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.

What’s the single biggest mistake the industry has made in the past 5 years?

Ian Cummings (Former Creative Director, Madden NFL 10Madden NFL 12, Xbox 360 and PS3): From my perspective I think the industry’s biggest mistake has been the higher price point for HD consoles and $60 games. Even with all the great numbers you see in press releases the untold story is that there are very few games that are making money or growing, and publishers are forced to sequel-ize and often stop trying to innovate because they know they have to make a mega-monster-hit to get their money back since consumers are much pickier with their dollars in this down economy. It’s almost a similar situation to the music business where there is this groundswell of free music coming in, and rather than acknowledge it and do something about it (a la iTunes), the big hitters in the game industry still are making their games MORE expensive (via adding DLC on top of a $60 game) to try and offset the overall drop of consumers and sales. We all know how that worked out with the music biz!

Greg Kasavian (Creative Director, Supergiant Games): The single biggest mistake the industry has made in the last five years is the institution of mass-firings of skilled laborers as a business practice upon the completion of a big project. While this behavior is of course not practiced by all publishers or studios, news of mass layoffs became a regular occurrence practically each week shortly after the American and world economy took a downturn. There is no telling how many talented people have left the industry as a result. However, I think this story has a happy ending insofar as many of these people landed on their feet elsewhere, formed new studios, and so on. As for those publishers looking to make a fast buck and appease their shareholders in the short run by using mass headcount reductions as a means to this end, they’ll be in for painful times further down the line when they find themselves with too few people left to make the games they want to make.

Robert Ludwick (Senior Game Engineer for Meteor Games, LLC): Not allowing cross-platform online gaming. Forcing 360 owners to only game online with other 360 owners bolsters Microsoft’s case to get more gamers on their platform, but as a whole the industry needs cross-platform gaming. It will raise the general level of enjoyment since people can play games like COD: Black Ops against their cross-platform friends, rather than have to play alone or with strangers.

Mike Wilson (Devolver Digital). : I’d say it’s a tie between two things… one is blowing the Wii opportunity.

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.

Erik Reynolds (Sr. Director of PR, Atari): In my opinion the single biggest mistake in the industry is the lack of true brand management of top tier IPs across multiple platforms and media to constantly engage fans in-between AAA launches. Allowing fans two or even three years between launches can devastate brands and requires that the publisher/developer up the ante every time you launch a sequel, thus driving up development costs and marketing spend. I don’t think that annualizing games like the Call of Duty philosophy is the right method either, although I commend ATVI on the success they’ve achieved. I believe that strategy will eventually lead to brand fatigue and the killing of great franchises, but a truly strategic cross-platform (console, social, mobile) and cross-media (games, tv, books) plan can feed the interests of the fans and provide them with a cornucopia of entertainment that reaches them wherever they play and experience entertainment. No one has demonstrated this to the degree that is possible yet, and yes I know it’s a huge investment but the reward can be great.

Rocco Scandizzo (Agent, Interactive Studio Management): Forecasting future success entirely on the past. The video game industry is not only entertainment, but also a dynamically evolving world of high tech. There are a variety of consumers seeking entertainment, and new ways to deliver fun, or new forms of fun, sometimes cannot fit into any model or historic array of data.

What will it take for gaming to become as accepted and ordinary as, say, going to the movies?

Roberto Guedes (Game Designer – Give Me Five Entertainment Group): It is a matter of time. Electronic games are still new. Movies go past to the beginning of 20th century. And as new generations grow up playing videogames, we can only hope that they still like to play in the adulthood.

Joel Windels (Community Manager, Vertical Slice): For me, I’m not quite sure why we would even desire such a thing. As it stands, we enjoy a fairly avid user base, who not only play games but also love them and spend time reading about them. The best-reviewed games tend to perform well, and the awful ones are thankfully ignored. The gaming market is generally an informed one, so when high quality games are being developed, you can bet that gamers will know about it and will purchase such games accordingly. Conversely, if a game releases to a poor critical reception, then the audience is unlikely to go out and buy that game. What we have a is an industry in which the consumers are very knowledgeable about the products being made.

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).

Ian Cummings: A big part of getting games into the mainstream is already happening, and that is getting gaming everywhere. Seems like anywhere you go now half of the people you run into are playing games on their phones. To truly break through though I think the industry is just going to have to mature. You see flashes of brilliance with games like Limbo or even the setting and feel of Red Dead Redemption, but a major percentage of the top games nowadays, regardless of the setting, are at their root just about killing stuff. We’re making it pretty easy for outsiders to judge us as sophomoric (i.e. Bulletstorm).

Greg Kasavian: Games will need to broach a broader variety of subject matter to gain wider legitimacy. Wider legitimacy in itself is an egotistical goal, but games would benefit from reaching a broader audience in other ways. So long as the subject matter only continues to appeal to men in their 20s or women in their 30s, those will continue to be the only people who flock to the content. I think audiences are ready for more than just “fun,” more than just multiplayer killstreaks and scripted explosions. Independent game developers are leading the charge in terms of discovering what are some other types of gameplay and stories that could draw people in. I also think it is excruciatingly difficult just to play a game sometimes. Want to play that exciting new PS3 title? Then better get ready for a 15-minute system update, a 10-minute day-one patch, five different unskippable splash screens before you get to the main menu, long loading times, and so on. It’s little wonder some people are flocking to the relative ease-of-use afforded by browser games or mobile games.

Roman Ribaric (Lead Developer, Croteam): When digital distribution fully takes over.

Derek Paxton (Lead Designer, Stardock): I think we are already there, and it was easy multiplayer that did it. I’m an old guy so I was a part of the first generation to grow up with video games. But it is my son’s generation that is really embracing it. Friends lists, mobile gaming, online gaming that no longer requires people to carry their PCs/consoles over to a single person’s house (or taking over a college lab when no one was looking) have given us a gaming culture that is as ubiquitous and accepted as getting together on Sunday afternoons to watch football.

Jon Shafer (Designer, Stardock): Time. That’s pretty much it. Gaming is already ubiquitous enough that as younger people who are accustomed to gaming grow up and teach their kids to game you’ll see the shift occur naturally. But it’s not something that’s going to occur overnight because some people simply have no interest in games and never will.

Robert Ludwick: Lower price points and more piecemeal gameplay. Games like WoW are lengthy to play and many people don’t want to spend forever playing one single game. Movies are consumed in smaller chunks and are cheaper to consume. A larger selection of shorter, more affordable games will help.

Carl Dungca ( Producer/Designer): The significantly large stay-at-home mom gamer demographic has been historically under-appreciated until recently with the rise of Facebook- and post-iPhone-smartphone- gaming. With that and other “casual” demographics, we’re rapidly removing the “nerd” stigma away from playing video games, and it’s becoming a widely-accepted fact-of-life. The vigorous new investment in the space has perturbed many traditional gamers, but what they might need to see is a bridging of the newly-captured “casual” audience into more traditional games (and with the audience, their money and passion).

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.

What’s the next big gimmick?

Roberto Guedes: Maybe things like 3D and Kinect being used in a deeper way. Using to solve puzzles, create new genres and new styles of gameplay!

Joel Windels: I’m still yet to be convinced about Cloud gaming, but I don’t want to suggest that is entirely a gimmick as I’m not too familiar with the technology or the market. I suppose the easy answer here is to say 3D, if you don’t count that gimmick as one already in the present. I think we’ll see another 3D device in the next couple of years, as the early steps into 3D by Microsoft and Sony have been fairly tepid so far. The next wave of consoles are almost certain to include further forays into the third dimension, though whether the demand from the average gamer is strong enough for 3D to become an established aspect of gaming, only time will tell. Personally, although open to it in principal, I have no desire to play games in 3D and have not witnessed anything to change my mind yet.

Ian Cummings: I personally believe this 3D fad will die a relatively quick death, and I think the novelty of motion control won’t really last (at least for core gamers), so I think the next big gimmick could possibly be in biometrics. I could totally see controllers with heart rate & sweat monitors that can feed information back into the game to tell game makers how their consumers are currently FEELING about the game…not just how they’re playing it. Kind of a stretch but not out of the realm of possibility.

Greg Kasavian: I think the next big gimmick is augmented reality games. Games have the potential to transport players into completely different worlds. The idea of there being tons of games that project themselves onto the real world to me isn’t that much more exciting than there being a ton of military shooters set in Iraq. To some extent I fear they’re all going to feel the same. That being said, I know there exist some very cool applications for augmented reality, I’m just not convinced that it’s a great direction for games. I’m open to be proven wrong on that one though.

Derek Paxton: Free to Play (F2P). But I don’t think “gimmick” is a good way to describe since it offers a lot of opportunities (better post release support, focus on gameplay instead of features or franchises, focus on a tight design, the game as marketing) as well as some risks (handicapped designs, doesn’t work well for some game types). It is a business model, good in some situations and bad in others. I am sure it will be poorly implemented in some games and we have already seen examples of games that use it well.

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.

Jon Shafer: That really depends on your definition of gimmick. Coming from the perspective as a hardcore strategy game player and creator, 3D could fall into that category. It’s neat, but really doesn’t affect the decision-making of the player, which is the meat of any strategy experience. I’ve seen a few different games in 3D and it’s a neat effect, but it doesn’t do much for me as a gamer or inspire new ideas as a designer.

Bobby Stein (Lead Writer, Guild Wars 2): Gimmick has some negative connotations, so I’d rather say these things are evolving innovations.

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.

The industry is bigger and games cost more to make now than ever before, but are games more fun? Less? Or the same?

Roberto Guedes: Some games try to be way too much like movies, or even the real world, but the truth is that we don’t make them for people to play like movies or simulation. They are interested in interacting with a new world, being someone that they couldn’t be in the real world, and, above all, in having fun. But I don’t think that games are more or less fun today in general. Especially because indie developers can take more risks and innovate where AAA studios can’t.

Joel Windels: I believe that the changing environment and rising costs of AAA game development is meaning that publishers are now somewhat risk-averse. It’s more important to guarantee the success of a game than it is to experiment with radical or genre-evolving innovations, so that the studio can survive to produce another title. It’s a shame in some ways, but the opening up of the development industry to amateurs and low-budget companies through channels like Steam, the App store, IndieCity, and XBLIG absolutely counters the lack of innovation in mainstream games. Success stories like Minecraft and Game Dev Story are testaments to the diversity of the industry, and prove there are still countless avenues for innovation, evolution, and excitement, even if the big releases are playing it safe. Safe doesn’t mean bad either – it’s fantastic that at one end of the market, you get these beautiful, polished blockbusters that have cost millions of dollars, but also these wonderful little gems at the other end of the spectrum. There truly is quality at every level, and something for everyone.

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.

Greg Kasavian: I think games are generally as good as they’ve ever been. There is much more clutter than there’s ever been before, so finding the stuff you like may be more difficult than it used to be. But never before have players been able to get their hands on so many high-quality games for so little money, at least without resorting to software piracy (and even that is arguably easier than it used to be). Whether you’re downloading hundreds of hours’ worth of amazing games through some dirt-cheap Steam sale, or playing some unique, provocative, free Flash game on a portal like Newgrounds or Kongregate, or getting a great deal on a retail game two weeks after its release because it “only” sold like a million copies, it’s a good time to be a bargain-minded game player. Games don’t all cost more to make now. While retail AAA game development costs are spiraling out of control and making that market a bad idea for all but the biggest blockbuster titles, smaller digitally-distributed games are going through a renaissance of sorts. In some ways I would have expected games to have come farther by now, but on the whole I think there’s never been a bad time to be a game player for going on 25 years or more.

Roman Ribaric: Less cost = less boring = more gameplay = less cut-sequences = more fun. More cost = more boring = less gameplay = more cut-sequences = less fun.

Derek Paxton: There are great games out there. But just because we have the computers, tools and budget to model an entire city, doesn’t mean that it improves the game. Just because movie studios have access to amazing CGI doesn’t mean that the movies are better than they were 10 years ago.

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.

Jon Shafer: I think with a lot more variety available, you could definitely make the argument that gaming as a whole is more “fun.” Are individual games more fun though? It’s a harder case to make. Another side to the constant push for bigger and better technology is that gameplay hasn’t seen the same investment. Hopefully sometime soon the aesthetic fidelity of games will peak and amazing gameplay becomes the agreed-upon element which differentiates the successes from the failures.

Robert Ludwick: About the same. The core fun of video games remains mostly unchanged, even though it takes longer to play them now. Retro games had very high replayability and had to focus on fun. Modern games can scale back on gameplay thanks to all of the added features, which evens things out.

Carl Dungca: I’m going to say games are more fun. Why? In large, they are more accessible, less obtuse/frustrating, and there are more people playing them. In other words, more people are having fun. Though there will always be the vocal minority that still yearns for the challenge of an intricate PC-style RPG or simulator or the punishing “NES-hard” masochism, that sort of gameplay is a turn-off for the larger audience. Just look at how popular the simplified Street Fighter IV is compared to the hyper-complex systems of the niche-ified fighting genre.

Bobby Stein: It’s easy to look at the past through rose-colored glasses and say, “Games were so much better 10 years ago because of X,” but when you look at the type of experiences that are possible in modern games and the value you get out of a $50 or $60 game I think we’ve got it better nowadays. The best part about game development in the digital distribution age is that, if a particular segment of the market isn’t getting enough attention, savvy indie devs can create something with off-the-shelf tools to fill that market need. If you can improve your existing product to continue to provide value to your audience, it’s easier now than ever before.

What is the single biggest triumph of the game industry from the past 5 years?

Roberto Guedes: Give space to the indie developers. There is too much creativity to be explored, and what is always admirable to me is the sense of collaboration in the game industry. Developers want to play games outside of what we develop, because we are gamers too, and want to study other titles. And indie games are there to do not only this, but create more variety in the industry.

Ian Cummings: The triumph of the game industry has to be the emergence of new platforms and experiences which means turning millions of non-gamers into gamers. Whether it be the Wii or Kinect or the App Store or Facebook, these new platforms have gotten so many more people interested in gaming that never would have happened with just another Xbox 720 or PS4. Now can the right folks in the industry recognize this instead of turning their nose up at it, and turn these casual $.99 or freemium game players into hardcore / HD gamers? That’s the burning question I have, and as an industry employee I sure hope the answer is yes.

Roman Ribaric: Jointly, Valve’s Steam and Apple’s iPhone. Both have resurrected indies and garage game developers, which were almost extinct.

Jon Shafer: I hinted at it above, but I think that the wide variety of gaming experiences that are now available is the crowning achievement. PC and console gaming has been a staple for some time, but now we’re seeing platforms like Facebook and the Wii bringing in new audiences, a handheld has become the best-selling gaming console in history, gaming on phones has earned a great deal of mindshare and respect, the iPad market is taking off – and more. The more people who are playing games the more variety and more innovation you’ll see. Broadening the market is good both financially and creatively.

Robert Ludwick: Bringing online gaming to the masses. The ability to socially play games via the Internet is huge. It broadens the reach of the industry.

Mike Wilson: Definitely all the new digital distribution channels opening up for a renaissance in indie development. There’s never been a better time to be an indie or a gamer as far as breaking down barriers and variety to choose from, and it came just in the nick of time, as the industry was grinding to a big, bloated, creative halt. Funny how that happens.

Bobby Stein: Online connectivity has been a staple of PC gaming for years, but it’s evolved so much over time. More developers are moving away from the “fire and forget” mentality of launching a product and then moving on. We’re in the business of building communities and supporting our customers with additional content now. Games can be viewed as an entertainment service of sorts, so we have to be thoughtful and creative in how we nurture development, all in service of our audience.

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