FEATURE March 9, 2001
Got Game? Go to the GDC
by Chris Tome
Where can you go to see
guys running around in T-shirts that say;
Well unless it's on an
episode of The Simpsons, you're
probably at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), held March
20-24, 2001 in San Jose, California. The show, targeting computer game
developers, was a geek's paradise. Coders and artists spent their days in a
wide variety of classes, or on the show floor looking for cool schwag. The
nights were reserved for the parties and special events that happened at the
GDC, such as the Hospitality Suite Crawl at the Fairmont Hotel, or the
Independent Games Festival Awards, which honor the best in indie game creation.
The show, now in its
fifteenth year, began as a non-profit organization, which was acquired five or
so years ago by Miller Freeman, now CMP. (Disclosure: CMP is the parent company
of 3Dgate, as well as the GDC). Over the years, as the computer gaming business
has grown, the GDC has grown up with it, and with the exception of E3 and SIGGRAPH, seems to me to be the only
other "must attend" show for serious game development professionals.
Speaking of E3, the GDC
this year was a bit disappointing technology-wise, as many of the major players
seemed to be holding off on their announcements until E3 in May. The floor was
packed every day anyway, and people seemed to be enjoying the demos, hands on
tutorials, and technology previews.
One of the big sponsors of
the show was Nvidia, the current king of the hill in graphics
chips. Their new card is the GeForce3, and the core chipset is almost identical
to the NV20 chip that will be used in Microsoft's
forthcoming Xboxconspicuously absent from the show floor. Nvidia had a large
booth front and center in the convention hall, and it was always packed with
attendees viewing performance benchmarks and games. One demo, created by
MadOnion, redid the lobby fight scene from The Matrix (1999) in realtime 3D.
Microsoft was out in force
showing off a variety of new technologies including the latest revision of
Direct X, now at v8.0. Private demos of their Xbox development systems were
available, but they were little more than glorified PC's, not much new there. J
Allard and Seamus Blackley from Microsoft did a special session on the Xbox,
and in typical Microsoft fashion, spoke loudly while saying nothing.
Another big disappointment
was the lack of anything on the Nintendo GameCube, which was
featured prominently on the GDC conference bags, and nowhere else. Nintendo
didn't even have a booth. It would have been nice to see just the Game Boy
Advance, but alas, Nintendo must be saving their budgets for the football
stadium sized booth presence that they will undoubtedly have at E3. No one I
spoke with seemed to know anything more about the Game Cube than what's been
reported in the mainstream gaming press, and I was actually unable to find any
developers currently working on titles for it. It'll be interesting to see if
Nintendo meets its ship date of Q4 2001, or if it will be pushed back to a
post-Christmas 2002 release. Only time will tell.
Softimage had a large booth and was busily trying to woo developers
to use Softimage|XSI, now at version 1.5. Like many new programs, v1.0 was
plagued with bugs and other problems, but those seem to be largely squashed in
v1.5. One of the new paradigms XSI brings to the 3D table is a kind of
expression driven animation system that allows you to create animation without
the need to keyframe objects. "Once your scene is set up the way you want it,"
explains Alan Waxenberg, northeast sales manager for XSI, "you can tell your
character to go pick up that knife on the box across the room (for example),
and, avoiding other boxes, the character will walk over to the box, and reach
down and pick up the knife. All without setting a single key!" Dubbed the first
NLA (Nonlinear Animation) tool in 3D, it sounds formidable, if it performs as
advertised. I wasn't able to get a demo of it at the show, but I will soon, and
if what Waxenberg said is true, XSI may have finally caught up with its
Anthony Rossano of Mesmer
Labs was demonstrating XSI, and he showed me some cool
modeling capabilities, and then dove into XSI's new Global Illumination
capabilities. Along with a plug-in called
Final Gathering, XSI can create radiosity rendered images that look just as
good to me as anything I've seen from any other package with Global
Illumination capabilities, such as NewTek LightWave or the
Click on the image for a GDC montage.
At the Discreet booth, I
sat through a very slick demo of how to create a race car game level in 3D
Studio Max 4. The demo was very practiced and the artist was obviously a 3D
Studio Max pro, so he made it look so easy to create a racetrack. Starting with
a basic spline, then lofting a section of track, positioning the track, and
using controllers and rotators to bend and deform the track, he finished the
track in minutes. Then he positioned virtual concrete pillars to hold up the
track and used a simple script to make the pillars extend to meet the ground
automatically. After the track was created, he demonstrated a script that
allowed you to actually drive around the track directly in 3D Studio Max with a
racing wheel and foot pedals. It was a great demo, and the game developers I
spoke to afterwards were highly impressed. Discreet put a lot of toys into 3D
Studio Max 4 with the game creator in mind, and it shows.
Discreet plans on
maintaining their market leader status in gaming for the foreseeable future.
One of the ways they are doing this is with gMax, a free version of 3D Studio
Max designed specifically for creating game levels. Shown publicly for the
first time at GDC, gMax sports a Macromedia Flash based
GUI. It's designed to do one thingcreate game levelsand it does it extremely
well. Discreet used gMax to create a "Quake III" level editor to
prove that it is easy to use, pretty powerful, and even a little fun.
Developers who want to use
gMax within their games so players can create new levels are charged a
licensing fee. While users can download gMax for free and make, trade, even
sell levels of games they create to other gamers. It's a brilliant move, and I
expect to see a small army of kids grow up learning 3D in this way.
Once you have a custom
level though, you aren't done. All the really hardcore gamers out there want an
avatar of themselves (or Britney Spears) to use in their custom created levels,
so enter 3Q Technologies,
a company that manufactures 3D scanning kiosks called Q-Clone Generators, for
creating your own personal avatars. These files are printed on a CD for $14,
and can be used in your first person shooters like "Quake III,"
"Counter Strike," "Unreal," or in VRML or Web 3D worlds.
Attendees were lined up twenty deep to get a free Q-Clone of their own.
The NewTek booth was
hopping all three days, focussing on the coding aspect of games. T-shirts that
said "Piss off, I'm Coding" on the back were the show favorite for the code
geeks, and the booth was packed with demos from Bob Hood, Meni Tsirbas, and
others. Although NewTek didn't have too much new to show at GDC, there was
enough in their recent LightWave v6.5 upgrade that people are still learning
all the new features. One new thing though, was GameTek, NewTek's new gaming
initiative. The new offerings for game developers include a special area at the
NewTek site where game developer tools can be downloaded and discussions can be
started. Also, for every ten copies of LightWave a company purchases for its
artists, they get a free copy for one of their programmers.
Tsirbas, who recently
joined NewTek as the in-house production guru, came from Station X Studios
(www.stationxstudios.com" target="_blank">, and is already finding ways to contribute to making
LightWave better. Tsirbas showed me a UV mapping trick that makes it extremely
easy to set up custom UV maps for complex organic characters, and he plans to
ask Stuart Ferguson to add the functionality in Modeler to make it more
Click on the image for an Mpeg video of the GDC show floor.
Not a Number
, creator of the freely distributed 3D software Blender, was
much to my surprise at the showwith a booth and all. This is the first time I
have seen the Netherland-based company have space on a show floor. Blender,
which is available for all the major hardware platforms, is accused of being
difficult to use, but is a very powerful 3D program. The demos I saw were quite
interesting. One demo involved a 3D scene file that was set up to be a level in
a snowboard game. The dynamics, particle effects, and more were all well
represented. Additionally, you could play the game level directly inside of
Blender for testing purposes. The booth wasn't overwhelmed like some of the
bigger players, but it was busy, and it's nice to see the company has gotten
some marketing muscle behind what is definitely an interesting 3D solution. And
hey, it's free, and it's on Linux, so who can complain?
wasn't showing off too many new things, they seem to
be saving their major announcements tied to Maya 4 for SIGGRAPH. Sometimes you
just have to focus your energies in other places, and Alias|Wavefront really
did a great job at last year's GDC, wooing developers with loads of new tools
for game artists and programmers. Other partners such as RealViz
and Puppet Works shared space at the
booth, and were showing their custom camera mapping, and digital puppeteering
Game development tools on
the programming side were abundant as well, although I'll admit right away that
I'm not a coder, at least I haven't been for many years. Companies like
LithTech, Metrowerks, and others, were
all there vying for the programmer's attention. Some did it with booth babes,
others with free schwag. In the case of Metrowerks, it was booth babes and
coin-op arcade games.
On the conference side of
things, there were classes, lectures, seminars, and technical sessions galore,
and although many of these sessions tend to be aimed at the more technical,
coding side of things, there were many offerings for the right brain crowd.
Classes such as "Maya: Art to Engine for the Entire Team," tackled
artistic and technical problems as it relates to implementing efficient
production techniques. Other classes like "Max 4" and "Character
Studio 3" focused on new features and how to use them in creating games,
then on to figure sketching workshops, and much more. Conference sessions at
GDC are a core part of the experience for many attendees. Game companies have
been known to shut down for the week of GDC and send their entire team.
The keynotes were abundant
this year, and were dubbed Track Keynotes, to coincide with the different creative
and technical tracks the conference uses to help attendees figure out what will
interest them. Ian McCaig was the GDC Visual Arts Keynote, and performed a
fantastic exercise in creativity with creating characters. In a variety of
exercises, McCaig taught the audience how to think in more free form ways, draw
spontaneously, and start from simple shapes like three eggs or draw a character
from the feet up. Artists concentrate on faces because they are such a source
of visual interaction. McCaig explained that artists tend to make the face
almost disproportionate to the body when they draw it first. It was an
inspirational and fun keynote, and McCaig ended it with a simple statement.
"Now go home and draw."
Even though the sessions,
classes, and so forth tend to lean to the technical side, there are still many
offerings for the art side of game development teams. Realtime 3D is becoming
more and more popular, and games are traditionally where it all begins.
Although this year's GDC wasn't a mind blower, it was, as always, an extremely
well done conference, with something for everyone who has a passion for
Chris Tome is an
independent author, artist, and editor living in San Francisco. He just got
married, and has a baby on the way. Prior to his eternal commitment with his
new wife Christy, he was the technical editor for 3D magazine, and a chair for the 3D Expo conference. Chris
has also been involved with National SIGGRAPH, and was the founder of the
Guerilla Gallery (now the Studio) at SIGGRAPH.