TechEye takes to Cologne for Gamescom (GDC)

The Gamescom and Game Developers Conference Europe (GDC) took place in the carnivalistic and jovial Cologne last week. TechEye was there.

Cologne’s just a small train journey from the doorstep of yours truly, who was happy to see trainloads of young people from the struggling Ruhrgebiet shuffling frantically through the great, cavernous halls of Köln Messe. Gamescom proved to be a far nicer and less strenuous affair than Hannover’s CeBit, although it is perhaps unfair to compare them with each other.

Apart from a whole load of games designed to titillate, eat time, money and grab attention, Gamescom offered two interesting opportunities: namely to ask an Nvidia flack how the company will regain market share lost to DAAMIT and Intel in the last quarter, and to see and play with Nintendo’s 3DS console behind closed doors.

Back late July, figures released by Jon Peddie Research indicated Nvidia had lost market share of around ten percent year over year. Nvidia’s marketing man Igor Stanek blamed the delay of Fermi for the bad performance, however he naturally was very upbeat about the new GPUs bashing up the competition and his company regaining shares in the next few months. He claimed demand for Quadro was huge.

TechEye gave both the Quadro FX5000 and its larger brother the Quadro FX6000 9 out of 10 points. Stanek said he didn’t know if Nvidia will be able to ship enough cards in order to meet demand, but then he is supposed to be upbeat about his employer’s prospects and products.

In the consumer market, he said the GTX450 is coming up and will bring Fermi to the masses, i.e. the majority of gamers and PC users who shell out around or below €200 for a graphics card.

Stanek added he was a bit peeved about early criticism of the Fermi cards, explaining most people didn’t understand that the performance of a new architecture is always linked to its drivers which aren’t all that great when the product hits the market.

New drivers, however, give the GPU a performance kickstart, as well as developers getting acquainted with the inner workings. He commented the world plus its dog will be surprised on the tessellation front, claiming developers have got the groove and their feedback to Nvidia has been great.

Mafia II 3D

In the show room, Nvidia had Mafia II running in 3D on three monitors, as well as Ubisoft’s Avatar game running on a 3D telly. Wonderful stuff to behold, Avatar was especially impressive. Ubisoft did fall flat on its face with the title, as the company believed there’d be more than enough 3D screens out there to make a profit by the time it hit the market. As we all know, that’s still not the case. Prices for 3D hardware have to come down a ton before Joe Bloggs will put it in his living room, the whole process will still take a few years. This is something Nintendo has understood.

Nintendo’s newest handheld console was relatively impressive. Nintendo had a preproduction model of the 3DS on display behind closed doors, out of reach of the general public’s grubby hands and firmly chained to the floor and shackled to the young lass showing them. Various demos were shown but none of them were new. They were nonetheless more than sufficient to gain a good overview of the 3DS’ capabilities.

The screen was bright and very sharp, giving a far better impression than lower-resolution videos available on Youtube and elsewhere. Kid Icarus looked very good. Nintendogs in 3D was a load of fun, though it can hardly live up to a real pooch.

Metal Gear Solid was the best entry, but unfortunately it was unplayable. The camera angle could be adjusted using the analogue pad which worked effortlessly. At the highest 3D setting, things got a bit strenuous, as white flower petals floating around the screen hurt a bit to look at, however this was solved by setting the slider to two-thirds, regulating the depth of the 3D effect. This proved to be the best setting for these eyes.

Metal Gear Solid 3DS

Regulating the 3D effect worked seamlessly on nearly all demos, except for one or two titles where it was a bit bumpy. It can be expected that such minor problems will have been dealt with by the time the hardware is finalised and shipped.

So how will the 3DS change the game? First it has to be recognised this will be a make-or-break product for Nintendo. The company is under pressure on the mobile front, as smartphones are already very popular with the casual gamer crowd. In the console arena, Nintendo will have to face Kinect & Co., which make the PS3 and Xbox360 look a tad more attractive than the Wii.

Nintendo decided to create and sell an innovative product instead of over stretching the company’s resources. While Sony and Microsoft were sticking it to each other over which GPU and CPU had the better performance, Nintendo simply released the Wii built around comparably cheap hardware with a new concept focused on increased interactivity and family entertainment.

Nintendo won out to a degree, making Microsoft and Sony look like PC companies trying to replicate their business model in the console market. Despite having superior hardware, both companies were forced to play catch-up on innovative concepts – it could be said that Kinect would not have been created without Nintendo’s Wii.

After having seen the 3DS in action, it seems the unit will be able to repeat Nintendo’s success story. Some people may regard the small 3D display as a mere gimmick compared to an 81” telly, however Nintendo is right in choosing not to make itself dependent on future sales of third party hardware.

Instead, partnering with Sharp to roll-out an autostereoscopic display puts Nintendo in full control of the game. Consumers can be expected to flock to Nintendo’s upcoming effort for both gaming and movies. “Legend of the Guardians”, a 3D animation flick set for release in September, looked great on the unit despite the size.

Being able to watch a 3D movie on the train or in a cafe will be a major selling point. The 3DS will give Nintendo a good breather for the next few years in the mobile sector, at least until Sharp is allowed to market its 3D display to phone makers.