On Tuesday night on the Stanford campus, a panel discussion titled "The Post Wii World: Gaming Companies on the Firing Line" sought to address the future of gaming, specifically with respect to interactive devices and social networks.
The event was hosted by the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLAB), the San Francisco chapter of the MIT Enterprise Forum, which is a nonprofit organization focused around generating forums and panels of high-tech entrepreneurs.
Though the Wii itself was barely even mentioned, it served as a conceptual backdrop to illustrate a new area into which the game industry is dumping money as a result of new interactive innovations.
Introducing The Moderators
The panel was moderated by two individuals: Mike Zyda, the director of USC Gamepipe Laboratory, and Tim Chang, a venture capitalist for Northwest Venture Partners. Given the panel's subtitle ("Gaming Companies on the Firing Line"), it seemed as though the moderators - particularly Zyda - were attempting to ask controversial questions and prod the panelists, but the discussion was relatively tame, and the interaction between the panelists was humorous and playful.
A handful of questions were taken from the audience at the end of the panel, but the evening was largely an opportunity for the panelists to discuss their company, their product, and their take on the future of gaming.
Moderator Zyda - well-known for his work on the taxpayer-funded computer game America's Army - began by covering what he thought were current "hot topics" in games: social modeling in massively multiplayer online games (algorithms that look at gameplay and can predict what will happen next in the game based on user behavior), "weekly interactives" (dynamically drawing in massively multiplayer game content without having to disconnect from the client), human-aware computing (games that respond to emotional data), and real-world fed games (that feed real-world data into the virtual world, such as the weather at a particular location).
Tim Chang, the panel's other moderator, praised the gaming industry's move from title-based business models (where profits rest on the success of a single game) to more flexible, longer-lasting, and innovative business models involving episodic content, widgets, behavioral models, and the like.
In contrast to Zyda's look at technologies in development, Chang, a true venture capitalist, offered his suggestions on solid business models in which to invest: massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), massively multiplayer alternative reality games (what he calls "the physicalization of virtual worlds"), music gaming, virtual worlds (in particular moving them to web browsers), and more connected virtual services.
The bulk of the evening was devoted to the panelists introducing themselves and discussing the companies they founded or represent.
Emotiv's Brain Powered Tech
The first panelist to speak was Nam Do, co-founder and CEO of Emotiv Systems, a neuroengineering company. ("Don't worry if you've never heard of that word, because I just invented it," Do joked.) Emotiv was a big hit at this year's GDC, presenting their revolutionary headset that uses electroencephalography (EEG) to read brain activity and translate it into action in a game. His goal is not necessarily to replace the traditional controller, but to supplement it. "At Emotiv," he explained, "we create technology that allows a machine to read not only your conscious thought, but also your non-conscious expression and emotions."
Numerous scenarios spring to mind. Take this example: you're playing a first-person shooter. In a heavy firefight, your character is severely shot up and near death. Rather than just popping a health pack and staying in the line of fire, instead you have to get out of the line of fire and remain calm for several seconds in order to get your health back up. Alternatively, Do suggested, imagine a horror game that would play your heartbeat on the speakers when you were extremely nervous.
With scenarios like this, Do tried to convince the audience to think beyond traditional button-mashing as a gameplay experience. He argued that there are many game actions where "pressing a button doesn't give you the experience - doesn't give you the fantasy." Let's just hope the next Hulk game doesn't demand that players hone their rage in order to play.
One of the more interesting points brought up about the device, though, was the notion of dynamic difficulty adjustment. While some games do this algorithmically based on player performance, dynamic difficulty adjustment based on actual emotion may do wonders for games trying to reach a broader market, since frustration (or even the expectation of frustration) may turn away many gamers.
So how much will this mind-reading helmet sell for? "Cheaper than the PS3," Do winked.
Kongregate's 'YouTube For Games'
Next to introduce himself was Jim Greer. Co-founder and CEO of Kongregate, a website that houses free user-generated flash games, Greer ambitiously described his site as the "YouTube of video games." But Kongregate goes a step further by trying to create a robust community loosely similar to Xbox Live's model, with achievements, awards, and prizes awarded to players who design the best games (chosen by site member votes).
His company is centered around the increasing desire - the need, even - of many gamers to have a strong community centered around the games they play, and a venue in which to brag about their accomplishments. "Part of the way games work is that they trick your brain into thinking you're accomplishing something," said Jim, eliciting laughter from the audience. Publicly-viewable achievements are that trick.
Trion World's Online Infrastructure Tech
When Lars Butler took to the podium, he jokingly addressed Nam Do's EEG technology: "We make video games. We use our brainwaves to do it, but for the input and output we still need our hands!" As co-founder and CEO of Trion World Network, Butler is intent on exploiting broadband connections for the next generation of games.
In his own words: "We have developed technologies that allow you to take the games out of the client and move everything that's logic into a very sophisticated server architecture." This, he claimed, would allow you to change your games in realtime, and you would no longer be limited by the capabilities of your own gaming device - only the distributed server network. Even with this technology, though, Trion's business model is not about being a "platform" or "middleware" company - instead, they focus on being a publisher with the intention of building content.
Emsense's Gaming Brainwave Analysis
Hans Lee was the last to get up, and introduced himself as the co-founder and CTO of Emsense.) His company has produced a device that, like Do's, uses an EEG biometric device to analyze brainwaves. But instead of translating these brainwaves into action, Lee's headset graphs these brainwaves to generate metrics for the purpose of evaluating game design. "What is it that makes a video game a top ten seller?" he asked. "Marketing helps. Luck helps sometimes. But what really makes it work is the experience it gives." What players want, he argued, is engaging and intense gameplay, and the way to deliver it is to move away from metrics based on self-reporting to more objective analysis obtained from EEG.
"One in five video games right now makes money," Lee said. "In an industry this huge, that's a scary number. A reason for that is that there's a missing link [...] We have that missing link." Demonstrating through a short video how their EEG device measured emotion and arousal while people played Gears of War, he hypothesized that the reason that so many players like the game is because it bores you - effectively. There are numerous occasions when the player is in control but nothing is happening. Arousal drops. Then suddenly the player is re-engaged with intense action. (Interesting side note: the most positive emotional responses in Gears occur when players use the chainsaw bayonet to saw their enemies into blood-splattered halves. Go figure.)
Test subjects are apparently pulled from a pool of 4000 participants based on what kind of consumers the client intends to target. Emsense also tests participants they consider to be on the "fringe" of the client's target consumer, with the hope that measuring these players' responses may offer opportunities to more fully engage and expand their audience.
Moderator Chang raised a fear about such evaluative metrics. "If you create these templates - reverse-engineering successful games - does that 'templatize' the game industry more?" Lee responded that this was researched early on, and that no one template guaranteed success. "All the [games] that do well - every piece that they did creates an engagement that you would say makes sense."
Indeed, "engagement that makes sense" was the theme of the evening. Given both the response from gaming communities as well as the money being poured into R&D for new interactive devices, the gaming landscape may be unimaginably different within the next decade - or so these panelists would have us believe.