Monday, February 11, 2013

In Depth: GDC 2013: what to expect

In Depth: GDC 2013: what to expect

It's almost time once again for developers, producers, manufacturers, programmers, designers, artists, audio professionals, insiders and journalists to convene in San Francisco for five days action-packed, game-centric days from March 25-29.

Known in long form as the Game Developers Conference, GDC is considered the largest and longest running professionals-only event in the gaming industry. This is where deals are made, new games brought to life and new systems are taken on test runs.

Now in its 26th year, the 22,500-attendee strong show helps to set the tone for the indie gaming industry the whole year long. While lesser-known developers and manufacturers are given a stage all their own at GDC, this year will be markedly different thanks to two major new systems.

GDC 2013: what to expect
Last year's show floor Credit: UBM Tech

Not only will the PS4 and Xbox 720 dominate conversation and lord over the conference like a last-level boss, we might even get the chance to play with one of the systems for the first time following its announcement.

You'll have to read on to find out which one (don't worry, we let you know soon enough) and what else we expect to see at this year's GDC.

Sony teaser photo
PS4 should arrive just in time for a GDC appearance

Playtime with PlayStation 4

Two consoles will be on everyone's mind at this year's GDC: the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720.

To tackle the former first, Sony is likely planning to unveil its next-gen gaming console - known internally as "Orbis" - during a Feb. 20 event in New York City, but we expect there will be plenty of PS4 playtime at the San Fran conference.

Instead of waiting until June's E3 to show off its new system, Sony is (probably) very smartly holding a standalone event to snag the world into the PS4's gravitation pull.

What we expect at GDC is plenty of one-on-one time with the console - for industry insiders, developers, publishers, media, and anyone else lucky enough to attend.

This should be one of the first times aside from its NYC debut that anyone gets to lay eyes and hands on the lo ng-awaited follow up to the PS3.

Creating buzz is the name of the game for Sony. In fact, there's a rumor that Orbis' controller will feature a PS Vita-like trackpad. What's more, Sony will offer developers and gaming insiders the opportunity to maneuver it, learn about it, and spread the word to their gaming friends and colleagues - just what the manufacturer needs to squeeze as much buzz out of the system as possible.

Graphics for the PS4 and the Xbox 720 will also be hugely important to gaming en masse moving forward, so if Sony decides to fill out its next console with something special on the graphics front, we'll hear all about it at G DC.

On the flip side, if the PS4 falls short in GPU, it could leave a lot of room for smaller systems to take charge and boost underdog games along with them.

If there's not much in the games announcement department during Sony's late-February event, we expect GDC to hold the goods on just who is making games for the PS4.

If people aren't talking PS4 (and Xbox 720), they'll be thinking about both, so look for announcements and ideas on development leaning heavily on the big boys.

Xbox 720 talk

As of now, we don't know when the next Xbox will launch or even when Microsoft plans to unveil it. Heck, without official word we can't even confirm that the Xbox 720 - or whatever it's called - is in the works, though there are some very strong indicators that it is.

Regardless of if it's announced before GDC or not, the next-gen Xbox will, along with the PS4, be the buzziest system at the conference. The same questions apply - what games will we see on it, what are its processing power and graphics like and what does it mean for systems moving forward?

There's word game developers are already fiddling with the 720, so we could hear cemented word on just what games are heading to the system during the conference.

The PS4, with its probable late-February reveal, will set the bar for the Xbox 720. Can the latter live up to and even surpass its competitor? We imagine quite a few lively debates will take place on the topic.

What's really interesting about the Xbox 720 (or Xbox Infinity or Durango, other names we've heard used to describe the system) is that it has the potential for gamers to continue playing on their phones, laptops and tablets.

With greater mobile integration comes a whole world of possibilities and platforms for developers, artists, and audio experts, just to name a few. We could really see and hear some exciting stuff on the mobile gaming front all stemming from the poss ibilities afforded with a new Microsoft system.

Redmond representatives will be in the building during those days, so we should be able to gather what the Softies have going for their next console, as well.

Check out this nifty video TechRadar put together with all that we want to see in the next Xbox:

Free-to-play, not pay-to-win

When you hear the phrase Free-to-Play, what games come to mind? FarmVille, Mafia Wars and Smurfs Village? Or Team Fortress 2, League of Legends and Star Wars: The Old Republic? This ye ar GDC will host a conference on the F2P model, games that don't charge players for the initial dive in, but start shaking the cup for in-game items and character progression.

This business model gained a foothold in the industry beyond games your Facebook friends spam you about. Massive multiplayer games, such as Star Trek Online and DC Universe Online, that faced waning subscriber interest have found new life with a F2P option. Other games like Hawken and Monday Night Combat have been F2P from the beginning, and seem to be striking a perfect balance of offering free entry while getting players to chip in for reasonable rewards.

But GDC's F2P advisory board is mostly experts from the realm of browser games. While the folks behind successful Flash titles such as Marvel Alliance and Bingo Blingo obviously understand the marketplace, we're interested in the roll F2P can have for AAA 3D titles. Valve is attending ; maybe someone from the TF2 hat department can chime in?

Hands-free gaming developments

Handheld controllers will never go out of style, though we'll certainly see them evolve over the next several years.

While we do expect there will be some intriguing ergonomic additions to the controller and keypad ecosystem demoed at GDC, we'll be looking for the ways users can manipulate play while keeping their hands folded, stuffed in pockets, or cradling a slice of pizza.

Tobii Technology, which recently showed its hands-free Windows 8 peripheral at CES 2013, is one of the listed GDC exhibitors and we anticipate good t hings coming from these guys.

The company is one of the leading developers in eye tracking and "gaze interaction," coming up with a system so users can rely just on their eye movements to maneuver PC applications.

The tech isn't just great for gamers looking for new ways to interact with their players and virtual realms - the implications for special needs users is also an exciting front for the gaming industry to explore.

Tobii's influence, which looks to be taking hold, should be something the gaming industry eye out for, so we anticipate others to take notice and/or show off their own tech come GDC.

Here's a demo video of the eye tracking tech from Tobii as used in Angry Birds:

The best of Best in Play

GDC 2013: what to expect
The cream of the crop comes early at Best in Play Credit: UBM Tech

The GDC has always had its Game Developers Choice Awards, where games industry professionals choose the highlights of the show. Now, for the second year in a row, the GDC will kick off award season early with the Best in Play awards.

Best in Play is for independent developers to show completed or in-progress titles in February. The winners, as chosen by GDC board members and the editors of Gamasutra, will receive full access to the GDC show, and special placement at the show.

Best in Pla y gives indie developers a head start, and gives attendees a heads-up on great titles to check out that they otherwise might have missed. We look forward to seeing the titles that make the grade.

The story of story in gaming

GDC 2013: what to expect
Hey, at least the rabid fans weren't skipping the cutscenes

It seems like every year games find ways to grab players not just with visceral thrills and flashy production value, but compelling characters and situations. As gaming grows as a medium, more and more emphasis is being placed on narrative.

Do gamers need a compelling reason to go for that hard-to-reach gold coin or decapitate just one more zombie? The folks of GDC sure think so. There are a half dozen or so lectures on video game story telling, including "R ethinking How We Build Games and Why: The Papo & Yo Story" and "Emotional Journey: Bioware's Methods Bring Narrative into Levels."

Bioware is a real frontrunner in storytelling through gaming, but recently met with a shocking amount of flack from gamers over the conclusion of its Mass Effect trilogy. The developer actually released a downloadable addendum to the game's ending, hoping to satisfy fans with an ending-expanding prologue.

Is Mass Effect 3 a cautionary tale of placing too much emphasis on narrative? Or was it just growing pains for a maturing medium? We're curious to see if this comes up in Bioware's presentation.

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