Aside from some outrageously stupid talks and Microsoft's keynote that turned out to be a press conference, I would say one of the best GDC days I had.
Risk and Return - Masahiro Sakurai
Sakurai recently left Nintendo and is now an independent developer. He was the lead designer of the first few Kirby games and the Smash Bros series at Nintendo. I think he was one of the people that made Nintendo great for so many years. Unlike most Japanese presenters at GDC, Sakurai's presentation was well organized, had an interesting, generally applicable thesis, and the slides were brilliant.
The talks focus was how risk and reward systems in games are tied together; the more risky a situation is in a game, the greater the reward can be generated from overcoming it. The example that I can think of is having your ship abducted in Galaga. It is a highly risky move that you can bet your whole game on, but the rewards of successfully reclaiming your captured ship makes the game mechanics worth playing. Players can choose a "low risk" path and not try to lose the extra ship, but players that attempt this higher risk path will get more enjoyment out of the game. To explain this theory, he analyzed Space Invaders in great detail. For most game design talks at GDC, you couldn't pay me enough to listen through some random designer pontificate on why Space Invaders was cool, but Sakurai's presentation was spellbinding. He briefly outlined how Space Invaders worked (with handy animations) and then explained precisely how the game was balanced and how different factors influenced the overall game balance; such as the size of the enemies, the reward for killing them, and the enemies "field of fire" and how the game was based around the player working around that. I've only briefly played Space Invaders but Sakurai's presentation made me feel like I'd played the game for a dozen hours. He then continued to explain his risk/reward theory using a number of different popular games from a wide variety of genres as examples. He talked about the inherent risks in fighting games like Virtua Fighter, how the risk/reward system is inherently based in racing games. (You want to go fast around curves, but going fast means you might hit the wall and slow down a lot. Succeeding in going fast around a curve means you'll be going much faster than if you were more careful in the corner.) He also talked about Fire Emblem for a good 10 minutes and concluded with the point that intrinsically, all games are strategy games. I did all I could to resist going up there and hugging him. He also talked about games that strayed from his theory (music games, sims, sports games to some degree) and explained how they succeeded even though they lacked the risk/reward system that more conventional games have.
Being the dorky fanboy I am, I got his autograph on my copy of Smash Bros. Melee. I wish I got it on Kirby's Adventure but I couldn't find it in my apartment before I left. As he was signing it I was going to ask him to draw Kirby on the cover until I realized he already did. I would consider it my most prized possession until about 5 hours later.
Game Design Methods of ICO - Kenji Kaido, Fumito Ueda
While this talk was certainly more typical of Japanese developers of GDC, it certainly couldn't cover more a more dear gaming subject to my heart. I love ICO and I think it is one of the best, most wonderful things the gaming industry has ever created.
The presentation involved Kenji talking about the overall goal of the game (boy meets slightly older girl, holding hands, exploring and puzzle solving) and interspersed it with presentation movies from various points in development. ICO started as a truly bizarre Lightwave movie in 1997 that featured a town setting, explosions, and flying robots shooting laser beams! Even the main characters were as mixed up as can be. The boy didn't have horns - the girl did, along with "cursed tattoos." They looked very different than their final forms. The boy was very young; he looked no older than 8. The girl wasn't a ethereal angel, but wore shorts and a t-shirt. Virtually nothing of Ico was there other than the holding hands.
They created a new demonstration video every year and each year the presentation inched slower toward the final goal. They showed it in its initial interactive form as a PS1 game. The game was still rather unrecognizable - the enemies were more detailed knight-style enemies and few of the trademark locations had been distinguished. The first two recognizable areas they seem to have developed was the first tree area and the underground waterfall that seemed to be a part of the first playable demo. Everything else was either cut during development or in too primitive a form for me to recognize.
The transition from knight enemies to the shadow creatures occurred when they went from PS1 to PS2. The greater graphic fidelity made the enemy's kidnapping sequence feel too harsh, they said. Making them shadow creatures somehow lightened the interaction.
Less than six months out, Yorda was still fairly distant from her final form. She wore long braided hair, continued to wear leggy shorts, and her clothing was fairly colorful. Ico's transition was much more consistent. He slowly grew older and evolved the basic characteristics that made the character.
The sole interesting point from the question and answer session that followed was that the reason that the main characters couldn't communicate with each other was to force the "hand-holding" to make sense within the game world.
It was interesting to see how the game evolved over the years but the talk itself wasn't as enlightening. And no, in spite of all the prying, nothing was said about the Ico follow-up, only that they were working on "something."
I got my copy of Ico signed by both of them. Other autograph seekers had the awesome European/Japanese cover signed while I got my retardo US cover signed. Still - something about having an artifact to remind myself that I got to meet these visionaries makes me very, very happy.
I think when I'm no longer amazed when I meet someone who has created a game I adore, it is time for me to leave the game industry.
The Full Spectrum Warrior Camera System - John Giors
This was the most useful GDC session I've ever attended. A well organized talk with precise info on algorithms and implementation details immediately applicable to issues that we're currently having. The speaker was a bit nervous and a little stiff, but he certainly knew his stuff.
Independent Games Festival
The IGF section of GDC, imo, completely owns E3. No booth babes, no blaring loud music, no stupid licensed games. Just a bunch of poor developers trying to make their mark in the industry. All the games are complete and readily playable at the show, often with the lead designer/programmer/producer standing right there to help you figure out what's going on. Seeing these guys helps remind me what is so amazingly great about the industry and how much farther we can go with this videogame thing. The IGF is the best thing about GDC.