GDC 2001: Matthew Wanlin's Journal (Day One)
Matthew Wanlin's Journal
Day One
Day Two
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  March 22: Day One

Entering GDC

   To those who have not attended, the yearly Game Developers Conference in San Jose might appear to be little more than another computer expo full of droning lectures and booth vendors trying to convince everyone who will listen to purchases their products. This description couldn't be further from the truth. GDC is a gathering of individuals who have a connection to the gaming industry. They might be developers, programmers, artists or even work as customer support. They might be employed, and looking to show off their latest product, or they could be checking out prospective job opportunities. Perhaps they are press for a magazine or a website, or maybe they are simply interested in what's going on in the industry. Regardless, all attendants are linked by their interest and myriad involvements in the perpetual evolution of the electronic gaming industry. GDC has been established to provide such people with innovation, interaction, and inspiration.

   My name is Matthew Wanlin, and many of you know me as a part of the RPGamer News Staff. I had the opportunity to attend GDC this year, along with Andrew Bilyk and Samantha Sellers. After a slightly rocky beginning, which took us straight through two hours of repeated misdirection and the worst commute in the San Francisco Bay Area, we found ourselves at the conference, the massive banner above the doors announcing that we had at last reached our destination.

Consoles vs. PCs: Is the PC Really Dead?

From left to right: Bing Gordon, Phil Harrison, Demis Hassabis, Ed Fries, Jason Rubin, Kelly Flock and Bruce Shelley

We decided to start big. The first event we headed to was a debate among some of the most influential people in the gaming industry today, gathered to debate on the topic of PC Gaming, and whether or not it is being killed in the recent changes within the console market. As we settled into our front-row seats, I was a bit amazed to see seven people walk onto the stage who I would have been impressed just to see in person, let alone all at once.

Attending the conference were such individuals such as Bing Gordon, who co-founded Electronic Arts, Jason Rubin of Naughty Dog and Kelly Flock, who is the president and CEO of Sony Online Entertainment. Moderating this discussion was Trip Hawkins, 3DO's CEO. The debate was just as insightful, intelligent and persuasive as it was heated, pointed and, at time, quite brutal. Valid points were made on either side, and a few points seemed to be agreed upon. For one thing, nobody felt that the PC is going to die any time soon as a gaming platform. PC sales are a much more stable market than consoles, evidenced by the fact that a new computer system configuration is commonplace, whereas console launches occur only once every few years or so. Some individuals, however, felt that the major move in gaming is away from the PC, and towards a single entertainment unit which will encompass movies, television, internet browsing, and gaming in a single console-style setup. Others felt that this was nothing more than another wave in an ongoing fluctuation between console and PC gaming. By the end, it was clear that there exists a very wide range of views on the topic, and that nobody was going to waver in their opinion. For further description of the talk, be sure to check out Andrew's Journal.

Real-Time Photorealistic Terrain Lighting

Kenneth Mitchell using a PS2

Real-time environmental texture mapping

After checking out the expo floor briefly, I headed to the next session I had planned to attend. This one dealt with texture lighting for outdoor environments, such as terrain and landscapes within games. As a visual artist, I am very interested in texture design and environmental mapping, and the process which goes into creating a virtual world. The talk was presented by Nathaniel Hoffman, who works at Westwood Studios as a computer graphics and optimization specialist, and Kenneth Mitchell, their director of computer graphics. The talk was very much oriented towards the technical side of the processes, but it was very interesting to see the new manner in which textures are being applied to outdoor worlds.

I'll avoid getting too technical, since I myself didn't understand some of what was discussed. Basically, instead of creating landscape textures that are just images, which are stuck in place and cannot move, Westwood is exploring with using actual video footage projected onto the geometry of the ground. This allows for not only special effects, such as cloud shadows which pass over the land, but also works to smooth over any hitches in the cycle, which might occur when information is loaded from the disc. These tools were displayed for the PC, but it was not until the PlayStation2 demo was shown that I truly became impressed. Utilizing this video texture, they were able to move around an environment with full-screen antialiasing at a gorgeous 120 frames per second. Granted, this was prior to the implementation of any actual objects, but it was far beyond what was accomplished in a demo of the current texture methods. the images shown are of the PlayStation2 demo. The project for which this technology is being established was not divulged.

Black Isle's Torn

Heading back to the floor, I took the opportunity to speak with a couple of representatives from Black Isle Studios, who were tucked into a corner of the larger Lithtech booth. There, I spoke to Scott Everts and Dave Maldonado, Designers for the company. They gave me a very in-depth look at their exciting new RPG title, Torn. This is an entirely new game set in a brand new world of Black Isle's own design. It incorporates a deep back story of prophecy, fate and balance, and promises to be one of the most unique PC RPGs released this year. For more information on what this title is all about, be sure to check out my earlier article, which takes a close look at Torn.

The Expo Floor

Playing PSO on the GDC floor

Before leaving, we took a look around the expo floor a little longer. Having worked and been involved in the computer industry for a while now, there were many companies who were familiar to me, although many I had never even heard of before. Some companies, like Sega, had obtained small suite-booths, where only the invited press was allowed to enter. Most were putting on as big a show as they could, with loud music, flashing lights and costumed mascots. Oh, and as innovative as Digi-Scents is, it stunk up the entire exhibition hall.

Zelda, up for a few awards

I did see a few familiar titles as I walked around. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and Sega's Shenmue were hooked up to televisions and available for anyone to try out. I even got the chance to play Sega's Phantasy Star Online, which, not being the proud owner of a Dreamcast, was a first for me. A significantly large portion of the exhibit hall was devoted to the console titles themselves, and although the focus was on their development and achievement, players didn't hesitate to pick up a controller and just have a blast playing the games.

GDC 2001 was turning out to be quite a show, and I still had two more days ahead of me. I went home that evening tired and weary, endlessly poking through the piles of information I had gathered, and wondering what further sights and experiences I would encounter the next day.

Matthew Wanlin

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