The difference between clever and cunning.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Shape of things to come

Hey folks. Today we’ll be branching out a little bit from reviews. This will be the first of a series of three short articles reviewing some of the topics discussed at SXSW. Later we’ll discuss how gaming is beginning to affect the world, and how we might begin to harness the power behind gaming’s underlying principles. Today we’re going to take a look at the changing nature of the gaming industry itself, where it stands now and where its future might lie.

What has become clear is that the gaming industry’s center of gravity is shifting. This came up at last year’s SXSW a few times, but this year confirms it. I suspect many of the people reading this have already picked up on this to some degree, but the current format for game development and distribution has reached its maximum growth potential.

Today, when a company sets out to develop a “triple A” title, they’re committing to a major investment. By “triple A” I mean expensive, high production value games like the Call of Duty series. Games that even non-gamers think of first when games come to mind. AAA titles take years, teams of dozens (or more), and budgets of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars (at least) to complete.

Pictured here: Not nearly enough money to make a new Halo game.

This is a high risk business model. With that kind of an investment you need to move a lot of $50 copies to break even. If your game isn’t part of a well established franchise, like Halo or Call of Duty, or at least being developed by a highly respected company, like Valve or Id, you have the potential to lose a tremendous amount of your investor’s money.

The state of the conventional gaming industry is reminiscent of Hollywood. Both movies and games are so expensive and resource intensive to produce that developers are reluctant to take risks. A studio would rather dreg up an ancient or marginal franchise with the slightest hint of name recognition before trying something new or original. (I can’t think of any other reason why that live action Yogi Bear movie could exist) Big budget games and movies can live or die by their opening weekend, gambling years of work and millions of dollars on their ability to hold the fickle public’s attention with what combination of hype, media attention, and word of mouth they can muster.

At some point someone thought making this movie was a good idea. We must find this person and hit them repeatedly with sticks

We managed to speak briefly with Mr. Stojsavljevic of Jet Set games (a mobile developer, btw http://jetsetgames.net/ ) after a SXSW panel. He told us (slightly paraphrased) that “I have a friend who’s part of a 100 person art team. With budgets in the millions, conventional games are just too expensive to develop.”

In their defense, the current generation of conventionally developed and published games can be highly polished, highly playable experiences. I’ve played them, enjoyed them, and reviewed them for this blog. It’s entirely possible to build something off an already existing franchise and have it be awesome, such as with the highly lauded Batman: Arkam Asylum. Predictably though, given the costs involved, these games not often what one could call revolutionary. Gameplay mechanics and elements that proved successful and popular in the past are used and re-used again and again, to varying degrees of success.

All is lost! (Well, no, not really)

The trend I’ve been picking up on is that conventionally developed games have reached the limits of their expansion. Now, I’m not saying “The PC is dead! The console is dead! Trample your loved ones in frenzied animal panic!” That sort of hyperbole has already been tossed around entirely too much, and it’s both stupid and inaccurate. Traditionally developed games will continue to make money and enjoy popularity for some time to come, but they’re not likely to see dramatic growth or innovative ideas. They find themselves in a situation not unlike Arcades did years ago, facing the rise of consoles and home computers. 

The Rise of Agile Development

Traditional PC and console games are hardly in danger if dying out, and there will always be an audience for them, but they are not where the future of the industry can be found. New gamers and new ideas are going to come from other sources. The future of the industry lies down several branches: Social, Mobile, and Indie.

Small, but agile.

The advantage that all these paths have is that they’re agile. By necessity and design they’re much quicker and cheaper to develop than traditional games. They generally won’t have as much raw content, but the shorter development cycles, lower price points, and alternate means of generating revenue make the next generation of games less risky and more resistant to piracy than their $50 brethren.

The next generation of mobile and social games isn’t being targeted at “Hard Core” gamers. Gamers who are willing to sit down at a PC or console and play for hours at a time already have a wealth of franchises and companies to cater to their tastes. They’re an already established market. The people new Facebook games are being developed for have neither the time nor the inclination for traditional gaming. They’re not interested in paying $50 to experience an eight-or-more hour single player campaign or to slug it out online. They want to play, (dare I say it) casually

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Social games (by which, I suppose I should clarify, I mean games that are hosted on and that serve as an extension of social networking websites) aren’t in competition with traditional games. They pull from different pools of players, time, and money. Many social gamers may have never looked at a PC or console game before they found themselves happily clicking away on Facebook. The two types of games occupy such different “ecological niches” that there’s no danger of them cannibalizing the same player base, like you might see with competing online shooters or MMO’s.

We’re also going to continue to see the number of agile social games grow, because like it or not, casual sells. There are a lot more people with fifteen minutes to spend playing something quick and simple than there are able to spend hours mastering an involved and intensive experience.

Quick. Simple. Fun. Sold 12 million copies.

Mobile development has very similar strengths, when people aren’t already enjoying Social games on a Mobile platform. While I’m sure you could put together a deep and immersive eighty hour epic for the iPhone mobile games lend themselves to gameplay that can be enjoyed in bite-sized chunks, and that can be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice. The very definition of casual.

Now, we’ve had dedicated portable gaming platform for decades (Game Gear, Game Boy, etc). What’s changed is that we now have portable devices built to be phones and PDA’s and a host of other functions (frequently at the same time) that can also play games just as well, if not better, than those platforms. This means that people who would never consider buying a dedicated gaming platform are exposed to games through the tools they use for everyday communications and organization. Mobile developers might not be selling $50 units, but an impulse-buy, fifteen minutes of fun app costs a lot less time and money to make.
Future so bright I gota wear shades...

“So that’s the future?” you might say. “A handful of 100 million dollar franchises pumping out sequels for diehard fans, and a billion other people playing Farmville on their cell phones? Sounds dull.” If you were the type to speak aloud to yourself while reading internet blogs. Perhaps you are. I’m not here to judge. Judge you, anyway.

But no, we’ll see plenty of new and innovative games in the future. These will come from the most agile of sources, Indie developers.  Sure, there are a lot of bad Indie games out there. There are a lot of bad games of every kind, and a lot of bad Indie art, music, and other media.  That’s the nature of the beast. 

Seriously, go download and play this if you haven't already.
        But Indie developers can afford to take risks that others can’t or won’t. Sometimes those risks pay off, and we get amazing new ideas like Minecraft, or polished gems like Iji. (http://www.remar.se/daniel/iji.php) Just read our write up of some of the games IndiePub demoed at SXSW this year. Our thriving Indie scene is one of gaming’s greatest assets right now. Their ideas will provide the force to push gaming forward. Those ideas will then, of course, be endlessly copied, imitated, and co-opted, but that’s the circle of life. They have to come from somewhere.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.