[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.