GDC 2011 Trip report

GDC 2011 Trip report

It’s been about 4 years since I last attended GDC, but some interesting trendlines seem to have solidified/gone away since last time I was there.  Winning mobile developers was THE topic for the show. Sessions continued to be very good – but I noticed that almost (if not more than) half of them are now related to art, gameplay, or business concerns (not technical).  The Indie game scene appears to be moving beyond just closet developers and becoming a big and energetic movement in the industry.    Hiring appears to be back judging by the energy and sheer number of interviewing/companies interviewing on the show floor.  Attendance seemed to be at record levels at 19,000 attendees.


  • Attended Wednesday thru mid-Friday sessions on my own accord – so no booth duty/official duties on that front.
  • Notable sessions I attended:

1.       Data Management For Modern Game Pipelines – Two fellows from Autodesk/Maya went over the state of current content pipelines from Maya to game engine.  They are apparently hard at work at Autodesk trying to make these converters and content back-and-forth between engine and Maya easier with a project called DNA.  It is a system of metadata and a database that, once integrated into your engine, allows you to quickly get assets out of Maya into your game engine, and back into Maya quickly.  It was likely too cumbersome for most game developers, but it was a good recognition on their part of the needs of the industry. 

2.       Noon poster sessions.  Real-time music generation was well done (for what it was) and the ’10 things to know about usability testing’ was a good list of resources for those trying to understand what doing usability testing was.

3.       One hour 10 speakers talk had a lot of great ideas.  One of best was why consoles are failing: 1. In age of instant-on mobile/PSP-type devices, waiting 15 minutes to get into a game is intolerable.  2. Too many cutscenes, license agreements, booting, etc.  Want instant-on wake-from-sleep into my game just like a laptop.  3. Wants no more 40+ hour games – they’re just too long. 4. Update sizes and frequency are just ridiculous – you only should have 1 update per quarter.  Period.  Many other good thoughts if we ever want to go into that realm.

4.       Multicore Memory management in Mortal Kombat.  EXCELLLENT talk on a multi-threaded memory manager.  Takeaway is that it took them 11 months to get it done (3 months of that was just to get the multi-threaded/lockfree library built they needed), but it’s a really fantastic system they are using in all their games going forward and shows some amazing speed, efficiency, and debugging features.

5.       Dice talk about Data Oriented Design.  Very good talk with good analysis and results.  Takeaway: throw away all your fancy data structures and line up your data for SSE manipulation.  It’s much more performant than non-cache friendly data structures, orders faster, and can easily be threaded.

6.       Kinect skeletal tracking deep Dive.  Very interesting talk on the problems (and solutions) unique to skeletal tracking/Kinect given by Microsoft AE.  Some good general solutions for multi-threaded timing issues.

7.       Halo Reach Effects. Excellent talk on the special effects in Halo Reach.  Excellent new way to do dynamic particle systems that interact with geometry in the real world, shield effects, and a few other really visually stunning, and very realtime, techniques. 

8.       Mega-Meshes – modeling/rendering worlds of 100 billion polygons.  Very interesting talk that seems to be along the lines of last year’s ID siggraph talk on streaming massive geometry.  The second half had to do with getting pretty decent spherical harmonic lighting techniques on Xbox and other consoles.  Lots to digest in the talk – so I’ll likely look at the slides when published.

9.       Experimental gameplay – 10 or so people positing or showing interesting gameplay techniques and ideas.  This session really showed what the Indie scene is about – trying to create unique experiences.

10.    Marble Madness, Pitfall, and Doom postmortems

  • Trend speculations based on what I saw:

1.       Mobile – the real energy this year was clearly behind winning developers into each camp’s mobile and tablets.  Unity showed extensively.  Free hardware galore, tons of sessions, and big parties were being thrown.   With years left to go before another console refresh – it was mostly just quiet, incremental changes from the big players like Xbox, Sony, and Nintendo.  With smartphones getting such sophisticated graphics hardware, it does make me seriously wonder if the days of PSP or DS-like gaming devices are limited, which could spell big problems for console companies that see such large revenue streams from them.

2.       Monitizing – Lots of financial companies on the show floor and session talks focused on micropayments and new revenue streams.  The fact there were old-school financial and credit card companies on the show floor was a real shock.

3.       Indie culture – The indie area of the show floor was packed every time I went by it.  Lots of young energy and it’s more than just hype judging by the awards Minecraft won.  Attended 2 classic game post-mortems which really clarified in my own mind the shift in game dev culture.  Used to be programmers ruled the roost in developing games, but now I think we’re seeing that most of the current game developers in the indie scene are content with using off-the-shelf engines/tools and focus 90% their attention on the gameplay and creating unique experiences as opposed to focusing on the newest/greatest tech. 

4.       Hard-core technical talks seemed to be diminishing in number, but not quality.  Still excellent work being done, but I wonder if this large trend towards younger developers just using more off-the-shelf engines and simpler mechanics will create a two-tiered system in which the majority of smaller Indie games will use low-end/runs on just about anything techniques, while AAA titles will always continue but just get more technically impressive, but (with fewer studios able to afford it) smaller in quantity and more insular.  Do we turn into a world where there are a few engine makers and game houses are primarily programmers that write games in scripts on top of them?

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