It’s GDC week!

For one week out of every year, the geek mecca of the San Francisco Bay Area becomes even more geeky, thanks to the annual Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), where game industry folks from all over the world gather to talk, share advice and experiences, play board games, stand in line for Mexican food, and drink far more than they should. And by “drink” I mean lemonade of course. Let’s be clear on that.

Unlike other big gaming conventions, like E3 or PAX, this one is not about “pushing product” or announcing new games or really talking to fans at all. It’s a very “insider” event focused on the business and practice of making games. The heavily-attended sessions cover all walks of the field–AI programming, visual arts, marketing, and so on — and are meant to expand the industry’s collective knowledge as well as to encourage healthy debate. Or, to put it more plainly, it’s five days of game nerds talking and arguing a lot.

Popcap is well represented at GDC this week, with talks by Dennis Ryan, the executive vice-president of Publishing, speaking on the Asian gaming market; business development guy and dapper Italian Giordano Contestabile on Bejeweled Blitz iOS’s switch from a “premium” game (you paid for it) to “freemium” (you get it for free); and Stephanie Bayer, Bejeweled’s community manager, on how to be nice to your fan base (you guys!).

A big crowd listens to PopCap's Giordano Contestabile talk about Bejeweled Blitz iOS's switch to a "freemium model."

As someone who has attended every single GDC for 16 years, I can tell you that the tone and focus of the convention has switched dramatically over the years–especially in the last few. Back in the olden days (the mid-1990s), GDC was still a fairly rinky-dink affair, with more of a “hobbyist” feel to it than a professional one, and video gaming itself was not the mainstream entertainment it is today. (It’s hard to remember there was such a time, but it really wasn’t that long ago!)

The biggest change I’ve noticed this year is how much social, casual, and mobile games have become part of the accepted curriculum of the convention, without anyone questioning their value. As recent as two years ago, these kind of games may have been discussed, but it was with a lot of debate and suspicion as to whether they counted as “real” games. Now, the question doesn’t even come up, nor is there any sign of defensiveness by those making them. In fact, pretty much everyone wants in on the action now, and the sessions for the casual stuff are packed. Funny what success will do!

Of course, the traditional hardcore games are still big-time attractions at the show, and yours truly here can’t wait to attend talks by Sid Meier (the genius behind the Civilization franchise) and Tim Cain (developer of the original Fallout). Even those of us who are in this profession for a living still can be fanboys ourselves!

So happy Wednesday from San Francisco, everyone! Here’s hoping I can sneak across the street and get a look at the iPad 3 as well!

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