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Opinion: The News Of Console Gaming's Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
Opinion: The News Of Console Gaming's Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
March 26, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

March 26, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

[Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander says that "rich gaming experiences" on console won't go out of style, despite a burgeoning social game sector that often views the triple-A space as a lumbering dinosaur.]

When a large and nuanced issue is interpreted by hundreds of thousands of people at once, the result is that the nuance is often lost in favor of the simplest takeaway. Such was the case at the 2010 Game Developers' Conference, an event reports would suggest played host to the death of traditional gaming and design.

The giant-slayer, of course, was ostensibly the general concept of "Social Gaming", a phrase that encompasses a deceptively narrow vertex of products -- not just that which is literally "social", because Team Fortress 2 and World of Warcraft (those relics!) are indeed that.

When people say "Social Gaming", they mean a few things: Games played on social networks (i.e. Facebook, because who really is psyched about the viability of MySpace and Friendster anymore?).

But beyond that, the vaguely sinister phrase refers to a certain school of game design most traditionalists find depressing: One where the goal is to create not fun or meaningful engagement, but metrics; one which aims to create of its players a legion of turnkey drones.

It's one which sets its userbase to work recruiting other players, an opportunist approach that exploits natural human tendencies of cooperation and competition to make players feel obligated to engage in repetitious tasks.

This recent column from former Civilization IV project lead and Spore designer/programmer Soren Johnson does a handy job of covering key talks and events in the social gaming space during GDC 2010. The pervasiveness of the controversy is evident.

Peak revenue for AAA gaming has passed, argue venture capitalists, and developers still toiling stubbornly away on million-dollar console games are in denial. The king is dead, they toll! The common argument points to the fact development budgets rise at a rate with which returns cannot possibly keep pace, and financiers draw tidy maps to illustrate the inevitability.

Of course, most of these prognostications are being made by investors who've taken million-dollar bets on asynchronous social play and have their fingers crossed that the Facebook gaming bubble will turn out to be more resilient than the virtual world bubble most of them were quite excited to fund just two or three years ago.

It's dangerous to presume that quality is not an issue. Without truly compelling design, will your average Farmville user be interested in the same grind a year from now?

How long will they take to figure out that throwing incremental change into a Facebook game provides them no tangible reward? The theory that many in the much-touted multi-million user figures just mess around with the game for a few weeks and grow bored has yet to be disproven.

But one doesn't need to tarnish the gloss of excitement all over the Facebook gaming boom in order to see the case for the enduring viability of AAA. The secret weapons are tools that are getting more powerful and less expensive, plus teams that are getting smaller and more agile.

Perhaps "traditional" development -- 200-man teams spending millions of dollars over years to create a first-person shooter, working as segregated departments toward fixed milestones -- is indeed less relevant in today's climate.

New ways of viewing development are surfacing, as successes like ThatGameCompany and Naughty Dog are producing work that stands in support of the concept that treating teams as flexible and human (rather than cogs in an elaborate machine solely in service to a publisher) produces profitable games. Explosive successes from the indie scene are showing the merit of rapid prototyping for the discovery of new concepts.

This year at GDC, plenty of people came to talk about the death of traditional development and the rise of Facebook, but less discussed were the wide variety of development practices in play. For the first time, every developer to whom you spoke had a different and personalized internal collaboration process, rather than a prior era that only saw one way to do things.

And new tools (Unreal Engine 3's procedural city-builder comes to mind) are making development more efficient and less expensive. AAA developers aren't dinosaurs on the way to extinction, but beings capable of evolution.

Certainly, the cream of the social gaming crop will rise to the surface and gain permanence; there's not only room for light web-based experiences alongside full-scale living room gaming experiences, there's a need for them. But rich gaming experiences -- not shallow reward structures designed to drive numbers -- will continue to get smarter, cheaper and faster. News of AAA gaming's death has been greatly exaggerated.

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gus one
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I have decided to throw my GoW3, Heavy Rain, Dead Space, Bad Company 2, Mass Effect 1 and 2, Dragon Origins, Assasins Creed 2, Resident Evil 5, Batman Arkham, Mirrors Edge, MAG, Race Driver Grid, IL1942, L4D's, all Half lifes, Red Orchestra, Killing Floor, Freespace 2, Far Cry 1 and 2, All Battlefields, All Medal of Honors and Crysis into the bin and just play Farmville from now because it is the future.

Mark Venturelli
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This was a mission for Captain Obvious, but I'm glad that at least someone is stating it. There are no "deaths" in ways of expression, just new perspectives that forces us to change and adapt. Good article, Leigh.

Alex Covic
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Who was this guy, who recently said "we do not fear the future, we shape it?" ...

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@Alex---Barack Obama said that in a speech.

Console gaming isn't going away. Simply put, there are enough people who enjoy a more engaging and profound experience than what Facebook has, and most likely will ever, have to offer.

Eric Rosloff
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I'm reminded of similar claims in the computing world that the desktop pc is dead.

Jason Avent
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Facebook games are a replacement for Solitaire, web surfing and Minesweeper, not for proper games. There is nothing like sitting down to a triple A game on a console with a big TV and a surround sound system. Our market is full of ardent, dedicated fans. I'd argue that farmville players are pretty fickle and harder to monetize consistently in the long term.

That said, I think we can do alot better in social gaming than Farmville. Putting a decent game in there would be a start. Then breaking down boudaries between devices, individual games and activities will be the next big leap.

Jason Avent
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@flytrap - this is a very unlikely future at the moment. The market you describe is like the pre-iphone cell phone market and it lacks standardisation. That'll make it difficult to develop for. Also I can't see any single manufacturer having the chops to put that much tech development into a TV. Maybe I'm wrong. I guess one that integrated glasses-free 3D technology and motion tracking would be pretty cool. Maybe that's Apple's next job - it would be a great way to itunes movies and TV into the living room. If there is a single platform to develop for then excellent. However if that's the case, it'll be the big name developers and publishers who win because gamers will still want high-end, deep experiences on their new all-singing, all-dancing boxes.

Both types of gaming are valid and have a future I think.

Adam Miller
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I agree with Jason that console gaming is an entirely different beast. It's a total apples to oranges comparison -- these are simply different markets being tapped. One's success in no way negatively impacts the success of the other. In addition to the "solitaire" factor Jason observes, there's also the simple fact that non-gamers are suddenly in position of a variety of platforms capable of playing games and with built-in digital storefronts. It's truly a new market.

As to the article, I would question whether quality is needed to hook people for life -- I have to wonder whether Leigh has ever visited a casino. People will sit in front of slot machines for hours, and that's terribly boring and rarely provides any payoff. Facebook games (and MMORPGs) operate similarly, adding a competitive element. I have little doubt that a literal casino model, with money involved, is in the future for many of these games.

To me, one of the great hopes is the indie game community. While I believe most developers undervalue their work, it's still a fact that many indie developers aren't primarily motivated by money. There's good reason to believe someone will develop a more compelling WoW or Farmville with a much less obscene pricing scheme -- a traditional business just can't compete with someone uninterested in maximizing his or her profit.

gus one
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The smart money would be on (for example) EA to get its Playfish sub to create social games for social networking platforms like f%ckbook based on it existing EA franchises. Start off with a simple numbnuts version of a EA title on a social network. Once they are hooked make it easy for them to upgrade to the console version for the fuller experience. Do that and they will pull in new console gamers who started as social gamers but then took the plunge and followed a social game title to the console version. Easy money and now the Playfish acquisition doesn't look so expensive... And stick it on an iphone for good measure.

Kimberly Unger
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I would almost argue that the "social" games are going to ultimately prove to be a boost to the AAA market at the end of the day. Social games are introducing tens of thousands of people to the idea of gaming as a pastime/hobby (people who, previously, would have laughed at you if you suggested they might find videogames engaging). It will soften the future market, people who might have been resistant will now look at a console and say "hey, that might be fun too", not only lowering the psychological barrier to entry (older social gamers shifting to XBLA games, for example) but also educating the broader population to the concept of games as something other than what psychos-in-training do in their parents basement...

Wyatt Epp
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Haha, "PC gaming is dead; consoles are the future!" (This again? The PC space has been chuckling over the very same thing for what...going on two decades now?)

Ben Allen
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I haven't played a AAA game for a year, they are already dead to me. There is more than enough fun to be had in the various independent distribution channels for my gaming experiences. Combining these channels with a cloud based gaming system should be interesting.

[User Banned]
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Kumar Daryanani
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Call them "social network games" if the existing nomenclature bothers you.

I think Kimberly is correct, eventually some (smart) developer is going to make some great games on Facebook that have actual gameplay and attract people who dislike the current FB game model. There's a lot of precedent in asynchronous gameplay that hasn't been tapped yet, and these, better games will attract core gamers to the platform to play when they are away from their consoles or don't have the time to boot up a full-fledged AAA game.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the success of SNGs, but a lot of people aren't seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks for writing this Leigh.

Jesse Tucker
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People still buy plenty of novels despite the presence of People magazine.

These "Progress Quest you play with your friends" games don't really satisfy what gamers want, and there is an established industry based off of satisfying gamers. That industry won't go away, rather it will expand to accommodate these new players interested in Farmville and whatnot.

Joe Cooper
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"Jason, you can put anything in a web browser, and that's where the future of gaming is headed"

Of course, just like how you can write anything in Java and that's why all software is written in Java now.

Bart Stewart
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Given the stampede toward Facebook it’s understandable to wonder about the long-term viability of the sprawling AAA games (not just the console platform) that make up core gaming. But no, I don’t think they’re doomed, either.

Social network platforms are the true home of the “casual gamer.” And while some of these casual gamers may be lured into core gaming as Kimberly suggests, I think most will remain turned off by the perception of core games (and, perhaps, core gamers) as in-your-face competitive and destructive.

So not just any game will work on a social network. To the extent that the big AAA games continue to be mostly about the old ultraviolence, they’ll continue to need their own platform.

I agree that news of the death of AAA games has been exaggerated. But I don’t think a rush to *also* make light cooperative games for social networks constitutes a serious threat to AAA games (or consoles). If that’s enough to kill them, they had it coming.

Chris Melby
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I concur. :)

M. Smith
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Why is that every time something new comes along people start running around like they're on fire screaming about how everything previous is going to wither and die and babies will start being born with three feet is we don't JUMP ON THE BANDWAGON NOW!!!

Learn from history. In the mid-80s people said gaming said gaming was dead and the fad had passed. It didn't. In the mid 90s people said that single-player was dead and everyone would be playing multi-player games. That never happened. In the late 90s people said that PC gaming was dead. PC gaming is still here.

And now people say consoles are dead and we're all going to be playing Facebook games. It will never happen. Ever. Its ridiculous.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Tawna Evans
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One major appeal of many social games is that they take very little time to play. Console games suck away an hour or more for a single play session. Social games can take as little as a few seconds to play at a time.

Dv8thwonder GunplayNotoy
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The "social network games" is the simplest yet deadliest form of disruption. It's only a matter of time before they become larger in scope and budget. Farmville is only the beginning.

Patrick Dugan
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From a buzz thread earlier today:

Wow, if you can't break even with 1.5 million sales your business model is completely broken:

Ninja Theory Didn't “Break Even” With Heavenly Sword | Edge Online

Tom Long - Developing for 7th Gen Consoles is a nearly broken business model.12:26 pm

Patrick Dugan - Yeah if you're downloadable and/or multi-platform AND (big and) your game is stellar, you can do double digit returns, but the odds are cruel. I mean, I'm not pretending the odds aren't cruel in social games or with indie PC or whatever, power law distributions are everywhere, especially the entertainment industry. The big question is what you have to go through to roll those dice, and I prefer the short dev cycles and iterative post-launch.

Patrick Dugan
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Let's take a third option.

Farmville might gateway a couple hundred thousand people into AAA games, but it won't be a meaningful number.

Games are not going to all go the way of Farmville, being mired in "the trap" as Adam Curtis put it.

Farmville players will grow into something more interesting and developers will have to use critical thinking and question the assumptions underlying their metrics, and what will result will be very interesting, possibly making the final leap to eclipse film and television in terms of mass cultural relevance.

Nicholas Lovell
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I wrote a blog post (and book proposal) called The Death of the Console. I believe it is dying.

But that is not the same as saying that AAA games are dead. It is arguing that a business model that requires a consumer to buy $500 of hardware and $50 a game to subsidise a box on the television that is off 90% of the time is dead.

The biggest threat is to Sony and Microsoft. There is still a place for expensive, high-fidelity gaming content. I just think it won't take place on dedicated boxes any more.


Leon T
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Console gaming is not dying. Part of the game industry is. The part that think it is fine to spend 20 plus million on games that are no longer than 10 hours long and full of so many cut sceens they feel more like movies.

The part that likes to blame consumers for their games not selling , because they think that they are such great artist that only a fool would not buy their game. This is also the part that likes to blame used games, market conditions, and other publishers for their own weak business model.