The Next Generation Industry

GDC is behind us now. We’ve all heard so much talk about the future of video games that it’s beginning to frazzle and run together. So many things, new developments and new ideas and new technology, all in the milieu of rapid political and social change. The idea of predicting the future seem hairy at best. There’s all these factors at work here, and somehow they’ll play off each other. So what are some of the issues and developing trends we’re facing?

We’ve heard many words about procedural game design, player-created content populating the massive environments. There’s that group of people off shouting about middleware and open source gaming cutting the costs that everyone says is gonna blow open with the next generation. Meanwhile, there’s real good reason to look at unionizing the big publishers, but that’s just gonna blow the costs up even more. At least unionization would create some real financial incentives for a growing independant games industry. Next thing you know you’re not a “real” gamer unless you eschew everything from EA “because it’s over-produced crap” and the “artistry” is entirely to be found in indie games. Indie gamers start thinking of GameSpot what indie rockers think of MTV– something for the uninformed masses. Maybe GameSpot is smart enough to capture the zeitgeist and they’ll have an “indie” subsite, maybe not. Regardless, the split between casual and hardcore gamers has already begun. A few years ago, you could reasonably purchase every truly fantastic game, and lots of us did. Yeah, myself included. That is no longer a possibility. You couldn’t play them all. You probably can’t afford to play them all. We’ve got a situation where people are increasingly having to decide where to put their money.

Somehow I’m not sure that’s really an improvement, though at least we’ll finally start to see video games that are actually worthy of the name art. As much as I loved the Halos and the Half-Lifes and the Unreals and the Grand Theft Autos, I wouldn’t quite label them “art”. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t label your average tv show “art” either, so make of that what you will. Now, you might argue that “art” is a subjective term, and I agree. I just happen to like to use my own subjective definition, and that’s what I’ll do, rather than throw away all meaning beyond the very most abstract and socially empty.

So we’ve heard a lot of talk in the past about interactive storytelling, but it has largely failed to materialize. Even the notion of just telling meaningful and interesting stories has largely failed to happen on any broad scale. Though we’ve seen some early winners (ICO, Grim Fandango, FFX, Half-Life, NOLF), the art of the videogame is still in its infancy. The game that brings a fun gameplay dynamic to a tried and true genre (say, FPS) mixed with a unique and deep (and moving!) storyline will do big things. Bring it a step further and give it really remarkable artistic design, and you’ll wind up with an unbelievable hit on your hands.

Are development costs gonna go up? Short answer: yes. Does that mean the death of innovation? No. Does that mean the death of the small gaming company? No! What it means is that the small gaming company will get even smaller, as the means of production become easier and easier to get ahold of. Is there a lot of scary scary stuff happening in the gaming industry? You bet your ass. But at the same time we have a scenario where you can theoretically make a game in your spare time that is more original and more compelling than games costing ten million dollars. You want a prediction? We’ll see a Blair Witch Project, a game costing pennies to produce that outsells most games costing in the tens of millions of dollars to produce, and we’ll see it in the next three years, if I have to make it myself.

What we’ve really got is an industry where you won’t be able to make a mediocre game and expect to succeed financially. Wait, hasn’t that always been true?

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