The Video Game Industry is Going Through Very Awkward Growing Pains

The Video Game Industry is Going Through Very Awkward Growing Pains

Let's compare the video game industry now with the movie industry as it was growing and see where we stand.

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Hollywood made a big deal about the transition from photochemical film to digital. And it was. But video games go through that kind of shift every time we have a new console generation, and they have a lot less leeway in when and how they make the jump. When there's a change in film, the old techniques are still good. When there's a change in graphics technology, you adapt or die. If you hand someone camera equipment from 1970, they can still point the cameras at actors and make a movie with it. (Although buying and developing the film might be a little challenging.) But the greatest game programmer of 1985 would be completely worthless today without a complete re-education. None of their existing knowledge would be useful. Heck, someone from 2005 would have some catching up to do before they could really contribute to a modern team. Tools and techniques are going extinct as fast as new ones are invented, which means everyone needs to be constantly learning just to retain their current level of competence.

An accurate statement, but not one that is fully true.

Think of it this way: It used to be that camera equipment (and related paraphernalia) was expensive, so the 50's were dominated by the big blockbusters like the 10 Commandments that matched the extravagant equipment with extravagant sets, actors, and action. As time moved on, the industry began to splinter- Sure, we have massive movies made for tens of millions of dollars with the best in CGI and Hollywood pizazz, but we also have independent studios making movies for a few million, production companies cranking out straight-to-TV ones for a few hundred thousand, and kids making movies in their neighbourhoods for the cost of an SLR.

Similarly, we have Ubisoft and other AAA companies making massive spectacle games. We also have the creator of Mega Man making another side-scroller, Papers, Please made by Lucas Pope with open-source software, and plenty more games that are using old engines (how many games are still based off of Counter Strike?) to make anything in between. If a programmer from 1985 wanted to work on the next Assassin's Creed, they would definitely have some work to do. However, there is nothing forcing them to do so; no financial requirement to go big or go home, and increasingly no need to go for the newest possible tech to be able to deliver the experience you want. Relearning is important, but only if you want to stay on the treadmill of cutting edge.

One big problem is probably that finding niches, building a team and teaching them what they need to know takes iterations. And those take both time and (in case of failure) money. Both of which big developers don't really have any of.
With the amount of money spent on those big games, they simply can't afford to experiment much. And anything outside the established formula and anything aiming at new demographics is basically that. They cannot guarantee that adding female characters to Assassin's Creed increases its popularity with female gamers, and thus sales. So they rather not try it at all. However, in the long run they will need to

This is where I find Ubisoft's approach in the last year or so quite interesting. They are producing indie-style games like Valiant Hearts and Child of Light on a much lower budget than what they are normally used to. But on the other end of the spectrum, they are still producing their AAA massive budget titles... which they spread out across 10++ studios. I can only hope that those smaller budget indie-style games serve as a training ground for newer staff or for retraining staff. I can also only hope that their multi-studio approach is based on producing smaller but more specialized groups that are really good at what they do and can be rotated between different projects.
The alternative is that they are just blindly throwing money at problems and see where it sticks.

However, I feel that one other problem named by Shamus is a rather big one: The heads of publishers and developers are from fields outside gaming. While I don't see that in itself as a big problem, I do not have the impression (from scandals, statements etc) that any of their time is spent actually becoming a gamer. Now, I'm sure that CEOs etc. are already very hard working but some of their office time (because CEOs don't have much free time) should really be spent trying to get a better perspective on their demographics.
Just as the internet-crowd do not really understand some business decisions, the business-people are not understanding the internet-crowd (and other demographics).

I think one thing that needs to eventually come around is the elimination of the need for a game needing to be done in 2-4 years.

Historically, technology has moved too fast for a game to be on the burner for 10 years. But, when that stops mattering so much, it might be that such a long development time with fewer people is far more ideal. Not only is iteration is important in good design, but it has to be wasteful to start working on art assets before the core of the game is realized. For (good) movies, the script is done before the shooting starts. For games, the actual script isn't the same kind of starting place, but something similar should exist before all of the artwork, level design, and voice acting begins. Let the game engine and core mechanics be worked out first, then the story, then start building assets.

It'd take a much longer time, but I'm betting that it could ultimately achieve better results.

Shamus Young:
Technologically speaking, there has never been a safe place to stand. At any moment the public might run off in pursuit of a new device, new type of controller, new way of doing graphics, or a new kind of gameplay.

Historically, game controllers have been pretty stable, actually.
On PC, well, Keyboard and Mouse.

On consoles, gaming has been VERY steadily defined by a slowly evolving gamepad.

The only real mass-deviations have been touch screens (driven largely by other portable devices, like iPhones) and the Wiimote, which we can safely call a fad in hindsight. Other attempts to deviate from that have FAILED, or have failed to retain mainstream gaming relevance for long.

Oculus Rift promises to change things, but we have yet to see how that pans out. It might be the next step towards that "VR-Holodeck" singularity some folks like to dream about, or it might just be another 3DS, where the effect is too disorienting and hokey to be widely applicable.

As for the other points, well, I won't contest those much.

-Graphics was always an ongoing technical arms race courtesy of Moore's Law. Some points more ugly than others (late 90s, early 2000s PC market. No less than FOUR proprietary rendering platforms vying for dominance. Microsoft's won by default, naturally)

-Presentation has been made more appealing through tech, but the actual methodology to convey information hasn't really changed much. Even something as simple as a cutscene between gameplay segments is as old as the NES (at least).

They won't know what matters to us unless we tell them, and they can't change course if they don't know they're going the wrong way. Someday the video game industry will stabilize (at least, by Hollywood standards of "stability") but until then it's going to be a lot of chaos.

Since this point is directly tied to gameplay development, I'll include it here.

-Emergent gameplay was inevitable, as it must be for gaming to grow to where it has.
But development of emergent gameplay has since come to a dead stop from AAA, who are completely terrified of new developments because of bloating production and marketing costs. They have ceased being companies who create new things for the market, and are only interested in keeping their companies alive for the sake of shareholders.

Click the spoiler if you want to hear how I arrived at this conclusion, but my point in response to the article is this:
I agree that AAA may eventually stabilize, but if it does it is likely to be at the gamer's detriment. I believe that AAA execs can and do hear our feedback and complaints, but aren't actually interested in fixing most issues, because they're confident that they can eventually pressure us into compliance with their business model.

Unless things change DRASTICALLY, like actual gamers getting installed at the heads of these companies, or a mass-market collapse, that's the direction I'm expecting gaming to take.

And it makes me depressed. It makes me want to leave the market for good.

rofltehcat:
However, I feel that one other problem named by Shamus is a rather big one: The heads of publishers and developers are from fields outside gaming. While I don't see that in itself as a big problem, I do not have the impression (from scandals, statements etc) that any of their time is spent actually becoming a gamer. Now, I'm sure that CEOs etc. are already very hard working but some of their office time (because CEOs don't have much free time) should really be spent trying to get a better perspective on their demographics.
Just as the internet-crowd do not really understand some business decisions, the business-people are not understanding the internet-crowd (and other demographics).

To be fair, that's a problem in almost every creative field on the planet. You have film executives who know nothing of film history (I can't remember who wrote it, but I remember one Hollywood writer doing a lovely blow-up after she pitched a film as a "modern day Bell, Book and Candle" and got nothing but blank stares,) music executives whose taste in music is extremely limited and not at all what they're recruiting, etc.

For me, the bigger problem is demographic awareness. Yes, I know this gets painfully close to the Social Justice Warrior stuff, but I swear, I'm just looking at this from business. In movies, OK, Tyler Perry exists as a huge honking neon advertisement for the fact that Hollywood's ability to handle 'black cinema' is unbelievably limited. But he's there. And since he's been there, I'd argue we've seen Hollywood make baby steps toward rectifying the problems he demonstrates. (Because he also demonstrates there's gold in them thar hills, son.) Where's our canaries in the coal mines like that? Where's our B-grade studio pumping out (say) boiler-plate FPS games aimed exclusively at a black market? We don't have one, for a number of economic reasons. (Upfront investment for the gamers vs. nil upfront for films; cost outlay vs. return, etc.) I'd bet there's plenty of money the game industry could be picking up aiming at other demographics than the Generic White Guy shooters we have, but there's no real demonstration of the fact and thus very little incentive to explore it. That means pretty much all of the exploration of those demographics is being done by casual game markets and thus the only games they'll play being casual games. And I don't mind a casual game here and there, but I'd prefer not to see all the shifts go that way.

I think we haven't yet seen a full convergence of the creative department and the business department in any company to date, which I'm sure has at least somewhat occurred in cinema.

You have Gabe or Notch, but they don't seem especially business savvy (Digital distribution was already becoming standard for media, they just kind of jumped on it videogames first, and because MS was in perennial drop-the-ball patterns at the time), and are somewhat of flukes in their success. Nintendo's probably the closest of the big companies, but have consistent troubles breaching a cultural barrier (and to some degree, being stuck on old guard ideas, which may also be a culture thing). On the other side you have Kotick and the rest, who are presumably quite business savvy folk, but don't really have any understanding of the medium. You can wade down into the indies, but most of them seem equally out of their area in business matters (From stuff like Phil Fish's public tirades, to the maker of Towerfall originally planning to make his game 8 bucks before people playing it told him it was worth more).

At some point, the creative guys will eventually acquire the business acumen to also be the business guys, but until then its kind of a toss-up which way any development goes.

"When there's a change in graphics technology, you adapt or die. "
Or... you keep remaking 2D (and 3D) Mario and awesome stuff like Papers, Please and Last Dream!!!

A generic stab at a problem but your other articles were better and much better focused. John Rathead that has thankfully left EA forever this time has ruined EA brand for me. Project $10 and every single green light game will have multiplayer was the last straw. That and bad, boring, repetitive games and a horrid number of stories about ripping developers off.

I have no sympathy for any business that is modeled after the Hollywood movie business. Screw the developers, market the hell out of the crap and devolve into sequel, reboot and re-imagine hell. Spend on new technology so we have flashier graphics and not understand anything at all about story, narrative or character development. Sony is a continual money loser, MS games/entertainment sucks cash like an old school mistress, Bethesda/Zenimax is lying about VR tech (after facebook cash appeared), Ubisoft is crooked to the core (U-Play and lies about everything DRM) so what is left? Most, if not all, of the profit making companies (in the list above) screw the developers to make the profit. Horrible companies run by corrupt jerks in suits. I do not buy their products anymore.

Indie teams that used to be held captive by AAA producers breaking free from the corruption of the old model. Some good articles about that of late.
http://metro.co.uk/2014/07/08/oddworld-new-n-tasty-preview-and-lorne-lanning-interview-weve-become-triple-a-indie-4790351/

No sympathy at all for the AAA video game business as it stands. Sorry, you cannot convince me to change my mind. I am a retired software developer and these companies instill the very worst about ... well, everything about developing software much less their laughable attempts at QA and large scale releases. Let them all rot and die. The faster the better.

I think allot of the problems in AAA games today is because of the publisher/developer relationship we have. Developers are usually players themselves and want to make a good fun game that they can enjoy and to provide hours of enjoyment for everyone else. Publishers on the other hand a corporations run by shareholders and whoever they can make the CEO that will milk every penny from customers. The relationship between publisher and developer is the developer makes what the publisher wants because the publisher owns the IP or the studio itself is even outright owned by the publisher. This cuts down the creativity of the developer and creates standard practices that are downright antagonistic to the customer.

So instead of studios having full license to make what they want and sequels when and how they want they are stuck doing some majority shareholders wishes to make the most money in the shortest timespan. That kind of business is fine for something like the controllers, PC's, and consoles used to play the game but not so much for the player and the games themselves and especially not good for the poor developer who gets bought by a publisher. We have seen over the years many great games and IP come out from independent developers only to see the developer close shop in a couple years because the publisher owned them and forced them to stop making the games the way they wanted to. I am specifically looking at EA and how it was just about true when EA bought the IP and/or studio and in a couple years the studio was closed and the last game for that IP was done. Time and time again a publisher has killed an IP and studios.

We don't get that BS from movie studios or from music publishers. They at least want to build a brand so it will draw customers just because the right name is there. For movies it is the director who is the brand that draws crowds, music it is the artist. So to build these brands they generally allow creative freedom from them and not make what we say how we say it. Of course they have some say in what's going on because they are investing in it but they do not control every part of it. Jimi Hendrix wasn't singing Country and Western and Michael Bay isn't making children's comedies with a puppy as the hero. Hendrix and Michael being the developer in that analogy of course. AAA game publishers do not care if a studio folds and they do not care if the IP no longer sells enough to make a profit, thus they do everything they can to milk as much money out of them as they can because they are shareholders and by the time the whole thing is worthless they already sold all the stock they had and are busy burying another company.

So if publishers would stop trying to control everything we could have some famous 100 year old game studios making great games every year rather than a long list of dead and gone studios/IP still owned by the publisher. Allow the artist to create and the publishers greed be more hidden and there's far more win for everyone.

Solve Media(effing het it, prefer captcha): MGM Grand ad. Answer is Worth Overdoing

Ok, I could be wrong about this but I think one of the main problems is less about tech and more about culture. In my, admittedly limited, experience most programing languages are fairly similar to one and other in how they work. In this day and age of platform APIs and pre-packaged engines, if someone wanted to make a PS2 equivalent game on the PS4 I don't think it would be that hard. But people expect a significant jump in graphical fidelity when a new generation comes along.

And that's the main thing here, I've found that gameplay wise there doesn't seem to have been that much development. I mean we are seeing some stuff now from the indi scene but still, it's pretty scant.

Atmos Duality:
-snip-

How's the weather up in that ivory tower you're living in? Your conspiracy theories are merely symptoms of the growing pains... and as the COD numbers are starting to slack off and AAA games are found to be less profitable, the industry is being forced to change to adapt.

Your statement that "If something doesn't work, they can just throw more money at it" is just nonsensical - Throwing money for diminishing returns (Such as aggressively marketing a piece of garbage) is damage control. You need to market enough to get the message out there (Which is hard, given all the other messages), but too much marketting stops giving good returns on investment. Also - 'garbage' is subjective. Titanfall's an awesome game even without any single-player campaign of note.

DLCs? DLCs have largely been accepted. There was no "Golden age of complete games" - The games of the past were just as half-complete as modern ones, with features that never get a chance to see the light of day. Except now, when a game's released, it isn't finished. DLC offers opportunities to change or expand the core experience of the game, or expand on content that otherwise wouldn't be worth developing. The reason for apparently 'smaller' games is because it costs more to get less on the development side due to more fiddly graphics and animations and detailed interactions, but those graphics and animations DO matter!

Ubisoft's actually one of the companies I respect, despite their Uplay platform. They have their big, visually-stunning, broad-appeal games (Which are fun and awesome despite their similarities and accusations of stagnation), but the money from those games goes on to provide more of the big awesome fun sandboxes with heavy marketing, as well as funding smaller projects like The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, Blood Dragon,

Scow2:
How's the weather up in that ivory tower you're living in? Your conspiracy theories are...

I stopped reading there.

That isn't an attempt at discussion or even just disagreement of opinion, it's the start of a rant against me for saying something you didn't like.

 

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