All award ceremonies, apart from those occasional horror sessions that are conducted completely in earnest, have something of a raised eyebrow about them. This was never truer than in the case of the Independent Game Festival Awards and the Game Choice Awards that followed. The IGF awards managed to take the piss out the pretensions of indie gamers, attack the credibility of their sponsors, and still leave room for a dig at the big mainstream publishers. It was exactly right. The Game Choice presentation that followed basically validated what everyone had said about Portal being awesome, and gave Bioshock a pat on the back too, presumably because Erik Wolpaw couldn't be made to collect all the awards without suffering heart failure.
Then it was off to have dinner with Ed Stern from Splash Damage. He's one of those writer types who has to deal with all the fiction, text, and general workhorse wordsmithery of putting an enormous game together. He told us all about how excited he is to finally be catching up on all the games that he's had to put aside to crunch on Enemy Territory, and spent a good deal of time interrogating our big brains for recommendations. It's nice to feel useful.
Things commenced with the keynote from futurologist clever-clogs Ray Kurzweil. He pretty much started talking about having virtual reality nanobots on our blood that would allow us to live gaming experiences (perhaps while keeping reality windowed in the corner of our vision) and got more outlandish from there. What's most astounding about Kurzweil is that none of his futurology is particularly unfounded: he's basing everything in careful research and moderated, managed forecasting. We might be nanobot cyborgs within thirty years, says Kurzweil, and that shouldn't be all that surprising. Once he's spent some time explaining just how fast things are actually changing, well, you're not surprised anymore either.
Kurzweil is essentially the overlord of those conversations in which we all talk about how quickly we came to be using mobile phones, or how interesting it is that YouTube was almost unimaginable a couple of years ago, or that our kids don't even know what a CD-player is. You know: trying to be shocked by the future, when really it's entirely quotidian. (That's the best word that it's the name of an alien enemy.)
Then it was time to hang with Valve. Doug Lombardi, the marketing and PR man-machine who remains the sole conduit responsible for all of Valve's communications with the outside world, looked like he'd been out all night partying. “Man, I've been out all night, partying,” he said. “Not enough sleep.” I agreed, suggesting that all this travelling stuff would be easier if everyone in the games industry lived together in some kind of hive city. (Not really, but it would.)
Doug then talked about how “episode” was probably the wrong word for the next Half-Life game, which was current in the midst of an “R&D phase”, which had kicked off after the Orange Box had shipped. Speaking of which, The Orange Box had done surprisingly well in Russia, selling “Hundreds of thousands of units,” unusual for a nation in which piracy of PC games is still routine. “Russia is genuinely changing,” said Lombardi.
So was the big V interested in all this PC Gaming Alliance malarky? Lombardi wanted to see what the alliance achieved before really saying anything, but he agreed that determining the actual state of the PC was “not about a US retail snapshot.”
Onwards to the lunch, and I found myself standing next to Gary Penn and Gary Whitta while eating a roasted vegetable sandwich. I shook hands with the heroes of a bygone era of game mags, now seeming relaxed and jocular in their new roles as a developer and script writer respectively. Whitta was there to chair the Luminary Lunch organised by Dave Perry (interview that particular very tall game developer coming up next month) and had taken a break from sorting out the live action version of Akira to be there. Penn was just hanging about, seemingly at home anywhere, since he knew everyone.
My write up of the meeting of minds that followed can be found here. Once you've digested that let me offer some additional commentary: Goodness me I had to bite my tongue during the discussion. While everyone at the table was articulate and highly intelligent, it was clear that only Perry and Koster were really down with what was happening with MMOs, user-created content, social networks and the web generally. The other folk at the table seemed perturbed, even confused, about what was happening to games. They only had to go down to the show floor to tap in to some of it, what with a huge Eve Online stand, the Instant Action stuff, and the bustling IGF nominees section. The conclusion, if there could have been said to be one, was perhaps that this was the last phase of consoles as we know them. Everything, someone pointed out, was a computer now. Whether it's your iPhone or your laptop, it can probably play some games.
The future then, if Thursday morning can be interpreted by the likes of me, is of low-end, cheap or free games that anyone can play and that a fairly large number of people can make, and high end games that are super-fine production value and server-bound. The game that doesn't validate itself via the net in some way is probably not going to have much of a future.
Then it was time for the Prototype presentation which I have written about in detail right here. A necessary contrast, perhaps, to the indie-Facebook-mobile-online-user-generated-free-subscription-based future that had been pressing down on us previously. Prototype is big bucks, big bang and brutal, with that single player GTA3 mayhem as the hook and the sinker.
The day continued to trundle towards food and booze with a brief visit to Lego Batman, which is looking rather good. There's a whole side-on level design thing going on, which should make the co-op far easier throughout. You couldn't help but feel sorry for the TT Games producer, who had clearly been trapped in the room, demoing his game for the past forty-eight hours.
Then it was time to go trendy SF club called “Mezzanine”. This was going to be the venue for the Will Wright talk. My press badge was in the pile next to the one with Gabe Newell's name on it.
I ate some pizza and deep-fried dumpings, and then headed for Mezzanine's mezzanine. While I was waiting for someone I recognised to turn up, I talked to a young lady from Pandemic and a wrinkly old guy in a baseball cap. The Pandemic employee told me that we'd be seeing a talk by the guy who designed The Sims, and that was really interesting. I said I was glad not to have found myself in an invite-only party for no reason. “Hey, Pandemic!” said the aged guy. “Your party last year was awesome. I loved that dominatrix.” The Pandemic person looked puzzled. “Dominatrix?” It was clear that there had been no such thing at the Pandemic party last year. “Sure, all the goths and ladies with near to no clothes on!” said the guy. “Um,” said the girl from Pandemic. “I think you're talking about the CCP party,” I said. “No, it was pandemic, with a dominatrix – the best SF has to offer!” the old guy insisted. “I believe you,” said a random nerd who had joined us. The Pandemic lady was backing away from the table, clearly worried. “Pandemic!” said the old guy. “I remember seeing Pandemic games there...” He trailed off as his inspiration to speak made her excuses and ran away. He turned to me with sad old eyes: “So many parties,” he said. “Sometimes I get confused.”
Soon my chums arrived and we were watching Will Wright talk about Care Bears and Russian space disasters. It was a fun time, even if it wasn't the Hard News that I'd come to San Francisco to procure. Wright took a few questions that we couldn't hear, and then retreated back stage. The party dissolved and we decided that it might be time to head for this year's CCP party. Maybe the old guy's excitement would be justified. Apparently it was, because the queue to get in was half a block long, and the steam from the door and semi-naked goth dancers smoking outside suggested the flavour of what was taking place inside. It was clear that we weren't going to get inside any time soon. With sad faces, we wandered back to the hotel bar.
The conference is visibly shutting down. The crowds are less, and slower. The mass transit of ideas in my head didn't seem to have lessened, however. I met Tim Edwards on the second floor of the convention centre and we babbled at each other at high speed, each taking his turn to unload his impressions of the conference. We planned essays and features, with our brains at boiling point. If there's such a thing as information overload then this is it: an inability to keep track of where one idea ends and another begins, because there are simply so many, arriving at such high speed.
I headed over the CCP stand (wondering if any of them would even be alive to staff it) to meet with Torfi Frans Olafsson and the Eve economist, Dr Eyjlfur Gumundsson. We talked about the MMO, plans for the future, the nature of virtual economies, that sort of thing. Their interviews should appear on the site eventually, but as anyone who has been following this GDC Brain Dump will begin to recognise, I have a hell of a lot of material to transcribe.
That transcription includes a sit-down chat with John Comes, the man who has been designing Demigod. It looks pretty interesting, like a boardgame of the Gods. I'll talk about that later in the week, but it's worth noting that Comes, my last meeting, was to reiterate one of the major themes of the conference: “All that 'PC is dead stuff?' It's not.” Amen, Mr Comes, and Gas Powered Games is testament to that.
So what's the message? Well, it's looking bright for everyone who owns a PC. An anonymous quote on VG247's insightful GDC breakdown sums it up: “Everyone’s saying the same thing. Consoles are fucked. Gaming’s exploding in every direction and so many people here just haven’t got a clue about how to cope with it. The PC revolution’s in full-swing.”
What's perhaps more important is that although Sony and Nintendo had no major announcements, and half the big players seemed unsure about the future, it was a conference filled with nervous energy and hints of what lies ahead. Technology is doing some scary things and, as Kurzweil points out, the curve on the graph is exponential. GDC might have revealed a few glimpses of the future with APB, Love, Prototype, Gears Of War 2, or the Independent gaming scene but these were only the things that developers were happy to share with the public. What is going on behind closed doors will be much further along, and even more exciting.
I'm in the cab in the way to the airport and I get a phonecall. It's PC Gamer's Tim Edwards telling me to get the hell over to the Nvidia stand, where he's found a mobile phone running Quake 3. But I can't, out of time...