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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 Xbox—conspicuously 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 competitors.

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 Arnold renderer.

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 thing—create game levels—and 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 automated.

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 show—with 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?

Alias|Wavefront 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 tools, respectively.

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 creating games.

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.