The 2009 Game Developers Conference (GDC) is underway in San Francisco this week, and, at face value, the signs are looking good for the video games industry. According to the Associated Press, February 2009 sales are up significantly on 2008, and the game-console installed base continues to grow rapidly. However, it is clear that the industry is resisting self-congratulations for now, since funding is tighter than ever and the competition between studios seems very tough.
GDC is about the art, science and economics of creating games (in stark contrast to the summer E3 show in Los Angeles, which is all about hyping and selling games to the retail channel. In addition to the keynotes, tutorials and lectures, GDC occupies two halls at the Moscone Center: the North Hall is the Expo, where the industry demonstrates its latest and greatest; across the (very busy) road at the West Hall is where the wheeling and dealing takes place in rows of anonymous-looking, gray meeting-room cubicles. Although missing the razzmatazz of years gone by, GDC 2009 doesn’t seem short on substance. It wasn’t until I was standing in a surprisingly short line for lunch at the Metreon today that I realized that maybe the attendance really is down on last year’s 18,000 registrations.
The running theme I see this year is new ways to deliver content. Unlike the music and movie industries, the gaming industry has been actively planning the move away from physical media distribution for many years. Game downloads from PlayStation Store, Xbox Live Arcade and PC services such as Steam have been growing fast, but an innovative new service called OnLive was announced at GDC which uses a wide broadband connection to stream games on demand – thanks to clever video compression. Since they “host” the game itself on a server and stream just the video, the OnLive service lets you play games on a TV set, a Mac or a PC – and breaks out of the expensive hardware-upgrade cycle that has frightened so many gamers away from the PC. I was flattered to see their GDC demo making use of the Logitech ChillStream PC gamepad – although they have designed an attractive dedicated controller for their service when it eventually goes live. I wish them well, and although the road they are traveling has many left on the wayside (the Infinium Labs Phantom and Turner’s Gametap immediately spring to mind) it seems like they have a solid business plan and unlike The Phantom, they’ve been doing their development (seven years of it) away from the media spotlight.
There were also other innovative game delivery mechanisms on show. The Qualcomm-funded Zeebo console uses a 3G wireless phone network to download games to a low-cost TV console that is targeted at emerging markets (initially Brazil). And the omnipresent iPhone is gaining traction as a gaming platform, with an announcement from EA Mobile that many of its top franchises are now available for iPhone. And no gaming trade event would be complete without Nokia’s nGage booth – complete with cat-suited booth-babes.
So although not quite partying like it’s 1999, GDC 2009 does give the gaming industry plenty to look forward to over the coming year.