Sunday, 24 February 2008

Learning to See through GDC

This years Games Developers Conference has brought up a number of points and announcements that have grabbed people’s attention, but what makes it different from previous shows is that most came from the independent scene rather than the big hitters. This year’s IGF was a showcase for one of the best year’s indie gaming has had, and it seems like many people came away a little shocked by how much it engrossed them. It’s also given birth to a war between indies and triple-A developers and publishers, with many big titles seeing criticism for a lack of innovation and imagination. Jeff Green summed up what many people thought when he stated on the 1upShow, “I was thinking about [indie games like AudioSurf] and comparing it to Epic’s fucking cube of meat, you know, that’s what’s important to them.” It’s a great point that I agree with fully, and in many ways makes the likes of Epic Games look a bit ridiculous. I guess when you think about it, why on earth should anybody get excited over a shiny cube of flesh and some updated water effects when the likes of Fez and World of Goo were on display? It makes me grow sceptical over whether triple-A teams really know what they’re doing and what people want to see. After going through a lot of videos and articles written from the conference, I personally came away thinking Cliffy B is a bit of a clown. He takes to the stage wielding a chainsaw and announces he’s going to make more of the same as last time, expecting me to feel excited about that. Instead it reinforced how titles like Gears of War are the game world’s equivalent of McDonalds. It’s just not the right approach, and that becomes blatantly apparent when a side by side comparison is made between the two opposites of game development.

“I think the big boys should be ashamed right now”, claimed Phil Fish, creator of Fez. He explains how a team of dozens are recruited in the making of a big budget DS game, but the finished product is rarely anywhere near as good as indie games made by one person with no money at all. The traditional system of development just doesn’t seem to be working. One reason may be the dilution of enthusiasm as a team grows in size. A team of fifty working on a title that a publisher has recruited them to work on aren’t going to feel the same passion as an individual programmer building his own personal idea in his free time, and the difference shows in quality. During the ‘Developer’s Rant’ section of the conference, Clint Hocking, Creative Director of Far Cry 2, spoke out about the lack of new ideas in mainstream game development. He used popular independent titles as examples of how emotions can be achieved through game design, “Here’s a game that made me cry [showing Passage]. Here’s a game that means something [showing The Marriage].” He summed up his frustrations by claiming, “Dude, it’s code. We can do anything.”

Another important announcement at the conference was that from Microsoft, who will soon be allowing user created games from XNA available to normal Xbox Live account holders to purchase. Nintendo’s WiiWare service is aimed at a similar user base of individual game designers looking for a place to gain attention. Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network have brought huge amounts of attention to independent designers already, most noticeably Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter) and Jonathan Blow (for the upcoming Braid). With the changes to XNA and the dawn of WiiWare, that attention will only grow. It also appears to be an attractive alternative for previous big-budget developers. God of War creator David Jaffe took some time out to release Calling All Cars! on PSN last year, and GDC revealed Frontier Development's founder David Braben to be making LostWinds for WiiWare alongside his big-budget release of The Outsider. This brings forth the possibility of a shift in priorities for game development, with small scale releases not only being cost effective and quick to build, but also a more attractive proposition for the creatively minded to try out new ideas. Whether independent games become the new focus or not, you can count that it won’t just be the triple-A releases dominating the headlines this year. Now could be seen as the birth of a ‘golden era’ for indie game development, and it would be foolish not to get in on the action.

For all the latest news on the world of independent games, be sure to add TIGSource and the IndieGames Weblog to your favourites, and why not check out the winners and runner ups of this years IGF. Some titles are available now and free to download.

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