Wednesday is the day the Game Developers Conference opens to the relative masses, and as such it's the day for the onset of festivities: the first platform keynote (Sony, in this case), the Game Developers Choice Awards, and – right up front – the GDC 2006 statement-of-intent. Following the theme of the 2006 conference, a panel of five industry veterans (of various levels of celebrity and influence) gathered to discuss "what's next" for the game industry, what with the pending change of hardware generations, the new and changing attitudes about game design to come about in the last twelve months or so, and serious concerns about the stability and structure of the game industry as it is now.
Gathered for this occasion were EALA VP of creative development Louis Castle, NanaOn-sha president Masaya Matsuura, Midway art director Cyrus Lum, Cerny Games founder Mark Cerny, and the inimitable Dave Perry, formerly (and presumably eventually again) of Shiny Entertainment.
So, What is Next Anyway?
Asked what they envisioned for the industry, if current trends continue in a logical manner, each panelist had his own spin – none of which seemed to conflict in principle. Dave Perry spoke of increased specialization for development teams; for instance, one team might put all of its energy into learning the PSP from back to front, so if anyone needs PSP work done, that team will always be on the short list. Likewise, specific teams might specialize more on certain kinds of games, or a combination of platform and style.
Perry also spoke of the soaring price of development, which is getting passed on to the consumer more and more. He referenced the Korean market, and speculated it might hold answers for reducing the "price per hour" ratio for consumers.
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Mark Cerny referenced Nintendogs, and wondered if maybe it was a taste of the "real" mass market that has so long been eluding the videogame industry. Cerny wondered whether the "traditional" video game market, built on a teetering tower of what's come before and targeted almost exclusively toward established gamers, were the real niche. Louis Castle took exception to that idea; it's not so much that video games as we know them are a niche, he said – more like a specialization. They're a product of focus and efficiency in design.
Though that may be so, Perry agreed there was a drastic need to shake up the old forms. Interfaces, in particular, are still stuck in the stone age. Perry mused on older arcade games, each of which had its own specialized means of input. Something was lost, he said, once controls started to be standardized. As it is, it's hard to innovate or to address the mass market with current controllers, as they've come to evolve. Perry spun an anecdote of an occasion where his father came up to him when Perry was playing a soccer game. His father was astounded at how realistic the game looked, and asked to give it a try. When Perry handed him the controller, though, his father hadn't the first clue what to do with it. The pad quickly overwhelmed him, and he handed it back to Perry, discouraged. Perry suggested that recent developments like Guitar Hero, and Nintendo's Revolution and DS, might be the first step toward addressing these problems.
Noticing that Masaya Matsuura had been sitting quietly through the whole discussion, the rest of the panel asked for his impressions. Speaking in relatively smooth English, despite the distribution of translation headsets, Matsuura commented that he liked what Nintendo has been doing lately. He then mused on the unforeseen complications that new technology can often bring about, such as the input delay caused by the modern plasma televisions that everyone in Japan has begun to upgrade to, and the difficulty it poses for music and rhythm-based games.
Downsides of the Next Generation
On that note, the panel turned to potential downsides of the next hardware generation. Mark Cerny revived concerns with how expensive videogames are becoming. He said though everyone expected prices to soar, no one was really prepared for what that meant. He said everyone just expected middleware would take up most of the slack, then expressed confusion as to what people meant by "middleware" anyway. Were they talking about Renderware? If so, that model has been shown less effective than it might be. Were people referring to a bunch of individual components that could be bought and pieced together? Cerny suggested some real thought go into this issue.
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Louis Castle figured the simple answer was that, in design, "less is more". He expressed irritation that modern controllers have too many buttons on them; simply having them there "makes us sloppy", as designers aren't encouraged to refine their ideas; quite the opposite, having so many buttons makes a person feel obligated to use them all somehow. Thus, as Castle sees it, one of the big problems with current videogames: they tend to "do too many things". They have too many functions, too many elements, too many controls that are just in there because someone might think they're cool. In short, there is no discipline to their design. With fewer buttons, the developer is forced to reevaluate what the player is going to be doing; what the emotional triggers will be for the player, and how to build the game around them. It's those triggers that designers have to focus on. "We can't just slap stuff together."
Mark Cerny nodded along. "Yeah," he said, "what do you want the player to experience?" Games today tend to be developed kind of backwards. Ideally what you want is to decide what emotions you want to key off in the player, then to examine from there what game systems will best get those emotions across. Players don't care about knobs and bells for their own sake; when they play video games, they want to feel something. The systems are just there to facilitate that. Or at least, they should be. Of course when games are caught in this sequel cycle that they're in now, when game mechanics are just repeated because they've been done before, it's hard to introduce new concepts.
Dave Perry shifted gears somewhat, by explaining that one advantage a new hardware generation provides is a new ground floor for original properties. Introducing new ideas toward the end of a hardware cycle can result in your game getting lost and buried under the blizzard of sequels and clones. Being one of only a handful of games on a platform, however, gives your game immediate visibility and the potential to shape future development.
While everyone was on the ever-popular topic of sequels, Mark Cerny explained with a touch of hyperbole that, the way things are now, whenever you introduce a big new game you can pretty much expect to end up in the hole in the short term. It's not until the "third sequel" that you begin to see a return of investment. "You're in it for the long haul," Cerny said.
Continuing on the theme of discipline, Cerny commented that if there's an "800-pound gorilla" for a modern project, it will typically be art. Art is the biggest expense, and "get it wrong, it'll kill your project." Yet, as the industry is arranged now, developers often rebuild their art "two, three, four times." An ice level gets scrapped and turned into a fire level. The designer will tell an artist that he wants a monster, and just to draw whatever she wants; when the artist brings her work in, the designer tells her he wanted something completely different. As with controls and emotions, Cerny insisted that developers need more discipline in defining what they want. "Artists aren't psychic," he said. Developers need to work on processes that will allow designers to better communicate with their artists.
Returning to the "long haul" issue, Louis Castle said, bluntly, that this is a stupid way to do business. If he ever suggested making a game that way, he said, he would be fired. Developers, Castle explained, have to make money as they go. One of the most basic ways to keep costs down, he said, is to "try to do as little as possible." As Cerny had touched on with the art, current development is something of a mess, with work being done over and over again, draining resources and wasting great hunks of development time. Again, it's a problem of discipline. "One of the reasons things keep getting done again and again," Castle continued, "is we're just not good enough." The audience is getting more sophisticated all the time, and "we're not keeping up." If developers want to recoup costs, "we need to get better."
Following some musing from Masaya Matsuura on online music distribution systems such as iTunes, Dave Perry returned to his discussion of the Korean market, and its unusual structure. In Korea , Perry sad, developers design whatever niche games they feel like, then give them away for free. Although the games might only attract a certain kind of person, those particular people will tend to latch onto the game with a fanatical furor. A user base grows, word of mouth spreads, "conformity psychology" kicks in, and then, once the game is established as a hit, the developer finds a way to make revenue off of it.
Perry asked the audience to imagine if tomorrow an issue of PC Gamer was to arrive in the mail tomorrow, and bundled with it were a copy of FIFA Soccer Online – the full version – for free. If the game were any good, of course everyone would start to play it. Then, once they had an audience, EA could make a bundle on related services. Louis Castle objected somewhat, asking if he was the only one reminded of the dot-com ideology of "we'll figure out how to make money later". Perry explained that these companies already have a plan worked out when they start. They aren't just relying on blind hope, as the dot-com industry was; they know what they're doing, and it works just fine.
Louis Castle agreed that, if they have a plan, the concept was intriguing. He wondered aloud how many of the hugely successful games over the past couple of years have had a freely-available demo. Though he wasn't sure, he had a feeling it was around a 1:1 ratio. Tying into his earlier theme, Castle said that consumers have been burned too often. They've become monstrously savvy, meaning "you need at least a competent product to start with." Game rentals, and services like Gamefly, make the situation "even more brutal". And yet, "if they like it, they'll buy it." The thing is, current consumers will no longer buy on faith; they need to know what they're investing in. And in order to attract them, "you really want unique appeal" be it unique IP or a new way of implementing things. If it's good, and they know it, consumers will buy your game.
"If the retailers let them buy it," Perry quipped. He spoke of used game sales, and how "people don't care anymore if things are brand new". Using that logic, he returned to the concept of digital distribution. He posited the idea of every movie on Netflix being just a click away, or every game on the Xbox 720 being available immediately, with no middle-man. "I'd love that!"
The panel cooled down with talk of outsourcing, concluding that all the recent noise over it it is sort of a red herring. Mark Cerny said that the outsourcing of art, at least, is pretty proven; the problem is incorporating the "outsourcers" into the production process. He suggested a kind of training package that will help bring outside contractors up to speed with a project.
for outsourcing as a form of cost evasion, Louis Castle asked, right
out, "What value will it bring?" If the current problem in game
development is internal discipline, which it almost certainly is, then
bringing in outside people who have no idea what the core team is doing
surely can't solve those problems. Castle said if you want to recoup
your costs, then find the people who make "the best-looking X", and pay
the price for their experience. "You can't mitigate risk by
fractionally reducing cost." Also, Mark Cerny added, "You need a strong
core team." One with discipline.