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GDC 2016: In Retrospect

With GDC 2016 officially over, it’s time to look back and evaluate where the industry is heading and what trends are going to be leading developers in the future. From the showroom floor, it was incredibly apparent that the coming years are going to be solidly rooted in virtual reality, as a majority of the booths were demonstrating games, headphones, peripherals, and hardware all designed to create the perfect immersive VR experience. The hype surrounding these items was at a fever pitch, as convention goers lined up for over an hour just to get a brief taste of what the Oculus Rift and the Playstation VR had to offer, while lines for the more readily available HTC Vive and the Samsung Gear were smaller but just as exciting. Obviously these tech demonstrations not only served to allow the gaming industry and media to try the next-generation of hardware, but also encouraged the thousands of developers attending GDC to consider creating content for their platforms. As history has shown the industry, new hardware and peripherals are only as good as the games that support them, and the GDC push to showcase the power of VR and inspire developers is presumably an attempt to create some longevity for their devices, ensuring that virtual reality will not become just another technological fad.

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While not surprising, noticeably absent from this event was just about anything Nintendo. Although the developer is notorious for missing Western trade shows, leading fans to question whether they should even attend E3, Nintendo still maintained a quiet and unassuming presence in the back cubicles of the business section, meeting with developers considering introducing game ports or providing 3rd party support to their platform, but they never stepped out onto the showroom floor. Obviously Nintendo’s vision for the future does not involve hopping on the virtual reality bandwagon, for a variety of reasons, and their track record proves that they have never really followed trends in the industry. To compare with recent gaming developments, Nintendo made gaming a kinesthetic and immersive experience over a decade ago with the release of the Wii, and then they cut the cords between the TV and the home console with the release of the Wii U gamepad. To top it all off, they did it at an affordable price, bringing family-friendly entertainment that was easily accessible and enjoyable for everyone. From the tech demos available on the floor, VR and its peripherals are just too expensive and too singularly focused to be a surefire hit, appealing solely to the gamer that is hardcore about the cutting-edge, while alienating those who view gaming as a casual and stress-releasing experience.

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On the flip side, GDC 2016 did expose a possible area of opportunity for Nintendo, as the event showcased the incredible amount of high quality indie titles that are being produced right now, illustrating the innovative, stylish, and exciting games that can be created by small teams of developers. Interestingly enough, a majority of these games are being created for Steam, not just because the platform makes it easy for developers to create and publish their own indie titles, but also because of the Steam Machine, which creates a console experience in the PC format. In the past, Nintendo has alienated a lot of 3rd party developers and gained a reputation for being incredibly difficult to work with, creating a deep rift between them and the rest of the industry. This issue was recently brought to the forefront with the rumors of an Undertale port, which was supposedly put on hold because Nintendo does not support Game Maker, the engine used to create the title. From a Western perspective, the Game Developers Convention again raised the age-old question of whether Nintendo should open their door to small companies and make their consoles easier to produce indie games for. From the GDC showcase, it is apparent that a majority of these developers have taken inspiration from past Nintendo games, as 8-bit styling and side-scrolling adventures were everywhere, seemingly indicating that Nintendo is allowing a lot of great content to slip through their fingers. In past Directs, Nintendo has highlighted the great indie games that are coming for their consoles, but opening the doors to even smaller developers and encouraging a more open marketplace could give players a lot to look forward to in the future. Although Nintendo wants to avoid an influx of 3rd party “shovel-ware” similar to the immense amount of cheap and low-quality games that were pumped out for the Wii, they can establish an interface that highlights the great titles while burying the poor ones. In the past, 3rd party support has been a hallmark of the success of Nintendo consoles, but recently the Wii U has been solely driven by Nintendo-created games. Tapping into this group of small developers that feel limited to Steam could create a new community and relationship between fans, indie companies, and the Japanese giant.

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As a whole, GDC 2016 was a success, and although the hype surrounding the VR experiences coming in the future took center stage, it still managed to celebrate the success of the little guys. Not surprisingly, Nintendo was underrepresented at the event, but GDC still raised interesting questions about where they are headed in both the coming months and distant future. Abstractly, GDC is a great way to feel out the pulse and heartbeat of the gaming world, showing the interests and biases of the collective mindset of the industry. Without the pressure of releases and project updates, programmers and developers get to be themselves and dream big, taking on inspiration from upcoming hardware and trends. While 2016 is definitely shaping up to be the year of Virtual Reality, only time will tell if it is worth the present hype and future investment; however, one thing is for sure: indie developers are slowly taking over the industry. So, thanks GDC, it has been fun, and we will see you next year!

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