Ok, I’ll say it, this was another fantastic GDC and very likely one of the best I’ve ever attended for many reasons. Let’s explore what I thought were the most profound highlights, derive some insights,  and……you’ll just have to keep reading for what I believe is the biggest missed story.

Google’s booth at GDC ’19

First, it’s the people that go to GDC that make it so great. When you’ve been going as long as I have (I stopped counting after 20) you begin to form bonds with some of the nicest, and most creative people on the planet. There’s incredible energy, and you’ll constantly run into people that want to be helpful. Moving beyond the friendships, business relationships, and so on that you’ll make by attending, you’ll also notice that the gaming industry is amazingly diverse, and you’ll bump into all walks of life that by and large you’ll share common interests with. Trust me, there’s something for everyone that has a passion for making games at this show. If you’ve never been, and you’re into developing games, then put GDC on your bucket list.

Second, I want to recognize UBM for all their hard work in getting this conference to where it is today. It’s not trivial to pull a show of this magnitude together and their commitment I believe continues to pay off. My only request to UBM here would be to seek ways to control costs. I know many large companies that struggle in sending folks to this show, and I know it’s even tougher for the smaller startups & Indies. Especially when you start chalking up Airfare, Hotel, Meals, Transportation, etc, costs can add up quickly. So my plea to UBM is to continually seek innovative ways to make such an impactful event more accessible.

Last but not least, let’s explore what I believe to be some of the coolest announcements, developments and so forth this year. I’ll also take a few moments to share some insights as to where I predict what’s coming next and why.

Streaming

Get ready for it. Seems like everyone wants to be the next “Netflix of Gaming” – right?  We have a lot of people jumping onto this bandwagon, and this GDC is just the tip of the iceberg – wait till next year! For now, though – we have the obvious suspects: Microsoft with Azure – and Game Stack make it easy enough to see where they’re going, and we can expect this to dovetail in with one the next Xbox’s (“Anaconda”) targeting streaming.  Amazon – with all the AWS offerings is apparent enough, so, check. Google – yep, especially so now with the Stadia announce. When we see all these giants getting into this game, you can bet we’ll see a ton of others following suit.

However, lets pause a moment and proceed with caution. Haven’t we seen this rodeo before? If we go back about 10+ years – remember Gaikai? Onlive? Etc…  Most of the same problems that existed back then, still exist today. Remember, as content gets bigger and better, and screen sizes grow, you simply need bigger pipes and more bandwidth to carry that higher quality picture for gaming purposes. Yes… the bandwidths have gotten slightly better, but not enough.

What about 5G? The biggest benefactor there will obviously be mobile devices, and yes, streaming solutions will likely help out the business case for hand-held devices just that much more. However, we still have to consider that it can take several years for people to cycle through and upgrade to new hardware, smartphones, wireless routers, etc. and for the 5G networks and infrastructure to be installed.

Ray Tracing

RTX & Microsoft’s DXR – Yay! They’re finally doing it and it’s looking great! I was very pleasantly surprised to see Nvidia not trying to peddle some proprietary RT solution, and adopting DXR. They got it right this time, and as a result I believe game developers will feel more inclined to start swimming in those waters. Additionally, we have Unity jumping in now as well to support RT in iterative versions of their game engine & tools. Awesome!!!!

Games Distribution

I’m super happy to increasingly see more competition in this space. Xsolla was on the floor at GDC.  While Epic was at GDC in force, I would have liked to have seen more of a presence for Epic’s Store. More on that later.

The International Future Computing Association – TIFCA

The International Future Computing Assoc.

The International Future Computing Association. I attended this representing M2 Insights this year, and I have to say upfront I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. However, Holy Cow! A great kickoff, great presentations, and an even greater vision & purpose. Do yourself a favor and follow what this association is trying to do. Better yet, if you can support them, please do so. I don’t say that lightly.

VR, AR, MR, XR – Reality

has finally set in. Oculus Rift S is great! But, dang… what happened to that massive Oculus booth I’ve been seeing over the past few years on the main floor? Also, it wasn’t just relegated to Facebook, in short the VR/AR/MR/XR presence was definitely scaled back a ton this year as compared to the past couple of years. This bums me out a little, because while a fantastic and immersive tech, I believe too many people over-hyped a good thing. Ironically, the best showing I saw at the show for VR was from RealMax doing a sort of guerilla marketing campaign of their own. Very nice headset – the best design I’ve seen to date!

Biggest missed story? Cross-Play/Cross-Platform

This is important – and I mean REALLY IMPORTANT.  While we see Microsoft subtly pushing the cross platform story more in their Game Stack/Azure-centric booth, and while we see Unity continually to expand and fine tune cross platform game development, I really didn’t get the sense that anyone grasped what the disparate tech stories were on the floor – connected those dots – and read between the lines of why this is so critical to understand. Streaming will not be the panacea to cross-platform as some might have you believe. Perhaps Tencent believes this is part of their secret sauce & don’t want to make a story out of it?

Where am I going with this?

Let me start out with PUBG, now let’s bring Fortnite into the equation. How many combined users have just these 2 games reached? By my estimates, and to not double count players that have played both games – let’s conservatively say ~100,000,000 million gamers. Both games are effectively on the market and able to reach that market scale because of TenCent, and the best part is, they ensured the game plays on pretty much every platform they could ranging from PC’s, to the Switch, to Consoles, you name it. Both of these games are wildly popular (e.g. both my 10 yr old Nephews play Fortnite), and the rest is history. I love the fact that TenCent doesn’t really care about proprietary games or platforms. They just want their game to work, play, & be accessible to as many gamers as possible. And you know what? It’s working. And you know what else? Streaming is not ever going to be as important as understanding this business concept. TenCent will merely add streaming as just another option to ensure their games are as accessible to as many gamers as possible. So there it is. The biggest missed story IMHO.

Now that most of the serious recapping is over with let’s move on to a little show and tell.

Google

Google’s Stadia Controller

The Google Stadia Controller is pretty awesome. I love where they’re going with this, and yes they need a game controller. So, and I say this tongue in cheek, when you want to be a “Google-Flix” – and stream a library of games to people’s living rooms, then they’re going to need a Games Controller. This is where streaming sort of virtualizes the Console for Google. (Can I get them to do a Mouse/Keyboard combo for some real competitive Esports? Just sayin). From what I can tell – they’re doing the Controller justice, great ergonomics, and functionality. These are important details to nail & it comes from my several years on the SideWinder Game Devices Team.

Unity

Unity’s GDC Booth

They had the largest booth I’ve seen to date (aside from a Unite Conference), incredible foot traffic, and even had a pretty cool living room setup for VR play. Also, as I mentioned earlier, we have to ask how Unity got to be such a powerhouse? Again, they focused on the principle for their game engine to make porting one’s games as easy as possible to pretty much every gaming platform they could.

Microsoft

Microsoft at GDC ’19

Microsoft was showcasing their Game Stack. I think what I find encouraging about seeing Microsoft do this, is that it’s starting to leverage pretty much everything Microsoft has to offer, up to and including the kitchen sink! You’ll notice everything ranging from: Windows, to Azure, to Xbox, to Havok, and so on messaging, and it’s done in such a way that it pulls all these pieces together into a more unified booth, message, and presence – finally! Keep up the good work Microsoft, you’re going to need it as things heat up with Amazon, and Google in this space.

Amazon

Amazon’s GDC booth

I believe that strong and healthy competition is a great thing, and with Amazon getting into games in a big way, this will hopefully be a good thing for game developers. Much like the Microsoft booth, you’ll see Amazon vying to offer game developers as many end to end solutions, tools, and services as you can imagine.

As a minor side note, there is still one big thing missing from the Amazon, Microsoft, and Google story. Answer? Discoverability. IF you really want to help today’s budding game developers, and even the largest games companies, then there has to be a better way of creating awareness for one’s game. I don’t have the silver bullet answer, but it might go something like this: “Alexa – promote my game to all the gamers that enjoy x, y, and z, and, while you’re at it, find me the digital distribution channels that gouge me the least.” 

Epic

Epic’s huge precense at GDC

The Epic booth was also quite large and spread out as you can see from this picture. In going back to one of my previous statements, I still believe Epic could have touted the Cross-Platform story a little stronger. In addition to this, I was also hoping for a lot more messaging and promotion of their Epic Games Store. I believe this was a miss on their parts,
especially given that they’re offering a better margin than their competitors in the Digital Distribution space. Perhaps we’ll see more of their store in next year’s booth!

Sony

PlayStation – GDC 2019

Sony, while I applaud you for beating the pants off the Xbox 1, the same can’t be said for the rising phenomenon of the Nintendo Switch. (Who had no booth presence this year, or at least not a visible one). And here’s what’s wrong with that picture in so many ways.

When you think about where, and how game revenues are being generated these days, you have to ask yourself some basic questions such as:

Who are the most successful games companies right now?
-> TenCent – from China.

What are the most profitable platforms?
-> PC, Mobile, and then Console, in that order).

How many customers are you reaching?
-> 100 million or less than a million?)

Could you do more to reach more customers?
-> I’ll answer YES.. YES.. you can

How?
->By not having all your eggs dependent on being a device that’s by & large dependent on the large flat screen TV in your living room).

Do I really need to keep going?
-> No… I’ll stop boring you to tears. Hopefully you get my point. If you don’t… and you’ve tuned me out.. I can’t help you.

So .. how does this relate to the Playstation? Let me cut to the chase… If you are in the Console business, and given your dependencies, then you need to be more agile to stay relevant. Here are a few tips to help keep you alive.

You’re in the Living Room – right? So why don’t you also be my “Personal Assistant”? What I mean by that – is something I’ve wanted for a VERY long time – you need to be like Jarvis from the Iron Man movies. IF I’ve gone through the trouble of connecting you to be the key entertainment hub in my home, then you need to be FAR more than just-another-Console. After all – I rarely play games on my PS, but I sure as heck play a ton of movies. I want to see my next Console actually be my local ‘Smart Hub’ that connects me to all my digital content (Games, Movies, Videos, Photos, Documents, etc) in my now “Smart” home (Security, Thermostat, etc), my devices, and the Cloud.  We have all the existing tech and parts to do this now. Will your next Console rise to the challenge?

Proprietary is dead A “Smart” Console right now is one that doesn’t make it hard for me to access games, movies, & social media. A “Dumb” (aka “Obsolete”) console – is one that believes that they can continue to ship the status quo. So while I can play Fortnite on practically anything I want & join in with friends. I can’t play God of War on anything but… well… you know.

User Experience – I’ll target this next message to Sony, but it’s equally applicable to both the Xbox, & Nintendo as platforms. “How are you ensuring that gamers are having a better experience, not via your platform or services, but rather via ‘you’ as a company? IF you don’t have gamers’ mindshare – and offer them something better than your competitors, then you won’t have any of the gamers’ rev-share.

I’ll leave it there, and trust me, I’m not picking on Sony, but rather something that’s more important. Collectively, we need to think about, and trust, that the game platforms we choose to spend time and money on, are meeting our values, and maximizing on our ability to have fun and decompress.

Nvidia

Here’s another company I’ve had the pleasure to work with for over 20+ years. This was your Nvidia booth for GDC 2019.
That’s right folks. I have to say.. I’m not overly happy with it, but they get a hallway pass as I’ll explain later. Even more disconcerting, where’s AMD? <Offsite? Cough> Let me be the bad guy and take the uncomfortable position here. For many many years, behind the scenes, and without compromising anyone, there’s been this line of thinking that sort of goes like this: “I don’t need to spend ~$millions of dollars on a booth & even more $ to send staff to GDC.  “I don’t see the ROI in spending this much on GDC.” Btw…. That’s a real quote from a $50+ Billion a year company. So, what happens, much to UBM/GDC’s chagrin, is that many companies attempt to have meaningful meeting suites, et al off-site, as a sort of way to work around the system.  Well folks.. IMHO… it doesn’t work. Get your dumb @$$ back on the floor and be good with it. Better yet, push back on UBM, if you don’t like the costs, terms, & conditions, stop complaining & fix it.

Coming back to Nvidia. Nvidia, really? GTC conference overlapping GDC? I’m going to say it.. “that’s just plain rude, and frankly, not very strategic.” I’d say the following to Jensen – “I know GDC costs you a lot of money, I get it, but, you’re starting to present yourself as the ‘next Oracle’ in the GPU space.” “You’re forgetting your roots” “….and… if there’s ever one thing I’ve seen in the Tech Industry (not just the Games Industry) over the last quarter century… never ever turn your back on, or discount the power and influence of who made your company into what it is today & tomorrow – gamers.”

Keywords Studios

Every year I do my best to highlight upcoming studios, and Keywords is one of those rarities that I want to draw your attention to. First off, don’t take my word for it, go check them out for yourself. They’re expanding, & they’re acquiring, and I know that they have the chops to keep on delivering & growing. Keep an eye on these guys, not only do they ensure that other large companies continue to be successful, but it’s that sort of DNA that also allows them to start doing bigger and better things.

VR Realmax

REALMAX VR being demoed in the hallways

Let me first apologize for the awful photo! One would think I could take a better photo than this given my skills, however, these guys came… literally… out of nowhere! And that was what was so cool about Realmax. They were on the floor guerilla-style!  I’m going to try to schedule some time with these guys 1:1.  Not only did they have realistic expectations about the VR market (TAM/SAM/SOM), but they had the ‘best-damned-headset-ergonomically’ I’ve seen in over 20+ years! I’m not exaggerating people. I’ve seen so many VR headsets come and go that it’s almost nauseatingly sad. I truly wish them well, and will do everything I can to ensure that they are successful, as well as avoid the common bad apples, and pitfalls that tend to currently plague this hopeful technology.

Well.. there it is folks. My primary insights and highlights from GDC 2019! So let’s end this on the following note: what should we be on the lookout for next year?

Next Gen Console releases

Caveat – Unless Sony or Nintendo pulls a rabbit out of their hat, I doubt we’ll see a new Console from Microsoft or Sony this year. Even if we did, production, and country availability tends to keep the numbers a bit low in year one of any Console that releases during the holidays. They will definitely have a massive push and presence next year. We’ll obviously know more by E3.

Consoles being more of an AI, Home-hub

If they don’t … they do so at their own peril.

Streaming

Expect this to be pushed very loudly between now and next year’s GDC.

Game Engine Releases

Given that we’re talking about the year 2020, it’s in the realm of possibility that we’ll see some interesting updates to both Unity (Unity 2020?), and possibly Epic’s Unreal Engine (UE 5?). Wouldn’t surprise me to see 2020 attached to a lot of new product releases.

Until then, I hope to get another report out for this E3. Should be a big one! Stay tuned, take care, and have fun gaming!