[In the latest installment of “Tales from the GDC Vault“, digital historian Jason Scott debuts free video of major keynotes introducing the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, and Xbox (via Bill Gates) to the world at Game Developers Conference.]
I’d argue that there are few bigger moments in the game industry, and perhaps in almost any industry, than the introduction of a new console. It’s certainly one of the most expensive undertakings these companies will endure, requiring years of design and fabrication and meticulous planning.
If you did it all right, and luck falls in with you, and the right software houses get behind you, then success will come fast and free — you’ll have to construct additional buildings just to hold all the money.
But if you misstep, fail to have the right “kind” of titles or the killer launch games waiting alongside your console, then financial ruin and misery await you — wounded, your company may not recover for years.
In this most stressful of times that a CEO may encounter, comes the tradition of the keynote speech, the time when you will step on stage, welcome everyone, talk of freedom and power and ability and dreams, and then point to the console mockup or system that you are going to drop on the world by (hopefully) the millions.
Any missed cues, or onstage crash, and the rags will be buzzing about it the next day. One solid, amazing demo, and you’ll be the toast of the forums and the hallways of GDC. Like I said… it’s as intense as it could possibly get.
With that in mind, I’ve digitized from BetaSP tape, specially for GDC Vault, not one but three keynote speeches given at GDC over a decade ago, introducing (or re-introducing) a new hardware console to the world. We now know who came ahead, who fell behind, and what tricks and triumphs these machines had in store, but it’s very enlightening to look back with this knowledge at the offerings and statements in these presentations.
The first of these dates back to 1999, and while the title of the keynote, “Changing for the Better: Redefining Game and Hardware Development through Evolution” (free GDC Vault video), might not evoke any particular memories, in fact it is one of the first U.S. briefings on none other than the Sega Dreamcast.
CEO Bernie Stolar had a long pedigree in the video games business in 1999, and as the CEO of Sega of America, he chose the launch to be a straight shooting, direct appeal and invitation to game developers.
Contrast this with Phil Harrison’s GDC 2000 keynote (free GDC Vault video) regarding the PlayStation 2. (It followed a 1999 keynote from Harrison discussing Sony’s plans before the release of the PS2, the same year as Shigeru Miyamoto’s historic keynote on Nintendo’s plans – setting up the console war nicely for 2000.)
Overall, Harrison’s speech at Game Developers Conference 2000 is an extravaganza of promises, demos, stories, and pointing at the Japanese release of the console, which had happened just a week before. As it was, the actual facts have borne out, and the PlayStation 2 is the biggest selling console of all time. Score one for that promise.
Peppered in this talk are indications of plans that in some cases took a long time to come to fruition, such as a broadband network adapter. In fact, some took a very long time, and none more than this “new user interface demo” that takes place towards the end of the keynote.
Yes, that’s right — there’s a PlayStation Move prototype, 10 years before it showed up… on the PlayStation 3. (After EyeToy and PlayStation Eye started down that particular road, of course.) Anyhow, this talk is full of little gems like this, and I suggest checking it all out.
In the same year as the PlayStation 2 presentation, Game Developers Conference was given an opening keynote by none other than Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, in which he detailed the introduction of the Xbox console (free GDC Vault video) for the developers present.
Not to take the easy road here, but the somewhat awkward, stilted presentation style Bill Gates shows in this video is kind of a hallmark — his interest in his talks has always been the technical knowledge being presented, or at least letting the technology speak for itself.
In his Gates Foundation days he’s moved to a much more natural-feeling delivery and passionately laying down the ideas behind his charity work, along with clear and bold slides. Not so back here, as Microsoft prepares to enter the console market in a very, very big way.
But look beyond the stilted performance and Gates is laying down how much Microsoft is going to sink into making the Xbox a success, and how it fits into a larger plan for users interacting with their data and each other. It was a great plan — although Microsoft has not exclusively been involved in bringing it to fruition.
As Bill lays out the specs of the Xbox and unveils a showroom-floor version of the console (in the shape of a giant glowing X), he also promises that developers will have a huge say in the future of the console, which was true indeed.
My personal favorite part, however, is always going to be towards the end, when this bookish chairman stands wearing a tough-guy leather jacket with the Xbox logo, looking to all the world like a kid who went through his big brother’s closet:
Finally, packaged into each of these keynotes is an unexpected bonus — introductions by various GDC staff from these years.
As these keynotes were heavily attended and were usually the only thing going on, various members of the GDC staff would take the time before the keynote to welcome everyone to GDC, to thank the people needing thanking, and talk about all that was happening in games, as well as to promote the person about to get up on stage.
It’s from these little speeches that we know historically what was most important to tell the assembled crowd. And overall, as you’ll see from these videos, it’s quite an assortment. Enjoy them.