On the Scene at the Game Developers Conference: Day 2

By Sam Machkovech March 10, 2010

GameNerd Sam Machkovech is on the scene at the annual Game Developers Conference, which brings the newest and brightest programmers to San Francisco every March. The panels and discussions cater to the geekiest of geeks, but the event also functions as a farm league for big companies to find the next big thing. Thus, Seattle gaming's smallest—and biggest—are there. Sam will be filing daily reports through tomorrow night; read yesterday's GDC roundup here, and follow him on Twitter here.

In a San Francisco conference room packed with hundreds of programmers, Adam Saltman, maker of the fantastic iPhone game Canabalt, sat quietly on the main stage, hunched over a laptop. His development partner stood nearby to talk about the technical details of their game at this Game Developers Conference panel. Computer code filled the projection screens, and wide-eyed developers watched and took notes about porting their projects from Flash to the App Store.

Saltman had more important things to do than listen to the chatter; the sandy-haired, steely-faced twentysomething was coding a game. From scratch. Saltman grimaced while squinting and staring down his MacBook screen. Nineteen minutes later, he took the podium to connect his laptop to the projector. Then he ran a little man across the screen Mario-style.

"Rapid prototyping is a really cool thing to do," he gushed after completing his mini-game. The crowd applauded.

At that point, I leaned over to the guys to my right, one balding and doughy, one skinny and wiry, to ask why they'd come to San Francisco. "We're here for the networking. We want to be part of the community. In our hometown, we're removed from the fray in the Bay Area."

As it turns out,Tim Moser and James Jacoby hail from the Seattle area and make up the two-man iPhone studio Makeshift Games. Moser pointed out that Seattle has its fair share of useful conference events, particularly Casual Connect, but his stay in San Francisco would put him in front of big publishers that might "elevate our games out of the obligatory App Store fray." (Their latest game, Depict, a multiplayer take on Pictionary, is currently available at the App Store.)

One of those big publishers, Microsoft, had its own take on the small-dev world: "We want you to start making games today." That's Michael Klucher, program manager at Microsoft's XNA division, which is the code base that translates almost seamlessly between Microsoft platforms: Windows PCs, Xbox 360s, and (starting this fall) Windows Phones. MS's many presentations today made it clear that folks familiar with the years-old XNA stuff could get their old games (and apps) up and running on the new Windows Phones with little hassle. And they'll look great, too, as this prototype 3D demo made clear (it looked better in person, I swear):


Xbox developers privately confirmed that Microsoft isn't blowing smoke here. Other than some minor tweaking, the only challenge for them is to make their games work with a touch screen instead of an elaborate, handheld controller. What about the zillions of iPhone folks here in San Francisco, like our Seattle friends at Makeshift Games? They might not be able to start making Windows Phone games today—certainly, MS's tools aren't meant for iPhone "ports." But MS's mission this week is to lay out a welcome mat for developers old and new, and the technical details of this new XNA suite are doing just that. "We have built for performance on Windows Phone 7," Klucher said. "We are going to deliver for you as developers."

That, mostly, is so Microsoft can finally deliver to its customers in ways that Windows Mobile hasn't for years. My brief demo with the Windows Phone 7 yesterday confirmed all of my suspicions; two minutes isn't enough to make a real judgment call, but the simplicity blew me away. I'll see if I can't steal a prototype Windows Phone 7 before I leave town Friday morning.
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