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The Best of GDC 2015

As the industry eases back into normalcy, brush up on the insights and events of a very busy week in San Francisco

The Game Developers Conference took place in San Francisco last week, and as usual, there was too much at the show for anyone to see it all. So for GDC attendees who are only now emerging from a recuperative weekend and non-attendees who may have missed a few stories, here's a roundup of the week's big events and some substantial sessions that deserve a closer look.

One of the big themes of this year's GDC was the arrival of virtual reality. While Valve technically unveiled its new VR headset--built in partnership with HTC--at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress on Monday, by-appointment demos of the tech were the talk of the show, and spearheaded a busy GDC for the Steam-maker. Sony also set a release window for its Project Morpheus VR headset, now expected in the first half of 2016. Even though Oculus was keeping a lower profile this year--the company recognizes it's hyped plenty and now it needs to deliver something--the headset was used in demo after demo on the show floor, and CTO John Carmack delivered a lengthy keynote on The Dawn of Mobile VR.

The week also saw competition in dev tools get heated, as Unity and Epic Games further attempted to outdo one another in making their engines more accessible and robust for all developers. Epic dropped the monthly subscription fee for Unreal Engine 4, moving to a pure royalties-based model. On the other hand, Unity detailed plans for Unity 5, which will deliver many of the high-end audio-visual bells and whistles of the engine to paying and non-paying customers alike. CEO John Riccitiello added a little fuel to the fire by directly questioning Epic's royalties-based model, likening it to a free-to-play game hunting for whales. Although qualities like "free" tend to be popular, the news wasn't universally well-received, with developer Cliff Harris proclaiming, "Fuck Unity, and the horse it rode in on" during his Indie Soapbox rant session.

Harris wasn't the only developer sharing a piece of his mind at the show.

MMO veterans Raph Koster, Richard Vogel, and Gordon Walton shared their insights on how community managers can cope with harassment and user conflict in "the culture wars," saying the way Google and other Internet companies filter search results to reaffirm what they believe users want to hear is only likely to make the situation worse in the future. Should anyone become the target of such ugliness, Zoe Quinn, Elizabeth Sampat, Donna Prior, and Neha Nair offered advice and support in their own panel. It was a frequent topic in the show this year, with a number of panels looking at the issue from all angles, including one examining the treatment of women in eSports specifically.

In other sessions, former Halfbrick CCO Luke Muscat took the audience through a year-long soft launch of Bears vs. Art, describing how the development team got lost in all the analytics they collected, then learned how to go beyond the numbers to actually make the game better.

Former Star Wars: The Old Republic lead designer Damion Schubert spoke about converting the MMO to a free-to-play model, and called on developers to stop disrespectfully referring to high-paying customers as "whales." Instead, he suggested they be called patrons, because they're funding works that can be enjoyed by the masses.

Additionally, a quartet of mobile developers shared what they learned from games that failed, Skulls of the Shogun developer Borut Pfeifer weighed in with a fairly skeptical take on the recent crop of promotional-only publishers, and Mike Bithell scuttled the notion that a punk aesthetic is merely sloppy or careless.

Of course, not even GDC can stop the march of news, and there was plenty happening last week. Some of it, such as The Lord of the Rings: Shadow of Mordor taking home top honors at the Game Developers Choice Awards, Nvidia announcing its new Shield microconsole, and Microsoft expanding its ID@Xbox self-publishing program to the Windows 10 ecosystem, came straight from GDC. Other events, like Phil Harrison leaving Microsoft and EA shutting down Maxis Emeryville, were reminders that as much as one event can dominate the industry's attention for a week, there's still an entire world of gaming happening beyond its confines.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.