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GDC 2014 is over, but these gaming trends from the show are just beginning

The 28th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco has concluded, but the games and technology we saw there will resonate for years to come. Oculus VR showed us the hardware developers will be using to shape the future of gaming with its second-generation of Oculus Rift, Sony entered the VR fray, and developers continue to shift the way they create. It was a big show.

Digital Trends’ gaming editors Adam Rosenberg and Ryan Fleming were on the ground in San Francisco all week, speaking with developers and publishers, checking out the latest hardware on display, and seeing everything GDC had to offer. Here, they break down the most important themes coming out of the show, and the trends that we’ll be hearing about for a long time to come.

Shifting reality

Adam Rosenberg

The big, flashy, eye-catching marquee trend of the 2014 Game Developer’s Conference was – to absolutely no one’s surprise – virtual reality. Oculus VR’s virtual reality headset made its devkit debut just over a year ago, and in the time since it’s gone from a cool-but-rough piece of futuretech, to an impressively realistic piece of technology.

Of course, GDC 2014 belonged to more than just Oculus. Sony stepped up with its own Project Morpheus, a Daft Punk-looking headpiece that, in many ways, is on the level with Palmer Luckey’s creation. The competing VR machines aren’t identical, but each – in its current form – showcases different strengths.

gdc wrap up oculus vr

The Rift, for example, is considerably further along in reducing the blurring, common in so many early developer kits, that induces motion sickness. Oculus’ soon-to-be-released DK2 is also easily available to developers. Sony, on the other hand, has made significant advances in answering the question of how VR inputs should work. The PlayStation 4 Eye camera is already reading full body movements in certain demos, and Sony’s motion-sensing Move controllers allow for 1:1 hand and arm movement translation in a VR space. They are also positioning themselves for a different audience, with OCulus staking out the PC market, and Sony eyeing its own console.

Anyone can be a developer

Ryan Fleming

If you have a powerful-enough computer and are willing to pay a small monthly fee, you can be an independent game developer. Maybe not a good one – you need practice, talent, and inspiration for that – but you now have access to tools the average person hasn’t realistically had access to before. 

This unprecedented move allows anyone to craft a game with the same tools as the pros, limited only by imagination and dedication.

Both Epic Games and Crytek announced this week that their development engines – Unreal Engine 4 and the CryEngine, respectively – will be offered to fans through a subscription model. That isn’t unheard of with gaming engines, but the price has usually been much higher; you can now grab the Unreal Engine and all its professional tools for $19 per month and 5 percent of the gross revenue from any games released, while the Crytek Engine costs just $9.90. Epic is also offering the engine’s source code and help from its staff to sweeten the deal, while Crytek is charging no royalties.

This unprecedented move allows anyone to craft a game with the same tools as the pros, limited only by imagination and dedication.  While not quite on the same scale, there are also several, impressive open-world sandbox creation games like EverQuest Landmark and on the way that allow you to create and share worlds within a game (more on both soon). Think Minecraft, but with more robust tools. It’s never been easier to make your own games.

Transparency

Adam Rosenberg

The term “Early Access” is increasingly familiar to gamers, and for good reason. It was the success of Mojang’s Minecraft that spurred developers to offer up content to fans at a much earlier stage than we’ve traditionally seen, which also allowed fans a small say in how the game shapes up. There’s been a sharp spike over the past year in this crowd-supported development model, spurred as much by new funding opportunities like Kickstarter and the increasing prevalence of digital distribution as it is by the blocky world-builder’s success.

“Early Access” is specific to Valve’s Steam service, but crowd-supported development was a frequent topic of discussion between developers and media at GDC 2014. We’re going to see a lot more games in the coming year that favor an all-inclusive approach to content creation, and many of the conference’s talks focused on developing within those increasingly broadened constraints.

gdc 2014 show floor

This open focus to development doesn’t necessarily work with every game, but it’s clearly become a huge motivator within the indie space. One of the most promising efforts we spotted at the show – newcomer studio Xaviant’s Lichdom: Battlemage – is now available via Steam Early Access, and the slice we saw in our demo (more on that one soon) looked just as polished as some of the best AAA shooters we’ve seen over the years.

Free-to-play is becoming the PC model

Ryan Fleming

It’s not news that more and more developers are looking at a free-to-play model for PC games instead of using the traditional retail model, but what is surprising is how far that pendulum has swung. What was once a small sub-genre is on its way to becoming the preeminent financial model for PC games. There are still plenty of indie games with varying prices, as well as AAA games developed for PC and consoles that will cost an average of $60, but more and more developers are opting to try the new model out. And why not?

A standard pricing model isn’t going away just yet, but the momentum is definitely shifting.

Part of the reason for the shift is the globalization of gaming. China, especially, has emerged as one of the biggest gaming markets on the planet, and the majority of revenue created from gaming in China comes from free-to-play PC games. Russia is also embracing free-to-play, and it’s becoming more and more common to hear incredible stories from companies like Wargaming, which recorded well over 1.1 million concurrent users in that country alone with World of Tanks.

There is a lot of money to be made in free-to-play gaming. Last year the South Korean game CrossFire earned nearly $1 billion, and Riot Games’ League of Legend topped $624 million. Those are the types of numbers publishers notice. A standard pricing model isn’t going away just yet, but the momentum is definitely shifting. As it does, the way people play games may shift with it.

Up next…

GDC may be in the books, but E3 is just a few months away and the gaming community will head to Los Angeles for the show this June. With the new consoles finding their footing, new hardware poised to change the industry, and new ways of doing business being utilized by developers, 2014 is shaping up to be a very interesting year.