At a conference that draws thousands of video game designers, big and small, it was the handheld iPhone that stole the spotlight at last week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. USA TODAY wraps up the week's revelations.
iGames. The iPhone earned the attention it garnered at GDC. iPhone owners have shown increasing interest in portable games — research firm comScore says about one-third of iPhone users download games each month — so game designers are responding.
"It's a wonderful device for games. It's got great controls. It's not just touch, it's multitouch. It's got accelerometers (and) it's got your contacts in there for personalization and messaging," says Neil Young, who started iPhone game development company ngmoco last summer after leaving Electronic Arts. The iPhone "is always with you; it's always connected to the network. The type of games you can build in that environment are just incredible, and you can get them in this frictionless way from the App store."
A cute dog simulation game, Touch Pets: Dogs, was among three games in development that Young trotted out at GDC. TP:D lets you pet and train your sim puppy, and even take it on play dates with other sim pups.
Also in the works at ngmoco: Star Defense, a sci-fi twist on the Tower Defense genre with richly colored worlds that need protection from waves of enemies; and LiveFire, a first-person multiplaying shooter boasting fluidly moving graphics filling the entire screen, without a user interface for controls. "You don't have to take up any screen real estate for the control surface," he says.
Meanwhile, longtime shooting-game fans can take a trip down memory lane with the just-out Wolfenstein 3D Classic. The 1991 Nazi-hunting PC game that launched the first-person-shooter genre can be had for $4.99 in the App store.
John Carmack, co-founder and technical director of id Software, has been reworking classic titles including Doom and Quake for the iPhone, says the company's Steve Nix. "This is just the first of a series of iPhone titles you will see from id," he says.
Blockbusters. Portables aside, developers are designing blockbusters with new twists. Fallen Earth, due for PCs this spring (fallenearth.com), mixes post-apocalyptic, first-person-shooting action into the usually more sedate massively multiplayer world. You emerge from a compound in 2156 into a Mad Max-like environment to explore the story of a shadowy corporation. "We feel like we have a really unique mix here," says project manager Colin Dwan. "It gives you this feeling of something bigger than yourself that you are participating in."
Dragon Age: Origins (for PCs, Xbox 360 and PS3, fall) is an attempt by BioWare (Mass Effect) to establish a new genre — "dark hero fantasy," says BioWare CEO Ray Muzyka. "It's a dark, mature, gritty world of choice and consequences. You feel like there is impact to what you do."
Players choose a character from a set of six origin stories — new variations of elves, dwarfs, mages and humans — to play out before you create a fellowship to tackle epic quests. "You are in your own interactive movie," Muzyka says.
Circumstances have endless differences thanks to a back story that's the equivalent of 10 novels (a prequel novel Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne is in stores now). "For people who want to experience a very mature story, (Dragon Age) is thoughtful, complex and well-written," says Greg Zeschuk, BioWare's vice president of developmental operations.
Army men. The U.S. Army is expanding its game arsenal, with a health boost. The free online PC game America's Army 3, due later this year, will not only include upgraded weapons and training missions, but also a new specialty, a combat medic to treat the wounded even in multiplayer skirmishes. "The notion here is that we can do some good. This is a taxpayer-supported game. So we're adding lifesaving. You can play the game and not kill anybody," says lead designer Mike "Ace" Aubuchon.
All you need is ... Improved game creation skills are in the works to help shape future games. One-man developer Eskil Steenberg showed off an unusual game, called Love, which is driven by his intelligent game-creation engine, akin to the "The Genesis Effect" from the film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Once a designer creates a tree, for example, the engine can automatically grow a forest.
That allows designers to create levels in days rather than weeks or months, says Steenberg, of Stockholm. "It may seem like a boring thing for people who play games, but the faster you can make a game, the more you can polish it."
When Steenberg showed his project to publishers, they wanted to hire him as a programmer. But he built those tools to allow him to do what he loved: to make games. So he switched gears and began to singlehandedly make a massively multiplayer action game, using the tools to showcase his design talents. He wanted the game to be about "the love of games, the love of development and technology," Steenberg says. "I just put the name (Love) down and it stuck."