GDC 2015 is officially finished. We're packing up our bags and going home after a long week. But before we go, here's a bit of what we learned about the state of gaming from GDC 2015. Have your own thoughts? Let's chat about it in the comments.
The Saturation is Real
It's not exactly breaking news that independent game development has become a very important segment of the industry. Walking around GDC, the influence of independent development is evident everywhere I go — in their prominence at the Microsoft and Sony booths, in the numerous events touting indie developers, and in talks like the Indie Soapbox. Small-scale independent development is everywhere.
But as indie development has grown, so has the noise around the space. At this year's events, I could hardly walk five feet without getting mugged by a student or ex-triple-A developer with a laptop and a controller. Some of the games I saw, like The Flock and Seasons After Fall, were outstanding. Many more were uninspiring, derivative, or half-baked.
I feel for the independent developers who have legitimately great games to show, because in many ways their games are getting drowned in a deluge of copycats and mediocrity. True, the cream can sometimes rise to the top. But as I was reminded during GDC, success is also as much a matter of having a sophisticated understanding of social media, an established community, and the attention of the media. In such an environment, mere quality isn't necessarily a recipe for success, especially if a dozen other developers simply go out and copy your idea — a problem that has become distressingly common of late, particularly in the mobile space.
In that light, I feel bad for the developers who have a genuinely great idea, since they have to battle with dozens of other studios to get noticed even if they happen to get selected for one of the many indie showcases that take place through the year. Honestly, it's a problem that is affecting the entire industry. The market has become saturated, forcing developers and publishers to go to increasingly absurd lengths to get the attention of their audience.
When I was talking with Bob about this, he asked what my solution for all this would be. In all honesty, I don't think there is a solution. I expect there to be a rather large shakeout as supply outpaces demand and smaller studios go bust, taking worthy developers with it. In the meantime, all I can do is try to do is seek out the diamonds in the rough, and hope.
If you've grown up alongside video games, having a healthy sense of skepticism about The Next Big Thing comes naturally. And, with enough experience, it's easy to spot stinkers: When Microsoft revealed Kinect with a tedious and hyperbolic E3 celebration, anyone with half a brain could have guessed they were using sheer ostentation to cover up the fact that this new peripheral was just a "me too" device shamelessly cashing in on the motion control fad started by Nintendo. Now, it's an albatross around the neck of the Xbox One—well, it was, at least, until Microsoft washed their hands of it about a year ago.
VR, on the other hand, is something entirely different. Unlike the Kinect, VR has essentially been the far-off dream for anyone remotely interested in interactive technology—even if briefly we forgot about it after our Lawnmower Man-style fantasies didn't pan out in the '90s. Even though I'm a bit of a VR curmudgeon, my experience with the technology has been impressive, to say the least. Lots of people much smarter than me have worked countless hours to fool my brain into thinking the images within a headset are actually there, and in this respect, they've done an admirable job. And the technology keeps getting better!
While the VR worlds I've been thrown into were certainly immersive, the lesser ones I encountered were full of cheesy "gotcha" moments that would throw something in my face without warning—which reminded me a little too much of SCTV's parodies of 3D movies. (Kids, ask your parents—technically, I'm not even old enough to get that reference.) I realize not everyone is of my temperament—generally nervous and anxious—but, even so, some applications of VR on display felt pretty gimmicky. If you're a fan of horror games, I can easily see developers crafting an experience that could scar you for life—if you're into lasting mental damage.
The VR demos with more of a laid-back (and less of a literally in-your-face) vibe struck me as the most interesting, as they let me explore these virtual worlds at my own pace, without having to worry about whatever artificial objects would fly at my corneas next. The Morpheus demos by Japanese devs were essentially interactive toys, but they made for a much more charming (and less overwhelming) experience. While the first one simply let me command an army of tiny robots using a standard PS4 controller—which also served the role of a spotlight with the touch of a button—the second one just threw me into a room peppered with these tiny automatons, who would play out different cutesy animations if you fixed your vision on them.
If VR is going to be viable, I honestly think it can't just serve as a way to translate traditional TV-based gaming experiences into a headset. The nature of VR means that people probably won't have the stamina to, say, play through hours of an FPS in one sitting, so I'm hoping developers behind VR games start thinking of the most effective ways to design with the technology in mind. Honestly, I see VR as a boon to narrative-based experiences and adventure games; in that respect, something like 2013's Gone Home seems like perfectly suited for VR. I'm honestly looking forward to VR experiences that toss me into a thoroughly realized world, but don't rush me through it as if I'm moving down the tracks of an amusement park ride. Some of the most fun I had during Sony's "London Heist" demo involved rifling through drawers looking for a hidden diamond—the gunfight that followed afterwards wasn't all that entertaining.