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GDC '08 Brain Dump, Part One

Rather than simply delivering tight, hard news, we at RPS like to provide you with rambling, impressionistic wittering found nowhere else on the web. What follows is a record of my GDC 2008 trip, in all its self-indulgent detail. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let's begin.

The UK's rail network is not only one of the most expensive in the world, it also doesn't operate particularly late into the night. This particular fact means that it's often impossible for me to get to Heathrow airport from where I live, around 140km west of London, early enough to catch morning flights. As a result I have had the dubious pleasure of visiting most of Heathrow Airport's many overnight hotels. This time round however, it wasn't the disco-meets-prison ambience of the Park Inn that played host to my unconscious corpus, or the modernist glory of the Heathrow Hilton, but the weirdly hidden non-space of The Yotel.

The Yotel is the UK's take on the Japanese pod hotel. It's also as close as you're likely to get to live role-playing being a passenger on a spacecraft, complete with the purple-neon-on-white lighting and a toilet that sounds like each flush is into deep space. The rooms are like a hi-tech version of a child's bunk bed, with a built in flat-screen TV and dimmer switches, and shower-cubicle chamber opposite. For a space that was smaller than my walk-in wardrobe back home it was remarkably comfortable, and only a little bit claustrophobic. Sadly a lack of sound-proofing meant that each whisper and door-slam from the corridor outside jarred me awake during my entire stay. So began one of the core themes of GDC '08: a lack of sleep.

Shower, tea, wander the teeming Terminal 3 lounge, board aircraft. Ten hours and a full reread of Connected later, I was in San Francisco. Sunday night was intended for mild acclimatisation and meeting up with allies. Mexican food paid for by someone else, jugs filled with margaritas, that sort of thing. The evening blurred and then I woke up in my hotel room at 5am.


Early Monday was defined by encountering all the other Brits who had also woken up at 5am. We squinted at each other across downtown streets that would, back in the UK, have passed for major highways, and then approached to shake hands, as well as exchange tales of booze and easy exhaustion. The first of these countrymen to appear were the Splash Damage team, who were stood in the street outside the convention centre smoking cigarettes and debating which direction to travel in. They expressed their great relief to have finally have finished a proper game. “We're actually allowed to be here now,” said Wedgwood. “I'm even doing a talk.” He sounded surprised, as if he'd just noticed his own name on the GDC listings.

A few minutes of registration confusion later I met with fellow members of the UK press. We “accidentally” bounced the complementary GDC ping pong balls at Brian Crecente. He seemed not to notice, which is fair enough, because Kotaku were clearly very busy. Tim Edwards from PC Gamer told me all about how he'd hunted exceptionally tall people in the clubs of San Francisco, and tried to get them to fight/dance. Something like that.

Lectures began, my spiral notepad rapidly grew heavier with biro ink.

Later I did some interviews, again with a British theme. Splash Damage and Introversion were the victims, and I was struck at how similar the two teams were, despite the massive creative divide between their projects. Both teams were at a crucial juncture and at the same time getting ready to move on to greater things. Both teams had a sense of trepidation about the future, aware that things could only be different from herein. Both teams really like the idea of Steam. Splash Damage's Steve Gaffney went as far as to describe Steam as comparable to 360 and PS3 as a platform. It was another theme of GDC: all the stuff that was becoming so valuable about the PC. Much more on that, later.

Resonating thought of the day came from Ludocraft's (Air Buccaneers) designer Pekko Koskinen, who said game design “is the art of fictional behaviour.” He argued that the basic medium that game designers were working with was the behaviour of the players – which interested me because it was something I said, in a rather different way, in the book I've been writing. It makes me sad that paper tomes are such a slow medium. It's hard enough to deliver an original thought as it is, without there being a eighteen month lag between formulation and transmission.

Anyway, after a quick strum on my borrowed laptop, it finally was time for a beer. Also interested in beer were CMP's gaming overlord Simon Carless, the sideburn champion Matthew Kumar, Gamasutra's Brandon Boyer, SexyVideogameLand Empress Leigh Alexander, the Eurogamer team minus Tom, and various usual suspects from Future Publishing. They were all lovely, and hungry, people. Baskets of deep fried matter were ordered, weird American cider was downed, and tales were told of games played and loves lost.

American bar food, we decided, contained little of the elemental “goodness” that gets referenced in adverts for yoghurt and cereal in the UK. And then it was time for bed.

I didn't go to bed, however, having then encountered Splash Damage and various members of the UK public relations community on my way back to the hotel.


I had realised early on that the only way I was going to survive the coming days was to keep my blood sugar very high. I spotted a large American gentleman in the press room creating a concotion that involved half a cup of coffee, half a cup of cream, and half a cup of sugar. I decided to follow his lead, and soon found myself with an accelerated sense of everything. Dealing with occasional caffeine and sugar crashes became an excellent adventure in itself: it was all about momentum.

Fortunately my energies were not to be wasted. Running into Mark and Chris from Introversion for a second time, they told me about a solo programming prodigy who had gone out to dinner with them the night before. I asked Chris whether they would be helping out this newbie, and Chris just laughed. “We'll be asking him to help us out, I think,” said the man from Darwinia. That prodigy turned out to be the person I was on my way to meet: Eskil Steenberg. And just to reiterate: Holy Shit.

More lectures. At this point the information load in my head is beginning to cause a kind of cerebral boiling. The transit of ideas is just non-stop, and I am mentally scripting essays and blog posts in the spaces between meeting people.

Then I hit Funcom, and watch the latest iteration of Age of Conan, as presented by the ceaselessly enthusiastic game director, Gaute Godager. I've seen it demoed a couple of times now, and this latest presentation is a giant leap forward. I'll be writing that up for Eurogamer in a couple of days time.

Then I found myself at the press conference for the PCGA. Initially it was unclear what was taking place, and I steeled the team for “Big PC news” with my over-excited text messages. What the session actually entailed was interesting in so many ways. Some of those ways I had to write up on the spot, and others I think will come out over time. This, again, tied into that PC-stuff theme of the conference.

In the evening the world's press decamped to an expensive-looking club in downtown San Francisco for an event held by Digital Illusions Computer Entertainment. Yep, those guys who used to make the pinball games back in the early 1990s. It turns out that they've come up with some other successful games since then, and are now a 280-man army of terrifying creative endeavour. The games they showed us were impressive, to say the least. They also made us sign a “say nothing until date x” agreement on the door, so I'm saying nothing.

The Japanese-styled restaurant (actual sushi it ain't) that my chums and I retired to later, however, gets a 78% review. The eatabilty was good, but graphics and user-interface were somewhat below the standard set across next-gen San Francisco. Like a 16-bit restaurant, or something. To our relief, there was some goodness in what was served.


Gears Of War 2 was confirmed, and everyone seemed pleased that CliffyB had said that the game would be “more badass”. “I was worried that the game wouldn't badass enough,” said one member of the UK games press. “Badassery has been neglected of late, and I wouldn't want Epic to let that trend continue.” I nodded in sage agreement.

This was the day that the show began in earnest, and there was going to be non-stop flow of information. It was also the point at which I realised that I was not only relatively unskilled as a newshound, but that a conference like this was too vast and multi-pronged for even a small team of journalists to cover in any effective way. I recalled a science writer friend talking about the Washington science conference the month before: getting 10,000 scientists into the same place wasn't the problem, getting the right ones in the same room together, and getting them all to share and express ideas, well, that was much harder. Just the things I did see and hear set my head (and heart) spinning. I tried to imagine what kind of triple-brained entity would have experienced, were it able to attend the three-things-at-once that took place throughout the entire event. It would, most probably, have looked, and spoken, something like a cross between Yahtzee and Will Wright.

I then failed to find the attendee I wanted to interview, with his own company unable to tell me if he'd even come to GDC at all. I later saw him outside, smoking a cigarette, but the opportunity to communicate had past. Oh the lost possibilities! Then I wandered off to find out about InstantAction, which I talked a bit about here.

Soon thereafter I was placed in the thrall of Philip's amBX presentations. I'll write these up elsewhere too, but I can say at this point that I arrived thinking: “Hmm, fans and lights,” and came away thinking, “Ooh, fans and lights!” It was a significant shift.

The next person I met up with will get his own newspiece later in the week, and that was Reynir Hardarsson. While he's not the sole person responsible for the creation of the smartest MMO on the planet (yes, Eve Online), he's pretty much the creative force that defined and directed its development. He held its aesthetic on a tight leash, and I expect he'll do the same with his new project, World Of Darkness. Oh my god that's exciting. You'd never expect this shyly soft-spoken man to have been the most interesting figure in the MMO world. I count myself as extremely lucky that Reynir exists at all, let alone wants to talk to me about his games.

After this I met up with Ron Carmel, or “the guy with the 2D Boy tie”, aka tech bloke from World Of Goo. He was quite nervous, with my dictaphone making him “feel like he was on TV”. His programmer brother (working on something at Disney) turned up to share our beers and conversation. It was the meetings like these last two that really made GDC valuable to me. You can't get all of the thousands of people to necessarily make the right connections, but you can try to damnedest to identify and connect with the people that could end up mattering. Carmel pointed out how easy it was for developers like him to bury themselves headfirst in work, and yet attending something like GDC suddenly granted them access to a community that they might not have even realised they were a member of.

The same kind of observations from various people at the show made me realise how important it was for me to be an outsider to this stuff. There was no point in thinking of games journalism as in any way meshed with what these people do, but being able to see their work, record it, interpret it, describe it, and interrogate the people who are involved has enormous value for everyone. Even if these guys end up missing each other on the show floor, or if ideas get lost amid the mass of noise, perhaps the observers can pick up the threads and get the news and views to the people who need them.

Then it was time for a pair of awards ceremonies, one after the next. The IGF awards were considerably more entertaining than the Game Choice awards for the commercial games.... “Something's going on”, as Obama likes of observe. Mmm.

Then it was time for dinner with another developer. More on this, and that lunch with the luminaries, later this week.

To part two.

[Images borrowed from the Moscone Center Multimedia pages, because my digi camera is completely broken.]

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Jim Rossignol