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GDC Diary: A Two-Day Jaunt Through the 2007 Game Developer's Conference

Day 1
7:30 am – Bus rides and coffee

This year's Game Developer's Conference was held in San Francisco which is good for me because I'm a local. No travel costs--whoooo! The day started with a bus ride downtown from my place in the Inner Sunset. Having ridden public transportation all the time when living in Chicago I should've been prepared for this, but since moving to the Bay Area I drive everywhere and had forgotten the distinct olfactory experiences found on a city bus. After a half hour of holding my breath, I burst out the back doors of the bus a couple blocks from the Moscone convention center with only one thing on my mind. NO, not games. Caffeine. There's usually free coffee for attendees at these convention dealies but if there's one thing I won't abide in the morning (or any other time) it's crappy coffee.

My java snobbery forced me to endure a long ine at the nearby Starbucks with fifty other badge-wearing, bleary-eyed attendees. The time passed quickly though after I nearly put my eye out on the 10-inch sharpened stick the dude behind me was wearing through his nose. I turned sideways to peruse the pastry offerings and jumped violently back after almost skewering my eyeball on the end of his extreme nasal gewgaw. I'm all for people expressing themselves through fashion but isn't it a little ridiculous when your stylish equipage crosses the line from conversation piece to health hazard? I guess if I'd lost an eye, I could've started a new trend among folks like him. "Hey guys--lip rings are out--eyepatches are in!"

8:45 am – Game on
I entered the convention hall and sure enough, there it came. That familiar queasy feeling that comes from knowing I'm going to have to try and talk to people I don't know. I've been to a handful of GDC's and E3's over the last few years and have been steadily working on losing my status as "Worst Networker in the Known Universe". Consulting my session schedule, I took a deep breath, "put on my game face" (Boo! Hiss...) and plunged into the crowd.

9:00 am – Conference hop
Being something of an old hand at session-going, I picked not one but three different 9 o'clock sessions: one main and two alternates in case the first one sucked rocks. That sounds harsh right? Hey, in a perfect world, every speaker would be entertaining and every session would be pithy and informative but in the real world, 2.5 out of 3 are a snooze. I noticed a couple of trends this year in the GDC sessions. Theres always at least one, a sort of game geek chic if you will, and this year's seemed to jointly be 1) Cinematic Storytelling in Games and 2) The Game Industry's Need to Broaden its Playerbase.

The first session I went to focused on the former and since I'm a huge fan of games with rich stories I settled in eagerly, notebook and pen at the ready. Unfortunately, the session was one of the 2.5 I mentioned earlier; one of the "snooze" variety and was not note-worthy. Within 10 minutes I stopped listening and started sketching the backs of people's heads then skipped out on the session entirely. Instead of running to one of my alternate choices though, my time seemed best spent setting up my agenda, eavesdropping on other people's conversations and munching on free bagels. A European-looking man sat down at my table with his laptop, completely ignoring me until I cursed under my breath at my cell phone. That made him look over and he smiled at me and said "Schiesse!" That was the day's first foray into industry hobnobbing and I considered it a success. It's good to know that despite global strife and ideological boundaries, obscenities are the glue that hold our peoples together.

10:30 am - Keynote Capers with Sony's Phil Harrison
After being grievously disappointed in the PS3, I've been nursing my emotional wounds by avoiding all things Sony. However, after seeing "The PS3 Song" on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R98qC0fd_1w) last week, I decided I wanted to hear for myself if Phil Harrison ever said anything but "uh.......".

The presentation was marred at first by technical difficulties with the less-than-user-friendly PS3; the crowd murmured in amusement as Phil and his co-presenter struggled to get their presentation up and running. The subject matter of the talk was interesting for the most part, focusing on Sony's "vision" for the future of gaming (the aforementioned "broaden the playerbase" motif). Incidentally, Sony's vision jives with a lot of other folks' vision: games becoming more communal, more based on the social aspect, the online aspect and player-generated content.

The best part of the keynote by far was the introduction of a cute little game called "LittleBigPlanet", created by the guys who brought us "Ragdoll Kung Fu". This inspired little game looks to be a diverting mixture of cute and cuddly graphics and deftly utilized physics providing a lot of laughs and endless replay value. This as well as the majority of the presentation was engaging enough to keep me from sketching heads but the truth is, Phil Harrison's a bit of a cold fish. His stiff delivery made him look like he was making a presentation to the board rather than inviting developers to share in all of Sony's cool new stuff. Ah well. We can't all be Shigeru Miyamoto, can we?

12:00 pm – Conference hop 2.0
After the Sony infomercial--er, keynote, I was ready for a change of pace so I decided to check out Warren Spector's talk about Next Gen Storytelling. One of my all time favorite games is Deus Ex so I've heard Warren speak before. He has a sort of studied Woody Allenesque way of talking; lots of stammering and half-uttered thoughts intended to provoke and amuse. I've heard people just rip on the guy for his belief in the necessity for story in games and most of the time people try to discredit him with a revelatory, "Invisible War sucked!"

Sigh...yes, the sequel to 2000's brilliant Deus Ex was less than stellar and I grew a few new grey hairs waiting through the load times but I still think Warren's an interesting guy. I think he's right when he says games are still in their infancy in terms of good stories, dialog and acting and that they could do much more, could even become as meaningful to us as books or movies once the right talent comes along. He talks the talk but the bad news for Warren is, the game industry is much like Hollywood--you're only as good as your last game.

Incidentally, I spent the majority of this talk totally annoyed because right after it started, a rather large and noisome man came in and insisted on squeezing himself in between me and another guy. We were seated in those tiny tied-together conference room chairs and had about as much room as you would on an airplane, which isn't much. This beefy guy wedged himself in, overflowing his own chair and engulfing a third of mine and after making us both extremely uncomfortable, he promptly fell asleep. I contemplated masking his musky emanations by sticking mints all over his forehead but checked the urge in the interest of gamerly accord.

1:00 pm - Lunch
Whoever said, "There's no such thing as a free lunch" knew what he was talking about. I couldn't see spending an hour being shouldered aside at the free lunch tables by hungry game developers (Have you seen these guys? They're built like professional bowlers) so instead I did the 'smart' thing--and paid to be shouldered aside by hungry tourists at the nearby Sony Metreon.

2:30 pm – Conference hop 2.5
After washing down my overpriced, soggy caesar salad with another grande latte I hoofed it to the writer Susan O'Connor's session about working on the award-winning Gears of War. Mostly I was curious to hear what she might say in regard to writing the story of Gears of War because I played the game and for the life of me, I can't remember it having one. I do remember enjoying immensely, running up and chain-sawing dudes in the face but I can't recall any particular story attached to that. Unless a group of huge-necked guys shooting, crouching and grunting a lot constitutes a story.

Susan O'Connor was funny and smart and successfully held my interest the entire hour. She was a good presenter; her often self-effacing talk brought up some interesting concepts regarding the way the human brain perceives action and the way she writes to make the player and the player character's desires and frustrations sync up. She gained my respect when she indicated she realized Gears of War isn't necessarily a Pulitzer Prize winner. It's one thing to write potboilers - it's another to take them too seriously.

4:00 pm – Conference hop 3.0
Five minutes into another talk about cinematic storytelling in games, I was wishing I understood programming or that creating staffing plans was remotely interesting to me so I could attend one of THOSE talks. Lacking that comprehension and enthusiasm, I stayed put and started drawing heads again. It's really too bad when people latch onto the subject matter du jour and try to woodenly present it rather than speaking from what they know. The most interesting talks come from people conveying what they're passionate about, not "how we used a rail camera to increase player excitement".

4:30 pm - Cruising the Exhibit Floor
There's one thing I'll say about the GDC exhibit floor--it ain't no E3. Normally I'd enjoy the lack of bimbo-factor but the dreariness of the vendor-heavy exhibit floor had me almost wishing for a booth babe or two. I know, I know...the exhibits are there to serve tech-savvy developers and game industry hopefuls but for those of us who are neither, I was thinking they could've used a bounce house or a ball pit or something.

5:00 pm – Bus rides and sleepy old guys
Exhausted after a full day of game-related activity, I gathered up my schwag, tied my sweater around my face in preparation for the bus ride home and jumped on the #71 Haight-Noriega Limited. After standing most of the day, I was glad to have a seat on the bus—glad for about five minutes. Once I settled in, the old guy next to me who was pretending to read a newspaper, crashed out on my shoulder. He was a sound sleeper I guess because neither the lurching of the bus nor his own blinding halitosis woke him up. I kept shifting in my seat, hoping to alert him to his hand limply creeping down my knee but nothing did the trick short of an elbow to the ribs.

6:00 pm – Docket and Disinfectant
End of day 1. The evening was spent planning the next day’s agenda, lightening my overstuffed messenger bag and scrubbing bus grunge off my gear with anti-bacterial soap. The first day was done but ho yeah - tomorrow begins Day 2!