Game Developers Conference expands--but too far?

Some developers wonder if GDC will remain their annual rendezvous as the conference replaces E3 as the largest industry-only game event worldwide.
Written by Daniel Terdiman, Contributor
Thousands of video game insiders are expected to converge on San Francisco this week for the Game Developers Conference, now the largest game industry-only event worldwide.

Throngs are likely to appear for big-name keynote speeches, such as the one to be given by Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's senior general manager and the legendary developer of Donkey Kong, Mario and The Legend of Zelda.

"There's definitely a recognition in the industry that GDC is really coming into its own now, with dramatic keynotes like Miyamoto and a kind of pan-industry focus," conference director Jamil Moledina said.

Industry professionals have many reasons to attend, from the keynotes to the dozens of panels and workshop sessions, but it's the opportunities for high-powered deal making that should prove especially seductive this year, thanks to the massive downscaling of E3.

E3, formerly the game industry's major event, is reducing attendance this year from 60,000 to about 5,000 people, thus conferring upon GDC the honor of hosting the industry's largest meet-up. Last year, 12,500 professionals were on hand here, and Moledina said there are guaranteed to be even more this year.

As a premier game-makers networking event, GDC has long been a place that cements business for the year ahead.

"I do business development in the games industry, and it's a place where a good part of our business gets done in the meeting rooms and hallways," said Kim Pallister, business development manager for Microsoft Casual Games.

"That wouldn't tell the whole story though, as I'd gladly foot the bill myself to attend," Pallister said.

Other attendees agree there has always been much more to GDC than the workshops and the impromptu deal-making.

For Patricia Pizer, a longtime developer of online games, GDC has been a chance to keep abreast of the latest thinking and developments in making games.

But Pizer, who traditionally hosts a gathering of her industry friends and acquaintances, said she's seen the nature of the conference change over the years.

"It's gotten so big," Pizer said. "It used to feel more like a community of my peers, and now it feels more like a frat party. On the other hand, it has also gotten more corporate. It's a funny contradiction. It will continue to get progressively more commercial and less academic."

Pallister agreed that the event has changed over the years.

"It's been interesting to watch GDC evolve over time, from draped tables to a real exhibit hall," Pallister said. "From small chalk-talks to keynotes filling huge halls.

"Now that the industry is big enough to sustain (several other) segment-, market- or platform-specific developer conferences, will GDC still continue to be mecca for game developers? We'll see," Pallister said.

Pizer said new, small industry events have emerged to accomplish what GDC used to do, providing the opportunity to meet with top people in the industry in more intimate conditions to work on industry-wide problems and challenges.

According to Moledina, however, E3's transition from being a giant trade show to an invite-only marketing event has given GDC a mandate to cater to its main constituency: developers.

"The main lesson from (the transition of E3) is that we have to stick to what we do best: providing learning and inspiration to independent developers," Moledina said.

Accordingly, attendees can expect to hear from other heavy hitters, besides Miyamoto. Phil Harrison, Sony Computer Entertainment president of worldwide studios, for example, will also be keynoting.

The main draw for many, however, remains the plethora of panels and workshops, which include:

  • - Game Design Challenge: Several top designers have been tasked with coming up with a game concept built around a needle, thread and a square of fabric.
  • - One Laptop per child: Gaming platform for the developing world?: Will look at how games could evolve for third-world users of the $100 laptop.
  • - Sex in games--the business end: Examines the business of designing adult-oriented games.

The event kicks off Monday, with the Serious Games Summit and GDC Mobile. The conference itself then begins in earnest on Wednesday.

"There's a massive diversity of topics and information" at GDC, said Simon Carless, the chairman of the Independent Games Festival at GDC and the organizer of the Independent Games Summit. "But they all show that the industry is evolving swiftly and in positive ways."

Thanks to back-to-back, fall-season releases of three next-generation video game consoles--Microsoft's Xbox 360 in 2005, Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PlayStation 3 in 2006--the industry no longer needs to use GDC to hype the eventual emergence of those machines. The era of the development for consoles is maturing. And in that context, the theme of this year's GDC is "taking control."

To Moledina, that means two things.

First, it's a literal reference to the new era of game console input devices, such as the Wii remote and the PS3's Sixaxis motion-sensitive controller.

"It's (also), at a figurative level, having all the information at your hands as a developer," Moledina said. "Now you have all the information to develop for the three consoles."

That's important as legions of developers and publishers create the many thousands of games that will debut for consoles, PCs, mobile devices and handheld devices in the next few years.

Through it all, GDC has become an essential rendezvous point for the people producing the games that consumers will play for years to come.

"GDC is the place where through sessions, panels, hallway conversations and over cocktails, you can get the most complete barometer reading of the future of this wonderful entertainment medium we call games," Pallister said.

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