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This past week I took a break from Lemmings to travel to the mecca of gaming that is Game Developer’s Conference. Held in San Francisco, GDC is five glorious days of informative lectures, frantic networking, and awesome previews for the members of the gaming industry.

Perhaps the biggest news from the conference was Sony’s dual announcements of Home and LittleBigPlanet. Similar to Second Life in many ways, in Home users control a customizable avatar in a virtual world where they interact with other players (no word yet on whether you can play as a furry). You also own an apartment which you can decorate to your liking, as in The Sims. Don’t like the wallpaper? Change it. Don’t like the selection of wallpapers you can use? Buy premium wallpapers from the Sony store. In fact, that seems to be the crux of the service; the free stuff is nice, but if you want the really cool stuff, you’re gonna have to pay.

So what’s your motivation for using this service? Well, you can hang out with others in common spaces and play games, ranging from pool to old-school arcade games. You can watch trailers for upcoming movies in Hi Def — though I do have to wonder how they will manage to display them without either requiring long download times or terrible buffering. But perhaps most compelling is your personal trophy room, which displays badges of honor you earn by accomplishing certain goals in PS3 games. Kill 10,000 zombies? That’s a trophy! Get 5 stars on Jordan in expert mode? Trophy! Figure out what the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 means? Trophy!

While a nice feature and a welcome addition, Home doesn’t seem to be the killer app that Sony is looking for. But LittleBigPlanet just might be. Where Home fails to allow for user generated content, LittleBigPlanet shines. Less a game than a toolbox, LBP allows users to create their 2D platformer with 3D objects in a simple and straightforward way. Once created users can play through the levels they’ve made, and invite their friends along for the ride.

So why is LBP so impressive? Well, for one thing, the game looks beautiful. The textures in the game are vivid and lifelike, and evoke a “realistic” feeling. Furthermore, the user interface seems pretty clean — scroll through nested lists to select what you want to create, then place them in the world using a lasso. But what is most impressive, in my opinion, is what was focused on the least: The game has realistic, working, soft body physics! In other words, users no longer have to settle for unsquishable-type bowling balls, they can now make Nerf balls. It’s unclear to me why this point wasn’t stressed more. I hope it was a question of the subject matter not fitting the audience, rather than the demo being a Wizard of Oz type “man-behind-a-curtain” thing, where the soft body physics are faked, and don’t really work like in the demo.

While Sony’s announcements were interesting, most exciting new demos came from the independent game sector. flOw, a production from thatgamecompany, has a unique premise which evokes a feeling of relaxation while at the same time presenting compelling game play. Valve’s new offering Portal has inspired gameplay in which the user can connect any two points using a novel “portal gun.” This weapon is used to solve numerous puzzles, forcing players to rethink spatial layouts. In a similar vein, Sega’s Crush is an exciting take on the traditional platformer; players alternate through a 3D landscape, which they can “crush” (flatten) at any point into a 2D variant based on camera angle. This redefinition allows the user to traverse obstacles that would normally be impossible to get past. Sound cool? It is.

Unfortunately, not everything at the conference was quite as impressive. Beyond a cool new video of Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo didn’t really have any major announcements, though the company’s creative director Shigeru Miyamoto did give a personal introspective keynote. Microsoft had even less news; in my five days at the conference I didn’t hear anything too remarkable out of their camp (though I am incredibly excited for the upcoming release of Guitar Hero on the 360).

There were also several interesting lectures and events in the serious games field, regarding women in gaming, and about game accessibility. For more information on these subjects, take a look the recent posts at www.educationarcade.org.

Eitan Glinert is a graduate student involved with the Teacher Education Program and MIT’s new Singapore Alliance lab GAMBIT. For more information, contact Eitan at glinert@mit.edu.