On the Future of Video Games: Prologue

I’ve been thinking about how to start this since before I started Geek Bravado, mostly because I wanted to figure out how to make my point without sounding like an old man who is afraid of change. It was originally going to be a single post but there’s way too much to say so I’ve decided to make it a series. Anyone who knows me also knows that ‘s not the case. I love technology, what it’s done for us all and what it has the potential to do going forward. Few other places demonstrate and take advantage of technological progress more than video games. Want to see the latest stuff pushed to its limit? Gaming does it first and often best. I think this is awesome not only as a lover of video games but of technology itself. I love seeing things used to their full potential and that my favourite hobby is what does it makes it even better. I’ve played video games since the Atari 2600 era and seeing where they’ve come in my 32 years of life still makes me shake my head in bewilderment. However, I think the unusual, instant, massive success certain advancements have had lately has distorted a lot of people’s views of where gaming is going, how quickly we’re going to get there and what barriers stand in the way. It’s easy to get swept up in the tidal wave of change that we’ve seen and make predictions about it but I think stepping back for a minute and looking at what’s in front of us right now is in order first.

The last six years have been absolutely insane and unprecedented for the video game industry. We’ve seen the launch of three home consoles, three (soon to be four) handhelds, mobile phone gaming go from a note in the margins to a whole new paradigm and social network platforms seem to have just appeared from nothing. Nintendo’s Wii and DS completely changed the way games are interacted with. Both were laughed at when announced, went on to years of unimaginable success and plateaued overnight. The Xbox 360 and PS3 are still selling well even in their sixth and fifth respective years on the market and there’s only now hints they their successors might come out in 2013. Microsoft and Sony have also released their own attempts at motion controllers for their platforms, something neither intended originally. Digital distribution of big titles went from a technical impossibility to the primary way games are bought on PC and likely the consoles before long. Companies realised there’s buckets of money to be made in games that you give away for free and massively multiplayer games went from being thought of as a money press to needing to adopt the free model to survive. Smart phones went from something businesspeople do e-mail on to pocket computers that can run the Unreal Engine and tablets just fell out of the sky one day. Facebook has over 10% of the entire world’s population using it. More people play video games in some form now than ever before. To boot, all of this has happened since 2005. Like…what?

It’s safe to say that no one who runs this industry or partakes in its wares has a true grasp on all this yet or where it’s going to end up. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an executive at a large game company these days (despite my dumping on one recently). Trying to figure out how to turn a profit with spiralling costs, stagnant pricing, an audience that demands innovation but only occasionally supports it and new platforms appearing from the ether must often seem insurmountable, especially since even nimble big companies often don’t turn on a dime. The triple-A industry has moved to a cost model where titles are either huge booms or catastrophic busts with very rarely anything in between. Even development studios with long, successful track records can be ruined by the failure of a single project. As the next generation of consoles come into being, these costs and their associated risks will only grow larger.

The upside of all the new innovations and platforms that have emerged in recent years is that triple-A isn’t the only way to bring games to market. It costs a fraction as much to develop and self-publish on mobile platforms, Facebook or Steam which has breathed new life into small, indie game producers who are driven by the art more than the business. If you lose, you don’t lose as big but if you win, you can win huge. If you have a desire to start a game studio, you don’t suddenly needs millions of dollars of venture capital or publisher loans to get things rolling, you just need some talent and access to the Internet. Games cost a few dollars or in some cases, nothing at all and thus the barrier to entry for newcomers is extremely low. All of this is awesome.

The problem is that the gaming and tech press have latched onto this as the only way of the future, that the current methods of making and playing games are obsolete, the current giants of gaming are already a dying breed, things like iOS and Facebook are the way everyone’s going to play everything in the future and that the era of expensive games is over. These are all nice ideas to embrace and it’s true that all these new innovations are making big, likely permanent changed to the landscape. However, the enthusiast press is in the business of pushing hype and in this, they’ve certainly succeeded. I think we need to step back a bit and look at the reality of the situation both in terms of the present and where existing trends show it to be going.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be detailing some of these emerging trends, the impacts they’ve already had and where I see them going. I’ll attempt to cut through the hype and manufactured statements to look at the reality of things and attempt to address the salient points that the press is not. I’m not saying my way’s going to end up being the right way as like everyone else, I’m only going on the details I’ve seen. I don’t have all the answers but the thing is, no one else really does either and the uncertainty of the future for this industry is partially what makes it so exciting to witness and discuss. This is going to be a lot of content and a real challenge for me to write but I’m looking forward to it and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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