March 30, 2009

Recap: GDC 2009

gdcI spent most of last week in San Francisco attending the annual Game Developer's Conference - a pure geek fest with all of the big names exhibiting like Nintendo and Sony, as well as many many smaller companies, independent developers, and students floating around. Having only previously attended GDC Austin last September, this experience was quite different without a Project Darkstar booth on the expo floor. On the one hand, I was able to attend more sessions, see more of the other booths and expos, and speak with more of the other attendees. On the other hand, though, there was a distinct lack of presence that Project Darkstar clearly had down in Austin. Here are some thoughts on the conference, in no particular order:
  • It was really great to finally meet Esko, Jonathan, and Andres - three of the four contest winners from the Project Darkstar Developer Challenge.
  • The aforementioned contest winners were interviewed on Chris Melissinos's radio show SHIFT Radio on Friday morning. I found some time to listen to it after I returned, and honestly, it's a great display of the internal gears of the Project Darkstar open source community at work. Here we have three different people, from three different countries, all actively contributing to the Project Darkstar effort for three different reasons. Esko, a student, is coming at it with academic curiosity and has independently built a feature into the core that many in the community have been clamoring for. Jonathon, a game developer, has taken an active interest in Project Darkstar from a practical standpoint and put together an ActionScript client that inter-operates with a Project Darkstar server. While Andres, an independent game developer, has built a real game with Project Darkstar. If you're interested in Project Darkstar at all, have a listen. On a side note, see if you can count how many times Chris says some form of the words ridiculous and awesome.
  • Probably the biggest splash that was made by a new player on the expo floor was the completely over-the-top OnLive booth. In twenty five words or less, OnLive is trying to make a grab for some of the console games market with a subscription based, games on demand model. Rather than buying a console and then paying for shrink-wrapped games, consumers get a small, network enabled device that gives them access to the complete library of games that you play over the network for a monthly fee. In terms of the business model, I think they have an approach that could take off (others seemed to disagree with me though). However, I have my doubts that they'll be able to iron out all of the technical issues with such a setup. Essentially, the only thing happening on the client side is that it is sending controller actions in real time back to the server, the server is processing those actions, and then sending just the video feed back to the client. The guys at the booth were talking mostly about their awesome video compression technology (and in fact I have no doubts that it is, in fact, awesome). However, I don't see that being the real problem. Because the client and server are in complete, synchronous lock-step, it doesn't matter how fast you can compress the video, the long tail by far is the network latency. You can improve your chances of low latency by sprinkling OnLive servers all over the globe, but the internet is still prone to blips, spikes, and just general unpredictable latencies. Add to that the fact that during peak demand, the OnLive servers could potentially have millions of users asking for not just processing power, but high performance graphics accelerator type processing power, and I just don't see how it's going to scale.
  • What's the deal with so many countries and provinces having extravagant booths? I saw booths for Canada, many of its provinces (Alberta, Newfoundland, etc), Korea, Germany, Scotland, Argentina... I suppose many places see a real value in reaching out to this industry as it can serve as a boon for the economy, it can generate jobs, and it can just generally stir up interest in ways that maybe other industries just can't do.
  • I did get a chance to make it to several sessions and lectures during the conference. Most of the talks that I went to were mostly related to game design and less so on the technical programming problems that we focus on for Project Darkstar. I still found them valuable, though, to get a general sense of the issues that game developers tend to think about.
  • Despite its simplicity, I found Hideo Kojima's Thursday Keynote both really intriguing and really entertaining. He basically chronicled the development lifecycle of the entire Metal Gear series of games, from the original Metal Gear developed for the MSX2 platform, to Metal Gear Solid 4 developed for the Playstation 3. I think what's most interesting is that many of the game design choices and game play choices were heavily influenced by the capabilities (or lack thereof) of the hardware and software being used.
Overall, GDC 2009 was a great experience. I hope that we get some positive fallout from it.

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