Few game designers reach Spielbergian status, but you might know their creations: Lara Croft, Grand Theft Auto, Guitar Hero. What's next?
This week players in a US$9.5 billion industry will converge on San Francisco as the 2008 Game Developers Conference begins. Over the week, the brightest minds behind the biggest games will share ideas, look at the newest technologies, and plan for the future.
To all the naysayers yammering about the death of PC gaming: Not so fast. During this year's GDC, Microsoft, nVidia, AMD, Intel, and several other "small" companies are joining forces to announce the formation of the PC Gaming Alliance. Not much is known about the exact breadth and depth of the announcement, but I have to wonder – will it supplant Microsoft's "Games for Windows" initiative?
As for other platforms, I also expect to see Google's Android making a cameo at the show. Spokespeople are promising that it has the potential to offer, in your cell phone, more power than that found in a PlayStation Portable – that I'll have to see to believe.
Gadgets on Display
And don't forget gadgets straight out of B-movies. Last year's conference saw not one but two goofy-looking skullcaps that let you control games with your brain. Imagine a techno-beanie that can not only determine the facial gestures you're making and translate those actions to on-screen avatars but also obey your commands. Want an object lifted? Just think it. No joke.
This year, Emotiv Systems' mind-control device will be officially unveiled, with its consumer-ready design and plans for world domination. Knowing how people go nuts over the Nintendo Wii's remote control, I can't wait to see what happens when you tell 'em that you need only to wear a hat to play a game.
I'm also curious to hear what Nokia has in store for the gaming market. Despite the dismal reception of its taco-shaped N-Gage devices, the Swedish cell phone maker has stuck to its guns, and the company is now working on an amazingly ambitious massively multiplayer game code-named White Rock.
Nokia, which plans to launch the game simultaneously in seven languages on cell phones and PCs, promises that gamers around the world will be able to play together. The claim raises a few questions, though: Can South Korean gamers really play in their native tongue and still chat with us English speakers? More important, will trash-talking get lost in translation?
This is also the year that big game companies will take big chances with online and more-casual games. Electronic Arts is gambling with its immensely popular Battlefield series, creating a free-to-play version that'll work on just about any computer. One thing they are trying to figure out right now: How they are going to finance the game. One thing they are shying away from is a virtual arms race where you have to pay extra for more potent gear.
New graphics cards
Some things are inevitable. According to the Mayan calendar (and Moore's Law), it's time for someone to unveil a new graphics card. nVidia's on the warpath, no doubt, but word has it that integrated-chip maker S3 Graphics is about to break back into the cutthroat discrete-card business. Good luck with that!
Other technologies, though, are a little tougher to forecast. Take TN Games' FPS Gaming Vest, for example. It's a 7-pound techno-tuxedo that detects where you are hit in a game and pokes you in the corresponding part of your torso. This year the company plans to introduce an accompanying helmet that'll clobber your noggin. Is all of this Skinner-box negative reinforcement really necessary? I say: more carrot, less stick. It's bad enough losing to – and being heckled by – people still trapped in puberty.
And what's nVidia up to with Ageia? Who knew that the now-dubious physics-calculating cards (Physics Processing Units, if you will) from Ageia would still be around? Without ample games showing virtual balls, bullets, and boards behaving as their real-world counterparts do, Ageia's PhysX cards have become little more than pricey paperweights. What we can't figure out is what nVidia has in store after having absorbed the ailing PPU creator.
The Independent Games Festival
While all the big players are posturing (or listening to a panel featuring Ralph Baer, the Father of Home Video Games), a whole other show will be happening simultaneously. Ask anyone roaming the floor, and they'll tell you that the Independent Games Festival is infinitely more important. Think of the IGF as the Sundance of gaming: It captures the spirit of budding designers hungry to create the next big thing.
Working on shoestring budgets, these pajama programmers vie for top honors in hopes of being discovered. Previous winners have gone on to create all sorts of award-winning games such as last year's puzzle game Portal and the twitch-based Everyday Shooter. I can't wait to see the finalists that rose above 175-plus entries this year.