GDC 2017 is over, but its impact on professionals in the games industry will be felt throughout the year.
As usual the event was full of insightful sessions from the experts detailing what they have learned, and thousands of industry professionals all happy to network and share their own advice.
Virtual reality and augmented reality was once again a talking point at the show. Numerous talks and expo stands were dedicated to the subject and technology, as technically were the first two days of GDC, labelled VRDC.
And of course, mobile was well represented by speakers, booths and attendees.
Through all the VR glamour, there were numerous other announcements across the industry.
Here we take a look at the key mobile games industry trends we saw at GDC 2017.
We’ve been here before. Eastern giants like Gree and DeNA making big strides in the Western mobile games market, only to fall back and regroup.
But companies from countries such as Japan, South Korea and China continue to make moves in the West, learning the lessons of those who expanded there first.
East to West
The influence of companies from the East, such as NetEase, Netmarble and Tencent among many others, was clear to see during GDC.
Onmyoji publisher NetEase held its Insight of Fun talkshop during GDC week, bringing together developers from all over the world as the company shared its global strategy and lessons learned from its games on mobile and VR.
It was the first time NetEase has held an overseas independent forum. The Chinese publisher also announced its intentions to release hit game Onmyoji in the West.
Netmarble meanwhile took the opportunity during Epic’s State of Unreal session at GDC to reveal its plan to launch Lineage 2: Revolution worldwide. The RPG mobile title has generated an astonishing $176 million in just its first month after launching in South Korea.
Publishers such as iDreamSky and Shinezone were also on the hunt for potential partners during the week, with the latter having obtained more than $58 million to fund an acquisition and investment spree.
To cap off the week, though a coincidence, Nintendo launched its Nintendo Switch hardware on Friday, March 3rd, a hybrid console/tablet that’s selling like hotcakes so far.
Just days before, the console giant hosted a special GDC session called 'Change and constant: Breaking conventions with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”.
Virtual reality and augmented reality in full swing
There have been some less than stellar sales numbers for virtual reality hardware this year following the long-awaited launches of key headsets.
But that hasn’t stopped plenty of companies getting in on the technology. The GDC Expo floor was full of VR companies showcasing their wares, whether simple tools or a gun you can pick up and shoot enemies with in the virtual world.
There was also the two days of VRDC, packed with sessions around the subjects of virtual reality and augmented reality.
Not least were the various talks held by Niantic discussing Pokemon GO’s game design and technology.
A bright future
Niantic CTO Phil Keslin took to the stage during the Google Day keynote, where he shared the news that Pokemon GO had surpassed 650 million downloads, with players walking a combined 8.7 billion km. That’s further than the distance from Earth to Pluto.
During a session entitled 'Growing the VR ecosystem in 2017', Viveport President Rikard Steiber claimed virtual reality will be the next mass medium following PC, web and mobile. He added that next year, Vive aims to achieve full presence in VR by making your body the controller.
Schell Games CEO Jesse Schell also touted the potential of VR in his session 'Lessons learned from a thousand virtual worlds', saying that while VR has problems and challenges right now, a bright future awaits.
Google also took the opportunity during Mobile World Congress, which took place in Barcelona at the same time as GDC, to reveal that it had shipped 10 million Google Cardboard headsets. Perhaps more interestingly, 160 million Cardboard apps have been downloaded, with 30 of them garnering over one million downloads each.
“We believe this lower entry price will attract consumers to PC VR at a faster pace. This is universally good for the entire community, but especially for developers,” said Oculus VP of Content Jason Rubin.
“A larger userbase means higher potential sales, easier player matching, better communities, and results in the ability to invest more in titles.”
10 million Google Cardboard shipments and a quick drop of the Oculus Rift price doesn’t present a rosy picture of the VR space, but it’s clear companies in the space are still trying to find out how best to attract consumers as the ecosystem builds up.
VR and AR were hardly as exciting as last year, but it’s a trend that looks set to continue for some time yet. And the tech certainly isn't short of supporters.
Live ops is king
Live operations is nothing new to successful developers and publishers in the mobile space.
But developers and publishers during GDC were keen to show how a good strategy for live ops has been key to improving the fortunes of their games.
When Rovio launched Angry Birds 2, while by no means a failure, it didn’t manage to set the world alight either.
But rather than move on to the next game, the team at Stockholm spent time working on the game and building up new features.
The result of a change in strategy for Rovio’s games business as a whole has helped the talented studio reverse the game’s fortunes and turn it into a top 60 top grosser on the US App Store. To put that into context, the game dropped to higher than 150 in the top grossing charts in March 2016.
Announcing its finances for 2016 at GDC, Rovio revealed its revenues jumped 34% in 2016. Its games busness had its strongest year ever as gross revenue increased 40% to €159 million.
The developer put this down to the performance of older titles, particularly games like Angry Birds 2.
N3twork’s Ethan Levy, responsible for design and monetisation, held a session entitled: 'Legendary: GOH 5 lessons from 12 months of live operations'.
During the talk, Levy discussed key elements of its live ops growth, charting inflection points when certain updates gave a clear jump in user spending and engagement.
Since the studio ran its first in-game event, it saw an immediate upturn in player engagement and has since been running events every week. This can come in the form of limited time game content such as a special dungeon, a new boss every week and other special events such as the crusader events.
Levy warned developers however that if events are left unchanged, performance will decay overtime as player interest drops off. It’s important then to keep refreshing events to make them more enticing to users.
He presented a number of other lessons, such as creating events with leaderboards to encourage competition and the power of guilds – which many of the top midcore games use successfully.
Overall, Levy said that “great results are possible over time” and that developers can do great things during live operations.
Rovio and N3twork weren’t the only companies bigging up live operations, Space’s Joe Raeburn and Digit Games Studio’s Om Tandon also held their own sessions on the subject.
Unity grows and grows, but game engine competition gets fiercer
Games harnessing the tech were downloaded 16 billion times in 2016. For context, that’s up 31% from 2015.
Taking to the stage, Unity CEO John Riccitiello said that Unity games now make up 38% of all mobile games globally, up from 34% in 2015.
On top of that, the number of mobile devices Unity games reached in the last quarter was said to be 2.6 billion – a rise of one billion from the same quarter a year prior.
To cement its position as a mobile leader, Unity also announced a number of new upcoming updates, including physically based rendering, global illumination and codeless IAP, as well as providing more details on its Xiaomi partnership to help bring Unity games to the Chinese mobile market.
They also had special guest stars Jason David Frank, famous for playing the Green Ranger in the classic Power Rangers series, and Ludi Lin, the Black Ranger in the upcoming film, who went head to head on a new mobile game from San Francisco-based studio nWay.
Along with other game engines like GameMaker Studio 2, which has just been released, GDC showed that despite Unity's impressive numbers, the game engine scene still rife with competition.
More of the same
For all the announcements and ongoing trends, one notable element of this year’s GDC was that there was more of the same.
Advancements are being made of course, and virtual reality and augmented reality are just getting off the ground with their recent consumer launches – but there were no ground-breaking, industry shaping announcements or trends.
Increasing Eastern influence was present, as were a host of VR booths. But VR is no longer completely new on the development scene, with VR dev kits out for years.
The biggest news from the week - a complete coincidence - was the Nintendo Switch launch which occurred on Friday, March 3rd, the last day of the conference.
But apart from Nintendo’s session on ‘Breaking conventions with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild', the company didn’t have a particularly strong presence. Rather, it was more the secrecy the firm is best known for.
And despite its excellent launch sales since, it was hardly the talk of the town either.
There’s nothing wrong with more of the same though. Huge potential remains in the VR and AR spaces, while mobile continues to grow around the world, despite maturing in some markets.
Perhaps GDC 2018 will herald the beginning of other new trends for the future.
Craig Chapple is a freelance analyst, consultant and writer with specialist knowledge of the games industry. He has previously served as Senior Editor at PocketGamer.biz, as well as holding roles at Sensor Tower, Nintendo and Develop.