Here follows my Develop 08 diary. It wasn’t a bad conference overall, although I think there’s huge room for improvement before it can be considered a must-attend event. The location was great, and there was a selection of outstanding sessions, but the attendance numbers felt slightly low and the quantity of sessions provided barely enough choice. Unfortunately, these two go hand-in-hand and it may be tough to boost them both simultaneously. It’s so easy for most developers to just go to GDC, after all. I definitely wish them luck, though – it would be great for the UK development community to have its own high-quality event. I was reminded throughout just how many great studios we still have, despite all the closures.
The headline keynote (an interview with 4 of the Bioshock developers) kicked off the conference in spectacularly embarrassing style. For me, it recalled the worst kind of pretentious DVD bonus extra, with the dullest of stories that would entertain only the most serious of fanboys (like when Ken threw his glasses on the floor – I guess you had to be there for that one) and next to no real insight or informational content. Plus I can only take people saying “dude” so many times. It’s a shame because Bioshock was an amazing game, and they’re an articulate group who could no doubt have contributed so much more. My best guess is they didn’t prepare at all – perhaps the interview format lulled them into thinking they could just turn up and wing it?
Geomerics got the conference straight back on track for me, with a session about what games could learn from film lighting. They alternated between presenting basic film lighting theory (with analysis of some classic scenes) and showing cool demos of their technology. I appreciated the fact that they were quite restrained in not pimping their tech too aggressively – the demos didn’t feel like a big sell. Plus, their real-time radiosity tech is highly impressive.
The only downside was that real-life radiosity in the room made the projector hard to see in the darker scenes. This did make me chuckle, although it was unimpressive that the conference didn’t have AV support people in every room to fix things like this.
Next up was David Braben with an entertaining and thought-provoking session. Mostly he was delivering an upbeat message about the industry’s future, to counteract a lot of the negativity that goes with studio closures and other concerns. I liked that. Then he launched into an anti-pre-owned-games-at-retail rant. I have to disagree with him here. His basic argument is that games get sold many times (perhaps up to 10, he claimed), with developers and publishers missing out on any benefit from these deals. He also points out that films and music are not available on the high street in this form. Films provide a specific rental market for consumers who want to experience something once and return it. His logical conclusion is, why can’t we have rental games at lower prices – this would give consumers an almost identical experience, and of course would give developers and publishers a cut (and better ability to track sales).
Well that’s fine – game rentals would make a lot of sense for ‘us’ (i.e. developers and publishers). My problem is that I don’t really understand how games got into this position, and how movies went the other way. I certainly think the public has the right to sell their possessions, and shops have the right to act as middlemen for these transactions – in other words, this is (and should always be) legal. It then just becomes a question of economics. We’re in this position because of economic factors that I don’t understand personally (if you know what they are, please enlighten me!), and I guess someone should be thinking cleverly and creatively about how to shake things up, not whinging about how unfair it is. I just don’t see how he can justify being angry about this. Don’t complain, act!
One of the pleasures of being a speaker, not an attendee, is that I felt somewhat liberated to seek out the best speakers, rather than slavishly follow the technical track. A case in point was the session by Tameem Antoniades about storytelling and creating drama in Heavenly Sword – I had a sneaky suspicion he might be a decent speaker, and I wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t too relevant to my current work, but fascinating nevertheless. The footage of their actors (notably Steven Berkoff and Andy Serkis) improvising in mocap suits was hilarious.
Unbelievably rubbish food. A reasonably funny presenter. A room so hot that gentlemen were to be seen fanning themselves in a very ladylike manner. Not me, no sir. I sweated it out by the bucket. Oh yes, Rockstar reminded us that they made quite a good game recently. Then we won the “business development” award 🙂
You have to love Bungie: not just the great games, but their generous contributions of knowledge and experience to the developer community. They’ve built some of the best game AI around in the Halo series, and the way it’s engineered seems so clean and simple. They always leave you thinking “I could do that”! Check out their publications page (how many developers have one of those?)
“How many of you have heard of Framestore?” A room full of game developers shift uncomfortably in their seats and look down at their feet. “Has anyone not heard of Framestore?” Nobody dares make eye contact. “Great. Because I often find that people haven’t heard of us.” Framestore clearly don’t publicise themselves that well, or maybe they have a bizarrely non-memorable name. But they’ve done some amazing stuff, particularly for a non-US company. This was a pretty decent talk covering their work on The Golden Compass, together with some thoughts on whether games and films are converging (the answer is yes and no). Adding breadth to a game development conference like this seems like a great idea, particularly for UK game developers who may be less aware of the movie CG industry than their American counterparts.
Doing it yourself
I only went along to this because I was in the same room straight after, and wanted maximum setup time. It wasn’t too bad. Jeff Minter, Paul Preece and Sean Cooper talked about making games alone on XBLA and Flash. I’ve always thought Flash a bit rubbish because it gets used for websites when it shouldn’t be (it’s just not webby). But it clearly makes sense for simple games. It’s a pretty attractive distribution mechanism, giving access to a potentially massive audience, and allowing a designer to tweak and iterate on their game frequently in response to player feedback – a powerful interaction. The free-to-play, ad-supported business model opens up possibilities for games so simple that people wouldn’t normally pay for them. Jeff Minter just kept going on about how much he likes shaders. I guess you could sum up this talk with “flash plus shaders would be awesome!” 🙂
I think my session went ok, although I was unimpressed with the attention to detail of the organisers. When I first emailed them a summary of my session, I wasn’t too pleased with the title, so I said
How about “Building world-class art tools” – not wild about this but couldn’t think of anything better yet!
I was then really excited about seeing the session on their website, you know, with this being my first conference talk. My excitement quickly turned to dismay when I found this!
Well, it didn’t get better in all respects. They mis-spelled my name on the printed programme, and the projector kept flickering a purple tint during the talk (there can’t be many more disconcerting things than seeing the AV guy walking up from the back of the room while you’re talking!). At least I was in a room with an AV guy, though – I wasn’t too impressed with their absence in some of the other sessions.
Oh, and I think I didn’t say ‘um’ too much 🙂
Keep posted for a series of articles going into more depth on the topics of my session – I just didn’t have enough time to say everything I wanted to.