I cannot put my finger on as to what it was. Maybe its better that way. Anyway, they had this TV monitor that had these weird commercials featuring that was a mix of English and Filipino (though all the actors were Mexican for some reason). They also served spaghetti that’s angel hair pasta covered with tomato sauce that has, get this, hot dog slices! You know, I love hot dogs and all, but again, even I have my limits.

And was less than ten minutes after this meal in which I had the sudden sensation/fear that I was going to shit my pants. I would find out later on from Raina, as well as Slonie, that pretty much everyone has the same exact reaction. So much for night three.

  • simonc

    Sorry I didn’t run into you more. A couple of clarifications – 1. G4 is our broadcast partner, but they are not taking over the awards show next year :) 2. I also ate at Jollibee during the week, through sheer perversion, hurray!

  • http://www.fort90.com Matt

    Simon!

    Yeah, I was really looking forward to hanging out with you, but every-time I saw you, were so busy doing a million things that I didn’t want to be a bother! Either that or you were already hanging out with much cooler people, like when you and the rest of the indie folks showed up for dinner at the place the NeoGAF meet-up took place… I was going to stop by the table and say hello, but I didn’t want to “that guy”. :)

    Also, glad to hear that G4 is not getting too involved! And relieved. The GDC, from top to bottom, was an AMAZING affair, one that got me certainly inspired and re-invigorated about making games once again (as well as many others I spoke with), so I’m glad next year it’ll be back, perhaps bigger and better, but most importantly, in capable hands.

    And hopefully you guys will want me back next time as well! ;)

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