The following is the second of a four part series of observations on the Game Developers Conference by graduate student Eitan Glinert. I am flying to Chicago today to attend the Society for Cinema Studies conference.
GDC proper kicked off today, with all the commotion and fanfare you'd expect from some ten thousand plus obsessed gamers. Phil Harrison, the president of Sony Worldwide Studios, started the show with a memorable keynote on what's next for the currently ailing PS3. Not just a preview of some cool games, Phil announced a company shift to focus on user-centric entertainment in the vein of YouTube, Second Life, or MySpace. But how does Sony hope to get people involved?
The first way is through the addition of a new service to the PS3 Xross Media Bar called Home. Similar to Second Life in many ways, users control a customizable avatar in a world where they interact with other players (no word yet on whether you can play as a furry.) You also own an apartment which you can decorate to your liking as in The Sims. Don't like the wallpaper? Change it. Don't like the selection of wallpapers you can use? Buy premium wallpapers from the Sony store. In fact, that seems to be the crux of the service; the free stuff is nice, but if you want the *really* cool stuff, you're gonna have to pay.
So what's cool in this world? Well, you can hang out with others in common spaces and play games, ranging from pool to old-school arcade games. You can watch trailers for upcoming movies in Hi Def - though I do have to wonder how they will manage to play them without either requiring long download times or terrible buffering. But perhaps most compelling is your personal trophy room, which displays badges of honor you earn in games by accomplishing certain goals in PS3 games. Kill 10,000 zombies? That's a trophy! Get 5 stars on Jordan in expert mode? Trophy! Figure out what the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 Means? Trophy!
While a nice feature and a welcome addition, Home doesn't seem to be the killer app that Sony is looking for. But LittleBigPlanet just might be it. Where Home fails to allow for user generated content, LittleBigPlanet (which I will call LBP from now on because it sounds cooler) shines. Less a game than a toolbox, LBP allows users to create their 2D platformer with 3D objects in a simple and straightforward way. Once created users can play through the levels they've made, and invite their friends along for the ride.
So why is LBP so impressive? Well, for one thing, the game looks beautiful. The textures in the game are vivid and lifelike, and evoke a "realistic" feeling. Furthermore, the user interface seems pretty clean - scroll through nested lists to select what you want to create, then place them in the world using a lasso. But what is most impressive, in my opinion, is what Harrison focused on the least: The game has realistic, working soft body physics! In other words, users no longer have to settle for unsquishable bowling balls, they can now make nerf balls. It's unclear to me why this point wasn't stressed more. I hope it was a matter of the subject matter not fitting the audience, rather than the demo being a Wizard of Oz type "man-behind-a-curtain" thing, where the soft body physics are faked, and don't really work like in the demo.
If a game is going to center on user content, you'd better believe there's going to be a way to upload your creations and download other people's creations. LBP does it with a slick interface that allows people to search, post comments, and rate their favorites. Sure, it's a YouTube knockoff, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
In addition to the PS3 announcements, there were excellent talks on two other games that I am greatly looking forward to. The first is Valve's upcoming game Portal, one of the more original twists to come out of the puzzle genre in a while. Based on the Half-Life 2 engine, Portal features a wormhole generating gun that allows you to connect two points in space and then pass easily from one to the other. Don't get it? Take a look and you will.
The other game I was excited to see was Sega's Crush. Players alternate through a traditional 3D platform landscape, which they can "crush" (flatten) at any point into a 2D variant based on camera angle. This redefinition allows the user to traverse obstacles that would normally be impossible to get past. Sound cool? It is.
Kristina found a sharpie and has her Pink DS ready. Will she succeed in getting Miyamoto's coveted John Hancock? Tomorrow we'll find out.