It was with a sense of symmetry that the Austin Game Conference returned from a 10-year hiatus with about 800 attendees. It was about the same number, conference executive director Chris Sherman noted, that the event started with when it launched here in 2003.
While the event, held at Austin Convention Center, was small when compared to blockbuster gaming-related events such as South by Southwest Gaming or RTX, which each attract tens of thousands, the event was tightly focused on practical advice from game developers with a proven record of success.
Those who aren't indie brands among themselves (such as Portalarium's Richard Garriott, who held forth on Wednesday about real-life adventure and the game he's working on, "Shroud of the Avatar") represented well-known companies such as Electronic Arts, Blizzard Entertainment and up-and-comers such as Austin's Owlchemy Labs, which has made a hit out of its VR comedy game "Job Simulator."
Rich Vogel, one of the event's organizers and a veteran game developer now at Battlecry Studios, said at its start, “It’s great to be getting the conference back again. Over the years, it was known for great keynotes."
In that department, the conference didn't disappoint. Graeme Devine of the mysterious company Magic Leap gave a better idea of what it will and won't be in an engaging opening keynote Wednesday morning that was less nuts-and-bolts about the tech and more tantalizing in his expression of the kinds of gaming experience what he called "Mixed reality" would bring. "It’s not augmented reality. We actually think it’s very different," Devine said. "AR overlays info on top of the world, but it doesn’t understand or comprehend the world."
While there were no playable demos, Devine described a ghost game that mixed real-world objects such as wooden dice with creepy sound and video beamed into the eyes of user. He also described an experience similar to the Netflix show "Stranger Things" that could utilize a player's own Christmas lights and a set of Post-Its to recreate one of the TV series' most memorable scenes.
Thursday morning, Google Play's Jamil Moledina described in more detail what Google is trying to do with its forthcoming Daydream VR headset. It appears to be a much more mainstream device than headsets such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive and will come with a game controller to offer mainstream gaming and viewing experiences. He said Google hopes to reset expectations of what VR can be with the device, which he said will be more accessible than some currently available.
Across the rest of the conference, developers focused on the nitty gritty of building community, handling legal issues, creating eSports leagues or crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, two areas that seem to be particularly effective within Austin's gaming scene.
The biggest crowds seemed to be for sessions about virtual, augmented and mixed reality, which also generated the most foot traffic at the conference's smallish expo floor for demos of titles such as "The Wave VR," "Abstractron" and "Ghost Machine VR."
The conference plans to return to Austin Sept. 21-22, 2017.
Multiple panels stressed the strength of the Austin game-development community, which has become a hotbed for VR development.
Jo Lammert, who presented a talk on the state of games in the state of Texas, said that more than 200 studios generate about 5,800 jobs in the state, making it the second-largest state for game development behind California. Lammert, the animation and video game liaison for the Texas Film Commission, said VR in particular "was a lovely little present for me and my job." She said, "I'm convinced in the next year or two that Texas will be leading the pack with VR."
Updated 9/23, 12:30 p.m. to add dates for 2017 edition of Austin Game Conference.