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The biggest non-VR stories at GDC 2016

By James Brightman

The biggest non-VR stories at GDC 2016

Wed 23 Mar 2016 2:47pm GMT / 10:47am EDT / 7:47am PDT
GDC 2016

There was actually plenty to talk about at GDC that wasn't related to virtual reality

Perusing this website or any other games media publication over the last week or so, you might come to the conclusion that VR was the only thing worth covering at the recent Game Developers Conference. And while it undoubtedly dominated coverage and conversation among the three halls of the Moscone Center, the GamesIndustry.biz editorial team was in full force at the show to bring you a complete spectrum of coverage.

Here's what stood out:

1. Crunch shaming

Some developers in the industry today believe that crunch is perfectly acceptable, that crunch is inevitable and that a little bit of crunch is quite productive. The problem is that many times this additional workload goes uncompensated. In undoubtedly what was one of the more important and overlooked stories of the show, IGDA head Kate Edwards unveiled a plan to name-and-shame companies that have poor policies around crunch.

"This is one issue I'm passionate about, and the board of directors is likewise passionate about it. And our data is showing this is an issue that needs to be addressed. And I guess part of me is tired of just letting it go. Because it's one of those things everyone talks about, everyone commiserates about it, and yet, it's still around. And it's still seen as a negative issue this industry is dealing with," she told GamesIndustry.biz.

2. The game industry remains puritanical

The 2004 "Hot Coffee" scandal in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas showed that many people in the games business have a problem with any sexual content in video games, but they are perfectly okay with extreme acts of violence. It's a dozen years later, and while some developers (e.g. BioWare) have pursued a more mature approach to sexuality, there still appears to be a good deal of apprehension surrounding any hint of sex in video games today. During a microtalks session at GDC, indie developer Robert Yang shined a spotlight on the industry's problems with sex.

"The game industry needs to get laid and chill already," Yang said. "I make games about sex. I have to make these games because I feel no one else will... I can't even sell my game at all. If I do, I risk PayPal banning me as a high-risk account. I don't even want to risk arguing with PayPal. PayPal's used all over the game industry and is the eye of Sauron. Did you know that Twitch.TV bans games too? I know this because they banned my games twice."

"If games want to be the most powerful industry and artform in the world, don't freak out about dick jokes," Yang said at the end of his talk. "Everyone loves to play games, some games are about sex. Don't ban games just because they are about sex. Society will not collapse."

3. The industry still has gender issues

Two years ago, Brenda Romero resigned from her position as the chair of the IGDA Women in Games SIG after the US trade body featured scantily-clad female dancers at its GDC party for the second year in a row. Just when you thought things were moving in the right direction, this year's GDC presented another major screw up. One of the biggest players in the space, Microsoft, was embarrassed after it was discovered that the firm's GDC party featured podium dancers dressed in faux-school uniforms. Xbox boss Phil Spencer immediately apologized and noted that it was "unequivocally wrong," but the fact that a major force in the industry is still letting things like this slip by (even if accidentally) does not reflect well on the games business as a whole, which remains dominated by white males.

One of those white males trying to make a difference, however, is Fullbright founder Steve Gaynor, who pleaded with an audience at GDC during his microtalks speech to look past "the best person for the job." Doors were opened for Gaynor and he was given a chance to succeed and shine, because as a white male he's more likely to be given that opportunity. Gaynor's team is now mostly comprised of women (five out of eight) and he encourages studios to give talented women a chance at success.

"Maybe you have a chance, because you're involved with hiring, recommending people for new positions, or running your own studio, to hire a young woman who hasn't had the opportunity to prove herself yet, but you know that she could if somebody gave her a chance," he said. "And maybe letting her in now leads to an industry, 10 or 15 years from now, having way more women who can stand up and say 'Absolutely. I am the best person for the job because I worked my way here. And nobody can take that from me, because years ago, somebody let me in.'"

4. eSports is getting bigger everyday

There's no denying that eSports is here to stay. ESPN is covering it, Yahoo is covering it, and two of the AAA publishers (EA and Activision) have their own dedicated competitive gaming divisions. At GDC, Microsoft got more heavily involved as well, announcing its Xbox Live Tournaments Platform which enables Xbox One and Windows 10 developers to integrate tournaments into their games. While studios can run their own eSports competitions, both FaceIt and ESL jumped on board to provide help to third-party developers who want to leverage their eSports platforms through Xbox Live.

"The launch of the Xbox Live Tournaments Platform is a monumental moment for the future of competitive gaming and the growth of eSports," said Niccolo Maisto, CEO of Faceit. "With the new Xbox Live Tournaments Platform, Microsoft is embracing eSports and enabling gamers to experience the fun and excitement that competitive gaming has to offer."

Just because the eSports industry is on the rise, however, doesn't mean that anyone can make a genuine living playing video games today. The reality is that, similar to other sports, it's only the cream of the crop that generates significant earnings. In a special panel at GDC, Raptr founder Dennis Fong (the very first pro gamer) was joined by several other former pros to talk about the modern eSports world.

"It's still a risky proposition. Let's not kid ourselves," said Fong. "I wouldn't recommend an above average player to aspire to be a pro gamer and give up on school. I know people who practice 15 hours a day and they'll never be the best. You have to know whether you have the [talent]. You need to be in the upper echelon of players."

For people who are definitely interested in pursuing the field, perhaps more than talent, the most important thing to be aware of is what personality and brand you will build. "I look at the top League of Legends players on Twitch and they aren't the best but they've gotten good at developing their personalities," Fong said.

5. Game engine democratization is changing the industry

At last week's GDC, the game engine race continued. Unity launched its 5.3.4 and a 5.4 public beta and announced a Unity certification program, which will enable students and other developers to take an exam which will give them an official qualification. Epic also continued to reward creatives using its Unreal Engine 4, doling out another $500,000 in Unreal Dev Grants, while Crytek, arguably lagging behind, looked to close the gap with the other major players by adopting a "pay what you want" model for its CryEngine 5. Just last year, Crytek was saying that it didn't see a reason to switch business models to compete with Unreal and Unity; clearly, it's feeling the pressure of developers more widely gravitating towards its competitors.

All this competition, however, is absolutely fantastic for the average game developer and new entrants to the industry who are pursuing their creative dreams. It's never been easier to get your hands on the necessary tools to actually make a game, and that means we're going to see a lot more people making games. As our own Rob Fahey put it, "the democratization of game engines and creative tools is the most exciting movement in games this decade."

Fahey made an analogy to the boom that the film industry saw after the introduction of Super 8 cameras. "Some creators have compared this to the appearance of relatively compact, low-cost film systems like Super 8 in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a development which fueled an explosion of creativity and experimentation in cinema as young directors got their hands on movie-making tools that had previously demanded huge budgets and studio approval."

6. Older players will be the next big market opportunity

One area of the industry that's perhaps been ignored too long is the growing audience of older players. People who grew up with the early video games of the '80s are now in their 30s and 40s and many are still interested in playing games. It won't be long before the game industry has a sizable audience that's above 50 years old. But the fact is that not many developers are even thinking about designing games for an older crowd. It makes business sense for the industry to figure out how to meet the needs of players who may not have the reflexes or interests of the 18-34 year-old demographic.

At GDC, Miami University professor Bob De Schutter presented a compelling case on why this is a big issue and how developers can learn to make games that are appealing and satisfying for older players. The key is to focus on accessibility and content; as it stands now, companies have mostly targeted older players with brain games, which aren't even proven to prevent cognitive decline. "How would you feel if every game out there stereotyped you. I guess every female gamer in the audience knows what I'm talking about," De Schutter said.

It's also a matter of the industry's workforce maturing. Game studios need to get beyond ageism as well, since as of 2014, only one percent of developers are over age 50, according to the IGDA.

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