This article is part of our ongoing coverage of GDC 2015. You can find more of our GDC news and analysis here.
We're three days into the Game Developer's Conference, and thus far I feel like I've been beamed into the Consumer Electronics Show. It's been all tech all the time here at GDC, with most of the conversation focusing on virtual reality and free-to-download platforms like Unity and Unreal Engine 4.
Talking with Bob earlier today, he mentioned a sense of desperation in the air, referencing the relentless push by publishers to get every scrap of coverage they possibly can amid the deluge of games pouring in the market. I get a similar sense, but my feeling is a bit different. It feels to me like the tectonic shifts in the medium have sent publishers, developers, and platform holders scrambling to try grab any piece of the future that they can.
Nvidia announced last night that they're making a major push into the video game streaming arena with their latest addition to the ill-fated Shield brand — a series of gadgets that have tried to offer handheld console gaming with little success. Their latest entry is a set-top box that connects with Android TV to offer video game streaming akin to that of OnLive (remember OnLive?)
I'll leave it to Mike to break down the Shield's prospects in more detail. Personally, my expectations are low for a $199 set-top box that is apt to struggle to put out a good pool of content outside of a handful of big names. But the Shield matters in the context that it represents the continuation of a feeding frenzy among companies trying to break into the nascent realm of Netflix-style video game streaming.
Streaming, of course, is inevitable. Amazon and Sony are both throwing their hats into the ring to one degree or another, all with the hope of at least grabbing a piece of the market while they still can. Whether it will take five years, ten years, or fifteen years for it to happen is a matter of debate... and infrastructure. But we're not that far from buying a subscription to stream games from some faraway server. The only question is who will own that server.
When Valve jumps into something, you usually know that its serious. They did it with Steam a little more than a decade ago, at a time when digital distribution was still a very new idea, then went on to become the dominant player in the space. Now they're in the VR space, having recently taken the wraps off the "Vive" — a headset developed in conjunction with HTC that has been winning rave reviews from tech professionals.
I'll admit that I can't help rolling my eyes a tiny bit at the hype surrounding VR; but over time, I've come to believe that it will eventually have a place in gaming, if only as a platform for hobbyists looking for total immersion. Obviously, with Facebook buying Oculus and Sony pushing Morpheus, I'm not the only one. Again, the biggest question is which platform will turn out to be the dominant solution.
Valve's move carries weight simply because they have shown themselves to be exceptionally good at reading and understanding prevailing industry trends. It's still unclear where VR will end up taking us; but whatever the future entails, Valve clearly wants to be a part of it. And if anyone can guide VR to the glorious future that everyone seems to expect, it's probably Valve.
In the meantime, the VR space continues to fill with the expectation that something really cool will be happening down the road. If you want to know the truth, I have no idea what that cool thing might be — it's all just potential for now. But whether you want it or not, VR has become firmly entrenched in gaming, and its presence is growing all the time.
Unity, Unreal, and Source 2
The final front is middleware, which has spent a good deal of time in the news of late. I've written a bit about Unity 5 and what its advancements could mean for developers at every level. Since then, Unreal and Valve have both come out with the announcements of their own. With all three now available to developers at no cost, it seems we have reached the next phase for middleware.
Going back to the days of DOOM, engines have long been the means by which developers have exerted influence over the industry. The Unreal Engine has been Epic's bread and butter for 20 years now, their games primarily being a venue for showcasing their technology. Aside from generating revenue, the Unreal Engine has also kept Epic in the conversation as one of the industry's foremost technical innovators.
As I discussed in my previous article, Epic and Unity are now locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of developers at every level, with Valve now entering the fray as well. There's unlikely to be a definitive "winner" in this fight — Valve, Unity, and Epic are all pretty well-entrenched at this point — but the stakes are still high. The prize is serving as the foundation for a new generation of video games.
The three fronts I've mentioned are in some ways discrete, and in other ways intertwined. Valve has thus far shown itself to be the most savvy of the various competitors, establishing a foothold on a variety of fronts, but matters can obviously change in a hurry. That much has become apparent over the course of GDC as new competitors have tossed their hats into the ring one after the other. We've been talking about the upheaval in gaming for a while now, but walking the show floor and listening to the talks, that change feels more tangible than ever.