The exhibition hall at the Game Developers Conference was built to astound— full of the biggest and smallest games companies in the world. Huge walls were covered in HDTVs, each displaying a crazier tech demo than the last, and many required 3D glasses, a la Avatar. (One demo went even further, combining 3D goggles, a plastic gun, and a rolling cage—a la American Gladiators.)
Valve Software had nothing of the sort. The Bellevue company's booth, tucked in the boring back of the hall, lacked flash, yet its spot had a constant stream of comers and goers—so much so that Valve office manager Katie Engel didn't have time for an interview, simply exclaiming, "We're hiring!"
Not that I needed an interview to understand what drew the crowd. Valve is the white-hot games company of the moment, as much for its financial success as for its reputation.
When Valve co-founder Gabe Newell accepted the Pioneer Award at the GDC on Thursday night, he cemented his company's reputation as a beloved, oddball company with an atypical acceptance speech. "If I'm getting an award for 'pioneering,' we should try to do some pioneering today," he began, putting on a six-minute presentation about the tech and design trends he believes will soon make waves. If somebody tried to pull that at the Oscars, the orchestra would start up immediately.
Not here, though. The techie crowd, knowing Newell's knack for getting this sort of stuff right before everybody else, wrote down his every word. For example, he believes future games will do more than sense motion like the Wii, but also take into account human biometrics like "pupillary dilation and heart rate." (Nintendo already has a Wii heart rate sensor in the works.)
Newell also took a dig at online services that "can exclude alternatives and competition," essentially bashing outlets like Apple's App Store without naming names. "As seductive as that path is, we expect it to fail. You have to be in partnership with your customers," he continued, pointing out Valve's online store, Steam, offers services like frequent game updates and viral, in-game announcements that keep players intimately attached.
Another Seattle-area designer, 5th Cell's Jeremiah Slaczka, didn't even bother hosting a booth, though he wasn't just in town to receive two awards at that evening's ceremonies. He acknowledged an interest in some casual networking, mostly because GDC did the work for him, connecting talent to his tiny, millions-selling company: "We hired one of our best artists after meeting him here [at GDC] last year. ... This year is particularly good if you're looking for talent because of so many game studio layoffs in the past year. It's not just students here."
At the indie gaming kiosks in the back of the hall, full of award nominees for simple, inventive, and downright experimental designs by pros and students alike, I saw more than a few Japanese Nintendo reps (and folks from other big companies) holding notepads and reviewing new games intently. Two kiosks were hosted by Seattle-area students from the DigiPen school of game design: one for Igneous, a fast-paced escape game, and one for Dreamside Maroon, an ethereal flying game.
It wasn't the first time that the students had been courted for their impressive projects at GDC.
"Dude, I just totally talked to three UbiSoft people!" one Igneous developer had shouted at the previous night's big indie games party, taking a high-five from another Igneous maker in response. It was a night of revelry for all the students I spoke to, as much about getting attention through the GDC awards nominee pool as about finishing their DigiPen tenure. "My friends on the outside say it's way easier in the industry than at DigiPen," another Igneous maker told me, perhaps not realizing how much he was likening his education to prison.
Check out Sam Machkovech's Twitter feed for more GDC coverage, including impressions of his favorite indie games of the show, along with takes on big-ticket nerd products like Civilization V and the PlayStation Move.