GDC 2012 kicked off this morning under bright, sunny skies and palpable excitement from what seem even bigger crowds than ever. Oh, and the fact that at 4.30am, San Francisco was rocked by an earthquake. Not that it was particularly large or anything, but it marked a heady welcome to the city.
The sense that this year might be the largest GDC yet was perhaps borne out by Bennett 'QWOP' Foddy's request at the start of his Indie Summit talk for all newcomers to the conference to raise their hands. Most of the room – which must have been at least a couple of hundred people – did so. Fresh meat, then, mostly bearing a combination of check shirts, thick-rimmed glasses, hats and beards.
It's maybe because of GDC's burgeoning size that the conference has been remixed, using the Moscone Center's West Hall more than past events, which focused seminars in the North and South Halls.
But the real benefit of the increased size, of course, is the potential for StreetPass. That said, I forgot to charge my 3DS last night, so I've had to leave it behind at my CSI scene-style hotel today, but I've heard that the rewards are almost endless.
Foddy's talk contained an early contender for theme of the show: "I love griefing the player, and I think players like being griefed, humiliated and being frustrated." A more positive spin might be that players like to be challenged by and learn games, and it tallies closely with what Peter Molyneux told us last week. We'll see if the pattern develops.
Foddy's academic sensibility on game design (he's a philosopher at Oxford University) was echoed by the next Indie Summit session, in which Douglas Wilson of Johann Sebastian Joust developer Die Gute Fabrik discussed the nature of folk games with generous reference to philosopher Henning Eichberg's Bodily Democracy, about the changing nature and role of sport in society. It seemed to indicate a new measure of interest in theory and formalism in indie game design – and therefore increasing maturism.
Not that Wilson was entirely dry – "moving in slow motion feels badass," he said before stating that game motion detection technology – principally Move and Kinect – "kind of suck". "To me that’s awesome. Embrace the limitations rather than fight them." Joust, therefore simply uses Move's accelerometer, without attempting to use any other feature.
Suda 51 and Lollipop Chainsaw writer (also Slither and Super director) James Gunn
The afternoon turned to the AI Summit, starting with the smoke and mirrors behind constructing good squad behaviour. It turns out that getting AIs to choose good cover while seeming to work together and not stand in your way and get to the objective and stay close to you is a complex problem.
The AI Developers Rant, meanwhile, revealed the angst behind the Terminator facade. Blizzard developer Brian Schwab called out for designers to stop thinking that AI programmers want their jobs and ruin their carefully spun stories. "AI is techy phrase that makes people afraid," he said. "Do designers think AI programmers aren’t artists? Game AI is more about presentation and player experience than it is about intelligence."
Stephane Bura of Storybricks suggested various ways in which AI can become a central part of games, rather than just actors within them. I particularly liked his proposal of a Katamari of AI, in which you create a creature of ever greater complexity as you roll up different AI behaviours.
The biggest calls, by David ‘Rez’ Graham of the Maxis/Sims Division, Dave Mark of Intrinsic Algorithm and Kevin Dill of Lockheed Martin (which we could swear make more fighter jets than videogames), were for AI to make game worlds more believeable. "We're getting better at enemy AI and better at companion AI," said Graham. "But then we've stopped to celebrate – but why should we stop? What about the rest of the world?" He sees the typical attempt to give an RPG town more colour with an NPC permanently fixing a wagon as technology used in the NES era.
Dill cracked down on apologists for AI failures like the classic where you shoot an enemy and his friend doesn't notice. "They’re excuses. Your players don’t care about them." While Mark called for AI to better take account of context so you don't get the inadvertent comedy of an enemy AI rushing out of his castle to attack a player when he really should stay behind the walls. "Our players live in our game world – shouldn’t our game characters live in our game world, too?"
The day concluded with an event for Grasshopper Manufacture's Lollipop Chainsaw, which featured the disconcerting effect of eating hors d'oeuvres served by zombies (unidentifiable foods and decomposing flesh aren't an appetising combination, but I suppose it at least means the makeup was good).
Oh, and a drunk stepped on to a US school bus with us for our interview with Suda 51, displaying enough chutzpah that the PR thought he was with us, and we thought he was with the PR. Suda? He didn't seem phased at all.
Look out for part two of our GDC diary tomorrow.