What happens when over 26,000 of the world’s pre-eminent game developers, publishers, marketers, analysts, press, and grognards descend on the Bay Area in March? Why, the Game Developers Conference (GDC), of course! GDC began as a salon in Chris Crawford’s San Jose home in 1987. Over the course of time, the show migrated up to San Francisco’s Moscone Center, where it has become ensconced for the past decade. Every year at GDC the frontiers of electronic gaming have been explored, showcased, debated and awarded.

Into the cavernous expanse of Moscone Center issued game developers to show off their latest creations. From the biggest blockbusters of AAA studios, to the most unique and scrappy of indie games. There was also alt.ctrl.GDC, a creative assortment of non-commercialized (or not-yet-commercialized) game controls and peripherals better classified as scientific experiments or art installations. Including, for instance, the childhood dream of a cardboard box turned into a video game controller. (Colander-turned-space-helmet optional.)

Spacebox, a cardboard box turned into a game controller; a project sponsored by Champlain College

Everything imaginable could be seen and played across the panoply of platforms: consoles, computers, mobile and tablets. As well, in 2016, Virtual Reality Developers Conference (VRDC) was added to the formal itinerary to highlight Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR).

Shape of Games to Come

With VR/AR growth projections somewhere between $108 billion by 2021 or $120 billion by 2020, developers large and small were looking for ways to cash in on the next big growth opportunity. (The main note of caution is the cooling of irrational exuberance: these figures are down from the 2015 optimistic projection to reach $150 billion by 2020.) There is a huge market potential to be addressed. Now there are far more game titles and hardware products to fill the voids in the space.

The mobile game market is also experiencing explosive growth. Estimated to be a nearly $45 billion market in 2016, it is anticipated to hit over $80 billion by 2020. While AR/VR is still ramping up, this is where most vendors seem to be focusing their development efforts.

While people have predicted that mobile will kill off (at least in large part) the PC/Mac market as sales of desktop and laptop computers continue to decline, gaming remains a bastion of spending, with over $30 billion in gaming hardware alone being sold in 2016. In fact, that’s the most ever spent on PC gaming hardware ever. This growth overtook the console market in 2015, and is expected to continue. The advantage of PC gaming is that players can “trick out” their systems in a way that cannot be done with a black-box console. PC/Mac game software comes in on top of that, and is estimated to grow to $42 billion by 2020.

Consoles and especially mobile consoles are the platforms taking the worst hits. Consoles are still waiting for their next-generation offerings, which are slotted to hit the market in 2018-2019. And mobile consoles are rapidly being eaten alive when every smart mobile phone is also an instant game platform. Still, at $29 billion annual revenues, and some of the loyalest fans in the industry, the console game industry is not going to be going away anytime soon.

Tackling GDC

Our e2f tag team included Nectaria Koinis and myself. We focused on the Exhibition which ran from Wednesday to Friday, looking for great games and companies that want to go global. Or, if they are already available in multilingual markets, perhaps they now need new ways to scale or improve their globalization efforts. We wanted to hear their war stories and wins. Their aspirations and goals. And, of course, to geek out over our favorite games!

Nectaria Koinis of e2f talks with fellow Canadian Sophie Grenier of BKOM Studios (above),
makers of the mobile PvP battler
Little Lords of Twilight (below)

We began in the North Hall, which hosted booths for the Independent Games Festival (IGF) and GDC Play for emerging developers. IGF is the “Sundance” for indie game studios. Immediately we plunged into conversations with desktop and mobile game developers, such as Codex Worlds Corporation of Austin and BKOM Studios of Canada. Codex World’s Battlecursed is a dungeon crawler which isn’t scheduled to ship until 2018, but is already getting significant buzz on Steam. BKOM, best known for its top-quality white label designs for properties such as Marvel superheroes and Star Wars, has made its own stunning game, Little Lords of Twilight, which snared a GDC Play Best in Play award.

Dexter Chow (above) of Codex Worlds Corporation snagged a primo spot just inside the North Hall entrance to showcase the game Battlecursed (below)

Right next to Codex Worlds was the footpad SprintR, an example of the new generations of controllers available for VR and traditional games. You can push your foot forward, and your character moves forward. The same for reverse. To turn, you can twist your foot to the left or right. And pushing your foot left or right allows you to pan, such as to “strafe.”

I sat down to give it a test run. I found sitting and controlling motion with my foot was far more natural than a joystick. You can still use a joystick for aiming, or for pitch/roll control, but that’s separate than forward/back or sideways control of your character in the virtual world. Though it’s aimed at VR gaming, I can even see this as having application to regular games as an alternate controller.

SprintR in action at GDC2017

Drifting further into the show I came across the Norwegian Games contingent. For many countries, having a collective presence at GDC is a point of national pride and opportunity for economic development. This year, Snow Cannon Games went above-and-beyond with The Frostrune. While they won a Best in Play from GDC for their point-and-click mystery adventure about Vikings, they also awarded a prize of their own: Tyrving, a Viking sword forged in the modern era based on an actual 8th Century design.

The Frostrune is a game forged by true living historians of the genre. The creators don’t want you to just play a game. They want you to feel as if you’ve fallen down a wormhole into a time long since past. To have that sense of verisimilitude that makes history come alive. Of course, there may be some elements of the supernatural that are not quite historical. We’ll leave the exploration up to you. Well done, Snow Cannon!

Espen Askvik (above) of Snow Cannon Games has good reason to be proud of his team’s work on The Frostrune (below), available on Steam (PC/Mac), and mobile (iOS, Android).

Augmented Reality (AR) is also breaking out on its own. In fact, according to Digi-Capital, the market for AR will be three times larger than that for VR. One of the hits garnering attention now is SwapBots, by the Liverpool-based Draw and Code. This Kickstarter-funded project has received media articles from Tech Crunch to The Guardian. So what’s so cool about it? Well, it allows you to build stackable toys that come to life. Or at least, seem to.

Build your bot with different combinations of heads, bodies and bases. Let your phone or tablet get a good look at it, and watch it come to life. You can then play games with it. There are 9 different basic models, so you can mix-and-match all sorts of combinations.

Jack Brewitt (above) gives two thumbs up for Swapbots (below).

So why is it called Augmented Reality? This game is getting an extra picture so that you can see how our octopus-like bot isn’t actually there. Only the stackable toy is present. The fierce tentacled battler only exists inside the tablet game, projected into the camera’s picture. For kids, it’s a “Woah!” moment. (And for parents, that makes your typical battle toy game far simpler to clean up!)

This is just the tip of the iceberg for GDC. With hundreds of vendors and games on display, you can truly walk the whole Exhibition show floor all three days and not have seen it all. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where we’ll get into more titles and more technology.

Disclaimer: Unless otherwise specified, e2f has no commercial relationship with any of the products, services or companies mentioned in this article. Though we’d love to win your business, we’re also just fans of the gaming industry, like you!

Next Blog: GDC2017, Part 2