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Ludus Florentis: The Flowering of Games

August 27, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[The video game industry is going through a massive sea change, and Divide By Zero's James Portnow sits down to examine just what's going on, from tool simplification to distribution network changes, and what it means for games as a creative medium.]

Something's happening in our industry. We can all feel it. We're on a pivot point. We are at a sea change.

But it's not just "a change in the industry", it's not a shift in how we do business or with whom -- that's part of it of course -- it's something much bigger. A tide is turning...

Now I don't mean to be dramatic about these things and I don't intend to be their champion (though my bias may come through; I'm excited for what the future may bring.) However, I think we're at a very important juncture for our industry, our medium and, perhaps, for humanity in general.

In this article I'm going to try and define what this change is, how we got here, and what it means for us in the future.

The Change

When I first wrote this article I originally defined what I felt the coming change might be right here at the beginning of the piece, but without understanding the causes and the logical steps which drew me to my conclusion, even I balked at it: it seemed ludicrous.

So bear with me as we walk through the causes of this yet-undefined change, and see where the inferences lead you:


Game Schools

For the first time in history "game creation" is being taught as a focus of higher education. From the bachelor's degree given out by DigiPen to the masters degrees offered by more traditional universities such as USC or CMU, today people are getting rigorous formal training in game crafting before entering the industry.

But, perhaps more importantly, these institutions are providing the next generation of game developers with a safe space to innovate and create, outside of a corporate environment.

Game schools will do for us what film schools did for film. They are a place for wild experimentation and valuable, if not immediately profitable, research. These schools focus a community of dedicated, energetic young people and give that community the critical mass it needs to allow these young people to learn from each other and formulate new ideas as a group. Our Lucas, Coppola, and Scorsese will come from these schools.

But as much as many people will come out of these schools with fresh ideas and the tools to enact them, others will find in them an opportunity not granted by the industry itself: the opportunity to conduct multi-year research, the opportunity to study games without having to find a guaranteed return on their research.

Of course the schools and the industry don't see eye-to-eye yet, and communication between the industry and the academic facilities which study this field leaves a lot to be desired, but this too is changing. Both academia and the corporate side of gaming are beginning to see the undeniable value in what the other does.

First Generation to Grow Up with Games

Today, the first generation to grow up with video games in their home is coming into its own. They are becoming responsible, even influential, adults. Not only do they have a great deal of capital to expend on the leisure of their youth, they also have a great desire to see it legitimized, to see it become as respectable as playing golf or going to the theater.

But, much as the films you watched as a child are not the films you watch as an adult, this generation is beginning to demand more. They are beginning to demand new types of games, games with maturity and thought, games that can fit into their hectic and ever more demanding lives, games that can be played respectably with a spouse or family.

This demand is pushing the boundaries of what we consider a video game. It is opening up new markets and forcing us to rethink the subjects a game can cover. It is even forcing us to consider new delivery methods and platforms for these experiences, ones which better fit into the lives of adults.

Broadening Demographic

The term "gamer" now means nothing. At best it's a pejorative stereotype for what once may have been the most highly visible form of video game enthusiast. Today the gamer is your mom and your grandmother, the five year old on the swings and the cop directing traffic. Today the gamer is the lawyer and the doctor and the movie star.

This broadening demographic is calling on us to create games which suit their unique needs and, slowly, the invisible hand guiding us, we have begun to do so. Soon we will realize that grail of designer myth, the Universal Game, because the raw economics of our diverse audience demand it.

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Daniel Cook
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Spot on analysis. The chart at the end is great. The questions I would ask existing developers are simple:

- Where do your current skills and interests lie on the chart above?

- Are you actively training yourself to be a valuable participant of the emerging game development ecosystem? (The stuff to the right of the diagram)

- Or are you specializing in a dead end?

The sheer range of new game mechanics bursting forth can be overwhelming. It will be another 20 years before we've wrapped our heads around just the current opportunities in physical and social gaming. If you paint games with broad strokes the vast majority of current mechanics can be summed up as a bit of spatial manipulation mixed with a touch of combinatorics. Such systems make for some great games, but whole new areas of game design have opened up. The audience is ready, the cost is right, the tools are right and there is a surprising number of talented people (many from outside the traditional game industry) who are willing to give it a go. Exciting times ahead.

take care


Jonathan Blow
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I feel that this article is a bit overeager and bends a lot of facts to fit its thesis.

As one example, I grew up with video games in my home, and so did all my friends. I'm 37 years old, so I'm not sure how it can be claimed that only now are people who grew up with video games becoming adults.

This level of inaccuracy seems to be present in just about every definite statement made in this article.

I agree that it's good to have more independent developers in the mix, and for the industry to be more thoughtful about what games are made (and why they are made).

However, I think that the way to support, and write about, this kind of endeavor is through a reasonable and well-balanced perspective that sees the reality of game development and suggests helpful ways forward (in such a way that those suggestions are accurate). A sense of proportion is required.

This article doesn't have that. It reads like a lot of rah-rah drinking of the Indie Kool Aid. Enthusiasm is good, and it's useful, but this article isn't going to convince anyone who has a level-headed view of game development. I don't even believe it, and I am an independent developer who is ostensibly on your side here.

Andrew Spearin
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I'm 23 and I grew up with games that are closer to what they are today (defining point: in a 3D world, and connected online) than they would be for growing up on games as a 37 year old. But of course, it's all very subjective. Think of what today's teenager playing a first-person-shooter or RPG for the first time, what their expectations for the future of games are.

Not meaning to offend the more mature crowd, but it will be more likely for the Net Generation (also labeled as Gen Y, but the Internet defines our generation better than merely following Gen X - see: ) to be the ones championing and leading the innovation, dare I say renaissance, of games. Not only because we are entering, and exiting, the academic world, but because we are more aligned with today and tomorrow's gamer than any other generation before us.

This article outlines that fact, from our perspective, extremely well. This could be our doctrine. That chart is now my desktop background.

Thomas OConnor
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"Artistically this means we'll be seeing new genres, new subject matters and new methods of play. People will interact with games in ways we can't imagine and through devices we cannot now conceive of."

I think this sums it up very well. I like to think of our gaming industry as being like Lost - no matter what you think might happen, what the industry will actually develop into will be much crazier and cooler than that.

Johannes Smidelov
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I'm 20, so games has been with me since the dawn of memory and I pretty much can't imagine life without the internet, so I'd like to say the article nails it. Unfortunately, there's plenty of uncertainty-factors in this, and the "gaming generation coming of age" can just as well solidify the current genres as it can create new ones, as some have played too much games to not be inspired by current genres. The university works great as testing-beds for new ideas, but part of the reason is that there's no economic risks involved as well as no potential money to gain. Many ex-students tends to fall in line as soon as they get out and work with the same conditions as the rest of the industry.

That being said, I'm sure new interaction methods combined with "cheaper" ways to get a game out may help, or rather prolong the return of "there's too much content here->we need marketing" and "this have worked before, let's go for it" that turns up after a time.

The point of "gamers" growing up and demanding new things as they do is hopefully true. At least I do, and I hope I'm not alone.

James Hofmann
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Jonathan: A generation is 30 years. Include a 10-15 year margin of error on both sides, and 37 years is well within the "first generation."

I don't see much to quibble with in this article, myself. There are new platforms, and simpler development processes. We're crossing the threshold towards an explosion of new monetization schemes that bring games into different markets. Academia is gradually piecing together a useful study curriculum, and I got to see some of its origins from a student's perspective. And I agree that all of these things have to add up to something.

There is one thing missing from this article, and that is the growing number of deeper gaming discussions. Whether or not you agree with the opinions, gaming journalism is increasingly going beyond purely review and preview and into sophisticated analysis. Gamasutra itself definitely became way more interesting once the blog system was set up. Similarly, I notice that the history of games is increasingly a serious endeavor. I thought I knew a lot about that - I even recall doing some major changes/additions to the "History of Video Games" article on Wikipedia some years ago, when it was still immature - but the stuff people have dragged up from the past has astonished me more and more in recent years. Everything from "Let's Play," to interviews, to unreleased prototypes. We're uncovering a wealth of information about the past now.

Yannick Boucher
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There's another thing bothering me with both this article right now, and the general discourse these days, which roughly implies that only indie developers are innovating, which is incredibly fallacious. Just because some majors are churning out sequels by the dozen, doesn't mean they don't have innovation as well, and I could state tons of examples: Mirror's Edge, Nintendo as a whole, lots of Sony's PSN offerings, etc, etc.

The constant pursuit of "AAA production values" is in itself constant innovation as well, if you ask me: innovation in telling better stories, great music systems that blend in and react to what the player is doing, advanced animation systems that create realistic lipsyncing.

In other words, I'm quite tired of this "indie = innovation, major = inertia" discourse, because, frankly, a lot of facts are voluntarily left out in this discourse. It feels more like frustration out of a David vs. Goliath situation, than a real position, sometimes.

Yes, lots of innovation coming from indies, and yes, lots of changes happening in the industry. But if you want innovation you can find it everywhere in the industry, and I could tell you that Modern Warfare 2 is a much more innovative game than anything Zynga is doing, and certainly have the arguments to back it up.

The question is, are we really talking about innovation and change, or are we indirectly talking about David winning against Goliath?

Sherban Gaciu
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I mostly agree with Johnathon Blow.

This article seems a bit overreaching. "Today the gamer is your mom and your grandmother, the five year old on the swings and the cop directing traffic. Today the gamer is the lawyer and the doctor and the movie star". While I agree that all those people /could/ be gamers, I'd argue that most are not (think about the percentage of female game players you know). And while you might contest that Solitaire is a game, I'd like to point out that you are thinking of innovative, universal games. I don't think we're quite there yet.

Also, the article makes no suggestion of /how/ to do this. I understand that this is not the purpose of the article, but it seems like, as Mr. Blow put it, "rah-rah drinking of the Indie Kool Aid". While I wholeheartedly agree that games can and should evolve past the subject matter and gameplay that limits them today, this paradigm shift isn't as easy as choosing to do so. I've been harder on this point since hearing David Jaffe's argument that games-as-art are cool, but if you try come up with one that breaks every stigma, it stops being entertaining. I disagree with his point (as I think eventually that will come) but I cannot come up with a counter-example.

Though, very well written piece, with conclusions that (while not true now) I hope will eventually come true.

Michel McBride-Charpentier
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I really didn't get an "indie games are cool" vibe from the article at all. It just seemed to be retreading Clint Hocking's talk about the upcoming generational shift, as well as adding some bits about advances in technology and distribution.

And no offense to any GenXer who grew up playing games, but it's not the same at all as GenY growing up with Mario and Doom and the Playstation. You grew up playing with daguerrotypes, while GenY had the point and shoot 35mm. I think that was his point, though perhaps poorly stated. When the current generation of kids in elementary and high school become adults they will have also grown up playing games, but it will similarly have a different meaning from how I grew up with games. They won't remember a time when games were only available on computers and TVs.

Glenn Storm
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While I respect the main article and understand Jonathan's point in comment, I think James just stole my take on it. The real flowering going on is here. These discussions on Gamasutra (and the like) about the taxonomy of game design, innovative experiments game marketing, attempts to formalize efficient game development practices; these discussions have not taken place to this degree, to this extent and at this level of discourse ever before. The real flowering is the maturation of our industry, of our domain, of our ken. Games no longer lack respect by the general public; we've won that war by any measure. What's changed is that our work now lies in developing the potential of our craft and its relationships to other more established domains (story-telling, psychology, education, ethics, philosophy, etc.), and to my eye that work has only just begun.

Ava Avane Dawn
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Graphical fidelity may no longer be the main driver for development budget for many projects in the future, but combined with the fact the games become more nisched, what's going to happen to the blockbuster?

Exciting article, got me all jiggly. ^^

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Paul Bland
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James Portnow
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I've been avoiding jumping in this discussion for a while to see how it would evolve. There are a lot of great points in these posts. I figured I'd just clarify some authorial intent, mostly that I in no way believe that the AAA games industry is going anywhere, nor would we want it to, but, as who can make games and as who buys games grows, I believe so too will the scope of "what a game is".

Christopher Wragg
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@John Smith

Actually that's more of an incredibly broad concept of what art is intended for, more than a strict definition of what art *is*.

@Jonathan Blow

he does say "home console", and considering how the first of those really only started coming out in the mid 70s, the only generation that completely covers that time period is Gen Y and a titch of Gen X, maybe Gen X if you were lucky, I suppose around when you were 10ish you might have had an Atari2600 in the home, but you'd be part of a minority. 21 year olds of today are the group of people who would have grown up around a sega mega drive or a SNES, then around teenage years (like around 14-15ish) many will have upgraded to Nintendo64 or a Playstation, to be honest it's really Gen Y, that are growing into adulthood with games prominently in their life, many Gen Xers were adults before the NES was even out, the tail end would indeed have just caught it. So what he's saying here isn't exactly an inaccurate statement.

@James hofman

Actually a generation is closer to 20 years, X is 60s to late 70s, Y is 80s to late 90s and Z is then onwards

Overall good article is my thoughts

Jeppe Bisbjerg
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There is definitely a lot of valid points in this article, however I agree that we are only just seeing the babysteps of this grand revolution of the game-medium, it is not here yet. Referring to the arrival of Scorcese, Spielberg and Lucas at the start of the 70's, and comparing it to the creation of gameschools now is asking history to repeat itself, something that I'm not quite sure will be the case in this example.

I agree wholeheartedly that gamedesign and the industry is an ever evolving organism, but with the diversified feel of interactive art, I'm quite sure that our path will be quite different compared to movies and television.

My only problem with the chart is the "Burnout of Classic Genres", in my opinion genre is a horrific tool, only usable when you're standing in the shop not knowing whether to get little Timmy a racing game or an action game. Classic genres will never burn out, but they will often launch countermovements as expressed in the chart. Keep genre out of the way and just make games, it'll make everything a whole lot easier.

Tony Hirst
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Following on from an original exploration of the culture and technology of gaming that I blogged as a journey of discovery last year ( ), I put together an online distance education course that introduced some elementary ideas related to game design and game culture within the context of the wider technological, social and commercial environment ("Digital worlds: designing games, creating alternative realities" [ ])

Rather than focussing simply on commercial computer games that might be reviewed in games comics, the course tried to identify links between the world of computer games and other cultures/sectors. So for example, augmented reality games were explored in the context of both games and web technology, and motion capture was considered in game and movie production (mo-cap). Alternate reality games were considered as a blurring of the digital and physical, real and game world divides, Google Earth was contrasted with 3D Virtual Worlds and sandbox games, and so on.

It seems to me that game technology and culture provides a great, and accessible, way in to a wider consideration of emerging digital cultures and pervasive digital technology, even for non-gamers. And as the game industry cries out for an appropriately skilled workforce, I think that the skills that were traditionally required by the computer games industry will start to be called for in related technology areas, even if the context is not one of producing games, per se.

There have been claims that providing graduates educated with the particular (and peculiar?!) blend of skills required by the games industry might do a disservice to graduates who don't make it into the industry (i.e. their skill set can be too narrow compared to a 'generic' computer science graduate, for example). However, I think that a slight recasting of what we think the games industry is (e.g. as a digital worlds or digital immersion industry) will help educators identify those skills that will allow graduates to flourish in the games industry, or those industries where game-like technologies, interfaces and metaphors are starting to be more widely used. I'm not necessarily talking about a broadening, more a recasting, where being able to code the physics for a 3D world is not a game developer skill, per se, it's more a 'digital technologist' skill that can find particular application in the game industry, or in a 3D mapping company, for example.

Dave Beaudoin
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Humanity has been playing games "forever." I think one of the important features of this article is that it highlights how the play changes. What used to be action figures and tag is now CTF and Madden. Human games have evolved over time and as every generation (of game, not people) comes into it's own it fills the same basic roles that the old games did.

The lessons that the industry can learn from film and television are important, but the same basic lessons could be learned from realist art and punk music. What excites me is that as game developers, outsmarting the failings of other media and extending the longevity of the games life is itself a game. A game that we not only understand the rules of, but understand the mechanics of. This gives us as a gaming culture more leverage to determine the position of the market and the desires of the body politic and meet those needs. Because of the lowered barriers to entry in the business those needs can be met quickly. The brilliant chart at the end of the article demonstrates this deep understanding perfectly.

This is an exciting time indeed.