With the video game market credited for racking up $7 billion in annual sales, even trade shows about the industry are big news for legions of loyal gamers. With the demise (or at least downsizing) of the Electronic Entertainment Exposition--the gigantic video game show held in LA each spring--smaller events, such as the Game Developers Conference are picking up the slack.
The show floor is bigger than last year's, and companies such as Sony and Nintendo have set up large E3-style multimedia booths, making the event's higher public profile one of the biggest stories coming out of GDC this year. After all, the three new console launches--the Sony PlayStation 3, the Nintendo Wii, and the Microsoft Xbox 360--are already behind us, and the biggest news at the show, Sony's plan for a PS3 social-networking platform, was leaked days before attendees arrived in San Francisco for the five-day conference.
PlayStation Home, the name of Sony's PS3 social-networking experiment, combines elements of both Microsoft's Xbox Live and Nintendo's custom Mii characters. Users will be able to create an online avatar and interact with other PS3 owners in a world reminiscent of the popular social MMO Second Life. They can compete in casual games, decorate their virtual apartments, and, naturally, use incremental micropayments to upgrade their characters and buy virtual stuff for their virtual living spaces. Expect a beta release in April and an official launch this fall.
Nintendo, despite having a huge consumer win with the best-selling Wii console, had a surprisingly low profile at the Game Developers Conference. Shigeru Miyamoto's keynote address covered little new ground, announcing a new Wii channel for Miis to compete in popularity contests.
The real reason behind the lack of Nintendo news had little to do with the games themselves. The Japanese government is planning to sell off its nearly 2 million shares of Nintendo stock, and the company is prohibited from making any major announcements during the sale that might affect the stock price. There were new details and screenshots from already announced, high-profile upcoming games such as The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the handheld Nintendo DS, but little to placate the Nintendo faithful.
Microsoft's big news at the show concerned Windows Live, the company's PC-based equivalent to Xbox Live, for creating an online identity and collecting friends and in-game awards. Just as on the Xbox, a Silver-level membership is free, while a Gold membership will cost $50 per year. With a Gold account, Windows Live users will be able to play cross-platform games against Xbox owners, and current Xbox Live Gold members will be able to use their existing accounts on Windows Live.
Perhaps more interesting was the XNA Challenge, where four teams of developers competed to create a game using Microsoft's XNA game development tools in only four days. The teams are in the running to win $10,000 and a chance to have their game published as an Xbox Live Arcade title.