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Al Lowe gives his own personal insight into what's been happening at Games Developers Conference in San Jose.
Originally posted at Next Generation, On-Line's web site

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 opened.

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 infinite variety.

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 interested showgoers.

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 terrain.

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 everything.

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."

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