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Photo shop: GDC debuts the next generation

GDC 2013 shrugged off the despondency of recent years with the first true next-gen games and glimpses of photo-realism. We have every reason to be excited about the future, says Patrick Garratt.

For the first time in years there’s an air of genuine, positive excitement surrounding the next wave of games. The industry, if GDC 2013 is anything to go by, is looking to the future.

GDC 2013 was a good show. Recent years at the San Franciscan event have oscillated between sufferance and moribundity, with a lack of next generational aspiration lending headlines to red herrings such as OnLive and Move. An unspoken fear has grown that the top-flight games trade is doomed, lost in a shrinking maze of current console tech. We’ve had Nintendo moaning, Sony promising there’s life in PS3 yet, and grumpy indies, bricked up to starve in walled gardens, sticking their noses in the air and snotting themselves off to planet PC. David Cage tried to lift spirits with Kara last year, but even the French artist’s PS3 wizards can only make six year-old tech wow to a degree. It’s all been a bit gloomy, to be frank.

But 2013 was happyhappyfunfun. This year’s show gave us a real glimpse of the next generation both in terms of tech and dev structure, with photo-realism emerging as a trend. DICE and KojiPro dominated headlines with BF4 and MSG5, demonstrating a startling step-up in visuals and flashing a fat finger at the doomsayers. Yes, the next generation will be expensive, but there are developers and publishers with the vision to lead. Watching the games industry recently has been like a parent willing a troublesome teenager to get out of bed, stop whining, stop smoking weed every day and actually do something. GDC 2013 showed the transition from adolescent malcontent to career achiever is almost complete. Games can make it. It isn’t over yet.

EA and Konami weren’t the only GDC exhibitors to make a statement of next-gen intent. Activision, too, was keen to shout about what's to come, showing next-stage real-time face tech. We’re on the cusp of a new level of interactive experience and people will pay to be involved. There will be sighs of relief from many after this week.

Indies gogo

Photo-realism wasn't the only future indicator at GDC this year. The rise of the “AAA indie," coupled with the next-gen showings and a relaxing of console submission processes, gave a strong hint at how games are going to be made and sold in the next generation.

Journey swept the board at the GDC Choice Awards, and Telltale beat Mass Effect 3 and Dishonored to the narrative prize with The Walking Dead. Independence is possible for mid-sized teams in the top tier, but only if they ditch the disc and embrace new models. The development and publishing businesses have been disrupted, but if you want to stand on the shoulders of giants it’s unlikely you’re going to be doing it from your bedroom.

The next-gen power-players are emerging as hyper-creative studios with major backing, whether they’re “indie” or not. Thatgamecompany, Mojang and Telltale have great momentum, but, just like KojiPro, DICE, Quantic Dream, Rockstar North, BioWare and Infinity Ward, they’re serious business. The games they’re making are a world away from IGF headliners FTL and Cart Life.

Sony’s confirmation that it’s to radically alter its indie submission process with PS4, potentially growing a PSN more akin to the App Store, indicates that next-gen content is going to be made up of triple-A, discless double-A (whether it’s funded by first-party, third-party or Kickstarter) and small-team indie. As one publishing exec told me recently, “In general, next-gen console will be the premium experience; PC will be F2P and indie; and mobile will always be mobile.”

GDC 2013 adds credence to the prediction. Irrespective of the future, though, the headlines you’re going to be remembering from San Francisco’s creative love-in this year are all about faces, and how close to photographs the next generation will make them. The answer, apparently, is very. For the first time in years there’s an air of genuine, positive excitement surrounding the next wave of games. The industry, if GDC 2013 is anything to go by, is looking to the future.

Now. Where’s the invite to that Xbox event?

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