Last week, I was able to attend the Game Developers Conference (GDC) – the largest professional game industry event – in San Francisco, CA. After meeting with a number of big brands and up-and-comers, I wanted to share two major trends that popped up at the conference that are a strong reflection of where the industry is going.
ABC – Anything But Console. One thing that we heard directly from brands at GDC, and saw even more on display from the Expo floor, was that developers are making gaming experiences that don’t require the traditional console/PC set up. Innovations that bring gaming to the billions of people who call themselves “gamers” worldwide are being created outside of that usual device, and these were by far the most engaging audiences across booths. While Google’s big announcement was around their cloud-based, streaming game platform Stadia, the big ticket attraction of their exhibit was an interactive Pac-Man game where people could use Augmented Reality to chase the colorful ghosts from many of our youths (see right). Providing this experience to conference-goers brought in a major queue throughout the conference as the tech giant talked about inventing new ways to get people away from their traditional platforms and into a new realm of gaming.
This trend of taking gamers away from their consoles threaded down to the startup developers, with no better example than Zwift. The Long Beach-based company hooks up a bike or treadmill (see left) to a training device and an Apple TV to allow you to race against friends, family, and even professional athletes from across the globe. Your body becomes the controller, allowing you to exercise in real environments against top competition, and can be set up anywhere with a TV like a mobile Flywheel class. The brand stresses the need for people to experience gaming in a way that isn’t just people on a couch, and while they plan to expand their esports presence in the next year, they see the product being open to any of the amateur cyclists that have made SoulCycle a verb in today’s society. Think Peloton, but for a person who likes the gaming aspect of life.
On a lighter note, there was a game called “Hellcouch” where the couch you sat on was actually a controller. Obviously a novelty, but it goes strongly to the point that what players want most is something different than the sticks in your hands.
Where are esports? With nearly every tech giant in the Bay Area present at GDC, the biggest surprise of the conference was the minimal emphasis from developers on esports. Much of the talk on the blossoming of esports comes from the non-endemic brands investing in the space, but game creators are building toward the world of gaming, not just the top-flight competition side. With estimates from Newzoo saying that there are 2.2B gamers worldwide, and Nielsen saying the number of true esports fans is only at roughly 20M, it’s clear where and why the focus is on the wider world of games, but it was surprising to see in a larger setting that none of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Epic Games, Nintendo, Unity nor many others focused on the competitive scene.
What we did see, however, was a highlighting of those gamers in the middle – ones who want to compete, but not professionally. Brands are finding ways to build engaging atmospheres for people of all skill levels to have fun and get out their competitive urges without having to be a top-ranked player in the world, and the best example of this was Skillz, which was one of the few brands that even mentioned esports at their booth. With the tagline “esports for Everyone,” the San Francisco-based platform allows players to go head-to-head with people of the same quality in prize pools for cash and/or ecurrency, essentially creating the e-version of a pick-up sports game. They have every game on the platform from Solitaire (yes, this is somehow a competition) to bowling to Brickbreaker, and fans can enter tournaments at anytime during the day for a chance at glory and prizes, similar to a DraftKings Daily Showdown model. Skillz proved to be a prime case of a company that tries to engage the non-endemic fans, and throughout GDC, this mantra stuck out as these companies try to grow past just the esports audience.