Hackers, piracy, DRM, day-one downloadable content, too many sequels, sexism, widespread acceptance, greater accessibility, immense financial potential, layoffs . With so many dramatic highs and lows, it can be hard to tell if the videogame industry is prospering, floundering, or something in between. Who better to ask than the people who make the games themselves? We asked developers five general questions about how games were doing and their answers remind us that before these folks made games, they played them. They view the industry not just from a business point of view, but from the perspective of people who, like you, just want to have some fun.
We were all so excited to be welcoming in a new audience of “gamers” (really non-gamers who were having fun experimenting with Wii Sports), but then we welcomed that vast new audience by piling as much shovelware on them as possible. So many new gamers burned by so many terrible offerings, resulting in millions of dusty Wii consoles and millions of people deciding that they are not gamers afterall. Could be quite a while before we get them to lay out some cash for games again.
The other is retailers and publishers being dragged into digital distribution kicking and screaming, rather than rushing to embrace the new reality of consumers. People don’t want the plastic, and they don’t want to pay $60 for more than a few huge games each year. Take a look at music and films to see the obvious answer … lower cost means more choice and less waste and more people trying things they don’t already know they love … our industry took a beating through its reluctance to embrace this model, and publishers and developers paid the price through a booming used games market that only benefitted a couple of opportunistic retail chains.
When you compare this to other industries, such as Hollywood, what you get is a much more passive audience. Most cinema-goers don’t bother spending a great deal of time reading about upcoming movies or analysing the latest critical reviews. Instead, they listen to marketing or friends, or even just attend the cinema as an event unto itself, rather than specifically go to watch a particular film. Therefore we see a weaker correlation between critical and commercial success in Hollywood than we do in the games industry. This is something we are already losing with the diversification of the market and broader appeal of the medium.
However, if of course our increasingly less nerdy, niche hobby is to become something a little more acceptable, then we are already on the way. The shift from the scary black heavyweights of the Xbox and PlayStations to the more user-friendly Wii, Nintendo portables, and iOS devices mean that more people than ever are finding an accessible route into gaming. The plethora of these ‘gateway drugs’ is on the rise, and many people are organically making the shift from Angry Birds to Call of Duty. Give someone a 13-buttoned controller and tell them to capture the flag and it’s understandable that the industry is cast in an unusual, less-acceptable light. However, give them a quick go on Wii Sports, Peggle, New Mario Bros., or Bejewelled and in time, the logical conclusion of play will result in them less fearful of games like Halo. So, swamp the market with gateway drugs (iOS devices, 3DS, Wii) and people will slowly be more accepting of the hardcore ones (X360, PS3, PSP).
What I think will help is a continued removal of barriers of entry. The most amazing and potentially game-changing thing that nobody seems to talk about is OnLive’s partnership with Vizio and HTC. If OnLive can become as appliance-ubiquitous as Netflix now is, then many people will have access to games without having to proactively invest in expensive dedicated hardware (be it a high-performance gaming PC, a home console, a handheld, or even an iPod Touch). This trojan-horse can lead to random impulses of “let’s try this built-in game thing” which may hopefully lead to new gamers and consumers.
I know F2P isn’t the “next” thing since it is already in use with some high profile games. But I expect that we will see a lot more companies going that direction in the next 5 years.
Living worlds are the logical progression for online games. If you can build a hugely interactive world and give players the proper social interaction tools, you’ve created a platform with long-lasting potential. I never thought that my father would get into online games as a 60-something retiree, yet he’s sunk over 2,000 hours into Guild Wars to date. The more we evolve the MMO genre, the more we grow the audience.
As much as some folks like to snicker at motion and gesture control, I believe for certain gaming experiences these types of input will continue to evolve whether they are camera, touch screen, or gyroscopic in design. We’ve known for years that using a mouse for PC gaming had lots of possibilities, and developers continue to experiment with new approaches to user interaction. If a particular input feels natural for a given experience, it’s worth trying on the platform that makes the most sense in ways that don’t feel forced.
I also think the the shuffling that has occurred in the industry over the past ten years has also managed to produce the best generation of games we’ve ever seen. I can list a handful of classics for each and every platform for the last twenty years, but when you look at this era of consoles, there are at least thirty games deserving of a 90%+ review grade. We’ve also seen entire franchises develop over the course of a single generation, so that when you look at Call of Duty 2, it’s amazing to think that Black Ops is still essentially a same-platform sequel. Despite my previous comments about publishers not risking too much, and going for polish over innovation, it largely only applies to third-party developers. The giants of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have been admirably bold in pursuing novel input devices and software, and I believe the games industry has never been in better shape.
Some limitations are gone now, we can make games that we couldn’t make 10 years ago. That allows us to explore new areas. But merely pushing those boundaries doesn’t make a game great.
Games are generally better because when the new tools are used in great ways we get great games. But when they are used poorly, even a 20 million dollar bad game is still a bad game.