Thursday, March 12, 2015

Baby's First GDC

I've wanted to attend the Game Developers Conference for years. I used to watch every demo, every panel, tried to grab every bit of second-hand information I could. I saw it as this magical gathering with exclusive, mind-blowing gaming tantalizations abound and hoards of free swag to be got. This year, I happened to have a pass given to me by a stranger that was flying out of town the next day to attend PAX. Suffice to say I was ecstatic, if not a little apprehensive about walking into the Moscone Center effectively pretending to be someone else... but hey, the worst they could do is throw me out – right?

Being entirely unaware of where to go in an environment so large comes with a strange kind of vertigo. I walked into the Moscone Center, and suddenly felt like a lost kid in an airport. I found myself eyeballing other people's badges as they passed (I had flipped mine backwards after passing security), and I'm seeing titles like Lead Sound Engineer, Creative Director, CEO – from companies I recognize: Electronic Arts, DICE, Blizzard Entertainment. I only had a couple of hours to spend at the convention, so I tried to maintain an air of detached curiosity as I wandered the main show floor, pausing at displays for a moment before moving on. Keeping that charade going, however, became pretty damn difficult when I stopped at the first of what would be the overarching theme of this trip: Oculus Rift demonstrations.

My first stop was the STEM system, using Sixense hardware. It utilizes an array of motion trackers: one in each controller, one on the Oculus headgear itself, and (optionally) one of each foot. The lightsaber demo they had running, however, only used trackers on the head and in the hands. After a few minutes of watching another guy wildly whip his arms around, I found myself putting the headgear on, then awkwardly groping around in front of me for the controllers. Once my eyes adjusted to the display, I was standing on what looked like the catwalk on the bottom floors of Cloud City. There was a rack of six lightsabers in front of me, organized by color. The controls were eerily simple. I just reached my hands forward and my hands in the demo reached out accordingly. The lightsabers popped into my hands and with the press of a button they both sprang to life with a satisfying "PZZZZSSH". From there I gave a flourish or two of my own and the lightsabers swung around in perfect time, mimicking my movements. A moment later a humming little drone moved into view and started shooting lasers at me, which I deflected by turning my hands to tilt either blade. Whenever the drone moved out of sight, I just turned my head and body and the scenery rotated to match. It wasn't just a matter of blocking, however; With the right timing, I could actually knock the lasers back toward the drone. It was just a demonstration of motion tracking, but the applications for that level of precision made me giddy.

The next two demos I wound up at were by Haptech and Samsung. Haptech had developed what looked like a partially deconstructed rifle that was built with a small piston that would fire backward into the body of the gun when fired in game, giving it a very real recoil. The playable software placed the player on a rocky plateau where (again) there we drones flying around that you could shoot out of the air or juggle with repeat shots. The gun itself was surprisingly heavy, and when I asked one of the exhibitors he explained the weight was intentional; The idea was for players to actually get fatigued if playing for long periods of time. Samsung's Gear VR was unique in that while it utilized Oculus technology, the display was actually a cell phone mounted to the front of the headgear. I was able to navigate menus by just looking at the app I wanted to open and pressing a button on a small controller. There was one game – Viral Lite – in which the player moves through a progression of corridors in stages, knocking small red and green block men off of platforms with blue projectiles. Each stage was repeatable to maximize score, and I found myself stubbornly going through stages over and over again, discovering new ways to get extra points (namely, bouncing my shots off of the walls and pegging the little suckers in the back of the head.)

There were a few other demos that I saw but wasn't willing to wait in line for, like Crytek's “Return to Dinosaur Island” which placed players in a dinosaur nest to be pestered by a large dragonfly before coming face to face with what looked like a T-Rex, or the Virtuix Omni – by far the most hardware driven, using a harness to hold a player in a ring surrounded by a concave floor, with specially designed shoes to allow users to walk around in the game space by actually walking.

To say that what I experienced was not what I expected would be wholly accurate. I immediately found myself feeling like I was in way over my head. Here I was, some schmuck that just kinda managed to get his eager little paws on a pass, surrounded by people that make games for a living. I was an ant walking amongst giants. That's not to say that I was disappointed; Not in the least. While there were a lot of very fun games and demonstrations to try, there were just as many booths showing off advertisement solutions, front and back-end development software, texture mapping workshops, monetization strategies, and independent developers simply looking to gain some visibility in the professional forum. I had considered, but never witnessed the immense amount of work and manpower that is required to create what amounts to a few dozen hours of my entertainment. Throughout the short time I had available that day, I found myself reeling with an unmistakable sense of awe. I walked in expecting to see a lot of gamers; I suppose in my ignorance I neglected to remember this is the Game Developers Conference. It was an experience that made me less interested in being a gamer, and more interested in being a game developer.

Check out the full gallery of my experience:

Taylor Sutherland is a roleplayer, bartender, and general hell raiser that lives in San Francisco.

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