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GDC 2015 Highlights.

I’m a computer engineer and in my line of work, there are a lot of different conferences you can attend. A lot! When I worked for Rubberduck Media Lab Aspiro TV NORIGIN MEDIA1, I attended several conferences each year, but that was mainly to sell and promote our exceptional mobile TV product. These days, a conference would be less about promoting my employer – although they do use conferences for promoting and recruiting – and more about learning about what’s hot and not in the world of programming and being inspired by a lot of very clever people.

But I’m going to be very honest with you here: The few conferences I’ve attended after I left the company that was once Rubberduck Media Lab have mostly felt like a waste of time. I can both learn about what’s hot and not in the world of programming and be inspired by very clever people simply by following the right people on Twitter, reading the right blogs and listening to the right podcasts. There are, however, two conferences I would gladly take time off from work to attend: Black Hat USA and the Game Developers Conference.

Black Hat USA is a computer security conference, perhaps the best known conference of its kind and without doubt the hottest one. A lot of very impressive hacks are revealed at Black Hat and some of the greatest minds in computer security show up. I’ve heard rumors that you might as well leave your cellphone and laptop in you hotel room, or, even better, at home. Because if you take it to the conference venue, it will be hacked somehow. Intriguing!

Game Developers Conference, or GDC for short, is what the name implies: A game developers conference. Although I’m not a game developer – a man can dream – it would be damn interesting to attend the conference at some point. GDC 2015 just ended this Friday and here are some of the highlights:

VR

Virtual reality used to be hot. Then we all shrugged it off. The hardware was clunky, there was little to no software support and people generally don’t want to look like idiots when playing computer games. Many of us gamers are socially awkward enough as it is, there’s no reason to add insult to injury. But now VR is hot again. Virtually (tee-hee) everyone is putting together some sort of VR hardware and is gladly showing it off to anyone who’s interested. We can probably blame this new VR era on Oculus Rift, a piece head mounted VR hardware that was initially financed through Kickstarter and eventually acquired by Facebook.

During GDC last year, Sony revealed their Project Morpheus, another VR headset that finally got a release date during GDC this year: First half of 2016. Unfortunately, Project Morpheus is designed to work with PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita only, and I have neither console. That’s why Valve’s GDC announcement of their partnership with HTC and the SteamVR headset (also called HTC Vive) came as an interesting surprise. Valve plans to launch developer kits of SteamVR this spring, with a consumer release promised for November. PC Gamer’s Wez Fenlon tried on the SteamVR and he feels it’s already better than the Oculus Rift, which is very promising.

Game streaming

As internet connection speed increases around the world and servers get more and more powerful, you have to ask yourself this question at some point: “Is it really necessary that I have to own a computer or game console to play video games? Why can’t I just connect a controller to my TV or a tiny set-top box and simply stream the games over the internet instead?” NVIDIA have asked themselves that question and the answer is “we will launch a 1080p game-streaming subscription service in May.” Their NVIDIA GRID service, coupled with the new SHIELD console promises “PC quality gaming to the living room.” Certainly not a bad idea, but other companies *cough*OnLive*cough* have tried to do game streaming in the past and failed miserably. In OnLive’s defense it has to be said that their downfall wasn’t entirely caused by technical challenges (the article from The Verge is quite interesting and worth the read). PlayStation 4 is also supporting game streaming, but from what I’ve heard the technology isn’t quite ready yet for games that require low lag and latency, like first person shooters and racing games.

But what we’re seeing now is only the beginning. I think this is the direction we’re moving in and – unfortunately2 – a natural next step from where we are now where you download all your games and run them on your computer.

Game engines

Perhaps the most important technical factor of a computer game is its engine. There are a lot of game engines available, but they are usually expensive, either through licensing or royalty fees. One company that realized that giving their engine away for free is a good idea was Unity. There are, of course, limitations to the free license, but the complete Unity game engine is, for all intents and purposes, free to use in your game.

This has made the Unity engine very popular among indie game developers and this is something other companies have noticed. During GDC, Epic announced that their popular Unreal Engine version 4 is now available for free. The day after, Valve revealed their anticipated Source 2 engine, which will also be available for a total of zero dollars. I’ve not looked at the End User License Agreements for Unreal 4 and Source 2, but I’m guessing there are a few limitations to the free license, probably similar to the limitations in the Unity EULA: If you make in excess of a certain amount of money, you have to pay up.

Still, that all these sophisticated engines are now available for developers that have great ideas and no money will only mean one thing: Even more fantastic games to play for us.

There was probably a lot of other interesting things going on at GDC 2015 as well, but these three topics were what I found most interesting. It’s not like I was actually there. Maybe next year3?

Footnotes

  1. New owners, new name. It started out as Rubberduck Media Lab, then it became Aspiro TV and now it’s NORIGIN MEDIA. Yes, that’s ALL CAPS!
  2. Unfortunate because we as consumers will have even less control of our games. Now you buy a license for a game on Steam, you don’t actually buy the game. Your license can be revoked at Steam’s leisure for no good reason and the game will be deleted from your Steam library. But at least then you can find the game elsewhere and play it offline. With streaming services, if a game is removed, it’s gone.
  3. No.

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