Friday Slide: Don’t Forget About My 3G At GDC

Game Developers Conference (the kids “in the know” call it GDC) got underway earlier this week. In between the drinking and the schmoozing, there was a bit of time to take a look at what developers are brewing in their basements. Beard-stroking and solemn conversation about the state of the game industry followed.

With every passing big-name game conference, the iPhone and iPod Touch (and soon the iPad) command more attention. This year, it’s no surprise to see that developers are taking Apple’s little multimedia device quite seriously. The iPhone has allowed independent developers to explore brave new gaming worlds with simple but addictive games, whereas big-name companies are interested in ports of console games, and stretching the iPhone’s technology to the limit. It’s interesting to consider where it all might lead, but also a bit troubling to think that older iPhones might be left in the dust.

Despite the big noises and shiny things of GDC, it’s a simple pre-GDC iPhone game preview that has my curiosity piqued: Sketch Nation Shooter by Engineous Games. 2D scrolling shooters have long remained beloved by gamers for a reason: they’re easy to jump into, and turning hordes of flying enemies into so much twisted, smoking metal never gets old. Sketch Nation Shooter takes the familiarity of a scrolling shooter and lets the player import user-generated content in the form of artwork, music, and power-up drops.

For instance, you draw your fighter ship (which will almost certainly be phallic in design, at least the first time you play) and pit it against enemies that are also of your own creation. User-generated content has a way of getting overly-complicated; with any luck, Sketch Nation Shooter will offer maximum fun with minimal confusion. And hopefully it will teach gamers about what makes games fun. If typical user-generated content is any indication, too many people seem to think “stupidly hard” means the same thing as “challenging.”

Also making big news this week is the release of Street Fighter IV for the iPhone. The fighter’s sudden availability is a bit of a surprise. Just the other week, I’d been wringing my hands over whether or not the iPhone could do justice to Capcom’s critically acclaimed title. The verdict? For all my whining and whinging, the controls are actually pretty okay! Though anyone who’s used to the satisfaction of making buttons submit utterly under their thumb (me, for instance) might still have a hard time of things.

Another attention-getter was Epic Games’ panel about putting Unreal Engine 3.0 on the iPhone. Apparently it looks great, even if it can’t quite make it to 30 FPS.

Watching the iPhone grow so quickly is simultaneously exciting and worrisome. Unreal Engine 3.0 will obviously require 3GS, and even though Street Fighter IV works well enough on a 3G, the load times are reportedly long and dreary. Some iPhone enthusiasts feel that it’s the owner’s responsibility to stay on the cutting edge of Apple’s tech, which I suppose is understandable.

At the same time, part of the reason that systems like the Wii and Nintendo DS have enjoyed a great deal of success is because there’s no pressure to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. One size fits all. A significant chunk of the world is still wary around technology, if not downright technophobic. They don’t want to hear about the merits of the 3GS over the 3G. They want to play some games in between phone calls and snapping pictures of their cat.

There’s also the matter of battery power. How much juice will Unreal Engine 3.0 suck up? As it is, if I play even a simple game for an extended period of time, there’s a risk my battery won’t have enough power to for my mom to call me and invite me over for fresh baked cookies. And that’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

Of course, progress must march on, and GDC 2010 illustrates that the march is going well. It just makes good business sense for developers to remember that not everyone has the newest pair of boots for the trip. But maybe it’ll be the indie developers who fall back and keep the stragglers company for a while.