Overview and Background
The Computer Games Developers Conference (CGDC) is always entertaining, interesting, unpredictable and continues to be a forum of idea sharing and information. It's also a great place to meet established veterans, innovators, developers and those who are pushing the edges. The newly expanded Long Beach Convention Center and surrounding shoreline facilities were crowded with over 7000 colorful, hip, knowledgeable attendees and over 200 exhibitors. In short, the technical game wizards and enthusiasts saw everything from the ever popular console games to advanced artificial intelligence games.
This conference was founded in 1985 by game programmers. It evolved into an influential association which in 1996 allowed Miller Freeman Inc. to purchase the conference portion. CGDC has been called "the ultimate opportunity for developers to meet, see the hottest new games and tools, share trade secrets, exchange ideas, unveil technological breakthroughs, and attend more than 200 intensive classes taught by the masters of game development".
Pre-Conference activities included a wide variety of technical tutorials and three custom conferences including the new and excellent Analyst Briefing; a Marketing and Business focus; and the Art of Managing Game Development.
The Classic CGDC included numerous roundtable discussions, top-draw keynote speakers and classes covering game design, art, programming, production, audio and the business aspect of development.
The Expo provided an active show floor and opportunity for all attendees to "test drive" and talk about the latest tools, products and services. Top names such as Intel, 3Dfx Interactive, Microsoft, Creative Labs, Sierra Online, NEC, Digital, Dolby Labs, Walt Disney Imagineering, Sony Interactive, were well represented. Highlights of selected products, services and companies are spotlighted.
Industry Analysis and Direction
In this new conference, some of the industry's leading analysts provided a closer look at the facts, market numbers and thoughts on today's rapidly changing and developing gaming markets while addressing key business issues.
Ann Stephens, President of PC Data targeted the hot sales channels and revenues. Share of game sales by category and importance include: Strategy 20%, Adventure/Role Playing 16%, Action 15% and Simulation 13%. While volumes increase, software prices are decreasing like traditional consumer prices. Many top selling hits (some are not innovative and sell at low or giveaway prices) are sold through mass merchants, (like Wal Mart), office supply, software only and superstores. Many of these sales are tied to low margins or moved as loss leaders. Top selling titles through March, 1998 included: Deer Hunter, Titanic, Starcraft, Myst and Star Wars:Rebellion, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Cabela's Big Game Hunter, Quake II, Microsoft Age of Empires and Riven:The Sequel to Myst.
John Peddie advised the 3D graphics accelerator PC market is now very hot. "Games should target the enthusiastic, high spending and very demanding game playing audience who are the most thirsty for cutting edge games." Approximately 70 million 3D chips will ship in 1998 and "Intel will ship as many units as they want". Business 3D applications will start to ramp up in 1998.
Acknowledged expert in the field of digital media, Rob Glidden, is aware of how computer and traditional media companies have come to a watershed in their merging interests. This watershed is digital entertainment and game developers are ideally positioned. The future includes high quality digital broadcasts, 3D game functionality, HDTV deployment, media integration (unified creation, delivery and display of multiple media types) and further battles for web media integration which in his opinion don't work all that well.
IDC Research's Bill Zinsmeister stated "online gaming represents both great opportunity and possible minefields of expenses, issues and conflicts". His research provided insights on trends and market forces influencing the industry. Among his observations are "the Internet and E-commerce are hot growth opportunities coupled with relationship marketing and the new gaming paradigm---multiplayer and community activities". However, the PC platform is viewed as a limitation with consoles and set-tops as the longer term plays and scenarios "at the end of the day"
The presentations, the Q&A's, conference book and networking made these all very worthwhile sessions for entertainment management and developers as well. They should be continued as technology, business opportunities and challenges increase. If gamers and developers are having fun and pushing development to the limits, a stable business is essential based on a good eye to future trends as presented in this insightful conference.
Online Play and 3D
The quality of the presentations, documented in the huge conference proceedings book, and ensuing discussions were of high quality. This encouraged a rapid exchange of ideas and information. A brief selection of topics, approaches, products and services follow:
The Underlying Lure of Multiplayer Online Games That Few Game Developers Understand
Jonathan Baron states "the real cause of the medium's retarded development is the games industry itself". He explored the distinctive elements essential to large scale multiplayer games and why the business should understand the product and it's audience.
New Sound Technology for PCs
Jeff Barish says "sound is about to get much better". Wavetable synthesizers, new codecs, greater bandwidths and new API's are among the most interesting offerings. From the show floor and private booths, Creative Labs was showcasing it's newly announced Sound Blaster PC164 and Cambridge Sound Works family of speakers along with glimpses of future development of cutting edge gear. Aureal demonstrated it's cool immersive A3D audio technology in which sounds can emanate from all directions in an x, y, and z plane. Aureal 3D has developed a white paper technology overview for those wanting to learn more.
Speech and Realistic Games
Lies, Damn Lies, and Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) Statistics
According to Lucent Technologies' Neil Kirby, "the flashiest voice processing , speech recognition, is just now going into games". "Speech technology is arcane, evolving and difficult to master, so establish a close working partnership with your technology provider." Be careful to separate vendor marketing hype and bragging from actual results. Top drawer ASR systems should recognize continuous speech, perform well in third party tests, field trials and in your own comparison tests. These are some of the best ways to get reliable performance numbers which focus on the most important number---a high customer satisfaction rating.
Starting in 1999, Reviews On Line will present an overview and comparison of the latest top performing consumer and specialty ASR systems including IBM's Via Voice, Dragon System's Naturally Speaking, Lernout & Hauspie's Voice Express along with some other surprise vendors.
If Bill Gates, Gordon Moore and other visionaries think ASR is an important application none of us can afford to ignore it, especially with the new powerful and affordable PC's. If done correctly, ASR will be a first magnitude marketplace stand out to reach a global mass market.
Picture Imperfect: Common 3D Rendering Flaws
Everyone who has used a 3D API has eventually discovered an unfortunate fact of life: 3D devices don't work the same. A scene that looks wonderful on one card may be missing pixels on another. Fairplay's Brad Cain concludes "Microsoft and graphics hardware companies are working to fix the problems but developers must protect themselves during the interim by understanding their applications, perform tests, develop for multiple cards and create a reference database of rendering flaws to help avoid problems".
More Realistic Games
Developers were able to learn about new trends in the conferences and "test drive" some of the latest product and development offerings which included 3Dfx Interactive Reference Board D3D--Voodoo2 SLI, Diamond Multimedia Monster 3D II--Voodoo 2 chipset, Matrox's MGA-G200, 3D technology optimized for Intel Pentium II systems. And S 3's Savage 3D Graphics Accelerator. Nvidia and Microsoft jointly sponsored the Direct X seminar as part of the "Raise Your I. Q. (Image Quality)" campaign while MultiGen's innovative new Game Developer Prototype Program, enables start-up developers to create a new generation of 3D hits with little or no overhead costs.
Also in the picture quality department, I must candidly admit my eyes are still focused on film, and video (HDTV 1080i and 1080p or higher) quality levels. Unfortunately, game industry business and revenue models cannot aspire to these high levels---yet.
However, two notable companies are trying to improve game image quality now. The Duck Corporation is pushing the visual envelope by using it's TrueMotion software video compression technology. It demonstrates image resolutions up to 1280 by 720 progressive scan at 24 frames per second which play an a standard Pentium MMX 266 PC from a single hard drive. During the show, TrueMotion 2.0 Compression Tool Kit for Windows and TruePlay SDK 6.0 were released.
Discreet Logic's Lightscape Version 3 continues as a breakthrough in the art of illusion. It's still a benchmark software product providing computer graphics tools for game developers, film and video effects artists and Web content creators. It would be nice to see more applications in cutting edge games to create a believable sense of place which is a key element in engaging audiences.
Who's Killing On Line Gaming?
Industry analysts tell us that online games will be a one billion dollar plus market by 2000, IDC/Link says $1.5 billion, Jupiter $ 1.6B, Forrestor, $1B, Kagon, $1.375B and etc. Just one problem. "It's not happening but slowly increasing" states Leonard Quam. "All the usual suspects for failure of Internet ventures have been dragged out as scapegoats: lack of payment security, insufficient bandwidth, high latency or even game developers limited vision of what online games should be." He said it may be his contrarian view, but thinks "history, market principles and common sense are on his side".
If the market is not well understood or financed it would be a great loss since online offers a canvas for great design and play types that aren't available in any other medium. It's more fun to play against a human opponent rather than a computer. In closing, Quam feels "online is the only place they have a real shot at the mass market crowd---and their money".
A Few Hands-On Impressions
Brain Co is a leading European creator of personal simulators for arcade and commercial markets. It's newly developed state-of-the-art adventure platform is called TRIP2 Ride Simulator and breaks new barriers in immersive, interactive adventuring. This is a serious motion simulator with a patented gravity centered base that ensures a truly realistic sense of motion not often seen in the industry.
Trip2 is PC based, easy to upgrade with the latest hot graphics, digital sound, rumble effects and etc. to create your personal theme park. It appears to be one of the most accurate simulators developed with very smooth motion response and custom set up for particular venue needs. It will include the latest action packed films and software displayed on a sharp 27 inch color SVGA monitor.
Based on my test drives and informal survey of hard core gamers I learned it involves riders by immersing them in sight, sound and sensation. I heard comments like: "This is really cool!!!", "What a rad ride", "Man what a trip", "It could take anything I threw at it", "Where can I take my friends to try out this wild machine".
Now the bad news, it will be launched in Europe during 1998 and released later in the U.S. to location based entertainment (LBE) centers. Blockbuster, Sony, Sega, Disney and other large entertainment companies are presently constructing themed LBE centers ranging in size from 3,000 to over 30,000 square feet. The complexes will have many levels of gaming technology, ranging from video games to virtual reality rides, complete live entertainment and more. Further information should be available at www.brain-co.com soon.
After trying several other flight sim and automotive theme offerings, progress is being made, but I personally hoped for more realism, better visuals, sound and educational/skill based improvement elements. Unfortunately, I've been influenced by top line, and much more expensive products like the U. S. military's Evans and Southerland developer .
I continue to look to the entertainment industry's Holy Grail of a completely immersive experience and find many worthwhile "works-in progress". Fortunately, for the gamer's business and revenue models the "play of the game still rules". I returned to the floor and conferences to look for more "pearls".
On-Line Living Room---a hip oasis complete with Public PC's provided by the National Amusement network to check e-mail, surf the Web or just chill out on the visual treats.
On-Line Electric Playground---Heat.Net and Gamestorm were among the companies providing attendees a chance to experience a wide variety of online games and collect goodies.
The Vintage Arcade---very retro and cool, which included golden oldies such as PacMan, Galactica, Centipede which were all play and no pay ---well attained.
The Technology Incubator--- where one can investigate new technologies and capabilities for future applications. This is an essential stop to look for groundbreaking ideas that sometimes come from small innovative companies without the resources to exhibit.
On-Line Game Tournament and Booth Crawl---this was a very lively atmosphere and happy hour to check out the coolest stuff on the Expo floor in case you missed it during the day.
Spotlight Awards At The Queen Mary---these awards were given to developers by their peers and may give insight into outstanding, creative and technical contributions in the field of interactive entertainment for current and future developers.
First Annual Gamerave Charity Challenge---this was also held on the Queen Mary and called "rabble with a cause" in which the ship was pirated for charity and good gaming fun.
Upcoming Gamer Road Conferences
CGDC is now called Game Developers Conference (GDC) and has just announced GDC Road Trips for 1998. These two day events deliver customized content developed in conjunction with local advisory boards to serve regional needs. The main day covers key areas of interest including: production, art, game design, audio, programming, business and legal. Pre-conference days cover a specific regional topic with in-depth tutorials and workshops.
Road Show locations, dates and themes are as follows:
Seattle- November 9-10---Storyplaying
Austin-November 16-17---Engine Programming Laboratory
San Francisco-November 21-22---Production & management of Game Art
Baltimore/DC-December 10-11---Analyst Briefing
Boston- December 12-13---Team Management Workshop
© 1998 Jim Bennett All rights reserved.