Gaming with the big guys at Calif. video game conference

Plane tickets to San Jose, California: $300.

Admission to the 2003 Game Developers Conference: $ 2,000.

Drinks on Bill Gates: Priceless.

Think the video game industry is a “niche” industry? The members of the game development community don’t. They turned out in record numbers to attend the annual program.

This year, 10,000 developers convened at the San Jose Convention center for the Game Developers Conference (GDC), a weeklong program of intense tutorials and classes, spectacular expos and sponsored parties (aka free food and drinks).

Video games don’t make themselves. It takes thousands of dedicated men and women to drive the $10 billion interactive entertainment industry. Without the contributions of these talented programmers, artists and designers, there would be no video game industry.

Unlike most business conferences, the GDC combines elements of an arcade, a college, a traditional business conference and your favorite pub.

The textbooks (Game Design Perspectives, edited by Francois-Dominic Laramie), the tutorials (“2-Day Design Tutorial” and “All Stories Great and Small”) and the classes (“Halo: Development Evolved,” advanced documentation techniques, among others others) provided the most stimulating education. Just imagine a class where every word the professor is saying is interesting. Now imagine a room full of people who think the same way. That should give a rough approximation of the thrill students felt at the GDC.

The expo floor was a carnival of new technologies and free things. Amazing innovations such as NVidia’s new graphics engine featuring an amazingly crafted nymph, SpeedTree, an engine that renders entire beautiful forests while requiring minimal system performance and Nokia’s hybrid phone/game platform, the N-Gage, made the expo one to remember.

Another great part of the expo floor is the amazing amount of free stuff various companies gave out. These included stress balls from LucasArts, beer jackets from Midway and cool pens from everyone throughout the three-day expo. However, what made the expo a college student’s dream was the annual booth crawl, which featured free beer at strategic points around the room. That’s right, free beer.

After the booth crawl, the majority of the GDC attendees filed across the street to the conference’s two award shows: the Independent Games Festival and the Game Developers’ Choice Awards. While game developers spend most of the conference trying to better themselves, their companies or their organizations via education and networking, the awards shows were all about showing support for the accomplishments of other game developers.

The Independent Games Festival is an awards show dedicated to “rewarding innovation in independent games.” Conference attendees get to play all of the finalist’s games on expo floor and winners are announced right before the Game Developer’s Choice Awards.

This year’s big winner was “Wild Earth,” which took home the awards for Innovation in Game Design, Innovation in Visual Art and The Seamus McNally Grand Price, awarded every year to the best independent game.

Based on the idea that there is no greater honor than to be recognized by one’s peers, The Game Developers’ Choice Awards notes excellence in the video game industry. Game of the Year went to Retro Studio’s “Metroid Prime.”

The First Penguin Award, which recognizes innovation in the industry, went to the founders of Activision. The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented posthumously to Gunpei Yokoi. His family accepted the award for him, as Yokoi was killed in a 1997 car crash in Japan.

GDC started in 1987 as a 25 person party in the living room of a “notable” game designer. GDC 2003 saw 10,000 attendees, 300 lectures and classes, 200 expo booths and two award shows. GDC 2004 will be bigger and better, louder and more amazing in its technological advances.