Game Developers Conference Picks & Pans

With the 2008 Game Developers Conference now in the rearview, I can finally grab for the aspirin bottle and reflect on what I've learned this year from GDC.  To start, WiiFit showed that I really need to hit the virtual gym more often.  I've discovered that Pink Floyd laser-light shows aren't dead, and some companies (cough Microsoft cough cough) could be back to some of the old tricks. It's time to aim a flamethrower at this trade show. Ready to take this game to the next level?

Battlefield Heroes"Free" Play: First, kudos to Electronic Arts, which made a good call on Battlefield Heroes. The mega-publisher's ballsy move takes one of its biggest franchises and offers up the newest game gratis. Well, almost free. Ad banners will populate the Facebook-like game lobby and, if I'm willing to pay for in-game upgrades, I can rule that battlefield. 

EA is tinkering with paid perks like increasing how quickly my character gains experience. Would you pay a couple extra bucks just so that you don't become some 13-year-old savant's cannon fodder? If I get the chance to crush yet another child's dreams, yes.

"This Game Brought to You By..." Hey, if I can watch an episode of Lost--commercials and all--why not play a game that pops in a commercial before you play? That's the concept behind Wild Tangent's Orb service set to launch in April. Look, I know the idea sounds slightly nuts, but people are complaining about shelling out 50 bucks to play a ten-hour game. I'd suffer through lame erectile dysfunction ads if I get to play great games like Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts without a cover charge. Don't want to see the ads? Drop in some money, instead. Spend enough, and you'll just own the game outright.

Independent's Day: A huge--and growing--part of the game industry is the independent movement. That trend would make the Independent Gaming Festival the Sundance of gaming. This is where tomorrow's big talents get discovered and the tenth annual competition at this year's GDC was no different.

Two of the crowd favorites: Audiosurf, a game where you race around futuristic tracks created by your own music files; and Crayon Physics Deluxe, in which you draw objects on-screen to solve physics puzzles.

Independents Go Mainstream (To Get Screwed):  First, the good news: We're seeing growing support for pajama programmers on all the major platforms at this point. Why, in the past week alone Microsoft and Nintendo both rolled out new Indie services that will bring hundreds of new games to market. Now for the really bad news: I caught up with a couple indie developers at a bar grousing about how Microsoft is now turning the screws on small-potato developers. In the past, one said, developers claimed 70 percent of the profits and Microsoft would pocket 30 percent. Now, the tables have turned and the split is now 60-40 with Microsoft taking the lion's share. "Well, guess it's time to start working on the PlayStation 3 version," he said.

When I hit up Microsoft the next morning, its response was, "Xbox LIVE Arcade has long been known as the premier destination for digitally distributed original and classic games--making it a very appealing platform for game developers. We don't disclose details on our business contracts, but what we can tell you is that we work closely with all of our partners to provide the Xbox 360 community with the best entertainment possible while making publishing a title on XBLA an attractive prospect."

In my world, a non-answer equals an admission of guilt.

Intel Said/Nvidia Said: Two companies deliver new enthusiast-level PC motherboards. 

One tackles the problem of cross-platform support (AMD and Nvidia multi-GPU support) and the other provides a *gasp* decent integrated graphics solution.

Now if only these two competitors would learn to play nice long enough to build boards that can do both.

Speaking of Playing Nice . . . This week saw the sprouting of yet another bureaucratic hydra head in the gaming world. The PC Gaming Alliance has some really noble goals.  Its members are looking at industry-wide problems like lowering system requirements and improving baseline computers. The member roster could use its considerable muscle to dictate long-needed standards. The problem is that the organization is only an advisory board. Great. That's about as effective as a war-torn nation's interim government.

Not Phoning It In:  Not so long ago, cell phones were gimpy gaming machines. Well, they are primarily made for calling friends--not shooting them. This year saw a number of big innovations and high-powered mobile options. We even got a sneak preview of what Google Android-based hardware can do. So long as I don't have to crunch my meaty hands on some tiny keypad to play, all is good.  

Back to the Future

Brainy: Everyone's looking for new ways to interact with games without having to grab a gamepad. The creepy, mind-controlling Emotiv EPOC might have a tough time taking off due to the $300 price tag, but despite a failed demo Tuesday night, it was working at the booth. When I blinked, so did my onscreen self.  If I want something to lift, it does. No word on when the brainwashing feature will get implemented, though.

Brawny: Couch potato players can get off your duffs--and gym rats can now stay at home more. ¿ Nintendo's Wii Fit game--er, I mean, exercises--have you stand atop the board to do everything from Yoga to skiing down slalom slopes. I wasn't exactly working up a sweat after testing Wii Fit on the show floor, but one can see how it'll help big, clumsy goons like me get better balance.

3DV SystemsPersonally, I liked the Punch-Out workout from 3DV Systems' tech demo. Using a $100 Webcam, the software tracks time-of-flight movement and Z-depth. That means that in-game it can easily track your punch speed and time ducking a blow. Or determine when I get knocked out cold.

Touch Me, Feel Me:  The HXT helmet is the next step in TN Games' war on gamers ever getting dates. We've already covered the $170 3rd Space FPS Vest that batters your body as you get shot up onscreen. The $100 headpiece, though, raises stakes by clobbering your noggin and shooting air over your ears to indicate near misses. So, if you ever had a mouth-breathing brother who hit you in the head, you've got an idea of what's in store for you here.

Splinter Cell: A well-known problem with cell phone games is what you're playing it on--those number keys and the cursor aren't really meant for playing around. With powerful new mobile CPUs, half the problem is solved. We've still got that whole control problem. 

Zeemote's JS1 is a really smart solution. Imagine a mini-version of the Nintendo Wii's nunchuck control. This Bluetooth controller is an analog thumbstick with a couple of trigger buttons.  

What else does it need?  Games that support it.

Turn Out the Lights: Someone at Philips Electronics has been desperately trying for years to relive those laser light Pink Floyd shows at the planetarium with the amBX. Fans, rumble pads, lights--all these bells and whistles to try and get you more into the game. Problem one: It's an expensive proposition (costing between $100 and $350). Problem two: No smoke machine. Problem three: I don't listen to Pink Floyd anymore.

The Games (Finally!)

The gadgets and business trends are all well and good, but this is all about one thing: the games.

The Classics Return:  Capcom showed off a revamped Bionic Commando coming to consoles and PCs. The game looks good, of course, but other technology writers were preoccupied, lining around the block for a shot at playing Street Fighter IV.

Not to gush, but the game is barely half-finished and it already looks promising.

Shown Up: Here's a word of advice for future generations of developers: if you're releasing a game on different systems and they look horrible next to each other, maybe you should reconsider making it.

CDV's upcoming Sacred 2 is a fantastic tribute to the long-gone days of hack-and-slash stuff like Diablo on the PC.  The problem is that the game is also hurtling toward an Xbox 360 like some garbage-lined asteroid.

Brain Benders: A dark horse hit in 2007.  Puzzle Quest is part Bejeweled casual puzzle game, part role-playing adventure, and all addictive. Well, more sleepless nights lie ahead with a gem-matching sequel, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, scheduled for later this year. The game was teased during a panel at GDC. The difference this time is that it uses a hex-based tile system and takes place in space. Consider yourself warned.

Mass Migration: Microsoft also announced that last year's blockbuster, Mass Effect, is coming to the PC with updated graphics...and maybe a little extra stuff. This move hardly comes as a surprise, but it also sends me a mixed message. On one hand, Microsoft is pouring all this money into its promotions claiming PC gaming isn't dead, but then it ships all the big titles to the Xbox 360. PC players have to twiddle their thumbs and wait.

Online Gang Wars: Dave Jones, the creator behind the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, unveiled his newest idea, being published by Korea-based Webzen: an online turf war between gangs and the long arm of the law. The difference between this and other conventional massively multiplayer games is that you can create a unique avatar and let him or her loose in a living city. The game, called A.P.B., is still a ways off, though. No need to worry about it corrupting your kids just yet.It's a Jungle in There: In the past, we at PC World have used Ubisoft's game FarCry for PC WorldBench tests. Well, we may have a new gauntlet to throw at computers. The sequel, FarCry 2, scheduled for release later this year is already doing an amazing job of recreating wartorn Africa--and, for that matter, realistically lush jungles.

Speaking of jungles, Ubisoft also showed off its videogame based off the ABC series Lost. Fans of the show will be able to explore new bits of the island and uncover more story clues when it comes out in a matter of days.