GDC 2015: What’s Next for Gaming

GDC 2015: What’s Next for Gaming

While the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo gives people everywhere a look at where gaming is going in the sense of revealing new and upcoming products, the Game Developers Conference offers a look at the gaming industry from an entirely different angle. In effect, GDC allows the minds behind interactive digital entertainment to pull the curtain further back and show where things are going in other senses, whether they be business or design-minded, as well as what to expect in the coming months and years at retail. Brilliant minds, fresh and experienced alike, come together to show what they have learned or are in the process of learning so that the industry as a whole may further grow, and in terms of overall trends and topics, this year’s show was once again filled with a range of fascinating insights.

Perhaps the most prominent of all trends to emerge from the 2015 GBD is the ongoing escalation of virtual reality. Though the dream of the types of immersive experiences seen in television and movies seemed all but abandoned as the ’90s drew to a close, advances in technology have seen the concept essentially reborn as Sony proudly demonstrated what Project Morpheus was capable of at the show. The company was hardly alone, as Valve and HTC joined the party attended by Sony’s Morpheus and Facebook’s Oculus Rift with the announcement of their new Vive hardware and Unity unveiled the Unity 5 development software.

Another growing topic is that of streaming games through the cloud. Adding to this conversation was former Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada’s discussion about the company’s latest venture, Shinra Technologies, which seeks to create a streaming service alongside other industry powerhouses such as Ubisoft, one comparable to OnLive. Rather than simply offering classic titles as Sony’s PlayStation Now provides, however, Wada noted that Shinra’s eyes were on a bigger prize: To encourage developers to create games which cannot be played on typical home computer or video game console hardware, allowing for multiplayer experiences accessible to a greater number of people.

Unfortunately, not all trends in gaming are so positive or optimistic as the march of technology to further enhance the user-end experience. In particular, the troubles and difficulties faced by women in the industry has been an increasingly growing concern for the last several months. During the #1ReasonToBe panel at the convention, eight women spoke out with messages regarding the “episodes of intolerance and harassment” which have been prevalent over the last year. While the eight who took the stage delivered words to inspire, words read in silence from those who were unable to attend would feel equally striking as well.

Similarly, a light was cast upon the shadow of another type of discrimination. Rather than an issue of gender, a panel hosted by David Mullich, producer of such titles as The Prisoner, Heroes of Might and Magic 3, and Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, revealed that ageism is another problem developing in the industry. He noted that despite Entertainment Software Association statistics showing 26 percent of gamers are over the age of 50, only one percent of workers in the industry are of similar age, and proceeded to discuss how older developers could adapt and survive while publishers need to embrace new audiences.

Finally, with regard to new trends, as people have continued to ponder the prospect and possibilities of a “one-console future,” Microsoft has taken steps towards actually realizing it– at least, among their own brands. With the forthcoming Windows 10 operating system, the company seeks a “unified platform for video games across the full spectrum of devices,” as noted by Xbox head Phil Spencer. “This is the first time that all of Xbox’s efforts will show up with a single unified voice and vision for what we want to do in the games industry,” he added. “We want to make it so it’s incredibly simple to deliver a single game that runs across multiple devices.”

And there you have it – another year’s GDC down, another year full of intriguing new developments.

GDC 2014: The Future of Social Games

GDC 2014: The Future of Social Games

Social games for Facebook and mobile devices continue to grow in popularity. But what role will they play in the future of gaming? We expect to see more soon at the 2014 installment of the Game Developers Conference, coming up in March, which will reveal the latest PC, console, mobile and social gaming trends. In the interim though, we asked a number of gaming’s top analysts and experts from top game consulting and mock reviews firm TechSavvy Global to weigh in, and give their thoughts on the future of the business, and how social games will impact systems like the Wii U, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One going forward.

Many social games are free to play, but make their money from purchasable in-game content. We’ve seen this model creep into console games with downloadable map packs for Call of Duty and Halo. When do you think we’ll start seeing console games that are both free to play and rofitable?

Possibly within the next two to three years, as the number of players enjoying online connected games through console systems begins to reach critical mass. Keep in mind though that there’s also a financial component to consider. Manufacturers like Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony do considerable business off licensing fees for every disc-based game published on their systems, and game makers know they can sell and recoup investment dollars on at least some fraction of physical goods they make. Which presents a complex problem: To begin with, you’ll need a proven publisher willing to commit millions up-front without any guaranteed return on investment towards backing a marquee title that’s strong enough to convince platform makers (e.g. MS, Sony, Nintendo, etc.) that there’s money to be made outside of retail channels and up-front licensing fees. Altnerately, you’ll need a platform maker that’s forward thinking enough to embrace this model, or think outside the typical royalty structure and partner with savvier studios who can make smaller, more innovative titles that make financial sense for everyone on a scale that a giant multination corporation would care about. Ultimately, these hurdles will be overcome, as all the technical elements and audience numbers are quickly falling into place. It’s just a question of how soon dealmakers can get it together.

If the barrier to entry for social console games is removed (i.e. they become free to play), will this finally bring the social web into the living room, from a gamer’s point of view?

Undoubtedly – what gamers look for most is quality, convenience and value, and gaming is an inherently social activity that speaks to one of the world’s most tech-savvy and connected audiences. Drop the price, tear down the walls that make interaction between platforms cumbersome and offer a selection of top-quality, must-see titles with strong social components that add to the core play experience, and gamers will quickly take to social play in their living room, or anywhere else it can be conveniently and cost-effectively enjoyed.

What kind of social web connectivity are we going to be seeing in the next generation of consoles? Do you expect that we’ll be playing Mario Kart and Call of Duty with our Facebook friends, or will it take another
form entirely?

From the smallest casual games to most sprawling adventures, you’ll begin to see social connectivity increasingly woven into virtually every facet of interactive entertainment going forward. Beyond the sharing of status updates, achievements and instant ability to monitor friends’ activity and quickly connect, collaborate and compete in favorite titles, you’ll also see games that offer a variety of entry points from different platforms and devices. That’s not to say Grand Theft Auto V or Mario Kart will offer the same experience on every gadget from tablet PCs to your next-gen gaming console. But we will see an increasing range of smartphone-, app- and social network-based game components that let you login and manage characters, enjoy standalone game experiences that offer lasting rewards in the context of the larger console experience (extra gold, new items, experience points, etc.) and similar features. I also suspect you’ll see games that begin to incorporate more alternate reality elements, location-based challenges (say, real-world scavenger hunts as a supplement to virtual quests with actual in-game rewards for completing them) and more user-generated content elements so you can snap photos or create levels, then easily incorporate them into the game itself or pass them along through social media channels. Above all else, expect a greater sense of community, persistency and continuity, as tomorrow’s console games aim to better connect players and help like-minded fans come together over common ground – kick-ass gaming experiences.

Given the convergence of web/cloud/mobile-based media and gaming, do you think this generation of dedicated gaming consoles will be the last?*

Dedicated video game platforms will always have a place in modern homes, especially in terms of budget-priced hardware and devices. But for premium console experiences, the question is simply what form they’ll take, and whether or not they’ll increasingly become embedded directly into TVs, cable boxes or in fact transform themselves into virtual platforms (e.g. software apps) that offer immediate, on-demand access to top gaming titles. Ultimately, the question isn’t whether the next generation of gaming consoles will be the last – it’s whether, for premium or blockbuster new releases, dedicated hardware-based solutions will in fact be the preferred solution of choice.

What’s the fate of the polished, finalized $50 game from a major publisher? Will these still see success, or will gamers be more interested in less expensive “works in progress” that they can update and customize with DLC?

Blockbuster gaming experiences will still continue to have a place in tomorrow’s gaming world, and continue to command a premium price. But they’ll also increasingly offer more online, connected and downloadable elements that help extend their relevance and add greater value, making them less apt to collect dust on the shelf, which is a fancy way of saying that your experience will begin, not end at what’s in the box. At the same time, we’ll also begin to see smaller, more self-contained gaming experiences grow in prominence that allow players a cheaper, faster entry point into new worlds and storylines, with a wealth of optional downloadable content and expansions offered on the back-end, so you can pay and play as little, or as much, as you like.

Arguably the most social games around are MMOs, but historically these have not fared well on consoles (with a few exceptions). What’s stopping Blizzard and the like from launching multiplayer worlds for console gamers?

Nothing, except save perhaps the economics – on the PC, they’re able to reach a larger audience more affordably, and more cost-effectively deliver games with greater functionality. Profit margins are also better, as you don’t have to split dollars with an intermediary (e.g. a console manufacturer or wireless carrier), and enjoy greater and more direct access to your own customers. The issue isn’t one of can game makers like Blizzard deliver top-tier MMO experiences on consoles. It’s whether or not it’s worth the time and effort, given that their resources and energy may be better rewarded by being spent somewhere else.

It’s fascinating to see the success and business model of indie PC games like Minecraft, where players buy in to a game that’s still being developed and shape its progress via social media. Do you think we might see
experiments like this for console games anytime soon?

That depends on how you look at it. If you count smaller, more downloadable titles sold in bite-sized or episodic installments, or those that offer downloadable content or in-game purchases (microtransactions), yes – game developers are currently experimenting, trying to figure out what the right balance is of game length and size vs. price, and are increasingly looking to right-size core game experiences and sell added content (additional characters, levels, maps, etc.) on the back-end to the benefit of all. But true works-in-progress, or crowdsourced initiatives are unlikely – console manufacturers impose certain minimum quality standards on games from their partners, require a certain level of investment and want full-fledged premium gaming experiences right out of the gate.

– Josh Walts

GDC 2014: Getting in the Games Business

GDC 2014: Getting in the Games Business

Contrary to popular belief, breaking into the video game industry doesn’t require fancy degrees, insider knowledge or a well-connected ex-roommate. Better still, as we’ll soon see reinforced at the upcoming Game Developers Conference in March anyone can do it right from home, and get started overnight.

But first, let’s dispel some of the myths surrounding the business. Rather than sit around playing games, the answer to breaking into it is simply to get involved with any number of projects from apps to books, modifications (mods) to retro remakes. Leading game companies receive thousands of submissions from eager job seekers weekly. Finding ways to catch their attention and demonstrate your talent, e.g. by creating highly downloaded songs for top music games or total conversions (graphic makeovers) for first-person shooters, is the secret to standing out. With millions competing for the chance to work on smash hits like “World of Warcraft” or “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” it’s what you do in the off-hours, not on the clock, that ultimately counts most.

No matter if you’re an artist or programmer, designer or marketing maven, the operating rule is show, not tell. Building a portfolio is easy though, thanks to the vast range of free and cost-effective tools offered online, and array of level- and map-making utilities built into many leading games.

Artists should establish a singular style that acts as their personal signature and look for ways to gain visibility. Contributing to fan-made game updates such as “King’s Quest” reboot “The Silver Lining” and extreme visual makeovers of hits like Half-Life make a great start. Crafting quirky concepts including paintings of popular ‘80s heroes in unlikely situations or free downloadable desktop wallpaper that pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to beloved series such as “Halo” and “The Legend of Zelda” can also work.

Designers and programmers need to create. Small-scale projects like new maps, missions and scenarios for popular titles make a great starting point. So too do iPhone apps, homebrew remakes of classic games from the Commodore 64 and IBM-PC, social network games and Flash titles (games designed to run in one’s Web browser). Software engines like Unity, the Unreal Development Kit, Torque, Adventure Game Studio, Playground SDK, and services such as App Hub can help you get started developing for computers, consoles like the Xbox One or Apple and Android handsets. To stand out, creations need to be unique and easily comprehensible at a glance. Focusing on building a handful of well-executed features vs. many poorly-implemented options helps, as does rapid prototyping and playtesting, since few great ideas are birthed fully-formed straight out of the womb.

Musicians likewise need a personal calling card, which could be a specific style of music, genre or audio flourish. (Think T-Pain’s signature Auto Tune sound which, while annoying, makes him impossible to miss.) In-game creations should also be designed to evoke specific storytelling moods and stand up to multiple, looping plays as adventures progress. Providing audio scores for notable amateur and indie game projects is a great way to get one’s creations heard. But offbeat alternatives including creating concept albums inspired by popular titles (e.g. “Halo: The Musical) or downloadable mixtapes for enjoyment alongside specific outings (“Assassin’s Creed: The Unofficial Soundtrack) can also garner attention.

Journalists and writers can use blogging tools such as WordPress, Blogger and TypePad to instantly start publishing magazines. Aspiring DJs have the option to simply hook up USB microphones and free podcast recording programs such as Audacity and create their own radio shows. Budget digital video camcorders such as those built into modern phones, coupled with YouTube and live streaming services including Twitch.tv, offer options to play online video star as well.

From fan sites to Internet gaming shows, all provide clips you can present to potential employers, and possibly even lead to jobs as a reporter, community manager or on-air TV correspondent. But to stand out, you’ll need to have a singular voice, speak loudly and have something to say that thousands of others aren’t already.

Marketers and executives lacking technical skills can always find development teams or freelancers who possess them at sites like Gamasutra, IGDA.org, GameDev.net and oDesk.com. Online vendors such as Lulu.com, CafePress, and CreateSpace can also put you in the publishing or fashion business overnight. Crowdsourced funding sites IndieGogo and Kickstarter.com even lets you present ideas to the public and request donations to get game projects off the ground.

Finally, though it’s crushingly difficult to make a viable career out of professional gaming, circuits like Major League Gaming and Virgin Gaming do reward skillful players with cash and prizes. Don’t quit your day job, however, unless you live in South Korea.

As a word to the wise, spending quality time with hundreds of games helps provide vital experience, frame of reference and an innate ability to analyze what makes successful titles so compelling. But ironically for prospective video game industry hires, with so many competing for so few coveted positions, ultimately it’s one’s willingness to work, not play that determines who gets the high score.

Expect more tips and insights soon as we report back from the floor of GDC 2014.

– Steven Alexander