In my continuing quest for employment, I swung by the Game Developers Conference this week to see the sights and try my hand at my first-ever job fair. This was a marked change from last year, when I was one of the sights and was gainfully employed, so it was pretty interesting to go to GDC with a new perspective - that of a job-hungry youngster trying to sneak back into the game industry after close to a three-year side venture into corporate servitude.
While most of my time at conventions these days is spent talking to old friends, I made sure to take three stops on the convention floor before hanging out with old friend Vincent Diamante (composer for Flower) and Kieu Le (Web designer and artist for Go Play Games... oh, yeah, and my cousin).
My first stop was the Independent Games Festival, where Vince showed me such awesome hits as Retro/Grade, Snapshot, and Cortex Command. The world of independent video games has always fascinated me, with all of the creativity and innovative ideas that spring from a small team's vision made reality, with no focus groups or market pressures to get in the way of making a game. It was great to see all of these ideas in play, though the game that sucked up most of my time over at the IGF was Fieldrunners, which has already made a huge splash on iPhones. What can I say, I always loved brainless Tower Defense games in Warcraft 3, and bringing it to the iPhone was a brilliant idea (though I don't own an iPhone and can't really sustain this habit).
What surprised me about the Independent Games Festival was the presence of the brilliant You Have To Burn The Rope, which is an ingenious parody of in-game tutorials and modern game design... but doesn't really offer much in the way of actually being a game. I didn't feel that it belonged alongside the previously mentioned games, but I suppose a similar argument could be made for The Graveyard not being a game, and instead being an interactive experience. All things considered, I enjoyed my time with the indie games, and I'll definitely be paying closer attention to more of these as they come - my previous experience with indie games was usually limited to the Japanese doujin game scene, which I only followed cursorily.
My second stop was at the Nintendo booth so I could play Punch-Out! While I grew up as a Sega kid, I have plenty of fond memories of trying to bludgeon my way through the murderous gauntlet that was the NES version of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out! That game taught me the basics of fighting game timing, pattern recognition, and all sorts of other skills that formed the foundation of my gamer career, so I wanted to try the updated version to see how faithful the experience was, especially with the gimmick controls.
As plenty of Wii owners could have told me months ago, the wiimote + nunchuk experience is excellent for boxing games. The controls weren't perfect, but they were good enough that I was ducking, weaving, and punching like a pro within minutes of picking up the game. That was a good thing, because the game comes in bite-size portions and my pudgy gamer "muscles" starting to complain about the exertion by the middle of my second round against Disco Kid. Small portions, fun controls that don't feel like a stupid gimmick, and good art direction mean that I'll be giving Punch-Out! a good hard look when it comes out in May.
My last stop was the center of a huge storm of discussion and argument: OnLive. While many people are already heaping the title "Phantom 2.0" on them, I tend to go into these places with my eyes open and my skepticism intact. What I saw was pretty convincing that the service can work - what remains to be seen is if the service will work. Choppy graphics and slightly sluggish controls aside, I see three big barriers in the way of OnLive ever launching successfully:
- First, they have to worry about the size of their market. Out of all the people with the broadband connection capable of supporting this service - 1.5 megabits per second, 5 mpbs for HD support - how many of them don't already have computers capable of playing these games at an acceptable level? Then, out of those people who do have that kind of high-speed connection, which isn't that widespread across the United States yet, how many of them are willing to chunk up enormous portions of their pipe to play a single game? You start running into the old single-line dial-up problem, where playing this game interferes with all other normal operations, which can become onerous in multiple occupant situations. Seemingly, they're already looking at affluent single gamers who don't have roommates sharing a connection. How many of them would they need to meet costs?
- Second up is scalability. I think that they've already done this math over at OnLive, but assuming they get enough people to buy in and become profitable, how much can the servers stand? There were only a few televisions hooked up on the GDC floor, but let's go out on a limb and say that this service gets, say, ten thousand users. How will the servers handle all that load, and will that affect the game experience adversely due to server load? If it does, they'll lose a big chunk of those theoretical ten thousand open-minded gamers who will be getting much laggier and choppier game experiences than they paid for.
- The third issue at hand is simpler, compared to the above two: will the prices manage to be competitive? In theory, when OnLive users buy a game, they will put zero strain on the publisher. There will be no production line, no shipping cost, not even a bill for a download server and bandwidth. Game|Life linked to an excellent blog post by Bill Harris about the choice ahead of game publishers if this service actually makes it off the ground: OnLive is exactly what publishers have wanted. There's no piracy in the OnLive world, and no extra delivery costs. There is just pure, sweet profit. Will more game publishers embrace this model, or will they offer a thousand excuses as to why the license to play a game via OnLive is the same as buying a hard copy of the game yourself?
Anyway, there's still a lot to be played out in the OnLive saga, and I'm keeping my skepticism shades on - I've been wrong about gaming trends before, so I'm willing to let this story develop before I take sides.
PS: for those of you wondering where SGDs have gone in recent months, don't worry! I've just drawn one for Fred, and if we get the blessing of the publishers, we'll see about posting it online. It's meant for print, though.