The Game Developers Conference, an annual gathering of game makers, marketers, and thinkers held here in San Francisco, is packed with talks, announcements, games, demos, and awards. With over 24,000 attending over an intense 5-day whirlwind, it is impossible to get to everything you are interested in, much less absorb the things you don't know about. This year's advocacy track was packed with talks about creating a healthier, more diverse industry. Unity, the engine behind most mobile games at the moment, announced its newer, more social engine connectivity; Valve was there showing off their growing Steam box streaming ecosystem and the common areas were strewn with beautiful, quirky, frustrating, and unique indie games. So here are my 3 highlights from the week.
1. Project Morpheus
This year's most exciting -- if not surprising -- announcement was Project Morpheus, Sony's new PS4 peripheral prototype virtual reality headset. The company's tag word for the launch? Presence. Their challenge is to get the player to feel integrated with the simulation. The visor, which tightens on like a bike helmet, has two HD screens and some fancy new optics, which make the world inside feel all-encompassing. The largest hurdle to the kind of emersion Sony is aiming for? You can't move much, the cable tethering you to the PS4 restricts your body's range of motion. It doesn't seem like a big deal until you have the set on, your brain resettling into the simulated dusty water of the undersea demo Sony used to show off their day one prototype.
You know it's not real, but you're suspending disbelief. Your eyes focus and you're in a shark cage, bobbing softly among coral. Above you a boat waits; the water looks deep and brightly colored fish are swimming through the bars of the cage and for a moment you do feel present. That is until you turn around to look behind you only to see your virtual avatar body standing there, neck ending in a smooth nub. In fact the whole experience feels forward facing, sure you can turn side to side and even look behind you but the simulation encourages you to stay facing front. Whether this bias will feel constricting in future games is up to developers.
Otherwise it's fun, easy to enjoy, and has none of the pressure or overheating I've experienced with the Oculus visors, which leave me red faced and hot. If you want specs: display resolutions, LED layouts, or specifics of the head tracking and movement capture, the Internet is full of them, try The Verge or Sony's Blog.
2. Ken Levine reveals new game (sort of...)
According to a study done by Microsoft Studios User Research, people have "difficulty tracing game plots from beginning to end," in comparison to other media like movies and books, but this isn't just about short attention spans. Players are "forming only episodic memories for game narrative" and instead "game characters were consistently remembered," not for their role in the plot, but for their characterization. Combine that with the numbers from Bioware's Steam Achievement Data, which show that about half the players complete the storyline of most games, and there is plenty of intel encouraging developers to focus more time and energy on creating memorable characters than on complicated plots.
Ken Levine, co-founder of Irrational Games, whose "Narrative Legos" talk laid out an idea for a game that's all about character. Instead of writing a plot, Levine described a plan which set the player in the midst of a social world where events are tied to the player's relationships. These types of games would be full of non-player characters (NPCs) with wants and needs, or, as Levine called them, "passions," all of which would conflict, align and generally tug at the social network of the game to create events. This generative plot mechanic means the game's story becomes new, replayable, and specific to every play-through. Kind of like the real world...
3. Postmortem on Elizabeth, Bioshock's stand out companion character
What does it take to convince us someone is real? How do you create the illusion of life? It's the ultimate show-don't-tell problem and Irrational Games' John Abercrombie showed how they deconstructed the problem for the AI of Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite, an NPC who is often touted as the best player companion character ever. Everything about Elizabeth had to feel living.
After the player releases Elizabeth from captivity, she bounds around the game with enviable energy and excitement. Irrational Games filled the world with markers to give her curiosity and made her eyes track objects in the world. Having a conversation while walking in meat space involves moving next to and seeing the person you're talking too, so the team found a solution that kept Elizabeth between the player and the next goal. It made her a partner working in tandem with you, not a secondary tag-along. She is aware of your personal bubble, staying neither creepily close nor impersonally far. And when the bullets start flying, a time when the details fall away as players narrow their attention to managing life or death, they not only kept her out of the way but gave her a job to do: resupply. This kept her connected to the action in the player's mind without the feeling that she needed babysitting. Beyond AI, it took a dizzying array of systems to arrive at the award-winning performance: extensive animation, traversal, and dress physics to get her moving; facial movement to foster emotional connection, and speech without annoying repetition.
GDC and the game industry are huge, so no one idea will wrap them up neatly, but virtual reality, generative storytelling, and a focus on character over plot are the things to look out for in the years to come.