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GDC Europe 2011: Day 1

The first day at the GDC Europe, and time for a live-reporting experiment. I'll try to blog a daily summary of the talks I've seen at the GDC; let's see how this works out.

The first talk I went into was by Geomerics and their Enlighten/Unreal integration. Their solution has been already showed at SIGGRAPH a bunch of times, and there wasn't too much new in the talk. The key takeaway is that they managed to integrate their solution into Unreal which will certainly increase the use base. I guess many more engine developers will have to look into either licensing their solution or come up with in-house solutions for GI, so interesting time ahead for sure.

On the technical side, the talk fell a bit short. They mentioned that there is a precomputation step which is light independent and rather quick. However, while the light solution is applied to dynamic objects, they showed an interesting problem case. In the demo, the player entered a large warehouse and started shooting off the roof. The more the roof got uncovered, the more the warehouse got lit by the sky light. The way this was implemented is by lighting the warehouse without the roof geometry, and tweaking a "light exchange factor" between the outside and the warehouse based on how much of the roof has been already destroyed. My conclusion from this is that they have some cool way to precompute visibility between patches, which allows them to run their radiosity transfer very quickly, but rebuilding the visibility solution is still a problem (and they probably have to compress it a bit.)

The second talk I went into was "Supersize your production pipeline" by Slant Six Games, which was an excellent talk about how to automate your production pipeline and how to write good tools. I can only recommend to get the slides from their website and spend some quality time with your favourite scripting language to get the glue in place.

After the lunch break I went to two talks: "An open world game in 60 fps?" and "From boxes to life". The first presentation showed a few of the challenges encountered when making the game "Driver: San Francisco". My key takeaway from the presentation was that making an open-world game is horribly work-intense: 250 people for several years! Clearly, the content creation side of things requires some serious research.

Block based prototyping in Mass Effect 3 was a very fun and entertaining talk showing how they moved from a classic waterfall process to an agile, highly iterative one. In particular, they use small groups of people from multiple disciplines (gameplay, concept art and animation) to prototype creatures very early in the process. They focus to get the behaviour elements first by using box-based models. Interestingly, the speaker mentioned that the concept artists have an easier job to design the creatures as the behaviour served as a rough guide. Similar to the earlier talk by Slant Six Games, having a process with fast iteration time were key to reach the required quality.

After a break, I went to "Making MMOGs more storylike" which was about how to include a story into an MMO. After a short introduction which covered the basic points -- like an overall story arc -- the speaker went on to describe a story-focused MMO: "The Blitz Online". The game is supposed to take place during the second world war in London during a time of nightly air raids. The player can play a support role and tries improve the situation in the city by raising a global "The Spirit of the Blitz" until its high enough or the air raids end, at which point the game ends. While the basic idea is interesting, the game design very much looked like a clean-room game design. Some of the concepts are interesting on paper, but I have some doubts that the game would make fun as it is designed and some of the core concepts, like nearly no user-visible progression or penalizing people who play irregularly, definitely need some testing first. Unfortunately, there is no game prototype and there has been no user-testing so far, so at the point of the presentation, it's more a thought/social-experiment than an actual game, so we have to wait and see whether it ever gets implemented.

The last presentation I attended was "Implementing Robust and Scalable Art Integration" by EA Games. They described their in-house process for asset imports. While interesting, I was surprised that the process they described is not standard. Basically, they move assets through multiple review stages and use a latest/stable code bases. Again, this talk wasn't as technical as I would have wished for. I also asked about long-term art planning at EA, and it seems that there is no real asset reuse ... I wonder at which point the costs of re-creating assets over and over becomes so high that the studios will start looking into stable authoring and storage formats.

Last point on my schedule is the GDC night. Overall, the day was interesting mostly because of discussions with other people, and a few good talks. But I definitely would like to see more technical content. Maybe tomorrow, there's a bunch of interesting talks and keynotes coming up.