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What we learned at the Game Developers Conference

There was no shortage of big news from GDC, including some intriguing details about the three EA titles developed with Steven Spielberg

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Steve Granitz/WireImage.com

The annual Game Developers Conference is a mark-your-calendars event for videogame industry insiders — it is the place to make deals, find jobs, and learn about the latest technological developments. Following last year’s cancellation of the media circus that was E3 (which, in fact, has been newly resurrected, but on a much smaller scale), this year’s GDC took on a whole new significance. Here’s some of the big news that came out of San Francisco last week:

STEVEN SPIELBERG PRESENTS…

Electronic Arts and its developers were some of the busiest bees at GDC. The publisher brought lots of promising games to its various show-and-tell events, including a sequel to a fan-favorite action game called Mercenaries. Even better, EA teased us with some info on the deal it signed with Steven Spielberg almost two years ago. Nitty-gritty details are still in short supply (the games have neither release dates or official titles), but we now know that two out of the three games are in development right now at EA’s Los Angeles studio. In fact, the director has been meeting with EA roughly once a week for a few hours at a time to work on his games. It’s also safe to say none of the Spielberg-blessed titles are based on chocolate-eating aliens or man-eating sharks: all of them are based on original concepts. The first title in production will be a next-gen (i.e. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) game; the second one is going to be a Nintendo Wii title that will take advantage of the console’s movement-sensing controllers. EALA boss Neil Young told us that Spielberg knew he had to get to work on a Wii title after playing Wii tennis with revered Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto at last May’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. Who says all great deals are done on the golf course?

SONY FINDS A NEW ”HOME”

In a 45-minute presentation on Wednesday, Sony Computer Entertainment President Phil Harrison officially took the wraps off of Home, a major enhancement to PS3’s existing online network that’ll be available this fall (a limited number of gamers will get to beta-test it next month). Hoping to ride the wave of online social networking and community building revolutionized by the likes of YouTube and MySpace, Home will be a free download that turns your PS3 into a supercharged online virtual sprawl teeming with 3D avatars created by you and other PS3 owners. Your virtual doppelganger will live inside an apartment that can be customized in all sorts of ways. And you can outfit yourself and your abode by downloading free clothing and furniture.

Picture this nutty scenario: you’ll be able to host a party in your virtual apartment by inviting over a few of your virtual friends to watch digital pictures you’ve downloaded — or full-length high-def films that play on a tiny virtual Sony Bravia flat-screen TV. Why you would want to do this instead of inviting over real friends to your real apartment to watch Casino Royale on a real TV escapes us, but it’s a pretty impressive technological feat. And while many other questions remain unanswered, it’s clear that Sony is going all out to trump the community-building efforts of both Microsoft (on Xbox Live) and Nintendo (on the Wii Channel).

BRAVE NEW ”WORLD”

Also utilizing player-created characters is LittleBigWorld, a ”cooperative platform” game that is the brainchild of one-time indie game developer (and now part of the Sony Computer Entertainment collective) Media Molecule. Players control and customize cutesy characters (most look like articulated Milk Duds), then drop them into some of the sharpest-rendered environments you’ve ever seen. LittleBigPlanet has all the markings of a hit. But the wait to actually play it is more big than little: it doesn’t go on sale until 2008.

THREE FOR THE 360

Microsoft previewed a wide variety of games, but most of the buzz centered on three role-playing adventure games for their 360 console. If Fable 2, Mass Effect, and Blue Dragon each had its own distinct ”look” it’s probably because each game’s development team hails from a different part of the globe (Europe, America, and Japan, respectively). While ”community” seemed to be the buzzword out of Sony’s presentation, ”storytelling” was the hot topic at Microsoft’s event. Peter Molyneux, Fable 2‘s lead designer, could barely contain himself over the game’s realistic, AI-controlled dog, which follows you around like a real canine. (We were a bit misty-eyed after seeing it get wounded in battle and then limp off in pain.) The standout title was Mass Effect, a sci-fi epic that features quality voice-acting, characters with amazingly-realistic facial expressions, sophisticated action, freaky-looking aliens, and, yes, one hell of a compelling story.