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Stepping through the game development looking glass at the 2013 D.I.C.E. Summit

DICE - Awards stageThe D.I.C.E. Summit is not so different from Alice’s Wonderland for those who work outside the video game development community. The press can attend, see all the talks, maybe even score a handful of coveted interview slots. They’re development outsiders though, and this is a very inward-facing event. News items like the Bad Robot/Valve Corporation partnership and yearly Ouya hardware updates are the exception rather than the rule. You learn quickly as an outsider attendee that the focus is very much on developing a cross-disciplinary dialogue among those who create and design games.

Depending upon your disposition and level of interest in the ideas that drive the games we play, it’s either endlessly fascinating or hopelessly dry. 

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DICE - Atari joystickThe foundation of D.I.C.E. is right there in the name: Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain. These four pillars are the backbone of the entire event, informing four keynote talks that are spaced out over the two days. An additional two keynotes, one each morning, lay out the bigger picture ideas. This year, both featured Valve’s Gabe Newell; he appeared first with J.J. Abrams to discuss the challenges of cross-media storytelling and then again by himself on day two, painting a picture of Valve’s corporate doctrine and hardware strategies.

What’s cool about D.I.C.E. that doesn’t necessarily come across when you watch videos of each talk is the atmosphere. Game development is a very insular activity, with teams often cutting themselves off from the community for years at a time as they toil in secret on the next project. It’s necessary in one sense when you’re talking about multi-year timelines. Hype and marketing are an unavoidably vital components of the industry: tip your hand too early, and you lock yourself into ideas that may have to change; show up too late, and you risk being overlooked entirely.

Given all of that, D.I.C.E. provides a yearly touchstone that allows developers to break out of their grind and think about the “Why?” behind what they do. The Newell/Abrams chat featured a newsy scoop, but the bulk of it focused on highlighting the differences between passive and interactive storytelling. The pair didn’t sit down to come up with a solution. In truth, there is none. In highlighting the points of departure between their two respective mediums, they addressed old questions and raised new ones. They served their peers some food for thought.

DICE - Foosball tableThat’s the sort of thinking that drives this event. The Design keynote delivered by Sledgehammer Games’ Glen Schofield addressed one man’s sources of inspiration. A later talk, from Supergiant’s Amir Rao, considered the small studio’s attitude toward multi-platform development. Whether it’s one of the four main keynotes or the handful of related talks the fill out the rest of the two days, the process really boils down to a parade of extremely talented people offering some insight into their own process, both creative and technical. There’s nothing quite like it in the world of entertainment.

The event concludes with the annual D.I.C.E. Awards show, now in its 16th year. Spike’s VGA may be the biggest media circus when it comes to gaming award shows, but the D.I.C.E. Awards, curated and selected by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, is effectively gaming’s Oscars. Forget about sales, forget about popularity contests. If you want to get a sense of what the year’s favorite offerings were as chosen by those who create the games you play, this is it.

This year’s event was dominated by thagamecompany’s Journey, with eight wins in 11 nominated categories, including a big win for Game of the Year. Fan darling The Walking Dead trailed behind with half as many wins in eight nominated categories, including Adventure Game of the Year. Host Chris Hardwick emceed the festivities, displacing Jay Mohr as host for the first time since 2006. The show also saw Newell inducted into the AIAS Hall of Fame and Infocom founders Dave Lebling and Marc Blank presented with the Pioneer Award for their vital contributions to gaming’s development as a medium.

DICE - Pool tableAs with any awards show, there were some oddities. Despite the success of Journey, there’s a distinct lack of focus on the indie sector of the game development community among the nominees. The Adventure Game of the Year category is telling in this regard. The Walking Dead was a veritable shoe-in for the win there, but none of the admittedly high-profile competing nominees – Assassin’s Creed 3Darksiders 2Dishonored, and New Super Mario Bros. U – necessarily fit with traditional definitions of the adventure genre.

DICE - Steve MeretzkyHardwick too brought some unusual energy along with him. He’s certainly a more fitting host than Jay Mohr, and even those who aren’t familiar with his Nerdist podcast can quickly pick up on the fact that this is a guy who knows his geek trade. That said, it seemed like Hardwick was toeing a line all evening between paying respect to the development community and the culture of gamers that they speak to, and embracing the worst outsider stereotypes in his fun-poking at geek culture. 

There’s a sense walking out of D.I.C.E. that 2012 was a vital year in the growth of the medium, with many talks making reference to the looming hardware generation changeover, and the changing creative approach as they move from developing for the established platforms to harnessing the capabilities of new ones. It will be fascinating to observe how this conversation changes at the D.I.C.E. Summit in 2014, once the carefully kept hardware secrets are spilled and discussion of What’s Next can begin in earnest.

DICE - Journey winIn the coming days, we’ll be sharing a series of interview features that aim to give a sense of how the talk on the ground at D.I.C.E. unfolds. We spoke with a number of significant contributor at this year’s event, including Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford, Syfy’s Mark Stern, Supergiant’s Amir Rao, and the powerhouse 343 Industries duo, Kiki Wolfkill and Frank O’Connor. We also had the rare opportunity to chat with Infocom founder Dave Lebling, now a casual gamer with a love for World of Warcraft, and get his perspective on how the industry he helped set the foundation for has changed over the years.

D.I.C.E. is a special thing. Those in attendance should feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to witness it for themselves firsthand. Attendees from their tumble through gaming’s looking glass with new perspectives on the craft of game development and the ideas that drive the people who build our most beloved interactive experiences.

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E3 2013 preview: 10 games we’re dying to see more of
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A flood of game news is coming, with E3 2013 kicking off on June 11 and the usual battery of publisher press conferences holding court one day earlier. We already have titles and at least a few details to go on, but much more will be revealed as the full brunt of the annual trade show settles in. There's isn't any objective way to lay out what the "most anticipated" titles and reveals might be, but the following list of 10 games run through which ones we know the least about, and look forward to hearing more from.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Pirates! Open-world naval play! Chilling with Blackbeard and his contemporaries in the Caribbean! Ubisoft Montreal's latest tale of Assassins and Templars turns to the Golden Age of Piracy, launching a new, post-Desmond Miles chapter in the Assassin's Creed series even as it tugs at the historical threads woven by one of his ancestors, Edward Kenway, granddad of AC3 protagonist Connor. We've heard a lot of bullet-pointed facts about Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. You can sail the open seas and explore any landmass you choose. Dive underwater. Stab sharks and ride them(!). All great stuff. E3 ought to bring some cohesion to the random facts surrounding this fall 2013 release.
Batman: Arkham Origins
Rocksteady Studios steps away for the latest chapter in the Arkham franchise, with Warner Bros. Games Montreal taking on the task of putting together the upcoming prequel adventure, Batman: Arkham Origins. The new game builds on the play of Arkhams Asylum and City, with a younger and less experienced Caped Crusader targeted by Gotham City's super-villains thanks to a bounty contract offered by the Black Mask. The open world returns, bigger than before and newly fitted with Batwing-accessible fast-travel locations that must be unlocked by taking down enemy-controlled towers.
Battlefield 4
Electronic Arts and DICE unveiled Battlefield 4 at GDC 2013, trotting out an extended look at the single-player campaign for its flagship showcase of the Frostbite 3 engine. The game is predictably gorgeous, and it promises to be one of the early visual beasts on next-gen platforms. Expect to see more from BF4 at E3, specifically a look at the game's multiplayer offering. This is arguably the reason that most fans stick with the franchise, and the extra power of the new consoles will likely redefine the way we look at big-team, epic-scale warfare battles.
Call of Duty: Ghosts
Infinity Ward takes the lead once again for the 2013 edition of Call of Duty and the first one coming to next-gen platforms. The time for change is now and IW is doing just that, with a fresh story set in an entirely new narrative universe. The story opens on a world in which the United States is no longer a global superpower. A full decade after our country's fall, the little that remains of the country's special forces community bands together to form a resistance army of "Ghosts." Expect to learn more about this story at E3, and hear the first details of what is sure to be an elaborate focus on multiplayer.
Bungie reshaped the way we think of first-person shooters in 2001 with Halo: Combat Evolved, giving Microsoft's fledgeling Xbox its first and most powerful "killer app" and influencing the genre's direction for many years after. Now Bungie returns with Destiny, a massively multiplayer sci-fi FPS set in a completely original universe. Only one city remains on the planet Earth while an alien entity known as the Traveler offers protection from outside threats. Select humans draw power from this alien energy source, taking the role of the city's protectors. We know plenty about Destiny's backstory but only nothing has been shown of how it plays; expect that to change at E3.
Infamous: Second Son
Sony showed off a trailer for Infamous 3: Second Son during its PlayStation 4 reveal... and little else. We know that the game picks up seven years after the events of the previous two, leaving protagonist Cole McGrath behind and shifting the focus to Delsin Rowe. The superpowered beings of the world have been labeled as Bioterrorists and they are hunted - in the game's Seattle setting, at least - by the Department of Unified Protection. Expect to learn more about who Delsin is and why he's drawn the attention of the DUP in Sony's E3 reveals.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
The Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain situation is, like all other things Metal Gear, confusing. We've heard that MGS: Ground Zeroes is a prequel to Phantom Pain, and we've also heard that they're the same game. We know for certain that Kiefer Sutherland is the new face and voice of Solid Snake. We know that the setting is 1984, at least for part of the time. We know that the series' trademark action/stealth play is set in an open world. We think that this is a cross-generation game coming to PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 and PlayStation 4/Xbox One, as well as PC. We want to know more, and we hopefully will when E3 kicks off.
Quantum Break
Of all the items on this list, the one that we probably know the least about is Remedy's Quantum Break. The game debuted in a cinematic trailer during Microsoft's Xbox One reveal. It seems to involve time travel in some form or another. Really though, this one's a big mystery. All we have to go on is Remedy's pedigree as the creator of Alan Wake. That earns the studio a lot of leeway for announcing something totally new like this. We'll be hearing more at E3, but expectations are high for something fresh and original.
At long last we have a title for Respawn Entertainment's long-in-development debut game: Titanfall. An inadvertent Game Informer leak brings out the first details in advance of E3. The first-person shooter allows players to fight from the ground or from the cockpit of a mech that they pilot. In addition to a multiplayer-driven campaign, the game features adversarial multiplayer and a more traditional "One-Player Mode." We'll get our first look at Titanfall at E3, so expect a lot of these details to be fleshed out soon, with gameplay.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
CD Projekt RED's next chapter in the Witcher series promises to be the biggest yet, and the concluding one for protagonist Geralt. The developer's boasted about the game's massive world - "larger than any other in modern RPG history" (suck it, Skyrim) - and the same sort of multi-path story that made the previous two games such a critical success. Expect E3 to bring our first in-depth look at what promises to be a dazzling next-gen game.

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GDC 2013: Hands-on with ‘Injustice: Gods Among Us,’ and a first look at the iOS version we can’t talk about

In the world of gaming, there are rules we agree to abide by when it comes to certain types of coverage. These are generally more annoying than nefarious, and they tend to come down to blanket business decisions that go unnoticed 99 percent of the time – right up until they don’t. Such is the case with the iOS version of Injustice: Gods Among Us.
Due to legal constraints stemming from Apple’s standard business practices, I can’t go into detail about the mobile game; I can’t talk about how the game looks or plays; I can only tell you that it exists, it’s due out around the same time that the console game is, and that it will be free to download. Even that may be pushing it. Everything else will have to wait until the game is closer to release.
Don’t read too much into this though. The secrecy is fairly common with iOS games – you just don’t hear about it that often as most games on Apple’s ecosystem aren’t that highly publicized until after they're proven as successes. So, with regret, I am forced to not tell you how cool the game looks. I can, however, talk about Injustice for the consoles.
With a scheduled release date of April 16, the development is complete, and the game should already be on the way for final packaging. All that’s left is to wait for the release of the final product. From what's been shown so far, both fans of fighting games and DC Comics will have reason to be excited.
The game will follow the path taken by 2011’s Mortal Kombat and feature a healthy dose of single player content in the form of a story. Some of this story has already been revealed. The game begins after the Joker destroys Metropolis and tricks Superman into killing Lois Lane and their unborn child in the process. Supes doesn’t take this very well and he goes on to form a new world order, pitting him against Batman and his allies.
That's the general plot of the story, but there's still a lot more to know, including how characters like Superman and Black Adam can fight someone like Nightwing or Green Lantern without turning them into gelatin with one punch. According to NetherRealm, there is a reason for this ... we just don’t know what it is yet.
There will also be a collection of side missions under the “S.T.A.R. Labs” category, which feature 10 fights for each character with a loose story designed specifically for each of them. In the demo shown starring Superman, Lex Luther kidnaps Lois Lane and Superman fights several opponents – including allies like the Flash who are trying to get Superman to calm down – as well as enemies like an alternative version of the Man of Steel. In each mission, there will be dialogue to explain the encounters. Thousands of lines of banter were recorded to offer character specific quips. For example, Batman and Bane will trade lines that are specific to their personal history.
There will also be stories inspired by specific DC storylines. Injustice is offering one mission pack specifically to GameStop pre-orderers, which is based on the "Red Son" Superman storyline that theorized what would happen if Superman had landed as a baby in Mother Russia instead of Kansas. Although for now it has only been announced as a pre-order bonus, it will eventually be available for sale via DLC. 
Speaking of downloadable content, NetherRealms is playing it safe with the DLC and will wait to see how the game fairs. Still, the developer already has ideas for DLC. The DC universe has plenty of characters, and the possibilities of new playable fighters as well as new DC-based storylines is intriguing. 
In the side missions, you will be given a list of objectives. Completing these goals earn you stars, with each mission offering up to three stars. These stars help you level up, and each profile – not individual character – will earn experience points to unlock things like new skins. Earning three stars in every mission, however, will earn you a special bonus that NetherRealms is keeping quiet about for now.
As for the gameplay, it retains the Mortal Kombat DNA throughout. Moves are based on the same movement style, and, much like the X-ray attacks in the last Mortal Kombat, each character has a unique special move that can be triggered once a bar fills up. There is also a huge emphasis on using the environment, and you can interact with items with the touch of a button – some may let you throw a weapon, and others might allow a quick escape. Most levels also have multiple sections that you’ll need to find by beating your opponent in just the right way.
The wait is nearly over, and soon enough we’ll have all the info we need on the game. In general though, fans of DC lore and fans of the gameplay style of Mortal Kombat should be happy to know that both properties are properly represented here. There is plenty of reason to be excited for the AAA game, as well as that other version we can’t talk about yet. 

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GDC 2013: HP and ALT Systems team up to offer game developers something new

HP is teaming up with one of its largest systems integrators, Los Angeles-based ALT Systems, to deliver workstations bundled with the Unreal Engine. ALT will also deliver workstations tailored specifically to game developers bundled with various Autodesk content creation software solutions. However, bundling a workstation with the Unreal engine is a first.
ALT also uses Nvidia-based graphics cards from PNY to round out the mix and offer complete solutions designed around HP workstations. According to ALT Systems President Jon D. Guess, bundling the Unreal engine, with help from Epic Games, was in response to customer demand. “Customers asked for consumer GPUs in HP workstations,” Guess told us.
One unique system is HP’s Z1, an all-in-one workstation built around Intel CPUs and Nvidia mobile GPUs. While the Z1 is a bit bulkier than all-in-one PCs for normal office use, the added thickness enables higher-end GPUs to be included. Although it’s not  touch-enabled, the Z1 integrates a 27-inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel display. It also supports Intel’s Ivy Bridge generation CPUs, including Core i5/i7 and Xeon-based CPUs. One unique version of the Z1, sold only by ALT, will include an Nvidia GTX 680M, the high end mobile GPU for consumers.
Inside the Z1
Guess went on to note that ALT Systems' game developer customers wanted consumer GPUs, in order to more accurately simulate the configurations used by gamers when playing newly developed titles. Like the larger, tower-based Z-series workstations, the Z1’s chassis is modular, allowing easy upgrades of memory, storage, and graphics.
ALT also delivers tower-based workstations with bundled Autodesk or Unreal engine solutions, including HP’s Z620 and high-end Z820 systems. Both the Z620 and Z820 are fully modular and simple to upgrade with tool-free access to storage and graphics cards. Developers can easily swap out different graphics solutions for title testing and QA.
The Z820 is available with dual 8-core Xeon CPUs, offering up to 32 threads and 512GB of DDR3, error-correcting memory. The Z620 also supports dual CPUs, but memory maxes out at 192GB. Both systems offer power supplies with 90-percent efficiency.
Inside the Z-Series towers
System prices range from $2,285, for an entry level Z620, which includes a single Xeon E5-2560 CPU, 12GB of RAM, and PNY GTX 680 graphics card; to $11,995 for a Z820 with bundled 27-inch display and Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite. The included Z820 features dual Zeon E5-266o CPUs, 32GB of RAM, and a PNY GTX 680. Further details on pricing and available configurations can be found at ALT Systems.

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