Game developers reflect on a changed console landscape
November 21, 2013
As part of our series looking back on a generation of game consoles, Christian Nutt speaks with game developers who have been a part of that change.
How games are made, how they're purchased, and even in some cases, the definition of games has changed dramatically over the course of the past console generation.
Big games got bigger, and encompassed more and more features -- and to stay competitive, the most successful companies scaled up their productions to match the rising bar of player expectations. Mid-tier console games began to fail -- and then all but ceased to exist. The definition of what a console game is -- or has to be -- shifted.
But as triple-A games were ballooning, a new breed of independent developer rose to prominence. Some are individuals; others are small teams. Some studios changed their working methodology to capitalize on new audiences and new ways of developing games, in concert with their communities.
What do developers want or expect out of the next generation of games? And what have they learned from working on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? As the next generation of video game consoles launches, Gamasutra spoke to an array of developers to find out what they learned over the course of the prior generation, and what they hope and expect will happen, moving forward.
One recurring theme was self-determination. With the rise of direct download games and major independent successes, developers see an opportunity to forge their own fates without being beholden to publishers -- even those who have had successful relationships in the past.
Malik Boukhira left his job with Ubisoft Montreal developing Assassin's Creed to found Spearhead Games, a small, agile indie studio developing downloadable games.
"In triple-A, it's super awesome to work on big games like Assassin and things like that, but these days it's become heavier and heavier to work on these titles, and it's not super flexible to try new things and experiment," Boukhira says.
"We have a new generation of hardware, but we also have something changing in the way the industry is going... There are new opportunities, and the way things move and the way things change so fast, we wanted basically to be part of that change, to have the flexibility, to see whatever's coming and be part of it, try new things, and have, basically, that freedom."
Sheldon Carter, studio general manager of Digital Extremes -- which is self-publishing its free-to-play shooter Warframe on the PlayStation 4 -- sees freedom for his studio.
"For so long we've been making games and working with publishers who had control of everything. Not that we didn't like the games that we've worked on in the past, but they've never been something we had full control over," Carter says.
The central question that led to the development of Warframe, says Carter, is "'Hey, why don't we take this game we always really wanted to make, and try to make it as a free game, and see if players will pay for it?' And then if they pay for it, we can make it bigger."
Freedom isn't just creative freedom, of course, but also freedom to conduct business as a studio. After releasing several games through publishers successfully, such as Mark of the Ninja and Shank, Klei Entertainment is self-publishing Don't Starve on PlayStation 4: "We self-published Don't Starve on the PC, and it's been a huge hit for us. Because nobody else has taken a cut of it or anything, we've really managed to put more back into the company and keep doing more stuff, and not have to go out and sign publisher deals. Not that we're against doing that, but we don't have to. It's freed us in a lot of ways," says Klei's Matthew Marteinsson.
"We're not turning our back on publishers," says Jared Gerritzen, studio director of Zombie Studios, which is self-publishing Blacklight: Retribution on the PS4 after partnering with Perfect World for its PC release. "But we did fight for this, because we put so much blood, sweat, and tears into the Blacklight IP, that when we got the console, instead of bringing it to another publisher, we went to Sony and said, 'Hey, we want to try this ourselves.' And it's very exciting, because it's living and dying by your own sword."
Says Gerritzen, "Any time that you have a game, you always look on the other side of like, 'Oh, I wish we did that, or I wish we did this,' and now it's all us that's doing it. There's no 'I wish you hads.' It's a lot of just 'must-dos.'"
Big and Small Games Will Thrive
One thing that developers across the board agreed upon is that both big and small games will thrive on the next generation of consoles.
Brianna Code, a former Assassin's Creed coder who's now the lead programmer on Ubisoft Montreal's downloadable RPG Child of Light is at the forefront of her big studio's diversification into smaller titles. "I think we're already seeing more of that happening," Code says. "Mid-level projects, lots of indies -- indie games are blowing up, and there's still lots of room for the big triple-A guys as well."
"I think there's definitely room for both," agrees Carsten Myhill, lead content manager for Assassin's Creed IV. "It's great that Sony are supporting those smaller games, or indie-style games. When games like Assassin's Creed come out, it's an event. People love a blockbuster, people love the feeling of being part, having those water cooler moments where everybody's getting the game at the same time and they can share their experiences, and I don't think that's going to go away, because we see that in TV. People want to watch, have this shared experience with something -- have that experience at the same time. I think that's where the blockbuster games will continue to thrive."
Child of Light
But it won't just be tiny games and big games, says Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer and co-creator of Child of Light. His game represents "the middle ground," he says, "and that's where I think we have a lot of room this generation. That kind of project is in the middle between indie -- that's not as accessible, necessarily -- and triple-A games that are 60 hours."
Boukhira, the former Assassin's Creed designer turned indie, agrees: "I think you can fragment it much more than even it is right now. You can have super tiny games like on mobile, and the big awesome mega $100-million games, and anything in between."
The important thing is handling production intelligently, says Klei's Marteinsson. "We've got four different projects on the go. We're like 35 people, but it's split up into several teams. But it's great, that's how we keep that many people working full time. We really don't use contractors that much. We really try to stay away from that."
Team Structure and Production Style
To Marteinsson's point, it was clear that developers in general are putting a lot of thought and effort into production for next-generation games -- no matter the size of their studio. Lessons have been learned. The raw horsepower of the new consoles requires not just new technology but new ways of thinking, developers tell Gamasutra.
"I think that we structure teams differently, but I don't think it's because of the next-gen consoles; I think it's because we want to make the games bigger and better all the time," says DICE's Thomas Andersson, lead multiplayer designer on Battlefield 4.
What's key? "I think the key thing that comes to mind is the scalability. Not only around graphics, being able to scale. We're up to five, six platforms, and we look great across all of those platforms. And having tech, an engine that can do that, is critical. To be able to make a game that's still large, but within scope, but you can still manage to produce the thing without 400, 500 people," says Nicholas Ruepp of Vicarious Visions, senior producer on Skylanders: Swap Force.
Production across all disciplines, says Ruepp, has become "more efficient and polished," which he says is now "required to make great games, that are highly rated and that fans respond to. To be able to deliver over-the-top interactive experiences, especially for next-gen, I think it's absolutely a requirement."
That scaling up, says Code, offers both complexities and rewards: "The teams are getting bigger and bigger. And then the games are getting more and more complex. Some of the ideas before that were just dream ideas, we can do now. And the risks become bigger, because we've got that many people involved."
Skylanders: Swap Force
Brian Bright, project director at Neversoft on Call of Duty Ghosts, offers one example from his studio of how next-gen projects have scaled up tremendously already, in terms of the studio's automated build system. "We start running out of disk space; we have to buy way more powerful machines to crunch these maps and be efficient. So it has changed our methodologies, and it's a magnitude of scale. I think this generation is an order of magnitude over the previous change, for us, at least. I can say in compile times and just working. But fortunately you can buy more powerful computers! It just costs more money and more logistics to work out."
But there is a way to combat complexity: through clever use of new techniques by well-run teams. "What I would love to see is, we're going to have to start looking at how to do things. Instead of focusing on the efficiency of the software, we have to focus on the efficiency of the teams. Try and to do things maybe procedurally a bit more," says Code.
The knowledge transfer of triple-A developers who move into the indie space creates exciting possibilities for efficient game production, argues Boukhira. "We worked super fast, because our development process is very iteration-based, and there is very little hierarchy and structure into the studio. We all sit in a circle, so we can all make decisions super fast and change things super fast... we learned a lot working on these big projects, certain elements of structure. But at the same time, we wanted to add something that was more flexible, a feedback loop between what's going on in the game and what we do next, which is more efficient, basically."
High hopes for new tech
While great games don't necessarily need the latest and greatest tech, developers we spoke with look forward to ways they can stretch their creativity further with increased computing capcity.
"What I'm really excited about for next gen is the bigger processing power," says Code. "Where I'd like to see games go is focused less with graphics and that stuff, and more on deep gameplay systems or AI systems, because I'm an AI programmer. And the more power there is in the consoles, if we can do graphics justice and have processing power left over for this stuff, I'm excited."
"As consoles evolve, the closer you can get to creative people being able to put stuff directly into the game, even more you're going to get an impression of the artists, and you're going to have less of a homogenized work. So I think any evolution in hardware is great for that," says Yohalem. "Yes, we can focus less on optimization and more on empowering the content creators," Code agrees.
As far as doing that, says Assassin's Creed IV lead engineer Alexandre Begnoche, "It's going well. This is just the first generation, but you can see into the future. Just in one year or two years, titles will have new ideas, new immersion systems, and you'll feel just more into the game."
That's because, he says, the new generation of consoles is closer to PC architecture, and that is helping programmers learn the ropes much faster than last time around. "From a developer point of view, if it's easy to put our content out, it means better games or games that take less time to produce. So for us it's just a big win... And the artists are so much happy, because they have tools, they can change stuff, they can prototype their ideas much faster. And also the next gen is bringing more connectivity tools, more integrated things, so it's fun to try ideas on that."
These advances will open up better storytelling, the developers hope. Already, Assassin's Creed IV has focused on more nonlinear and optional storytelling, and Myhill expects that trend to continue as the series moves fully into the next gen: "It's just obviously the time to generate that content, but the infrastructure is there to contain it, so that's what we hope to push even more in the future. And of course, more personalization, for example, things like that."
Personally, Code "would love to see us abandon linear stories and come up with open world games with stories that come together from lots of concurrent stories with some kind of procedural system, maybe."
Jeffrey Yohalem, the Child of Light co-creator, hopes that his game is one in a wave that will help open up new games for new audiences. For him, the console transition is less about technology and more about cultural changes within video games and the game industry itself. "As we create experiences that are for the mainstream, and speak to different people's life experience, the more you'll have different people buying consoles, so it's kind of a chicken and the egg thing. And we, from the content provider side, try to get more people in to play because we love games. That's why we make them."