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That was the news – Week 8, 2008: Unconvincing GDC governed by two main themes: flux and fear

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Last week's GDC was a strange affair that threw up more questions than answers. While it carried the predicted unveiling of Gears of War 2 and a Microsoft keynote holding traditional big hitters such as Fable 2 and Ninja Gaiden II, the event's main speech's message was by no means "the norm". Yes, the blood, swords and guns were all where they were supposed to be, but at the core of John Sheppard's keynote was a theme of radical change that permeated the entire conference, and one that left both developers and platform holders alike chewing their nails.

User-created content, bite-sized gaming, browser games, casual titles, digital distribution and bedroom coding were everywhere last week. Microsoft's keynote held at its core news that user-created games would be coming to Xbox Live this year and that XNA is to be given away free to students. CliffyB may have walked onto the stage with a fake chainsaw and everyone may have done a little cheer, but the overriding message in Sheppard's speech was crystal clear: bite-sized, user-created content is the future, or at least it's a big part of it.

Sony and Nintendo – both of which paraded their wares on the Moscone Center big stage in 2007 – were so conspicuous by their absence that there were elephant-shaped footprints in the butter. Neither company made a headline speech.

The Game Developers Conference this year was unconvincing in that if it's supposed answer the question of, "Where is games development going in the next 12 months?" then it failed to provide anything other than, "It's going everywhere." Unfortunately for the conference itself, Sony, Nintendo and a host of other dyed-in-the-wool gamemakers don't seem to have any planned response to an all-direction expansion of games creation, giving the entire week a flat feeling of tension as opposed to one of big sparks and bright ideas.

As one commentator put it, "Everyone's saying the same thing. Consoles are fucked. Gaming's exploding in every direction and so many people here just haven't got a clue about how to cope with it. The PC revolution's in full-swing. 'Innovation' isn't a dirty word any more: it's a do-or-die reality."

Shot indie head

GDC just compounded the theme. The news periphery to the show was all about change to traditional formats, genres and delivery methods. Spore was fully announced just before GDC, showing a focus is on user-created content and no recognition of the major console formats, PS3 and Xbox 360 (a Wii version is planned, but when it'll come and what form it'll take isn't known yet). The Sims Carnival was also launched just before GDC, the beta carrying the strapline, "Here, you are the game developer!" In general, EA was on fire, with Peter Moore and CEO John Riccitiello promising big changes to the company and its products in the coming years.

Even the big-boy MMOs like WoW are finally looking tired. Dave Perry, speaking in the run-up to GDC, called the Blizzard game "extremely geeky" and said it was hamstrung by its content. Forget 10 million, he said: we should be thinking about 70 million players.

At the show itself, the indie scene was never more prominent, the traditional games never more traditional. Last year's GDC was all about Harrison and Miyamoto. This year is was about a man we've never heard of before telling us 1,000 user-made games are going to be available on Xbox Live this year, Will Wright talking inspired nonsense about anything ahead of his super-game's launch, and the indie games awards themselves throwing up rising stars from absolutely nowhere.

The Game of the Year awards went to Portal, a three-hour puzzler invented from the FPS genre largely distributed digitally, while Call of Duty, Halo and Mario were nowhere to be seen. Names like Audiosurf, World of Goo, Fez and Crayon Physics Deluxe were being bandied around as common knowledge, with the IGF awards results being widely reported on the biggest sites. Previously, "those indie games" would likely have been shunted to the back of most editorial agendas.

Last year, Sony said, "We'll give you a virtual flat to call your own and let you build levels with a sackboy." This year, Microsoft said, "We'll let you do anything you like, and not only will we let you do it for free, but we'll give you the opportunity to share your creations with 10 million Live subscribers."

The patronising concept of small, cheap, bite-sized "idea" games being "plucky projects with big hearts" is in the bin, and the platform holders know it. Games like Portal aren't interesting oddities: they're leading the pack, and they can now do serious damage to the mainstay of "buying a game from a shop". To illustrate the point, 2007 saw Activision crowning CoD4 the bestselling game in the world with 7 million units. Since March last year, Peggle, a tiny-budget puzzle game, was downloaded 10 million times. The worm hasn't turned completely, but if you're in the packs-on-shelves console business, you'd be mad if you weren't concerned.

Fear and loathing

Thankfully, Phil Harrison's shitting himself. So is Peter Molyneux. At Dave Perry's Luminaries Lunch, Molyneux was incredulous to the PopCap survey's findings that 200 million people are now playing casual games on PCs.

"It's inconceivable!" he said.

Harrison, at the same event, said that he'd been frustrated by Sony Japan's sloth in realising the potential for social gaming, especially in light of Wii's explosive hardware sales and SCEE's tireless work at bringing products like Singstar and EyeToy to market.

"There are more Flash installs that there are consoles in the last two generations," Raph Koster pointed out, and Harrison offered that 500 million game-laden mobiles will be sold this year. You can see why Molyneux's worried: he's a big-team developer making an RPG on a disc for a single format. In the wake of the comments being thrown around in San Francisco last week, that entire concept sounds remarkably "last gen".

Concerned they may be, but the likes of Sony and Lionhead are starting to look dangerously as though they're being left behind.

Microsoft has obviously decided it needs to do something about user-content and casual, "impulse" gaming right now, and the XNA and community games initiatives for 360 are good moves. The appetite for small, home-made games isn't restricted to the console audience by a long-chalk, but the company knows it has to address the need immediately. Sony's floundering on the subject, and doesn't seem to be making any sound on whether or not its going to address the user-creation issue with PS3 at all, and may instead stick to its tack of delivering small, "it's only a few quid so why not?" buys on PSN. Nintendo announced WiiWare at GDC, but was quick to point out that not everyone can get games up there, and in the next breath announced Pay to Play, a charge system for online Wii titles: not what the crowd wanted to hear.

GDC 2009 - User Year

Don't expect next year's show to be so lacking in direction in terms of announcements. Companies like Sony and Nintendo will be coming to the table in 2009 with solid plans for community gaming and small-game creation instead of waving their hands in the air and saying "It's all changing so quickly! What are we going to do?" Spore is likely to set the pace for a mass-appeal product that allows simple user-content creation and GDC 2009 will feel a lot more settled in terms of the big names forming battle-plans for the "new" desires of the gaming public. The internet has given gamers - old and new - a very clear voice in which to express its desires, and what it wants (in addition, obviously, to the Call of Duties and Fables of the world) is Peggle and Portal. Now's the time the industry's big names got the their heads out of the sand and stopped rehashing the same old ideas before they get into serious trouble, to start making sense of the fact that an awful lot of people don't want to play 50-hour RPGs and start seriously addressing how to cope with that demand before the demand "copes" with them.

Because the sooner everyone calms down, the sooner we can get on with the process of building and progressing, instead of spluttering and dithering.

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