This year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco featured numerous panels, exhibits, presentations, and demos for the 27,000+ gaming industry professionals who attended in March. However, there was no mistaking the overwhelming focus on Virtual Reality. GDC week kicked off with a Virtual Reality Developers Conference so packed that all of the second day's events had to be moved to another hall of the convention center to accommodate the thousands of desperate professionals trying to squeeze into intriguing sessions. As the week wore on, it became a demanding cycle of sprinting from session to session in order to stand in line for at least 30 minutes for the chance to actually sit in on the desired panel or presentation. By the end of the week, there was no doubt that VR is for real and gaming will be a major reason why it will succeed.
The whirlwind atmosphere of the conference provided a sense of palpable excitement around the new VR landscape. The gaming industry was always going to be a key foothold for VR development and adoption, but reality is finally catching up with perception. VR developers and publishers have spent years studying and experimenting with technology, content, and psychology as they have worked to create immersive environments for gameplay that seamlessly integrates and takes advantage of the human mind. Much of the conference was devoted to sharing best practices and insights around this new medium and to showcase finished or in-development work that will be featured on the new head-mounted displays that are shipping in 2016. Games such as CCP Games' Eve: Valkyrie and fictional content such as Baobab Studios' Invasion! gave attendees the ability to really experience where VR is heading and to drum up enthusiasm for what's to come.
Two of the biggest names to make their presence known were Oculus and PlayStation. Their tech was present in many of the presentations and exhibits throughout the conference. Both companies showcased easy-to-wear HMDs with games that really took advantage of the environments. While demos lasted only a few minutes, it was evident that this was an experience that any gamer would want to play for extended periods of time. However, it will be interesting to see how longer game-play sessions affect people and whether there is any associated fatigue. I preferred the PlayStation VR headset slightly, but its price point is the real winner. While the Oculus Rift is $599, it does not include the necessary Windows PC to power the system. The PlayStation VR is only $399 and requires the $349 PlayStation 4.
The third major VR company was HTC, showcasing their Vive technology alongside a slew of Valve-partnered games. The Vive continues to wow consumers with its room-scale interactivity environment, but the cost is significantly higher at $799, not including the necessary PC to run it. In the end, each company has announced tons of games that will be available as these begin to ship this year, but it will come down to the wallet size of the consumers as to how many devices are sold. I expect the volume of entry-level PSVRs sold to be higher as people begin to see what VR gaming is all about.
In addition to VR, there was plenty of traditional gaming to go around. Games such as Hellblade and Paragon were demoed as examples of amazing near-real-time rendering technology from Unreal Engine. Games are utilizing the phenomenal technology advancements to create epic storytelling and experiences that provide transformative worlds for users. You have to see and play some of these games to understand the complexity and beauty that these games are able to achieve.
The eSports community also had a presence throughout the week, discussing the growth of the industry and talking about what's next. One of the key takeaways from the week was that publishers are not able to push their games as "the next eSport." Rather, the gaming communities are the ones that decide what games are going to be bought into and promoted in the eSports world. This is a difficult proposition for game developers that want to get in on the quickly growing industry but do not have the ability to christen their games as attractive eSports without organic adoption from the gamers themselves. eSports franchises are also becoming more and more like traditional sports teams, in that they have exclusive player contracts, merchandise, and rabid fans who are willing to pay to be a part of their community. The industry is still growing, but the global nature of eSports makes it an attractive business opportunity for those that are able to get in now.
In the end, GDC 2016 was an event that highlighted how much potential the gaming industry still has yet to realize. While other media industries such as feature films and television are fighting hard against new technology, the gaming industry is fueled by it. Consumers continue to show a willingness to spend major cash on transformative experiences, and by the look of what was exhibited at GDC this year, the opportunity has never been better.