The global videogame market is huge, at around $135 billion in 2018 (according to NewZoo), and is expected to hit $150 million by 2020. In the U.S., games are bigger than theatrical feature films, music or television. The lion’s share — around 80% — of that revenue went to the 25 top game companies, headed by Tencent ($20 billion), Sony ($14 billion), Microsoft and Apple (about $10 billion each), and Activision Blizzard ($7 billion).
The showcase for giant games is the E3, attended in Los Angeles this year by over 66,000 devotees. Over 200 exhibitors featured huge booths by the dominant royalty of the videogame world, except for the surprising absence of Sony and Activision. This year’s E3 was again open to the public, in contrast to professionals-only shows such as the Game Developers Conference, or GDC.
Microsoft had a giant footprint, announcing the release of its Project xCloud game streaming service in October and previewing the next-generation Project Scarlett, a console four times as powerful as the Xbox One X, with graphics up to 8K and 120 frames per second refresh rate. Scarlett will launch for the holiday season in 2020 with Halo: Infinite, which showcases its potential. Some 60 new Microsoft games were announced at the show, with a lot of whoops and hollers when Keanu Reeves announced he would star in the Cyberpunk 77 game to be released in 2020. Other huge Xbox stars included Minecraft Dungeons, a new action-RPG set in the Minecraft world, and Gears 5.
Most of the big game franchises announced updates, such as Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Bethesda Studios showed Fallout 76 and Doom Eternal in addition to brand new games including Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo. Square Enix showed a Final Fantasy remake as well as a new The Avengers game based on the Marvel Universe. Fortnite keeps chugging along with add-ons, including the healing Chug Splash feature. EA is betting heavy on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. More of the big money makers were available on mobiles this year, such as Minecraft Dungeons and Animal Crossing, both on Switch.
The crowd at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco was smaller, at 29,000 attendees, but was just as enthusiastic and dynamic as at E3. Although GDC also featured giant studios, including Sony, it reaches out to smaller companies in many panels and a prizes presentation just for independents. Small studios are usually more accessible for animators seeking their first jobs in gaming — they are more flexible in formal experience required, and they are more accessible, located in hundreds of cities scattered around the world. Since small companies typically lack big-bucks PR budgets, winning awards at a show like the GDC can be transformative.
Most indie games are published for PCs, Mac and mobiles/tablets rather than major game platforms like the big guys. So, what were the best indie games, as judged and awarded at this year’s GDC?
The Nuovo Award went to Black Room, a browser-based game that mixes, narration, fantasy, mashup and dungeon crawling. Conceived by Cassie McQuater as a feminist adventure game, you play as an insomniac, shifting in and out of dreams and consciousness. The player can return to a totally black-on-black room as a means of returning to sleep. In true aw-shucks tradition, Cassie said she was thrilled to be at the GDC, because she had never been to a major game convention before.
The Excellence in Design Award was won by Opus Magnum, beating out creative indies such as Dicey Dungeons and Do Not Feed the Monkeys. Its developer, Zachtronics of Redmond, Washington, was founded by Zach Barth. The puzzle-based programming game challenges the player to design and build machines that create an alchemist’s devices, such as potions and poisons.
The Excellence in Audio Award was grabbed by Paratopic, produced by Arbitrary Metric. This is a short, first-person horror game that uses clever sound design to immerse the player in its freaky world; it comes with the soundtrack for $8.99. It involves assassins, smuggling, and a rusty, post-apocalyptic city. It takes 30-60 minutes to play.
Return of the Obra Dinn won the Excellence in Narrative prize. The game revolves around the Good Ship Obra Dinn, whose passengers and crew died or went missing due to mysterious circumstances in the 1800s. The player takes the role of an insurance agent who looks for clues to solve the mystery, moving back and forth through time, and keeps track via a diary. The look is deceivingly simple black-and-white 3D, almost like pen and ink drawings, with 1-bit animation supporting striking and creative designs. It took designer Lucas Pope four years to come up with the varied and surprising narrative. “I had 60 people,” he noted, “and I needed to kill them in interesting ways. I didn’t want people dying the same way each time. I needed to mix it up.” One unusual aspect of the game is its killer mermaids, which may have made a pioneering appearance in a bloodthirsty role.
The Excellence in Visual Art Award was grabbed by Ian Lilley’s Mirror Drop. It’s a psychedelic 3D puzzle game full of mirrors reflecting gorgeous patterns and colors. The player attempts to maneuver a reflective sphere through that world by shifting gravity. Sounds simple, but it’s easy to get lost in the baffling perspectives of spaces within spaces — or just become fascinated by the cutting-edge graphics.
After HOURS won for the Best Student Game, and its very excited, noticeably nervous student crew from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa accepted the award in front of the cheering crowd. It’s a full motion videogame about a young woman who was molested as a child and now has Borderline Personality Disorder. It looks at the world from her perspective, with text overlays revealing the maze of thoughts in her head.
The Seumas McNally Grand Prize went to (drum roll…) Return of the Obra Dinn, by Lucas Pope. This prize is not only the highest award at the Independent Games Festival at the GDC, but also comes with a check for $30,000. This was the second time that developer Lucas Pope won the award; he also hit this pinnacle in 2014, for Paper’s Please.
The indie prize winners are to be congratulated, as are the nominees, for the wide range of surprisingly creative games the jury had to choose from this year. Animators wishing to get into the videogame biz would be well advised to check out the many art and animation styles used for these games, as well as the clever ways designers used to bring them in for tight budgets.