[Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris reports from this year's South by Southwest, discovering a Richard Garriott-pitched Lord British social game and a host of other game-related aspects to the film, music and tech conference.]
Music and film might be the dominant forms of entertainment on display at this year's South by Southwest gathering, but gaming culture is definitely elbowing its way into the party.
Public game demos and several seminars examining the state of the industry have been on display at the Austin Convention Center since Friday – and some developers (including Richard Garriott) are even using the event to announce new titles.
Garriott's company Portalarium is competing in this year's SXSW Accelerator competition, one of the show's most prestigious events and biggest launching pads.
Previous entrants include Foursquare and Foodspotting. The company unveiled a pair of new titles at the event – including one featuring the return of Ultima's Lord British.
Lord British's New Britannia (working title) will be a social networking game built around Garriott's famous alter ego, which he wholly owns - as opposed to the Ultima universe, which Electronic Arts has the rights to.
The title is set to come out after the second quarter release of Ultimate Collector, the company's first original game, which will take the form of a social network game paired with a television show hosted by Garriott, the pilot for which has already been shot.
Further details were light for both titles, since Garriott's presentation was primarily an appeal to investors for the $3.8 million in financing the company is seeking. However, Garriott did note "the virtual world game is not just an ultra-light MMO shopped on social media. I think that would be a failure."
Meanwhile, sticking to its indie roots, SXSW also hosted a new game awards competition this year – the Independent Propeller Awards – in conjunction with for-profit publisher Indiepubgames.com.
As an awards show, it was an unmitigated disaster, with malfunctioning video presentations and a non-scrolling teleprompter that left presenters Canabalt developer Adam Saltsman and "The Tester" host Meredith Molinari awkwardly ad-libbing several times.
Eventually, they got around to handing out awards, however, which went to:
The most obvious physical gaming presence at SXSW was the Screenburn Arcade, filling one of the convention's halls with new and looming releases from a number of publishers on Saturday and Sunday.
Warner Bros. has several kiosks with playable versions of Mortal Kombat, Capcom is showing off Street Fighter IV 3D and Sony is pimping Resistance 3 in a big way – even moving the showcase beyond the floor to a nearby business the company has taken over as its SXSW headquarters.
The biggest Screenburn presence, though, belonged to retailer Wal-Mart, which has brought in a decked out tractor trailer, complete with interactive game demos, blaring music and the usual schwag to emphasize its commitment to the game industry.
Several of the presentations in the interactive portion of SXSW have focused on gaming issues, as well, with a particular emphasis on independent and mobile/social network gaming. Many of those talks continued the themes brought up at this month's Game Developers Conference, specifically the place of these burgeoning fields within the larger game industry.
"I think there's something about the mobile space that's good for independent developers," said David Kalina, of Tiger Style Games (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor), in a panel on the long-term survival of indie games on the iPhone.
"I think it's true that Apple cares about the platform showing bigger and better things, but for people interested in independent game development, it's the ideal place to be, since you don't have to be in this arms race with others."
Rade Stojsavljevic, in another panel, noted that Jet Set Games, which has seen success with Highborn for the iPhone and iPad, would explore a freemium model with its next game. "We went free for a day and we saw a quarter million downloads - in a day," he said. "If we had had a way to monetize those customers, I know damn well we would have retained them."
Stojsavljevic also noted that while Apple's platform is ideal for some game genres, it's not something that works with every title. "This is a great platform," he said.
But he concluded: "We love iOS. But first person shooters on this are a piece of shit. You're covering up too much of the screen with your fingers. … Every platform has strengths and weaknesses and you need to learn them and take advantage of them."