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GDC 2010 Coverage

All the news, insight and comment from the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco

For this year's GDC 2010 event, taking place all this week, we're using a new system for our coverage which is taking the form of an event blog. Every time we hear something interesting - either formally or less so - we'll post it here, with the latest updates at the top.

Updates will include interesting snippets from lectures and panel sessions, any announcements we get wind of, plus the general buzz on the show floor - what people are talking about, the issues being discussed, and so on.

But we also want to hear from you - if you're at GDC, or you want to react to things we're writing, drop us a line and we may add your thoughts to the blog as well!

Saturday, March 13

18:13 PST / 02:13 GMT (Kath): This final update concludes our GDC 2010 coverage as the event wraps up in San Francisco. We hope you've found it informative whether you've been here with us, or following news on the PlayStation Move, OnLive and much more from afar.

For the former, we're sure you'll agree it was a fabulous industry event, particularly in terms of organisation and the sheer size of the turn out. Expect plenty of interviews over the coming weeks from key industry people we had chance to catch up with while here at the conference. In the meantime, we welcome any comments or feedback on our blog-style coverage of the event, and whether it worked for you.

17:30 PST / 01:30 GMT (Kath): Dave Perry has said that he's as surprised as everyone else by the business model announced by OnLive earlier in the conference.

Monthly subscriptions to the service will cost users $14.95 per month with the price of games on top. Perry said that Gaikai isn't in direct competition with the OnLive – in fact, he says it would be good if OnLive was successful and gave streaming a good reputation – but he stressed the benefits of Gaikai. Namely that users of it won't be paying a subscription and that – if they choose to buy a game after playing it on Gaikai - they'll own the game as normal. They won't need to keep paying monthly subscription in order to access their games.

Gaikai's beta test across Europe showed up a few surprises, he said – in particular that many people had lower spec machines than expected, which resulted in a server redesign. But the service now sounds on track to launch in the US imminently – a lot of accounts will be handed out at E3, said Perry – presumably a launch date is likely to come out of it too.

A deal just signed with TriplePoint – server provider for YouTube and Facebook – is going to pay for the server infrastructure, said Perry.

Most excitingly for publishers, Gaikai can revolutionise what it costs them to get their product played by consumers. Enabling potential consumers to download entire demos – and it's been shown that a sizeable percentage of those consumers don't even click play after downloading the demo because they've gone off to do something else too – is far costlier than the Gaikai system, which charges publishers in relation to how long a user tries a game after clicking on it. If they don't like it and abort, it's cost one cent, said Perry.

The ability for a user to tweet links to a game they're in to friends, enabling them to join in has been mentioned before – but it now seems particularly relevant at a GDC which has had such a big focus on social gaming. If a publisher works with us, we can get them transported into exactly the same spot in the game as their friend, explained Perry.

OnLive has played its hand, and with Gaikai set to follow in what looks like the next couple of months, it won't be long before we all find out if cloud gaming can deliver what many said it couldn't.

15:02 PST / 23:02 GMT (Kath): There's been plenty of talk about mobile gaming at this year's GDC – and the Windows Phone 7 series is clearly going to be a big player in the market this year. Microsoft announced the new XNA Game Studio 4.0 at the conference start, and I've been given a demo of what it can do.

The new toolset integrates Visual Studio 2010, but most importantly it supports 3D hardware acceleration for the new Windows Phone 7 series.

And the resulting games demoed by App Platform manager Charlie Kindel and XNA's Michael Klucher – built as concepts within three weeks using the new tools – showed that the tools can certainly deliver an impressive 3D experience.

They also demonstrated the Windows 7 series game hub. The way the service will work is by offering premium, high quality and managed games from partners, which will be compatible with Xbox Live features such as avatars, friends lists and achievements, and an unmanaged collection from indies.

It basically gives the platform the best of both worlds – indies will have access to the same powerful toolset as the premium developers but the premium partners will be able to offer a greater range of features as well as feature more prominently on the store. Obviously prices are going to reflect the two tiers, but Kindel said a pricing structure was yet to be announced.

Other features are also still being bashed out. For instance, in-game micro-transactions won't be supported in this first version, but they will later on. And Microsoft is also working out how it can integrate real-life friends alongside Xbox Live friends.

They've been talking to developers for a long time about what they want from the platform, said Kindel, and features such as multiplayer between a 360 and mobile are all things that have been asked for and which could be included further down the line. At the moment though, the initial features-list is impressive and the battle between the big smartphone three – iPhone, Android and Windows 7 – should be an interesting one to follow over this next year.

13:58 PST / 21:58 GMT (Kath): The Unity booth has been showcasing the company's latest development suite iteration – Unity 3.0 – which is due out this summer. It has also announced the tools will soon be made compatible with Xbox 360, PS3, Android and iPad, with the latter appearing first, in time for the Apple device's launch next month.

Speaking with Unity's CEO David Helgason it seems that, while 360 and PS3 support will obviously expand the reach of Unity, he is more excited by the mobile platforms, predicting that the next important gaming platform will be a mobile one.

Android is the first real competitor to iPhone, he said, although Unity doesn't need it to become more successful than Apple's portable device. It's enough if the company can just offer its customers 20 per cent additional revenue on top of their iPhone games with an extra click, he said.

While he says he doesn't expect Unity to triple in size again in the space of one year, he said that it had a lot of trends to ride with the shift of gaming to web and mobile. He added that other trends he expects to prevail includes 3D – one day 3D technology was likely to become an effective way to create lots of media, he explained. And since Unity's tools are used for a range of media development, with traditional games accounting for just one-third of business, it's obvious the company will be keeping a close eye on such trends.

Friday, March 12

17:09 PST / 01:09 GMT (Phil): But there's more - in part two of the session, Jesse Divnich unveiled an analysis of achievements on Xbox 360, based on 32 million data points mined from Microsoft. From that data, 100 games were selected at random, and - with the caveat that generalisations shouldn't be made - there was some pretty unexpected results.

  • Only 4% of consumers attain 100% of the achievements
  • Less than 10% of consumers attain 80% or more achievements
  • Only 27% of consumers get as far as 50% of achievements

In total, 21 per cent of consumers collected less than 10 per cent of achievements - the biggest single block in the breakdowns - while for triple-A games the 100 per cent completion rate is just 2 per cent.

"Does this mean achievements are too hard?" pondered Divnich, going on to pinpoint a general trend that - for core games - the higher the review score average, the more achievements were unlocked. Some food for thought for game designers, there.

16:48 PST / 00:48 GMT (Phil): One of the final sessions of today was an interesting analysis of new IP by EEDAR. As you'd expect, the session was pretty stat-heavy, but I'll round up some interesting points of note.

Firstly - new IP is actually increasing year-on-year, between 2006 and 2009 (although that may well change this year, by all accounts). In that time it jumped from 16 per cent to 22 per cent across the three living room consoles.

But - the majority of that new IP is on the Wii, which accounts for 27 per cent of all new IP, compared to 17 per cent for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 combined.

In terms of genre, action games and shooters boasted the most new IPs on next-gen platforms to-date, but as a proportion of new IPs, it was RPGs that topped the list - almost 40 per cent of RPGs were new IP, compared to just 7 per cent fighting titles.

And if you're wondering which publishers have worked the hardest on trying to bring new intellectual property to market? You might be surprised to find out that Electronic Arts ranks as highest third-party publisher on 360 and PS3, while Destineer tops the Wii chart.

16:33 PST / 00:33 GMT (Kath): Ben Cousins of EA has compared the transition from high quality packaged games to lower quality digitally-delivered ones to the shift from the arcade to the home console, or from high street specialist shops to supermarkets.

Convenience ultimately wins over quality of experience, he said in a talk entitled What Walmart Tells Us About The Future Of Gaming, predicting that years from now the only market for games-specific hardware will be niche and games for that hardware will cost hundreds of dollars.

The key differentiator for games in recent years has been quality, he said. Packaged goods are expensive, meaning that the consumer consults experts – such as Metacritic – on what to buy, and highly rated games sell the best.

Online, where shelf space is limitless and the push to free means that customers don't expect such high quality, different factors determine a good game from a bad one, he pointed out.

Using a graph showing the numbers of users downloading Battlefield Heroes, Cousins showed there were two clear spikes in popularity – the first when the game went from closed to open beta, meaning it became more accessible. The second was when paid content was introduced to the game. When EA introduced pure game-enhancing features – new classes and an additional map – it saw a negligible increase in the game's popularity.

15:39 PST / 23:39 GMT (Phil): A host of industry icons were on-stage in the "Connected Future" session - Valve's Jason Holtman, Zynga's Brian Reynolds, Bioware's Ray Muzyka, Nexon's Min Kim and Blizzard's Rob Pardo. Plenty of interesting views on what each company thought the future would hold for connected and online gaming, but here are some snippets.

One of the news releases this week revolves around Valve's commitment to give players the option of playing different platforms for Steam games. To explain more: "People don't want to be a PC-buyer-of-a-game, they don't want to be an Apple-buyer-of-a-game. They want to be a fan of a game."

So somebody who buys Portal 2 on the PC will automatically be able to play it through Steam on a Mac - "I do think it's a very important part of living on this world." But what about buying it on Xbox 360, and then playing it through Steam on PC or Mac?

"You'd have to ask Microsoft." I bet I know what they'd say.

Another interesting comment came from Rob Pardo, talking about Battle.net 2.0 that's currently being developed as a platform for Blizzard games. Specifically, on the question of whether all publishers should set up their own version of Battle.net to provide for their own communities:

"Maybe, but it's a lot of work," he said. "One of the things we try to do with that is have a deeply interwoven experience," noting that Xbox Live can do stuff at a platform level, but can't go deep into the in-game experiences in the same way that Blizzard can, thereby helping the community to stay with them from game to game.

"For anybody that wants to have an online game and stay in the space for a long time, it's worthwhile."

14:45 PST / 22:45 GMT (Kath): Neil Young of ngmoco:) has delivered an exceptionally enlightening overview of the digital space today, explaining in depth his business's discoveries since starting in iPhone development and how the freemium model is far more effective in that space than the paid one.

Most interesting was his comparison of the freemium model – where the few users (around 2 per cent) paying for additional goods fund the game for everyone else – to the early days of the arcade, when the players feeding hundreds of dollars into arcade machines were supporting the more casual players.

He also highlighted the importance of the emerging social model, saying that you'd be much more likely to keep feeding coins into arcade machines if your friends were watching and you were trying to impress them.

Free does not mean you don't make any money, he said. To deliver its new business model, ngmoco:) had to learn all about daily active users and the average spend of each of those users, he added.

But while this way of thinking isn't the norm for game designers yet – he said that fast, fearless, adaptable people will find the transition the industry is currently in is the most significant shift since its creation.

Game design is becoming directly correlated to market performance and business success - socially relevant, well designed games can supercharge reach and retention, he said, adding that free-to-play revenues can put those made in the handheld space and using other business models to shame.

12:40 PST / 20:40 GMT (Kath): In a packed keynote entitled The Psychology of Game Design: Everything You Know Is Wrong, Sid Meier has explained to his audience key lessons he's learnt during his extensive game design career.

Drawing on the results of focus testing for games like Civilization, Meier began explaining a concept he called 'unholy alliance' – meaning the relationship between the player and the game designer.

The designer's job, he said, is to pretend the player is good. Flight simulators aren't fun because they're unrelentingly difficult, he pointed out, and players need to be made to feel good about themselves.

For their part, the player's role is to suspend disbelief – to inhabit their character and take on that character's role. The designer needs to aid that, he said, and old time designers have an advantage in doing that since they've have to persuade players they are a part of complex world using 16 colour graphics in the past.

Meier admitted that he's been guilty previously of having a mind that's too rational and analytical – something he realised when conducting play tests for Civilization.

He found that when a player was shown they were entering into a battle with stats that gave them a 3/1 chance of winning, they felt cheated whenever they lost. They thought they should win because of their advantage, despite the mathematical odds – which led Meier to adjust the game so it wasn't actually a 3/1 outcome.

A similar discrepancy arose with odds of 20/10, he said. While players understood 2/1 odds – that there was a 50/50 chance of winning and losing – when the odds were 20/10 they were upset when they lost because they felt they had a massive 10 point advantage. They also became disillusioned if they lost more than one 2/1 battle in a row, which led to the game being programmed to take into account previous battle outcomes. If things feel wrong to the player – even if they're not wrong – the player will quickly stop playing, said Meier.

Other issues he addressed were randomisation and grey moral choices. “Any kind of randomness needs to be treated with a great deal of care,” he said. Players want to feel in control and can get paranoid if they don't get something they know they thought they were going to.

Likewise ambiguous moral choices – they plant the idea to the player that they might be on the wrong path or a bad one. The game then has to make clear that cool things will happen whichever choices they make, he said

Meier also gave advice on how to save money when designing games using several techniques. Firstly, use the player's imagination, he said. Don't show things if you don't have to – players can often imagine something more dynamic and energy can be saved for things that can't be imagined and have to be brought to life.

You can also tap into what the player already knows, he said. In Pirates, players saw a swordsman with a curly black moustache and they instantly knew he was a bad guy to fight – no back story was needed.

Other issues raised were cheating – Meier isn't a fan of putting a cheat option on the main menu and thinks cheats should be saved for after a player completes the game. And save/load options – he said players also shouldn't be able to keep saving before a battle then reloading that save if they lose.

He called the next year the year of Civilization – Civ V is coming, as is the game on Facebook. And the social platforms open up a whole lot of possibilities for the game, he said, with people playing on an interesting time schedule and with friends. Beyond that he didn't make specific predictions, just saying that it was a time of great dynamism, which is the best part of being in the industry.

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