Thursday, October 02, 2008

the future of gaming

What is the future of gaming? It's a fun question.

Michael Pachter made a great point about how little content for TV has changed in the past 50 years. Countless innovations have showed up here and there, but the shows in general follow the same rules and formats; they present stories, information, and views in basically the same ways. Are games different?

I'm going to limit myself to two points.

Will games ever be "platform agnostic"? Some will be, of course; but never the majority. Games are not like movies in that every film is experienced in the same way at the most basic level.

No matter what cable or satellite TV package you subscribe to or what format your movie purchases are in, the basic controls are immediately recognizable: Play, Stop, Forward, Rewind, Pause, Channel Up, Channel Down, Volume Up, Volume Down, Menu, Select, etc. There are certainly control variations, but they're all based on this classic setup. With Spore, Street Fighter II, Assassin's Creed, NCAA Football 08, Tom Clancy's Endwar, Wii Sports... the buttons might look similar, they might even share names (A button, B button, Start, Select, Right Trigger, Left Trigger, etc), but they perform different functions.

Most game controls still are not intuitive enough for many non-gamers to explore gaming. The thumbstick on the Wii nunchuk, for example, is a complication. That minor addition is not problematic for long-time gamers like us, but the combination of two unrelated, graded control devices for simultaneous use on the same hand is not a minor complication for someone who has never picked up a controller. Even just a button at the end of that device would frustrate many people who are not used to complicated control devices. Sure, common electronics like microwave ovens and TV remotes have a lot of buttons, but you only have to press one button at a time.

Imagine what could be done with just one light-weight, force-feedback control stick the size of a wand. You could wield a lightsaber or sword. You could cast spells, ala Black & White. You could fish. You could play baseball. You could carve and shape objects, move and manipulate them.

The simpler the hardware you use to create deep, expansive, compelling experiences, the more money you can make off quality software. The Wii only hints at the potential simplicity of focused consoles.

Though I certainly don't think everyone should aim for simplicity. Corvettes aren't for the average car consumer, but they're still profitable.

Some great games will cost tens of millions to make. I accept that. But the idea that any blockbuster game must cost millions is silly.

For a long time, we've seen games of vastly different qualities and durations for equal price. Now we're starting to see developers experiment with individual pricing and new pricing models. The industry will never fully abandon the traditional models we're used to or cease to apply general standards. But a lot of strategies are being tried right now, and some of them are going to stick.

Perhaps best of all, game design is becoming more accessible. Programming is an increasingly popular skill, often the result of informal learning, and an increasing number of communities and organizations are encouraging amateur design. It's becoming easier to reach large audiences.

We might even see a revival in garage game design. More and more tools are popping up for designers. Those tools are getting better, as well as more accessible to non-programmers and non-artists. We might see a day when a couple high schoolers design a game that sells half a million or more copies.

Both costs and prices are going to vary much more in the near future.

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