GDC 2013: Top 10 moments from the conference

GDC 13
Let the games begin

The five whirlwind days of GDC 2013 have finally come to a close. The Moscone Center is now gutted, the costumes and crazy hats we saw this week long been taken off.

Over the course of the conference we saw a number of exciting bits of hardware, sat in on some fascinating talks, and got to see a side of the gaming world rarely put in the public eye - that of the developers who create the games many of us love to play and build the hardware we use to play them.

We rounded up our top 10 moments for the show, which you'll find as you read on.

1. Android-based Ouya console debuts

When the Ouya raised $8 million on Kickstarter, the tech world couldn't help but sit up and take notice. The Jelly Bean based console dreamed a dream of letting anyone "make great games for the television," and thousands bought in.

Based on our hands on time with an early version of the system at GDC, we do think it could become both a facilitator for fabulous indie titles and the best way to experience Android games. However, as far as achieving mainstream success and rattling the shutters of house Xbox and house PlayStation, we doubt it.

2. Sony's lips loosen over PS4 features

So Sony didn't up and show a PS4 at GDC; not that we expected that or anything. That's likely a reveal best saved for E3 2013. But it did open up about a few of the system's features, and some of them are exciting and insanely clever.

A room full of potential PS4 developers got a run down of the system's architecture, design philosophy and online features. However, as local multiplayer fanatics, we loved hearing that the system will use its controller tracking to automatically swap split screen, should players rearrange themselves on the couch.

3. GameStick gives hope for a viable console alternative

Along with Ouya, GameStick showed us that gaming can be affordable, manageable and competent all at the same time.

Granted we didn't get to play with a finished GameStick unit, but we got a good look at what's to come plus plenty of background about what PlayJam, the company behind GameStick, wants to accomplish with its US$79 system.

It's all about targeting casual to mid-core gamers, those who simply want to enjoy a game without geeking out over hardware or spending more than $80.

The final unit will include a slot to insert the HDMI stick, meaning you can literally take the entire console with you. It's ready to play wherever there's a TV. Whether you're looking to escape the in-laws, unwind at a hotel or simply want a way to play games without the fuss of a mega-console, GameStick could be your ticket to gaming Nirvana.

4. AMD on the attack

Nvidia was there, as was ARM. But the biggest fighter standing in the graphics ring at GDC was none other than AMD, the chipmaker behind the PlayStation 4.

The company gave us a peek at its next high-end graphics card, the Radeon HD 7990, showed of the cloud gaming-ready Radeon Sky Series, and talked to TechRadar about why Sony approached it to power the PS4.

We appreciated AMD's gumption, plus the fact that EA played its Battlefied 4 demo on it as it announced the game, and we look forward to hearing what else the company has in store.

5. Facebook tells everybody how much money its games made

Two billion dollars. That's how much Facebook paid out to its game developers in 2012. Guess those games aren't so "free-to-play" after all? Of course, making money just makes you hungry to make even more money, so Facebook was sure to communicate how eager it is to start hosting games of every genre.

The talk was more than just a pitch: It was a peek into the way Facebook sees itself, which is as the "connective tissue" between the mobile and desktop gaming experience. It was also a history lesson in social gaming as well as a lamentation of the "dark days" of Facebook gaming, a.k.a.when FarmVille notifications were running rampant in everyone's feeds.

6. Some 'Battlefield 4' for ya

EA Games has had a tough couple of weeks. It released a great game, Sim City, only to have it be plagued by server issues. Then it gathered dozens of journalists to watch a video debut of Battlefield 4, only to have it leak as we all waited in line. Oh well, at least the video was great.

First of all, the graphics are terribly impressive. It looks to be a next-gen, hardware pushing title. EA won't confirm it, but we're certainly looking at a PS4 and Xbox 720 game here. It's been confirmed for current gen systems as well as Windows, so this video is likely from a high-end PC. The video also has some very clever editing, using a rather oddly chosen pop song as a framing device. Give it a click and see.

7. Oculus Rift rivets the crowd

The first thing you noticed before running into the Oculus Rift booth itself was the line. When we went by on the very last day of the conference, some attendees had waited in a queue for up to three hours to be fitted with the virtual reality gaming gear.

Though their Hawkin demo – which included a stomach-dropping free fall - only lasted a few minutes, those who ventured into VR had trouble putting their experience into words.

One attendee told TechRadar: "This is one of those things that is going to change everything," and from the mounting line, excited post-demo conversations and after-conference chatter, we're starting to think Oculus Rift really could revolutionize gaming as we know it.

8. Activision enters the uncanny valley to complain about dessert

A yogurt parfait is supposed to be half fruit, half yogurt, right? At least that's the way Activision understands it. At GDC, it took the opportunity to demonstrate its latest facial animation technology, rendering a talking head that seems to have some choice words for an unseen waiter.

Amusing choice of subject aside, the demo is pretty unbelievable, especially given that it was rendered in real time. It's also pretty creepy, approaching what's known as the uncanny valley, where animated representations go from amusing to unsettling. Hopefully Activision will find a good, non-frightening way to put this tech to work in a game. And hopefully it'll improve the quality of the frozen treats in its cafeteria. The makers of Call of Duty deserve better.

9. Microsoft opens up about Windows Phone

Sometime's it's OK not to be first...granted, you want to get to the top, but if you can do it in a way that's sustainable for the long haul while creating something utterly your own, that's typically the better path taken.

Microsoft seems to be doing just that with Windows Phone. We talked with a pair of Redmond employees who gave us the rundown on the company's developer-based approach to flushing out its app and game ecosystem. They also talked about Windows Phone's position behind iOS and Android, and how while it's not ideal, the company is confident it's created a viable third OS that customers will come to appreciate.

Windows Phone has it's problems to be sure, but we valued the time we got to spend hashing them out.

10. The watering hole of the devs

For all the seminars, summits, panels and press conferences, GDC is largely about mingling and meeting for many of the developers in attendance. They're drawn to the promise of a groundbreaking indie game, the opportunity to hang with their industry idols, and the chance to leave with a new lesson and a phone full of new contacts.

Though it didn't pack along the Xbox 720, Microsoft did make up for it a little bit by throwing up a "lobby bar" in the main entrance of the expo hall where attendees could relax with a drink, play on an Xbox and connect with one another.

We met more folks than we could count just standing around here and had a number of exuberant conversations - the stuff that always makes conferences extra worthwhile. Maybe it was the beer, but we left Microsoft's spot feeling like we'd made some GDC compatriots we'll welcome next year.

Yes, GDC is about the developer industry, but as someone posed to us: "'Game drinking' is close to 'game developing,' right?"

Michelle Fitzsimmons

Michelle was previously a news editor at TechRadar, leading consumer tech news and reviews. Michelle is now a Content Strategist at Facebook.  A versatile, highly effective content writer and skilled editor with a keen eye for detail, Michelle is a collaborative problem solver and covered everything from smartwatches and microprocessors to VR and self-driving cars.