Tuesday, February 26, 2008

GDC 2008

Ray Kurzweil keynote on Thursday

Shana and friends storming the expo floor

Last week I went to GDC 2008 in San Francisco. As usual, I was a volunteer ("conference associate") for the conference. This year (and last year) I avoided attending a lot of programming sessions and focused more on things like game design. My purpose in going to the conference this year was mainly to keep tabs on the industry as a whole and to get a feel for where things are headed. On the technical side, the general trend continues to be more cores, threads, and parallelism. Also, there is a lot of experimentation with funky new input methods; some of the coolest ones, in my opinion, are the brain-computer interface devices from NeuroSky and Emotiv. It seems easier than ever to be an independent game developer because there are so many game portals out there to host indie games, like Steam and Kongregate.

I went to the Independent Games Summit all day. One interesting discussion was on the topic of defining rewards for the player... for example, is it more rewarding for a game to have good graphics and visual style or interesting game mechanics? I think they both have their place: the visceral aspects of a game, including visuals and audio, can provide an immediate draw to the player, but eventually even the best-looking games can get boring. The game mechanics provide the long-term rewards and can keep a player interested. So, in my opinion, good graphics draws people in, and good gameplay keeps them there. Also, someone mentioned the balance between boring and overwhelming, which I think is crucial because it forms the basis of curiosity and "information rewards" in our brains.

Other sessions at the Independent Games Summit discussed a lot of real life issues for indie developers, including legal issues. A lot of this was in the form of post-mortem advice from developers talking about specific games they had made.

I went to the last half of the games and education keynote. It seemed well thought out and very encouraging, though I can't remember any of the details now. There was a Serious Games Summit panel session on measuring what players learn when they play games... how do we define such a metric? Is this metric even necessary or desirable? This was a thought-provoking talk, although no consensus was reached.

I helped with a session on Xbox Live Arcade and attended the Microsoft keynote on XNA development for Windows, Zune, and Xbox. I also helped with a panel discussion on art outsourcing.

In the expo Sony had a cool demo of a head tracking system which used a single camera to detect the head's position (2D or 3D? I couldn't tell) and orientation using only face and eye detection.

Natural Motion's Euphoria is being used in the upcoming games Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Grand Theft Auto 4. These games should be a great demonstration of Natural Motion's dynamic character animation techniques in real time. Up till now the main benefit of their tools has been to ease the burden of animating characters for movies. Having their system run in real time interactive games will really show off their technology and will probably have a profound impact on gamers and the industry.

Wednesday evening during the awards ceremony I sat next to Michael Callahan, co-founder of Ambient Corporation. Ambient is developing a system called the Audeo, a wireless neckband that enables telepathic chat by silently translating vocal nerve signals into a synthesized voice. So you could use it to make silent phone calls or google queries in public places. I remember a NASA group working on something similar a few years ago, but Ambient is ready to commercialize it. Pretty cool.

Ray Kurzweil gave a keynote talk, which was similar to most of his other talks, but it was exciting to me to be in a room with thousands of people hearing his central thesis for the first time.

I helped with a session for Emotiv (one of two companies providing an EEG-based game input device) on their new SDK. Their system detects facial movements, "emotional" states (relaxed, tense, etc.), and cognitive/intentional state (e.g., thinking about moving an object through space). A short training period is required for some modes. They have a really nice control panel for testing all aspects of the system. One interesting point they made was that they could map brain states to existing keystrokes, enabling immediate usage with existing games.

I attended an Intel session on threading options for multicore machines and another programming session on undefined behavior in C++.

The Game Design Challenge 2008 was The Interspecies Game. This is always really entertaining. My favorite of the three designs was Bac Attack, a real-time strategy game against a petri dish of bacteria.

I mainly did random volunteer jobs throughout the day. I attended one session on legal issues for game music composers (e.g., maintaining IP vs. work for hire). Friday evening the conference volunteers had their final meeting, which is a mix of feedback for next year's conference and prizes for the volunteers. I won a copy of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, signed by all the developers. :)

At one point during Friday afternoon I was scanning people's badges at the entrance to the expo floor. A gentleman from the academic world needed help finding the Carnegie Mellon University booth (which turned out not to exist). As I was helping him find his destination we got into a brief discussion regarding the game industry as a whole. He made the comment, "I hope these games can someday be used for something important rather than just entertainment." My immediate response was something like, "But entertainment is very important. Children playing with toys are actively learning many skills that will be needed later in life. Entertainment doesn't appear useful because the benefits are not immediate." Besides the personal benefits, at a societal level entertainment is part of what creates culture. This is sort of the main thesis of Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

Later I thought more about this issue, and Shana helped convince me that entertainment is indeed different from other endeavors. It is important in a way that is different from how food and national security are important. Entertainment is important for rich life, but other things are important for life at all. I think Maslow's hierarchy of needs helps clarify the issue: basic needs (e.g., nutrition and safety) must be satisfied in order to support higher needs, which I believe includes entertainment and play behavior. All needs are important, in the sense that we all want to reach the top of the hierarchy of needs, but some must be satisfied in order to support others.