Cheer Up! Video Games Are In Great Shape!
So another GDC has come and gone, and with it another round of moaning about how creativity is dead and we're all doomed, or whatever. We had the Game Developers' Rant for the second year in a row, and for the second year in a row I gave it a miss. People complaining might make amusing comedy from time to time, but if it's not constructive, why bother?
Now a lot of the complaining about the game industry is on point, especially the concerns about working conditions raised by the EA_Spouse flap last year. And yeah, it's true that rising development costs and pressure on shelf space is making the industry more conservative than ever—so what's new? We're now Big Entertainment Business. The industry has to follow the money; that's what it's there for. I used to complain about the industry's lack of innovation a lot too, but now I don't care. Why not? Because there's an awful lot more to video games than the game industry, just as there's an awful lot more to music than the record companies. The industry may be as conservative as Pat Buchanan, and it may be going through a rocky transition between consoles right now, but video games are doing very well, thank you very much. So just in case you're depressed about games at the moment, here's a list of things I think we have to feel good about.
The mass market is here. For years developers at the GDC used to debate when we would finally be mass-market, and what it would take to become mass-market, and what games would be like when the mass market arrived. Well, it's here. It snuck up on us while our backs were turned. And the mass market turned out not to be quite what we thought it would be.
At first we were concerned that video games were this kind of kid's and nerd's medium (I'm talking 15 years ago, now) and that console and computer games would have to change really substantially to move beyond that. We were wrong. What happened in the last 15 years is that the kids grew up… and still wanted to go on playing! That never occurred to us back then. So now we're a kid's and nerd's and adult's medium, all simply through the passage of time. And the games didn't have to change really substantially. Oh, the technology and the amount and quality of the content we deliver has changed, of course, but it's still mostly about driving and shooting and playing sports. And while I'd love to see more games about more things, it's comforting to know that the basic mechanics of gameplay that entertained kids in 1991 will also entertain adults in 2006.
We've got a whole lot more ways to make money. That mass market doesn't only consist of kid gamers who grew up into adult gamers, though. It also includes a bunch of new adult gamers who have come to gaming in a way that didn't exist 15 years ago. They're not buying games at retail, they're playing YoHoHo Puzzle Pirates online. And that's great. Puzzle Pirates is delivering a good product at a good price without having to go through the horrendous rigamarole of getting a console license or trying to get a game onto the retail shelves. And so is PopCap. And Pogo. And WorldWinner. And Yahoo! And so on.
Oh yeah, and that mass market isn't all playing little freebie games that earn money through ad revenue either. They're also paying monthly subscriptions to play big games online. We have now managed to sign up a sizable chunk of a nation — a nation! — to play Lineage. If you had said at the GDC 15 years ago that a staggering number of Koreans (Koreans?) would be playing role-playing games (role-playing games, for God's sake?) on-line (what?) in Internet cafés (what??) in 2006, you'd have been laughed out of the hotel.
We've got a whole lot more ways to let people play. Fifteen years ago you had three options: arcade, console, PC. That was it. Now the number of venues for delivering interactive entertainment has exploded, from Tamagotchi on a keychain to multi-million-dollar installations in theme parks. Handhelds, gambling machines, Web-based games, mobile phones, serious games, the list is practically endless. What's so cool about that? They all employ game developers. Yeah, if you insist on making blockbuster console or PC games, maybe times are bit tight right now, but that's a little like saying "I refuse to play football for anybody but the Pittsburgh Steelers." Do you want to play or not? If so, go where the opportunities are.
Games are getting easier to make thanks to inexpensive tools. Yes, big games are bigger and cost more money to make, but the barriers to entry in making small, homebrew games are significantly lower than they used to be. When was the last time you bought a book and got a word processor to go with it? When you bought a DVD of a movie you liked, did you get a video camera and an edit suite bundled in? But Half-Life 2 ships with game development tools! How radical is that? Once, we would have considered anybody making their own games using our tools to be enriching themselves off our labor, probably stealing our trade secrets. Now we give the tools away with our blessing. Everybody wins. Half-Life 2 continues to sell far, far beyond what its normal market life would be if it had to rely on its gameplay and story alone; wanna-be developers get a nice set of tools to work with at a fraction of the cost of Maya (OK, they're not Maya-quality, but they're not Maya-price, either); and players get more games to play, just for buying Half-Life 2 in the first place. And why is all this so good? Because more people get to do what they love—build video games—and because we'll see more wonderful and wacky games that could never find room on the retail shelves if they had to go through normal channels.
Game development education has arrived. Game programs are springing up by leaps and bounds at universities all over North America, all over Europe, and for all I know, all over the Far East as well. We're starting to actually teach people how to develop games instead of making newbies learn on the job, which is expensive and inefficient. Now, I know there's a certain probability that these programs will turn out more graduates than the industry can employ. But I've always thought that was a bad reason for cutting back on educational opportunities. What if somebody just wants to learn how make video games for their own personal enjoyment? Would we say that there shouldn't be so many piano teachers because there are only so many symphony orchestras in the world? Of course not.
And the great thing about students is that they're not jaded. They don't have any preconceptions about what the market wants. Of course, some of them have played so many cookie-cutter shooter games that it doesn't occur to them to make anything else; but that's what good teachers are for: to show them what's possible. Don't forget that from one generation of film-school students we got Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Polanski. Who knows what might happen after a decade or two of game education?
The academy has finally taken an interest. With the rise of game development education has come a rise in game research. Professors aren't allowed to just teach, they have to publish, too, if they want to get tenure. I know that for a lot of hardcore industrial developers, academic game research sounds esoteric and irrelevant, but they couldn't be more wrong. The academy are the guys with the grant money and the time to find the new techniques that the industry can't afford to work on. Ask a major-league graphics programmer if there's any point in going to hear a bunch of eggheads talk at SIGGRAPH. Ask a serious AI programmer if there's anything to be learned by reading the publications of the AAAI. They'll tell you. We're already starting to see the benefits of collaborating with the academy. Electronic Arts didn't found a game program at USC for the sake of charity.
Serious games are buying us cultural credibility and getting us jobs, too. Five years ago the term didn't exist. Now, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of one guy, Ben Sawyer, serious games are on the industry's map—and even more importantly, creeping into the awareness of educators and policymakers. What Chris Crawford did for video games in founding the GDC, Ben Sawyer has done for serious games. I remember the first serious games round table, three years ago; it had about fifteen people at it. Now it's an entire conference. Why should we be happy about that? Because a) it's a new way to exploit the wonderful potential of our medium; b) when the public start associating video games with education, healthcare, emergency preparedness training, social policy and so on maybe they won't be quite so quick to pass stupid censorship laws against us; c) because it means more jobs for game developers, even if they're not in the conventional entertainment part of the industry.
Experimental gameplay is now cool. Back when I was helping to produce the GDC, when the lecture rooms filled up we used to keep people out by telling the unhappy latecomers that it was the fire marshal's regulations, and we had to obey them. It was true, but a bit of a bluff; I never actually saw a fire marshal. Well, I saw her this year: a sturdy young woman with a decidedly no-nonsense look on her face. And what session was she keeping people out of? The Experimental Gameplay Workshop, of all things. Again, looking back fifteen years, if you had talked out loud about "experimental gameplay" at GDC, you'd have been met with derision. "Pointless non-commercial navel-gazing waste of time," would have been among the more polite comments. Now so many people are trying to learn about the latest developments that law enforcement has to be called in to keep order. I think this change of attitude is wonderful. It means we're not stagnating. Financial forces may be putting pressure on us, but the enthusiasm and desire to do—as Masaya Matsuura so eloquently put it—"weird and difficult things" burns bright in the hearts of game developers. Bright enough to be a fire hazard at GDC, anyway.
So cheer up! The song lyrics were right for video games in the mid-80s, and they're right for video games now: "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades."