GDC 2008 Preview: What We're Excited About

After a period of grueling preparation, the ShackStaff is invading San Francisco this week for the annual Game Developers Conference. Like Genghis Khan before us, we will sweep across the booths and lecture halls, cutting down the hordes of gaming vendors and lecture panelists, dissecting them for the populace at large.

In short, we're going to see a lot of games, and a lot of game-makers.

On the corporate show-off side of things, we'll have the chance to check out a diverse offering of upcoming titles, from Street Fighter IV to Battlefield Heroes, Postal 3 to Fallen Empire: Legions, Prototype to Too Human.

But the real fun of GDC is getting a feel for the collective spirit of the industry, listening to the creative minds that work behind the scenes to drive the big business interests. Here game developers can speak their minds without a pesky PR manager whispering into their ears, freely sharing information amongst their peers and bouncing high-minded ideas from podium to podium.

Here are just a few of the talks we're most excited about.

Rules of Engagement: Blizzard's Approach to Multiplayer Game Design
Company: Blizzard
Speaker/s: Rob Pardo

What they say: While epic multiplayer gameplay has long been a defining characteristic of Blizzard Entertainment games, the company's approach to achieving that result has evolved greatly over time. With each new project, Blizzard developers have applied lessons learned from the company's previous games to continually update how they design and implement competitive and cooperative play features. In this presentation, Rob Pardo will discuss the goals the company strives for and the pitfalls it tries to avoid when developing the multiplayer elements of its games.

Why we're excited: A dissection of Zerg rushes? Sounds good. StarCraft is one of multiplayer gaming's most refined wares, and we're eager to see how the company's thinking has evolved since the first landmark title.

How to Go from PC to Console Development without Shooting Yourself in the Foot
Company: Valve
Speaker/s: Elan Ruskin

What they say: Significant challenges face a studio transitioning from personal computers to simultaneous home game console development for the first time. This session discusses how Valve met these challenges in its first Xbox 360 release THE ORANGE BOX, and offers best practices to help make attendees' first console release a successful one.

Why we're excited: Sure, we'd rather Valve stick to its roots than muddy itself with console development, but The Orange Box console port was innocent enough, and carried off with few hitches. Ruskin is a long-time port engineer, so this should be a fairly technical talk, but no less interesting.

An Evening with Will Wright & Friends
Company: Electronic Arts
Speaker/s: Will Wright & Friends

What they say: This will be the only event where you can hear the creator behind The Sims and the forthcoming Spore - acclaimed game developer Will Wright speak during GDC 2008.

Why we're excited: Spore may be an unknown quantity at this point, but it could end up being more painful than The Sims Online and Black & White combined and we'd still be looking forward to hearing Will Wright talk.

Standing the Test of Time: A Q&A with Sid Meier
Company: Firaxis Games
Speaker/s: Sid Meier, Noah Falstein

What they say: The game industry today is targeting a broader audience of players. Platforms, divisions of publishers, independent developers, are all looking for ways to appeal to the potential players who rarely define themselves as gamers. With so many claiming first mover victory in this apparently new area, it's worth sitting down with Sid Meier, who decades ago first captured the attention of gamers, students, teachers, parents, office workers, grandparents, and especially other game developers, and continues to do so today. Sid will be interviewed by Noah Falstein, a veteran designer in his own right, who also happens to be an avid Civilization player. Anyone now working on or considering a broadly appealing title is encouraged to attend, and learn what works and doesn't work in creating timeless, engaging games for everyone.

Why we're excited: Sid Meier's Q&A with Sid Meier? I'd buy that game for a dollar, just like I buy every other Sid Meier game. It's always worth sitting down with the guy who brought us Civilization.

Stylization with a Purpose: The Illustrative World of Team Fortress 2
Company: Valve
Speaker/s: Jason Mitchell

What they say: One of the biggest hits of 2007, TEAM FORTRESS 2 features an illustrative rendering style which serves critical gameplay goals, such as the ability of characters to easily identify each other in a variety of lighting conditions. From historical artistic influences to the inner loops of real-time shaders, we will describe how the interplay of art direction and engineering allowed us to achieve the distinctive visual style of TEAM FORTRESS 2.

Why we're excited: There are a lot of reasons why Team Fortress 2 is as good as it is, but the art direction is certainly high up on the list. After years of muddy green-and-brown shots of the old TF2, the team at Valve did a 180 and brought us something fresh and fun. Getting a look at the thought process behind that is worth paying for, but Mitchell will be talking for free. Valve always has the best deals.

Storytelling in BioShock: Empowering Players to Care about Your Stupid Story
Company: 2KBoston/Irrational
Speaker/s: Kenneth Levine

What they say: Here's a secret: If you're making a first person shooter, most people don't care about your story. BIOSHOCK took a genre that isn't generally known for its great storytelling propensities and made people care about the world of Rapture and it's inhabitants. It did this by inviting the players to participate in the narrative through their own investigation of the world of Rapture. Creative director Ken Levine will share some of the secrets as to how it was done.

Why we're excited: Say what you will about BioShock--it took a diving lunge at the kind of story that few first person shooters attempt, let alone video games of any kind. Screenwriter-turned-game writer Ken Levine should have plenty to say about how he and his team pulled it off.

A Portal Post-Mortem: Integrating Writing and Design
Company: Valve
Speaker/s: Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw

What they say: Integrating story and gameplay is a daunting task for both writers and designers. PORTAL's project lead and its head writer discuss how they approached this particular problem during the game's development.

Why we're excited: You can argue your preference for a longer game, but you can't deny the pure craft behind Portal's writing. Coherent pacing might be easier to manage in a four hour game, but the talent evident in every line of Portal is hard to locate in even the longest of 40 hour games.

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Fable 2 - The Big Three Features Revealed
Company: Lionhead Studios
Speaker/s: Peter Molyneux

What they say: Peter Molyneux's stated ambition as a designer is to make FABLE 2 a landmark game. In order to achieve this three big design features have been added. The inspiration and rational behind these features will be discussed along with their evolution throughout the development process. The wider context of their impact and influence on the RPG genre with also be examined as the ambition is also to evolve the genre itself. The talk will be supported by retrospective videos as well as live game examples.

Why we're excited: Huge ambition from Peter Molyneux? Mark us down as shocked. Fable 2 made an appearance at last year's GDC, but this year it sounds like Molyneux has a couple of bombs to drop. Should be interesting--in theory.

Development - Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Company: Sora Ltd.
Speaker/s: Masahiro Sakurai

What they say: One of the strengths of Nintendo is its great number of character franchises. SUPER SMASH BROS. BRAWL builds on this legacy by providing a unique experience for Wii, leveraging many popular characters from the history of Nintendo and beyond. However, integrating so many different characters, each with its own personality, is no easy task, especially when characters from other publishers are willing to join the brawl. The man behind SMASH BROS., Masahiro Sakurai, discusses how he has approached this unique game series.

Why we're excited: It's basically a post-mortem on Super Smash Bros. Brawl, made all the more notable because it's taking place before the title's North American release. Series creator Sakurai has pretty much mastered the art of mixing and matching classic game franchises, so he should have some amusing anecdotes to pass along.

Surprises from the Hellgate London launch Sponsored by IBM
Company: IBM/Flagship
Speaker/s: Dave Laux

What they say: Join Flagship studios, IBM & GNi for a frank discussion on the recent launch of HELLGATE LONDON as we address what worked well, what didn't and what surprises taught us some very valuable lessons.

Why we're excited: We couldn't believe our eyes when this one showed up on the schedule. A frank discussion indeed; Flagship has some real cajones to stand up and talk about what went wrong with Hellgate: London's launch.

Unreal Tournament 3 Postmortem: ULTRA KILL!
Company: Epic Games
Speaker/s: Michael Capps (President, Epic Games Inc), Jeff Morris (Producer, Epic Games, Inc.)

What they say: A postmortem look at UNREAL TOURNAMENT 3 and the challenges that Epic Games faced in releasing both a console and PC version of the game simultaneously.

Why we're excited: Unreal Tournament 3 is another PC release that didn't make as big of a splash as was expected. The Epic duo may sidestep that fact altogether, but even so, to hear some of PC development's biggest supporters talk on the topic of PC/console dual development will make for a solid chat.

A Future Wide Open: Unleashing the Creative Community
Company: Microsoft
Speaker/s: (Corporate Vice President LIVE, Software, Microsoft)

What they say: Learn how Microsoft plans to enable a wellspring of talent and innovation from the broader development community, driving the expansion of development and distribution, benefiting game developers and players everywhere.

Why we're excited: After wading through all of the corporate-ese, we'll surely be rewarded with some kind of announcement at the Microsoft keynote. Hopefully.

Future of MMOs
Speaker/s: Mark Jacobs (Studio GM, EA Mythic), Rob Pardo (VP, Blizzard Entertainment), Jack Emmert (Chief Creative Officer, Cryptic Studios), Ray Muzyka (General Manager, BioWare Corp.), Min Kim (Director of Game Operations, Nexon America Inc.), Jon Wood (Managing Editor,

What they say: As the popularity of the MMO genre continues to soar, veteran gamers and potential initiates alike are looking beyond WoW for a new experience that breaks through the boundaries of traditional online gaming. Several experienced MMO developers will discuss their respective visions for the future, offering insights on game design, community involvement, and the challenges facing developers of MOGs in the next several years. The majority of this panel session is reserved for the combination of audience questions and for the panelists to discuss how they see the future unfolding; specifically where is this medium going and how is it going to get there.

Why we're excited: I always thought the future of MMOs was relegated to World of Warcraft 2, but some of the heavy hitters on this panel might not agree. BioWare's presence on the panel is a particularly significant note, with the company's unannounced MMO project garnering increasing attention as one potential challenger to Blizzard's domination of the market.

How to Create an Industry: The Making of the Brown Box and PONG
Speaker/s: Allan Alcorn, Ralph H. Baer

What they say: The year was 1966. Television had a huge installed user base, but only featured a single, passive application with only a few channels. Ralph Baer decided there needed to be something more. He created the Brown Box, the world's first electronic console that enabled people to not just watch, but play Ping Pong on screen using connected controllers. In 1972, Magnavox launched it to retail as the Odyssey. Later that year, Atari and designer Allan Alcorn separately released PONG as a stand-up coin operated arcade unit. The success of both directly created this industry. Join Ralph and Allan as they describe what went right and what went wrong in engineering, designing, and championing their vision--and our reality--of interactive games.

Why we're excited: The history of the first popular video game has always been a little sticky. Ralph Baer may have come up with the idea, but Allan Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell capitalized on it with Pong. To have the two engineers responsible for both the conception and realization of the video game industry in one room should make for a fascinating hour.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE UNLEASHED: How LucasArts is Building a Game, a Development Team and a Technology Pipeline... At the Same Time
Speaker/s: Haden Blackman (Project Lead, Lucasarts Entertainment Co), Matt Omernick (Art Director, Lucasarts), Cedric Collomb (LucasArts)

What they say: Project lead Haden Blackman will discuss how LucasArts addressed and overcame the combined challenges the company faced while creating STAR WARS: THE FORCE UNLEASHED. In 2004, Blackman and his team began the process of creating a new game, a new team, a new game engine (with all new development tools), and a new development pipeline shared with sister company Industrial Light & Magic, all the while integrating breakthrough new technology like euphoria artificial intelligence and Digital Molecular Matter materials simulation. The cherry on top of this sundae? They were creating a game on two entirely new platforms: Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. See how Blackman and LucasArts tackled these challenges and what they've learned.

Why we're excited: Any game with Star Wars attached to it is going to receive a lot of attention, and The Force Unleashed is no exception. Promising to deliver plenty of physics-powered force-pushing shenanigans, it will be nice to get a handle on just what LucasArts has been planning with this beast.

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