The future of gaming

11 May 2005

It has been 19 years since Chris Crawford gathered some game developer friends at his home to discuss making games that inadvertently gave rise to the Games Developer Conference (GDC). These modest beginnings seem all the more surreal considering the scale and diversity of the event today. It has come a long way in those years but this GDC was not about the past: the theme was Future Vision — a deceptively accurate and concise summation of a fascinating week’s proceedings.

It was a week that saw 10,000 attendees pass through the conference doors to take part in lectures, workshops and events ranging in topic from visual arts, programming, game design to production, business and legal and audio. Many other events took place around the core conference.

GDC’s theme was echoed throughout the schedule in the form of debuting Future Vision track, designed to provoke innovation among developers and inspire the creation of breakthrough content capable of driving the industry beyond the transition to next-generation platforms. The Future Vision track consisted of tailored lectures by distinguished games industry figureheads on their visions of what lies ahead for gaming.

This year also saw the strongest ever showing from the Irish contingent at GDC. With an air of growing confidence and maturity about them, the Irish companies attending made their presence felt. The middleware sector was the most broadly represented, but the other Irish companies offered a cross section of the growing game development talent in the country. Torc Interactive flew the PC and console flag, Nephin Games represented mobile gaming and Starcave Studios personified the growth of our independent developers.

With its usual sense of style Havok launched the third version of its physics middleware solution at a party in San Francisco’s hip Swig bar. With this new version, the famous Havok rag doll models don’t just fall down any more — they can now get back up to finish the fight! In addition, the rag doll models can now react to in-game impacts and other stimuli, while the integration of animations with the physics package also solves a number of traditional game design problems — for example simple game world objects such as steps are now handled automatically by the engine to produce an altogether more realistic set of animations for any game using the Havok engine.

GDC provided an ideal platform for network middleware specialists DemonWare to reveal a new element of the DemonWare Netcode Suite: Matchmaking+, a set of tools for online titles on multiple console, PC and handheld platforms, including friends lists, statistics, user management, content downloads and of course matchmaking. The company is still riding high on the appointment of Art Santos as US director of sales and its ever-increasing profile and success in the American market.
Donegal’s middleware and game development studio Torc Interactive took time out from its hectic development schedule to meet with potential publishers for its forthcoming PC and Xbox titles. The company is currently focused on its biggest project to date: Dreadnought, a groundbreaking first-person mini-game for the new AMD 64 bit processor. With the official launch planned for the E3 games conference in May, expect to hear much more from Torc soon.

Alan Duggan, CEO of Nephin games, a Galway-based mobile phone game developer was at GDC this year meeting publishers, attending lectures and attending the GDC Mobile — one of the many mini-conferences to emerge at GDC over the years. He was pleased with the level of interest received both at home and in the US following the successful launch of Nephin’s latest title, World Kickboxing Network.

Keith Killilea, managing director and founder of Starcave Studios, was kept busy hurrying from publisher meeting to meeting while showcasing the latest edition of the company’s first PC title Camelot Galway — City of the Tribes.
The week’s events culminated in a far-reaching announcement by industry legend and Sims creator Will Wright, who stole the show with nothing less than a proposal for a new way to make games.

When Wright gives a lecture, people sit up and take notice; but no one was prepared for what Wright was about say and do, as he presented his lecture called The Future of Content.

But rather than simply talk in general terms about the subject, Wright went on to demonstrate the future of content as he sees it in the form of a previously unannounced game with the working title Spore. Spore. is groundbreaking for several reasons, not least the fact that it allows the player to create his or her own content with an unprecedented level of control and flexibility. The ambition behind the game design itself is of epic proportions. Spore seeks to redefine games as an art form, taking the player on a journey from the dawn of amoebic life on a planet right through to the interstellar level; everything that happens in between is controlled largely by the player.

What is also unique about the game is its use of procedural content; content that is created during the game algorithmically rather than in advance by a team of artists. Here, players can develop their own creatures, buildings and vehicles in an infinite number of ways, giving players absolute freedom in how they play their own game and simultaneously removing the need for hundreds of artists working endlessly to create the content for the player.

Owing to the use of procedural methods, the file size footprint for each player-created model is relatively tiny — only a few kilobits. This allows players to download entire galaxies of community-generated content into their game.
Wright likened these procedural tools to toys such as Etch A Sketch where the players drawings come to life. Beyond game play features however the implications for how games will be developed in the future are truly immense.

The lasting impression from the GDC 2005 was of the intensified focus on the future of content and the changing subject matter of games. Wright certainly gave everyone plenty to consider with his proposals. What is also increasingly evident is the diversification in approaches to making and selling games. If this vision is in any way accurate then the future of gaming is very exciting indeed.

By Ian Hannigan

More than 10,000 visitors passed through the doors of the Games Developer Conference, which took place in San Francisco recently