GDC Notebook: Day 3: The Death of Consoles And/Or Their Rebirth

By Wednesday, the Game Developers Conference is really happening. It ramps up slowly every year. You get your mobile games panels and your social gaming talks on Monday and Tuesday. Indie developers dream and inspire for crowds of their peers.

Then comes Wednesday and things get smashingly busy. Big-name game developers start pulling in crowds. Post-mortems for the biggest games ever fill the hours. GDC begins to feel like a huge deal.

That's what we got to in San Francisco yesterday. Lots happened, and zooming out, the situation of video games in the world became more clear.

  • The state of the gaming industry is not represented by tuxedo-wearing Gears of War lead designer Cliff Bleszinski hunting around backstage at the Game Developer's Choice Awards looking for a bathroom, nor by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner stopping at a street corner with his PR friend to chat with me and Kotaku's Evan Narcisse for a chat. That's just me name-dropping and maybe sharing a sense that you can run into any game developer anywhere around the Moscone Center in San Francisco this week. I walked up an elevator in reverse to catch up with Valve writers Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw.
  • The state of things is represented by Epic Games' 2012 version of their show-off session. Every year at GDC, the company's top marketing guy Mark Rein shows a roomful of reporters Epic's latest Unreal graphics tech and talks about how wonderful a toolset it is for game developers big and small to use to make attractive games. But this year, Rein wouldn't show us Epic's best tech. The company's demonstration for Epic's Unreal Engine 4 was for non-press—just for life-signing-away game makers. UE4 is meant to help make games for gaming consoles none of us owns today. Shielded from that, the press got to see another iteration of last year's dazzling "Samaritan" demo for Unreal Engine 3, a better-looking-than-anything-we-have-now Blade-Runner-style sequence that both shows where Epic thinks next-gen gaming should go but is capable of running on today's engine. The point, Rein explained to me, is that, if you were making a game for next-gen systems that you'd also want running on current systems, you would still go with UE3 and try for Samaritan-level sizzle in the next-gen versions of the game. But if you were going purely next-gen, you'd go with UE4. But forget the gens, because Rein was up there showing Unreal Tournament III running in Flash in a web browser, a la Farmville. And he's saying Epic wants to get Samaritan running in that. Somehow. And that is where gaming is going.
  • The chart up top is a good companion piece. It's from a stirring talk given late in the day by ngmoco's Ben Cousins, who calmly provoked with an impressive argument that video game consoles are entering their arcade obsolescence moment—their death, as he put it, distinguishing death from extinction in a manner that allowed us all to agree that the car killed the horse-and-buggy but didn't wipe the latter from Earth. I'll have more on this talk and Cousins' ideas in the future—there's data to compare and arguments to examine further—but the gist is that the technical advantages of consoles are fading and becoming less relevant, as mobile gaming proves to be more accessible in all aspects of getting, playing and enjoying video games. It's a strong argument when you stack up the bad news of lost profits of the major traditional gaming companies.

  • I played a couple of games on Wednesday: the new Burnout Crash for iPad, which is much like the Xbox 360 Kinect one, though you guide the car with your finger. I watched the delightful Air Mail a Pilotwings-style flight game for iPads coming from Chillingo in the next couple of months. But I spent much of my running around checking out tech demos for trees and cloth. Videos of those will be live on Kotaku later today. (This cool Vita Augmented Reality one made it onto the site last night.)
  • The loveliest talk of the day that I attended was from Koichi Hayashida, who seemed to be telling the story of the making of his team's Super Mario 3D Land as a series of funny anecdotes. But then he got to the Japanese earthquake and delivered one of the most personal and moving tales I've heard from a game developer at this kind of thing. I wrote that one up. Please do read it.

There's more GDC to be seen. More notes tomorrow.