The 14 Best Things About GDC 2014 - The Games, Bars, Sessions & Parties That Made it a Week to Remember
Written Tuesday, March 25, 2014 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
There’s plenty to celebrate about the Game Developer’s Conference. Held annually in San Francisco, GDC is one of the precious few times in the year when the industry can join up, share ideas, gossip and get spectacularly drunk together, while planning out the future of the medium. It’s great.
But it’s also a bit manic, with news popping up sporadically from the Moscone Center, parties going off spectacularly around town and plenty of off-the-record chatter. To try and give you a flavour of what it’s like to be there, while sharing some of our session highlights, we’ve put together a list of the 14 best things about GDC 2014.
For the record, we decided to omit the story about Editor Dan being propositioned outside the W hotel by a prostitute with dancing butt cheeks, because it’s probably not appropriate.
The Evolution of BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth
At their best, GDC sessions see devs open up about the creative process, explaining their cock-ups and triumphs in a surprisingly frank manner, so that others may learn from their experiences. But other times it’s just beardy dudes waffling on about ambient occlusion. Thankfully, ex-Irrational Games Animation Director Shawn Robertson’s session on ‘Creating BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth’ was the former.
So while we already knew that Elizabeth’s appearance changed subtly over the course of BioShock Infinite’s promotion, we had no idea just how different she looked before the game was announced. At least 15 years senior to the finalised Elizabeth and sporting a Marge Simpson-esque beehive hair-do, this version of the character was a mute who could only gesture with her hands to communicate. Fascinating, right? You can read more through here.
Deathmatch with John Romero
At the bottom of the escalators in Moscone West this year was a line of eight networked PCs running copies of 1993 shooter classic, Doom. Which is nothing unusual. There’s always plenty of retro installations scattered around GDC. But what is unusual is that more often than not, you could find Doom’s creator John Romero stationed at one of the PCs, happily playing along with everyone else.
Deathmatch with John Romero challenged entrants to go up against the man himself, in a mismatch as titanic as Spain vs. San Marino. Stood with legs spread manfully wide, his long, luscious locks swaying heroically in the breeze, Romero wiped the floor with everyone. Two decades have obviously done nothing to diminish the great man’s powers. It’s just a shame his shirts are so naff.
Manveer Heir’s Impassioned Call for Inclusion
Over the past couple of years, GDC has increasingly become a soapbox to challenge the industry’s restrictive or offensive representations of sex, race and gender. It’s a thing now, as a growing number of developers call out their contemporary’s work for providing damaging stereotypes. In this regard, the GDC session from BioWare's Manveer Heir wasn’t that new, but it was certainly the most impassioned.
As ‘Misogyny, Racism and Homophobia: Where Do Video Games Stand?’ went on, and as Heir angrily challenged the status quo, his delivery took on that of a preacher or a WWE wrestler. It had started quietly determined, but before the end his voice boomed around the room and out, beyond the Moscone via social media. Culminating in an extended standing ovation, Manveer Heir’s talk was undoubtedly the most well received of GDC 2014. Time will tell if the industry at large was listening.
The Bar in the W Hotel
While it’s the sessions that make the headlines at GDC, the real action happens in the bar of the W hotel. It’s here that you’ll see executives brushing shoulders with developers and journalists in a big sweaty mess of expensive drinks, crap music, trendy seats and moody lighting.
A good example of this? Our chance encounter with PlayStation 4 and PS Vita lead architect Mark Cerny, in which we discussed everything from swear words to World Cup football. Not only is Mark a bit of an industry polymath, he’s also a “soccer” fan and a genuinely lovely chap. If you’re looking for a bit of high-level industry hobnobbing, the bar at the W is the place to go.
Xbox Goes Indie Crazy
Early on during GDC week, Microsoft lifted the lid on in its early ID@Xbox line-up, showing off 24 indie games headed to Xbox at a swanky San Francisco location called The Loft. The mini-burgers and Xbox-branded pint glasses doing the rounds were fairly standard, but the games were most certainly not. There are some delightfully bizarre titles on their way to Xbox One.
Spinning limousine sim Roundabout, madcap eight-player eSports title #IDARB, zany time-twisting action shooter Super Time Force - there was plenty that caught the eye. Supported by numerous talks back at the Moscone, including a particularly enlightening chat with Phil Spencer [see below], GDC 2014 marked the week that Microsoft began its indie onslaught.
Rest and Recovery at Mild Rumpus
If you hadn’t already guessed, for many GDC is as much about partying as it is business and education. Networking needs lubrication, don’t ya know. The Mild Rumpus, then, was the perfect place to rest weary bones and aching heads on the morning after, a soft furnishing-scattered oasis of calm in a convention center rammed to the gills with hungover developers and knackered journalists.
A more sedate version of the regular indie mutliplayer event Wild Rumpus, Mild Rumpus featured tranquil titles like Amanita Design’s Samarost 3, Blendo Games’ hacking adventure Quadrilateral Cowboy and Honeyslug & Richard Hogg’s serene and surreal PlayStation title, Hohokum. I lost count of the times I walked by only to see attendees splayed out on bean bags snoring their heads off.
Project Morpheus Takes us to Another World
Not quite the surprise Sony hoped it would be, the announcement of Project Morpheus was nevertheless received with glee. Our nerdy PC cousins have lived alone with the excitement of virtual reality for too long. Now it’s time for the console crew to get in on the act, with a sexier, first-party supported headset prototype.
With Project Morpheus and The Deep we were transported down into the depths of the ocean, and with EVE: Valkyrie we took a trip to the stars. Sony’s VR tech may not be perfect, it’s a bit too blurry for that, but Project Morpheus is a compelling step towards an intriguing part of gaming’s future. Now all we have to do is wait and see if Microsoft’s talks result in a competitor.
Phil Spencer’s Fireside Chat
With the Xbox One flying off shelves at an accelerated rate following Titanfall’s launch, and Microsoft’s ID@Xbox program taking off in earnest, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Studios Phil Spencer joined Gamasutra Editor Kris Graft for a GDC talk stuffed with news-worthy chatter. The headlines responded accordingly.
So what did we get? Well, Spencer shared a story about how Minecraft studio Mojang made him cringe, there was some some talk about paid alphas making their way to Xbox One, references to Microsoft’s VR research, the claim that consoles are the "last bastion of triple-A" and even a little snippet about Titanfall, which inspired Xbox Live on Xbox One to its busiest week yet. With its new console in stores, Microsoft is building up a head of steam going into the rest of the year.
Yu Suzuki's Shenmue Postmortem
There are very few games that get nostalgia glands pumping harder than Shenmue. For Dreamcast-owning gamers of a certain age it’s a sacred text, something which has inspired countless hopeful and hopeless headlines about a potential second sequel over the past two decades. It’s not going to happen, but we’ll never let it go.
Yu Suzuki's Shenmue postmortem was one of the most over-subscribed GDC talks of the week; a room full of grown men and women swooning over Suzuki’s revelations of early concepts and cats walking on their hind legs. Suzuki even managed to keep talk of Shenmue 3 alive with a carefully worded post-talk answer, ensuring that wrinkly gamers will continue crossing their fingers for years to come.
Every year Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson holds a party that’s as much a statement as it is a piss-up. Comfortably outgunning even the major publishers for pure ostentatious spending power, the Notch party is a cacophony of big name DJs and expensive booze. ‘I’m an indie with a crap ton of money and I want everyone to know,’ it screams, but you can’t hear it over the clinking glasses and ground-shaking dubstep.
It’s hard to resent Notch his success. An otherwise modest man who made one of the most popular games on the planet, he’s a poster boy for what you can achieve with the right amount of talent and a bit of luck. He’s the fairytale half the attendees at GDC dream of. And this year there were no allegations of paid-off prostitutes prowling the dance floor, either. Notch’s 2014 party was over-the-top, not obscene.
Ken Levine Reveals New Game
“If you’ve written a story with the headline ‘Ken Levine Reveals New Game,’ you’ve written the wrong fucking story.” That’s what former Irrational Boss Levine told journalists at the beginning of his GDC talk this year (whoops), and while he was right to warn against announcements, the BioShock creator did reveal the broad direction in which he and his surviving Irrational staff are travelling, following the studio's announced closure.
Addressing the crowd in his usual relaxed but commanding manner (‘I’m a drama major,’ Levine kept reminding attendees), the creative director and writer outlined a game in which character relationships and story beats evolve and adapt according to the actions of players. Coupled with former Irrational Animation Director Shawn Robertson’s assertion that “We Need To Push Past Cutscenes”, Levine’s talk was a fascinating glimpse of what’s next from one of the industry’s brightest talents.
Free-to-Play and Microtransactions - A Silver Lining
Core gamers have long believed that free-to-play games and microtransactions are about as attractive as Hodor in hotpants, but things may be slowly changing. While Zombie Studios’ Jared Gerritzen openly admitted during one GDC session that aggressive free-to-play monetisation and full price games with microtransactions scare him, this year’s conference did offer up an attractive alternative.
Speaking in a session focusing on monetisation in premium titles, Multiplayer Director Damien Kieken revealed that ACIV: Black Flag’s maps have been released for free because of the game’s successfully item microtransactions. Cosmetic items that don’t unbalance multiplayer, ensuring that everyone gets free maps? Suddenly Hodor in hot pants sounds a whole lot sexier.
The IGF and GDC Awards Highlight a Great Year for Games
One of the highlights of this and any other GDC, the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Choice Awards celebrate the best in both indie and mainstream gaming from the previous year, giving devs a chance to get dressed up smart and enjoy their very own Oscars. It’s one of the industry’s most prestigious evenings.
This year, PC title Papers, Please picked up the lion’s share of the IGF awards, as well as a couple of GDC gongs. But it was The Last of Us that won biggest, with GDC Awards for Best Design, Best Narrative, and Game of the Year. Further awards for BioShock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto [which another GDC session revealed to feature almost 160,000 lines of dialogue], ensured that this year’s ceremony highlighted the industry’s strength in depth.
- 14th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards - Winners and Nominees
- 16th Annual Independent Games Festival - Winners
Saints Row’s “Bling Bling” Pitch Vid
It’s always nice to see the roots of a popular game and GDC often provides just that, lifting the lid on early concepts and abandoned prototypes. Alongside Creating BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth [see above], our favourite from GDC 2014 was a look at the original Saints Row’s pitch vid, from a time when the game was called “Bling Bling.”
Featuring clips from games as well as gangster rap music videos and a bit of nudie flesh, the pitch vid does a decent job of encapsulating what Saints Row was all about in the early days. But it wasn’t received all that positively by THQ suits when they first saw it. In fact, it was met with silence. You can read the full story through here but in the meantime watch the vid above and revel in that super awkward “So… yeah… um” at the end.