Unexpected Developments

Electronic entertainment's surprising future revealed at Game Developers Conference
An Internet-connected adapter plugs you into games running on computers up to 1000 miles away. Courtesy OnLive

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times at this year’s Game Developers Conference, held March 23-27 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The annual confab, which brought together the electronic entertainment industry’s most celebrated minds, pointed clearly to interactive entertainment’s increasingly divergent future. Grab your controller and hang on tight. Even we were surprised at how rapidly the industry is undergoing an extreme makeover.

Faced with rising costs and growing public indifference to set-top consoles like the PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360, one thing is obvious. Traditional game publishers, who generally stayed under the radar at the conference, have a tough battle ahead. But to judge from the exuberant attendees, who jockeyed to watch leading designers tackle controversial topics including human sexuality and games’ role in personal and social change, good news was plentiful as well. For all intents and purposes, this is a medium that’s undergoing a renaissance on virtually every other front.

Industry watchers were largely disappointed, with major announcements limited to remote software processing services OnLive and Gaikai, which let budget PCs play high-powered games via an Internet connection. (A new Legend of Zelda title also made some small waves.) Still, two convention halls, five days of exhibits, and 500-plus panels, symposiums, and tutorials were barely enough to contain showgoers’ skyrocketing enthusiasm for alternative platforms like the iPhone and Web, and experimental forms of play.

Consider free titles, delivered gratis via Internet browser, and amusements for social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, which have clearly captivated the public’s imagination. Capable of being designed by small teams of amateur coders, their accessibility has kindled the ambition of countless aspiring designers, sparking the kind of enthusiasm for homebrew development not seen since the industry’s dawn.

This year’s makeup of attendees primarily seemed to represent garages, not professional game studios, across America. As such, it served as a powerful reminder of the cultural ubiquity of these mediums, whose appeal readily spans background, age, and gender gaps. Dream of designing your own epic adventure or ingenious time waster? It’s not only easy to do so nowadays, but also easy to find a ready audience for it, aged anywhere from 7 to 70.

Likewise, as witnessed at the 11th Annual Independent Games Festival, given digital distribution’s ability to help developers bypass stores and directly connect with fans online, game makers’ vocabulary is also expanding. Home to bizarre outings like surreal fairytale adventure Blueberry Garden and Retro/Grade (a spaceship shooter played in reverse) it just goes to underscore an important point. Freed from the shackles of manufacturing and retail, software creators are now completely free to explore topics far beyond shooting robots and slaying dragons.

Visitors to the event could always go hands-on with Punch-Out!! for the Wii or bask in the presence of geek icons including Will Wright (Spore) or Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid). But frankly, the most exciting revelation came from showgoers themselves. A striking cross-section of young and old, male and female, different races and cultures, made it obvious at a glance just how far the field’s come in terms of heightened reach and diversity in recent years.

With virtually everyone eager to get in the game these days, and the tools to do so now within reach, realize. Who ultimately won the coveted Game of the Year title at the 2009 Game Developers Choice Awards (Fallout 3, if you must know) matters little.

Because by this same time next year, with the hobby expanding at a feverish pace and headed in so many promising directions? The industry may have to invent 20 new categories just to keep up. And, rather than fete the usual cast of name-brand visionaries (Sid Meier, Warren Spector, Shigeru Miyamoto, etc.), find itself having to lay all those accolades at the feet of everyday players just like you instead.

Get Rich Playing Games author and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg has covered technology for 400+ outlets from CNN to Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.gadgetexpert.net.