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The Gaming Singularity Is Near
by Ben Serviss on 02/18/14 10:55:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared on

Source: Kevin Korb
Source: Kevin Korb

If you’re a game developer, it’s likely part of you is terrified right about now. All the rules of the games business seem to be in constant flux, an incredible amount of studios have closed or shrunk to shadows of their former selves, and the phrase “job security” seems to be an oxymoron.

There’s a good reason for it, though: The gaming singularity is near.

A bit of explanation first. The popular concept of the technological singularity, commonly referred to as the singularity, refers to a hypothetical period in time when the rapid speed of technological advances will outpace our ability to predict what will come next.

Some predict that we’ll end up augmenting our bodies with technology to essentially become cyborgs. Others say we’ll transfer our consciousness into machine containers. Others still figure the lines between human and machine will be blurred in ways we can’t quite understand yet.

In any scenario, the idea of the singularity refers to a time when the possibilities made real by technology will be unpredictable, both in their effects on humanity and what forms they’ll take.

And, in its own small way, this is the path the game industry appears to be heading in.

Unpredictable Present, Unknown Future

In recent years, the landscape of the game industry has turned violently tumultuous. The occasional round of layoffs has risen to a torrent of downsizing as a veritable changing of the guard took place, washing away most of the mid-tier developers.

Social and mobile game companies rose from obscurity, buoyed by Apple and Facebook’s world-changing platforms to become behemoths in their own regard. Leveraging new methods of distribution, indies rode their quirky niche status into prominence, competing alongside huge games backed by million-dollar budgets.

Combine all of these developments with the new viral channels of the past decade, an increased access to amateur-friendly game development tools, and even more indie-friendly distribution methods, and what do you get? None other than the harbinger of the gaming singularity, the one and only Flappy Bird.

flappy bird

Think back to 15 years ago. Microsoft’s first Xbox had yet to be released. The PS2 reigned supreme. The Dreamcast was still kicking. Would you have ever dreamed then that a game made by a solo developer in Vietnam over 72 hours could go on to not only command the game industry’s attention, but make $50,000 a day in advertising alone?

The mystifying success of that game should be enough to tell you that 1. Nobody has any clue what the rules are in today’s game market, and 2. It’s only going to get weirder from here.

With the industry already in a state of torrid flux, the pace of change keeps roaring by. New consoles (and new console distribution pipelines for indies), Valve’s play for the living room, the Oculus, more distribution methods like Humble Bundle and, the insanely insane rise of live game streaming, plus an arguably saturated indie bubble means nobody has any kind of clue what the next big hit game, genre, platform or trend will be.

In one light, it’s terrifying. Strategies that used to work so well may fail for unclear reasons. The gaming empires of today may fall by the wayside if they fail to catch on in time.

On the other hand, it’s exhilarating. No known shortcuts to prosperity means the time to experiment is now. Who knows, maybe people really want to play games where you walk around and look at stuff or, I don’t know, read. Why not see if it works?

The gaming singularity is near – if it’s not here already. No matter your station or vested interest, as gamers, you have to admit that it’s an incredible time to be playing.

Ben Serviss is a game designer and producer at NYC indie developer collective Studio Mercato. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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james koenig
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Love this blog!

Michael O'Hair
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"Who knows, maybe people really want to play games where you walk around and look at stuff or, I donít know, read. Why not see if it works?"

This is not enough verbs. There's limited interaction. Too few goals. No competition. Nothing to accomplish and no obstacles to overcome. Is it really a game??

"Singularity" is used to describe a great change in something, most commonly technology, that brings about some great change in how things are and are perceived, right? Yes, recycling of the same concepts over and over each year is getting stale; we've all navigated enough mazes filled with monsters and a few people are getting sick of it (despite consumers still buying those types of games). With each technological milestone passed, games return to their simplest forms (Garriott and others), and only after the new technology is explore do games become more complicated. The emerging dominance of mobile and simple Flash games flooded with primary colors wasn't unexpected; it should have been expected of an environment where tedium reigns and the result of game exposure to people who didn't traditionally play games (example: grandparents playing Wii).

The only approaching singularities are those where there is a single publisher (and maybe a subsidiary) for every commercial game and to acquire independent devhouses.

"Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems." - Steven Pinker, 2008.

Bob Fox
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Flappy bird doesn't prove the rules have changed, it proves that entertainment success has many aspects of randomness and lottery like qualities.

There are solid markets for many games the only thing holding them back from being served was the astronomical rise in game development costs from the 1990's onwards.

The only thing stopping game success is game dev costs and tools, that's about it. If one looks at the manpower required to make games and graph it over time versus audience for said game types. You will find out the audiences never left, but the development costs left the audiences behind.

Michael Joseph
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Very true. Although profit potential also drove developers away what with the money shooters were starting to bring in. Then with MMOs the grass began to looker greener still... then with social networks and F2P, then with mobile...

Adriaan Jansen
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Nice read, but I don't really agree.

In my experience, the game industry was always a maelstrom of change. Nintendo loses to sony with the N64. PC gaming was dead. You could suddenly play games on your phone. It's an industry full of chances, and with a very short lived status quo.

Successful companies know this. Call of Duty reigned for years because they were always one step ahead in the current. No matter how much unpredictable successes like flappy bird there will be, there will also always be companies who can steer their course pretty proficiently as long as they don't get over their heads. Evolve is going to be a hit. Just like Titanfall. Those developers know what they're doing.

Benjamin Quintero
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Singularity or complete crap shoot? Flappy bird is about as original as Angry Birds was before the 1000 other games just like it the year before. I don't think that "knowing what the audience wants" is the goal. The complete randomness of success is just that, randomness. It's not that gaming has propelled beyond some kind of pace that forbids us from predicting the future; there is simply too much noise out there, and any one sample of that noise is likely to inexplicably rise above the many other products that are nearly identical in visual style and mechanics. Games today are simply grains of sand on a long stretch of coastline. Sometimes the light happens to catch one just right and other times you won't even know it's there...

Igor Hatakeyama
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Amazing, all this stuff is happening right before my eyes and I had to read this blog post to realize.

Cordero W
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There is no singularity. There is no "next big thing." Video games are video games. If anything, we're waiting for the movie blockbuster companies that think they are creating games and not interactive movies or novels to stop being the headlines of what is considered a video game. There is nothing for me to be afraid of other than the fact that the industry continues to be polluted and drowned in an excess of mediocre experiences. What needs to happen is that the "gamer" needs to be put in mind again in terms of making a game, and the no-gamer has to be put on a secondary podium just underneath them. Here's the thing, I understand wanting to appeal to more audience for greater sales, but it's not helping the industry in the least bit. Games will appeal to non-gamers on their own.

The Mario series is popular because it resonates with people's raising among cartoons. It also has an easy control scheme, so anyone can pick it up and play it. Super Mario 64, however, is a lot more complex. Even I consider it a far touch from the simple 2d platforming of the snes and nes games. And yet, people still praise it as a fun game to play. If a game is appealing, non-gamers will tackle through the entry barrier on their own. Never underestimate the power of a gamer's capability to learn. Adding notices that pop up, visual indicators with obvious directions, and other unfortunate aids developers spread throughout their game only makes the gamer feel like they're playing a children's game back in elementary. The game is just undermining them as if they cannot figure out things themselves. You can easily do this with more subtle visual cues that are used in everyday life. Stop signs are red. Green means go. Arrows mean go somewhere. Exclamation marks mean caution or danger. The simple stuff you learn in industrial design.

And even then, just let the player explore and learn on their own. We got manuals back in the day that told us the controls. Then they threw the player into the game and let them learn the rules as they played. "Jumping is good, but don't jump all the time. Time my jumps. Shoot this, but don't shoot this. Mushroom is good but enemy mushroom is bad."

I'll stop myself before I go on, but all this concludes to is that the industry needs more video game experiences that let players play. If not for older gamers like myself, at least for the next generation. I applaud games like Skyrim for giving some of that experience back, though I find it unfortunate that the game was watered down from the earlier games just to make it more mainstream. They could have done so much more with it since they already had a fanbase. But this illusion of needing to have high budgets and high sales is killing the heart of the game industry, and that heart is creativity.

The singularity I want is the death of movie-like budgets and the need to use technology to make games.

Alexander Jhin
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This article reminds me of the New Yorker article on blockbusters (focused mainly the music and movie industry:
_books_sanneh?currentPage=all) Basically, disruptive technology was supposed to bring the end of blockbusters: People could listen to whatever niche music they want, whenever they want. Why did we need big studio releases?

Yes, disruptive technology had some impact... but blockbusters are still around and are still the vast majority of music sales. Independent release of music (through technology) didn't substantially change either the economics or listening habits of the consumers.

Maybe people like the status quo a little more than we think. Maybe people like the big community stamp of approval before trying out something new (whether it be from the big studios or even the Apple #1 downloaded game stamp of approval, a la Flappy Bird.)

Perhaps the lesson of Flappy Bird it's that the blockbuster still rules. Games have been and are continuing to move further away from many small independent successes to a conglomeration of relatively few big successes. Who has time to try out the thousands of new games without some taste maker's stamp of approval?

When's the last time you played a no-name, not widely talked about phone game?

Benjamin Quintero
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LOL =)

Someone forgot to tell Justin Timberlake that indie bands were taking over. I'm pretty sure Transformers, Avatar, and JJA's Star Trek haven't gotten the memo yet either. They must not get cell phone reception inside the vault of gold coins they swim in.