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It's been a year of exciting evolution for the game industry that can only be expected to continue. In fact, there are so many changes going on that Gamasutra was hard-pressed to choose just 20 major trends.
The final list was pared down from an initial selection of over 40, and we probably could have thought of many more -- especially as the industry expands to encompass everything from casual online games to Facebook apps, alongside three dedicated consoles and two handheld platforms.
There's so much diversity that choosing isn't simple, but, in a separate feature article, we've identified and explained 20 trends that have risen to the level that they cannot be ignored -- and here are just five of them.
1. The Continued Rise Of Outsourcing
Speak to any number of developers these days about asset generation, and the topic of outsourcing is never far from the discussion. Some companies, such as Alex Seropian's Wideload Games and American McGee's Spicy Horse Games, have built their business models around a "core" team, while using contractors for much of the process.
Whether or not you do, however, it's becoming increasingly relevant in these cost-cutting times. Major publishers, like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Konami, among others, maintain their own fully-owned outsourcing studios in China, which primarily handle art requests.
Though it's most prominent, it's not just Asian outsourcing that is necessarily the most relevant. Wideload's model suggests finding the most talented and experienced practitioners to produce the components of the game.
For example, in the case of Hail to the Chimp, the creators found a firm that had worked on actual news programs to do the game's faux-newscast motion graphics. In this sense, it's as much about talent and relevance as it is about savings, and points to another sign of the "Hollywoodized" future at which the industry continues to hint.
2. Casual MMOs? For Kids!
This market, which began under the radar and burst into headlines last year with the $350 million (plus incentives) acquisition of Club Penguin by Disney, continues to maintain its relevance in important ways.
Chief among them: MMO mavens' firm belief that the kids playing Club Penguin and other kids' MMOs today will demand services that offer similar (but improved) functionality as they outgrow these sites.
When their first taste of the power of social gaming technology is a Disney online world and not a Wii or Xbox 360, the expectations that drive the industry's possibilities for online interaction are being set outside of what is often considered the "norm".
Daniel James, president of casual MMO developer and publisher Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates) puts it this way: "People talk about the digital generation or whatever you want to call them... but I think there is a genuine shift when you have access to something at a young age. It changes your way of looking at the world."
With perhaps a glut of cute, original IP, venture-funded kids' worlds out there alongside a number of major brand-based and consumer-friendly projects (FusionFall from Cartoon Network, Gaia Online's zOMG!) yet to completely launch, it's a space that's still rapidly expanding.
3. You Don't Want DRM - You Want Services
As piracy grows ever easier, and as users become more and more vocal about the measures publishers take to try and stop it -- witness the Spore DRM controversy -- the appeal of user-friendly DRM lumped into a subscription service seems like the best solution.
After all, very few players complain about the fact that World of Warcraft is tied to a unique account that costs a constant $15 per month fee to keep playable -- because that's the very point of the game.
But even for games that don't require online interaction, the tied-to-an-account model can work a charm: Valve's Steam service is typically extremely well-regarded, thanks to its selection of games, its appealing community features, and most recently, the addition of its Steam Cloud service.
This makes online integration all the more relevant, as user data is stored on servers and accessible on any PC the player logs into. Surely, providing a tangible benefit for users to tie themselves to a verification system is the way to make to help the copy protection-related medicine go down?
4. Downloadable Content - A Cure For All Game Ills?
Whether or not GameStop's management wants to admit it, many developers and publishers consider the used game market to be, well, less than benevolent. Whether it should or can be stamped out completely is not the issue; few would disagree that at least discouraging players from selling games back quickly is a good idea.
One of the best current tools for doing so is downloadable content -- or as Xbox Live group program manager Alvin Gendrano put it at Microsoft's GameFest this year, "Using [premium DLC] we can keep your games being used over a long time. The longer your users play your titles, the less chance they give those titles away to retailers and sell them for used."
Moreover, stats Gendrano released suggest that games with strong DLC retain their market value for longer: "Games with PDLC were still selling for $59 in [the second quarter of their release lifespans]; those without were selling for $56." And Microsoft's Gears of War 2 recently took a new tactic; it shipped with one-time-use coupon for free DLC that can only be downloaded by the initial purchaser.
EA/Criterion's Burnout Paradise
Perhaps the boldest mover in this space, however, is EA's Criterion studio, which has launched the "Year of Paradise" initiative for the company -- its Burnout Paradise, first released in January, is still receiving substantive free DLC on a regular basis, with its first paid pack, Big Surf Island, coming approximately one year after the game's retail release.
5. The Inevitable User-Created Content Entry
LittleBigPlanet is generally viewed as the watershed moment for user-created content in console games. It's true that the game invites and champions it, and has a flexible environment for its creation.
But it's not the only example, and it's sure to be far from the final one. Heck, Microsoft's XNA Community Games experiment, while flooding its Xbox 360 channel with games that are difficult to sort through at times, at least shows the potential of handing console game creation over to high-level hobbyists -- another win for UCC.
And for conventional retail games, as professional creation of content gets ever more expensive, as the economy worsens, as the YouTube generation comes of age, the need to extend the lifespan and interest of titles continues to grow -- for retention and acquisition reasons.
Can there be any doubt that user-created content will become bigger and bigger? With the advent of the form -- big on PCs in one way and another for years -- on consoles in a truly user-friendly, 21st century way, it's going to drive the direction of the medium as much as any other recent innovation.