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Game Developers Conference Expo Floor Notes

We?re not playing around anymore By Guy Wright

This years Game Developers Conference held at the new Moscone West in San Francisco was a much more serious event than in past years. There was a decided lack of Lara Croft look-alikes posing for pictures. No fully-outfitted robot warriors strolling the aisles. No rubber monsters or midgets dressed like Nintendo characters. There werent very many crowd-choked booths with people scrambling over tossed t-shirts or posters. I didnt see a single scantily-clad booth bunny handing out chachkas. There were very few explosions and the music and general noise was, by comparison to past shows, deafeningly quiet. In short, it was more like your typical industry conference/expo. Yes there were still a few long-haired hippie-type programmers with piercings and tattoos wandering about but they were far outnumbered by more business-looking types (not quite suits and ties yet, but wait till next year).

Most of the usual suspects were there to one degree or another - Console Manufacturers Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo (with Nokia showing N-Gage and Sony/Ericsson showing phones); graphics card makers Nvidea and ATI; Chip makers AMD and Intel; plus the expected distributors, packagers, and, of course the game publishers. But for the most part the expo was filled with tool makers offering compilers, middleware, AI components, modelers, particle systems, mocap systems, 3D scanners, cinematics engines and collaborative development environments.

Oddly enough, there were nearly a dozen colleges and universities at the show touting their game development, graphics, or animation programs. There was the Vancouver Film School, The Art Institute of California, The Expression College for Digital Arts, The Academy of Art: San Francisco, The Savannah College of Art & Design, The University of Central Florida, Cerro Coso Community College (with their Academy of Media Arts), Collins College, ITT Technical Institute, and Full Sail.

Im not exactly sure what this means for the games industry. It could be that there is a growing demand for university trained and certified game developers (particularly artists) or it could just mean that academia is finally realizing that game development is as viable an industry as accounting or agriculture. (I jokingly asked one recruiter how a game artist could ever hope to make enough money to pay off their graduate school tuition but they didnt think my question was all that funny.)

One thing I did notice was a shift of emphasis away from new title announcements and individual game demos toward much more specialized game development tools and components. Now I know that the GDC is not E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) - its supposed to be about tools and techniques - but I always felt that amid the compilers and graphics engines there had always been a spoonful of hype and hoopla mixed in to brighten the mood. After all, game developers are supposed to be a fairly fun-loving and irreverent bunch arent they?

Perhaps Shawn Heinrichs, Chief Financial Officer at Anark said it best when I visited their booth, ?As soon as people began to realize how much money was being generated by the game industry they began to look at things in a much more traditional business way. The content, or game play is still very important but now theres more emphasis on meeting deadlines, coming in under budget, and using traditional team programming approaches.

?In the past, games were built by individuals and there was a lot of proprietary coding, Heinrichs continued. ?Publishers distinguished their games by tweaking their engines to get the last possible ounce of performance out of the target platform - if your programmer could get twenty more polygons out of a system than your competitor then your game would look better. The problem was that if your programmer went somewhere else chances were that no one else would be able to unravel that code or if there were improvements to the platform you had to rewrite all your proprietary code from scratch. Publishers also realized that with the vast amounts of money spent on development, slipping a deadline by even a few months could be a financial disaster.

?Over the past few years, the platforms performance has increased dramatically so squeezing out a few more polygons isnt going to set you that much ahead of your competitors. What does set you ahead of your competitors is gameplay and getting your titles out rapidly, on time, and on budget. And to do that you cant be reinventing the wheel with each new title - you cant be writing everything from scratch or relying on one programmer to do everything from user interface design and graphics to coding the engine. Youve got to have a more structured team approach to development and youve got to rely more on 3rd party components.

Heinrichs also pointed out that the 3rd party tools have also improved a lot. ?A few years ago no self-respecting game developer would rely on 3rd party development tools and with good reason. By trying to do everything most of the tools ended up not doing anything particularly well, he explained. ?They were too generic and ended up producing pretty generic games. They were also usually about six months behind the curve so at best your title ended up looking like last years titles. These days, I think that 3rd party tool developers have wised up a lot and by focusing their efforts on one or two key elements theyve made themselves more valuable to publishers.

?Anark, for example, focuses on 3D user interface tools - Anark Studio and Anark Format SDK - that have an emphasis on establishing a ?business contract between the artist and the programmer. We dont do engines or modeling or level design tools. Our tools are also based on a more traditional programming approach which makes them more easily adaptable to changes from one title to the next, one platform to the next or one engine to the next. We arent trying to do everything and that makes our tools more valuable.

There were a number of other companies on the show floor taking the same ?specialization = value approach. For example, IDV (Interactive Data Visualization) was exhibiting speed tree, a program that only does - you guessed it - trees. It can do everything from a single tree to entire forests. It handles collision detection and LOD and even wind effects. But it doesnt do race cars or aliens or music - all it does is trees.

Fork Particle, is another company taking the specialize road. Their product, Fork Particle 1.0, just does particles. Dolby and DTS only do sound. And there were many others.

The folks over at Curious Labs (who gave me a sneak peak at Poser 6 and Shade) summed it up nicely when they said that Poser (and many other specialized products) may only do one thing but they do it very, very well. ?Poser is like a screwdriver - its designed for one specific purpose. Now you can use a screwdriver for a lot of things but when you need to drive a screw you dont reach for a hammer.

Ill talk more about the Game Developers Conference in Part 2.

About the author
Guy Wright has been kicking around the video and computer industries for more years than he cares to admit. He has written hundreds of articles, reviews, and editorials for dozens of magazines and Web sites over the years and never seems to get tired exploring new technologies.


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Guy Wright has been kicking around computers and video for more years than he cares to admit and written too many articles to count. He has been a director, editor, producer, video operator, and announcer for a score of radio and TV stations. His credits include hundreds of insipid local-origination programs and commercials, dozens of cheesy radio spots, and even a book or two. Mainly he writes and edits articles for Digital Media Online.
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