gdc 2014

Five Trends From GDC

by Kimberley Wallace on Mar 27, 2014 at 10:42 AM



The annual Game Developers Conference was in full swing last week. As usual, it was full of thought-provoking panels and discussion. Developers and industry insiders openly discussed the process of making video games and what they think needs improvement, and forecasted the future of the industry. Watching so many different people reach epiphanies is always exciting. Here are some trends that stood out from the show.

VR Inches Closer To Reality 

Virtual reality is a hot topic right now, even more so after Facebook acquired Oculus after the show. At GDC, several companies showed off their new prototypes and demonstrated their commitment to making it a part of the future. Oculus' second development kit was on hand for presentations and Sony used the show to unveil its Project Morpheus, even providing us hands-on time

Other companies were also showing VR prototypes, all with different visions, such as Gameface offering a more convenient, self-contained model, Sulon striving for full mobility, and Virtuix Omni adding locomotion to the equation.

During the week, our news editor, Mike Futter, tried six different VR experiences and noted that all were different, giving him many different takeaways about VR and the future.

VR's strong prominence at GDC and the fact that key players such as Sony are getting in on the action shows confidence that VR has a place in our gaming landscape. Time will tell how consumers respond to the technology, but the focus from the development community was clear. For years, VR seemed like something far-off in the future; now it actually feels like a gaming reality.

It's Cool To Be Indie

The great part of GDC is how the conference celebrates all different games. Whether it's the big triple-A projects or the low-budget indie darlings, every game has its chance to shine. The various panels and the Game Developers Choice Awards and Independent Games Festival Awards provide plenty of opportunities to acknowledge great work. This year, though, it was clear a divide is forming between triple-A and indie developers. The differentiation in applause levels at the Game Developers Choice Awards said as much. When Grand Theft Auto V took home the award for the "Best Technology," there was a mere smattering of applause. When indie games like Papers, Please and Gone Home took home awards, the audience made their overwhelming approval known.

Regardless of what message the audience was trying to convey, one thing can't be denied: Indie games are reaching more people than ever, and their prominence continues to rise. Sony led the charge last year, integrating indie games into its ecosystem and considering developer feedback when creating the PS4. Microsoft used GDC to show the Xbox One isn't abandoning indie gaming, announcing a plethora of games. This is great for both indie development and gamers; seeing indie reach increasingly large audiences and grow with different platforms is encouraging.

Check out some games on the horizon that we saw at the GDC Indie Mixer.

A Call For Diversity

Pictured above: Slide From Misogyny, Racism and Homophobia: Where Do Video Games Stand? Panel By Manveer Heir (BioWare Montreal)

More people are gaming today than ever before. As audiences grow, it's clear that developers must consider more than just a single demographic when making a game. This year, plenty of panels led the charge for more diversity in games and the industry itself. Gender, sexuality, and race were all examined, advice was imparted, and panelists left with hope that the discussion might offer better solutions. The task won't be an easy one, but we've filled our quota of bald space marines. Now it's time to take care with accurate representations and strive not to alienate potential audiences. Some of the work done so far was awarded at the show, such as Feminist Frequency creator Anita Sarkeesian receiving the Ambassador Award for her Tropes vs. Women video series.

What's particularly refreshing is just how many panels focused on different areas of the issue. At the panel "Narratives As Therapy," researcher Kim Shashoua shared a staggering fact: 26-percent of our population is struggling with mental illness, telling developers, "It's inevitable that someone with a mental illness will be playing your game." The point is simple: Developers need to look at the bigger picture. Games reach a wide variety of different people with various lifestyles and creators need to keep that in mind.

Getting Story And Gameplay On The Same Page

GDC has an entire panel track devoted to game narrative, and every year the talk about making stories work in games grows. This year, more panels explored the issue of gameplay and narrative often being at odds and how it's disruptive. Thomas Grip of Frictional Games (Amnesia) discussed making storytelling a part of the gameplay experience, preventing dissonance between the narrative and what the player is actually doing. All interactions should tie together perfectly.

At another panel, BioShock creator Ken Levine realized he needed a change away from linear narratives toward a path that better meshes gameplay and narrative. He's already thinking about ways to go about it, encouraging developers to build the story out of the gameplay systems.

Campo Santo co-founder Sean Vanaman wasn't shy about discussing problematic gameplay interrupting story sequences. He confessed to the shortcomings of The Walking Dead, talking about how quick-time events disrupted some of the tonal consistency and how he's striving to make sure the new game he's working on, Firewatch, avoids this problem. With big names exploring this space, it's clear that this issue is coming to the forefront.

Free-To-Play Is Here To Stay

East Asia has seen plenty of success with free-to-play, and it's bloomed in the west as a model for games like League of Legends and Dota 2. The success is something that both Sony and Microsoft can't ignore and both companies are experimenting with it to see if the model has a future on home consoles. In his Fireside chat, Phil Spencer said that free-to-play games are part of Xbox One's future and something that the company is still working on to find the best way to present it to consumers. Sony has already started the free-to-play experiment, releasing the shooter Blacklight Retribution on PS4 and the RPG Destiny of Spirits for Vita, and support continues with Capcom's upcoming Deep Down. Sony hosted an entire GDC panel to add to the discussion entitled, "F2P on PS4: Can it work?" The panel encouraged developers to think about the free-to-play model and allowed the studio director from Zombie Studios, developers of Blacklight Retribution, to speak out about the process so far. While free-to-play may be a contentious model in some circles, its appeal is undeniable and isn't losing any steam.

While it's difficult to encapsulate the entire show, these trends got us thinking about the future of the industry. GDC always provides great insight into the minds of the people behind our favorite games, and this isn't the last we'll hear about any of these topics. What do you hope comes out of the show next year?