One of the International Game Developers Association’s many roles is to deal with all the crap that’s going on in the game development community, from defending developers’ right to creative expression to pushing studios for better work-life balance. As the guy heading up the organization, I often get roped into panel discussions to debate these topics or write articles (some for this very publication) dealing with the various challenges the industry faces. That’s fine; it’s part of the job description, and I enjoy serving my role. But another aspect of my job, one that I often neglect, is to be an industry evangelist – to promote all that’s cool and wonderful about games and game development.
So, in contrast to my usual “the sky is falling” articles, here are 10 things that I think are pretty darn cool, impressive and interesting about the game industry.
1. Charitable Efforts
With tens of millions of people playing games, it’s safe to assume that not all of us are antisocial otaku dwelling in our parents’ basements. In fact, wildly successful charitable initiatives like Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play charity continue to demonstrate that we’re good citizens in meatspace. Since 2003, through Child’s Play, gamers and the industry have donated millions of dollars’ worth of games and toys for children’s hospitals worldwide.
Beyond the donations, however, game developers are also contributing their time and skill. In 2004, Leukemia sufferer Ben Duskin wished to make a videogame to help other kids battle their illness. Eric Johnston from LucasArts stepped forward to help. Together they created Ben’s Game and were honored as “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” by the Dalai Lama. Likewise, Insomniac created a digital model of James Westbrook, a paralyzed 9-year-old boy, as a non-player character in Ratchet and Clank Future.
On a more organized level, OneBigGame is creating an online games portal to sell uniquely developed games (created and donated by famous developers), with all proceeds going to children’s charities around the world.
2. Physical Interface Diversification
No one can deny the success of Nintendo’s Wii and DS. One major element of that success is their accessibility. A stylus is inherently more intuitive than a gamepad for most people, particularly newcomers to gaming – ditto for a TV remote-like controller.
In addition to opening new markets (all those bowling grandmas, for example), it also opens the window to new types of gameplay. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are two great examples of this. Imagine what kind of games we’ll have when brain-wave sensing technology matures. And ultimately, innovations and improvements in gaming interfaces will also help make games more accessible to those persons with disabilities, opening the value and joy of play to everyone.
3. Understanding the Player
One of the greatest challenges facing the current generation of game developers is that most of them are no longer creating games for themselves. Making a game “that I’d like to play” is not a valid design directive, so developers are working hard to better understand the players.
Much of this understanding is geared towards play metrics. The stats in the Half-Life 2 episodes are great examples of this, allowing Valve to know where players are getting stuck, abandoning the game, avoiding certain weapons, etc. Additionally, Microsoft Labs (as featured in Wired magazine) provided Bungie with metrics from extensive usability testing during the development of Halo 3. This data can then drive design decisions to fine-tune future development efforts.
Of course, the marketing folks have had a pretty good understanding of their target market from a business perspective since the beginning, but even this part of the industry is examining players with finer detail. For example, Parks Associates released a comprehensive report covering six types of game players and their motivations for play.
4. Democratization of Development Tools
Sure, the creation of AAA console games and large-scale MMOGs is still solely the domain of the big studios. Yet, much like moviemaking has been liberated by inexpensive equipment, so, too, the tools of game development are being democratized. From the ubiquitous Flash for casual games to Microsoft’s latest efforts with the XNA Community initiative; from the open-sourced Blender to the $100 Torque engine to the Play All standard middleware initiative funded by France’s Minister of Industry, it’s getting cheaper (if not easier) to design games. Insomniac Games is even sharing its PS3 engine tech via its Nocturnal program.
Communicating through the medium of videogames still requires many specifically nerdy skills and tools, but the above examples point to a future where anyone will be able to express themselves with interactivity as their canvas.
5. New Business Models
The proliferation of broadband internet access has been the catalyst for the evolution of new business models in the game industry. Korea in particular, with no retail market to speak of, has been the region to watch as studios experiment with new ways to sell and distribute games. The free-to-play model – whereby you can play a game for free and choose later to purchase premium content – is all the rage.
Many other opportunities exist, including ad-driven games, episodic content, DLC marketplaces, subscriptions, Steam distribution, etc. We’ve even seen interesting approaches like real-world item sales. Webkinz makes it money by selling small stuffed animals that come with a code allowing children to log into a virtual world as their plush companion.
6. Indie Viability
Despite all the consolidation going on in the mainstream game industry, now is a great time to be an indie developer. Actually, several of the previous points are intersecting to create an extremely vibrant ecosystem within which indies can thrive – both creatively and economically.
The continued awesomeness – and success – of games coming out of the annual Independent Games Festival is just one indicator of this. In fact, I’ve personally seen industry agents attending IGF-related sessions at GDC to scout for new content, ideas and talent.
What’s important here is that we are entering a state where indies have a choice to use their independence as their stepping stone into the “big leagues,” or to remain truly “indie” and explore concepts not feasible under the scrutiny of shareholders.
7. Focus on Process
Scrum and other Agile methods of production are the developer buzz words du jour. The old method of “let’s just hack it all together” has not scaled well with the increased scope and complexity of today’s game projects. More and more, producers are exploring – and adopting – formal software development methodologies, adding much needed rigor to how games are developed and enabling games to be made on time, on budget and to spec with a greater degree of certainty.
The IGDA’s own Production Special Interest Group started the Leadership Forum as an event specifically geared towards project management and leadership. This is an area that has progressed a great deal in recent years, and is explored in more depth in Erin Hoffman’s recent Inside Job column “It Takes a Method.”
8. Quality of Life
OK, maybe this one doesn’t quite belong on the list, as working conditions and poor quality of life for many developers remains a serious challenge. That said, we’re more aware of the issue than ever before, and there are growing efforts to address it. Certainly, the above work to improve production processes are helping to alleviate some of the pressure, but the biggest results are coming from wholesale changes to how a studio is set up and lead.
Those studios with good quality of life – or at least the ones who work to alleviate the pain associated with occasional development crunch through overtime pay and other support systems – are leveraging their advantages to attract and retain top talent. I can only imagine that Relentless’ without-crunch clock (1,706 days and counting!) is seen as an indicator of a competitive advantage. And industry leaders are recognizing the value of enabling their staff to live outside of work, as quoted by design legend Eric Zimmerman: “We push our designers to have a life. … Designers with interesting/rich lives outside of games, design better games.”
9. Credit and Recognition
Each year, the game industry gets closer to having a truly TV-worthy awards ceremony. And while celebrity for celebrity’s sake isn’t that valuable, it’s important for us to recognize developers for their contributions to the art form. In that regard, it’s great to see the specific individuals behind the work recognized via industry awards like the Game Developers Choice Awards and the AIAS’s Interactive Achievement Awards.
On a more operational level, the fact that the IGDA’s own credit standards initiative has garnered so much interest and support is an important step in ensuring that all developers receive fair credit for their efforts, and are viewed as the true talent they are.
10. Social Impact
I am a firm believer in the transformative power of games and play, and that videogames have the power to make the world a better place. Whether through the pure joy of playing with friends or deliberate attempts to impact society, games are affecting us.
On the deliberate side of the scale, the whole serious games movement has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Examples like A Force More Powerful (to counter oppressive government regimes), Re-Mission (to help cancer patients) and Civilization (teaching history in the classroom) really make you stop and wonder at the amazing power game developers wield to help humanity.
Yeah, that sure doesn’t suck.
Jason Della Rocca is the executive director of the International Game Developers Association. (Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the IGDA.) He still seems to suck a lot at his personal blog, Reality Panic.