Al Lowe gives his own personal insight into what's
been happening at Games Developers Conference in San
Originally posted at Next Generation, On-Line's web
March 18, 1999
It was a quiet day in Lake Wobegon... Oops! Wait a
minute. Wrong opening!
It was anything but a quiet day at the 1999 Game Developers
Conference, here in beautiful downtown San Jose. The
SJ Convention Center was jumping all day, or at least
from 12:30 PM on, when the stadium-sized exhibit floor
Anyone who hasn't been to a computer show, especially
a computer game show, has no idea of the ambient sound
levels on a show floor. And who was it who ordered
every other game to include a techno sound track at
max level? For an industry that so touts its creativity,
it surely is narrow in its tiny sampling of music's
Or maybe it's just because, in a former life, I was
a high school music teacher. No, that career didn't
resemble Mr. Holland's Opus in the least, trust me.
And no, there is no truth whatsoever in the rumors
that I left that field because of legal actions!
But, Al, you ask (assuming you've even still reading
by now!). What happened at the show? I'm glad you asked
(even though you is I in this case).
Today's biggest news is the announcement of the winners
of the First Annual Game Developers Conference Independent
Games Festival. (Hopefully by next year, it will drop
that catchy little moniker and go for something more
formal, in keeping with this staid games business!)
While this year's inauspicious beginning bears little
resemblance to the movie industry's Sundance Film Festival,
it has the same spirit and the same "let's make
a deal" atmosphere.
This year, in spite of a rather short deadline for
submissions, 90 games were entered, and 15 of those
were selected as finalists. Each finalist had a demo
kiosk on the show floor and its developers spent the
last two days trying to yell over each others' soundtracks
as they described and demonstrated their games for
Crime Cities won the award for Best Visual Art for
its Polish developers, Techlandsoft. It features beautifully
rendered scenes that put me in the mind of Bruce Willis
driving that killer taxi in Fifth Element. What could
be better than 3-D flying through a 30th century city
(complete with 20th century product placement billboards
and building names)? Crime Cities knows: shooting down
other cars that get in your way! I know it satisfied
that hitherto repressed urge within me that always
bubbles up during rush hour.
The best Game Design award went to Resurrection, from
Mind Control. It combines strategy with strong fantasy
RPG elements, like Warlords or Heroes of Might and
Magic. But its graphics look fantastic. Fully 3-D objects
move smoothly in real time on beautifully rendered
Terminus, from Vicarious Visions, picked up two awards,
the first for Audio and another for Programming. Here
again, strong 3-D graphics heightened realism in a
space combat RPG, where you can play as an Earthling,
Martian, mercenary or pirate. But what set this game
apart for me was its heavy emphasis on plot. While
every game takes place during the same real-time 24-hour
period; when your "day" is done, the game
is over and your actions determine your success. The
next time you play, you may assume a different role
and learn a different version of the "truth,"
from different characters with a different perspective.
Each successive replay fleshes out the story line and
it looks like it would take scores of games to discover
The Indie Games Festival has one unique element: besides
the four awards I've already discussed and the not-yet-mentioned-but-isn't-the
suspense-killing-you? overall Best Game award, ballots
are distributed to the conference's participants and
each person gets to vote for their choice for Best
Game. This is cleverly called The Audience Award.
Evidently, developers know a good game when they see
one, because the audience and the team of judges picked
exactly the same game. Fire and Darkness, from Singularity
Software, won both awards. While the Audience Award
was nice, somehow the team seemed more excited by the
Best Game award, which came complete with a 2-foot
by 5-foot check in the amount of $10,000. (Rumor has
it they spent the evening searching downtown San Jose
for an ATM machine with a really large deposit slot!)
Here's the kicker: the development team was started
three years ago by David Scherer and David Rosenthal
- when they were both high school sophomores! Now,
as ripe old college freshmen, it looks like they have
a good chance of getting their first game published.
So what have we learned from all this? And what insight
will be offered by the ancient Al Lowe (who published
his first game the same year the Davids were born!)?
First, you'd better get 3D or get out. Anyone developing
a 2D game has an uphill battle even to get noticed.
This is too bad, but it is a fact of life. Accept it:
2D is over. Static screens are over. Scrolling is over.
3D is king.
Second, the established genres have plenty of room
for growth (with the exception of adventure games;
see tomorrow's column). In fact, most developers describe
their games using lines like "it's a lot like
Game A, but with the _____ of Game B." But you'd
better have a "hook" as well because nobody
is interested in "just another one" that's
almost the same as the original.
Third, story seems to be growing stronger, or perhaps
that's just my hope. It seems to me I found many more
games talking about story elements, conflict and resolution,
and better-developed characters (and I don't mean just
in poly-count). While we all agree that story can't
make up for game play, if several games are fun to
play and yours also has a strong story line, your chances
of success increase.
On the other hand, all this can work against some games.
At the Cajun Games kiosk, I stood behind a security
guard who had spent the previous night working the
graveyard shift, guarding the convention center floor.
On his way home, he paused to look over the games here
and discovered Food Chain, a game that's already available
on the Macintosh, but still seeking a publisher for
the PC version. When I arrived at the Food Chain kiosk,
he had been playing for 90 minutes...and showed no
sign of moving just so I could have a turn. In short,
he was a true game consumer who had found that elusive
gem: a game simple in concept and difficult to master.
Do you think he cared that the entire game took place
on a simple 5x5 grid using elementary animation? No,
because he instantly grasped the depth of play and
intricacy of strategy. He was hooked, but good!
And there, in a nutshell, is a lesson for the rest
of us that we too often ignore. The mass market does
not have 3-D accelerator cards, nor P-III's, nor 64-meg,
nor DVD's, nor 1600x1200 resolution, nor 16-meg video
cards. They're telling us through their purchase of
Barbie's Latest Whatever, games coincidentally named
after last year's biggest movie, Deer Hunter and all
its now-too-numerous-to-keep-my-lunch-down brethren,
a message we don't want to hear.
Once we dreamt of a day when the masses would finally
have computers and be able to play our games. That
day is now here, but game developers are still making
the kinds of games that we want to play. They say the
military perpetually prepares to fight the previous
war. We've doing the same thing. The masses market
is here, but they're still the masses and the developer
who caters to the hard-core gamer will always be surprised
to lose the sales war to the team that recognizes them
for who they are: those Jerry Springer-loving, When
Animals Attack, laugh-tracking millions.
But remember, as Dennis Miller says, "Of course,
that's just my opinion; I could be wrong."