What Happens Next? (2013)
In June 2011 I wrote an article called What Happens Next?, where I had a quick go at peering into a crystal ball and predicting the future of video games. Recently I did a talk for Social Media Cafe, discussing similar thoughts with 18 months worth of additional future taken into account. Parts of what I discussed in the original article still hold true, and I elaborated upon them in my talk. This article is an amalgamation of the original article, the talk, and a few more bits that I realised I could have discussed at the time.
Before reading on, please understand that my definition of the AAA gaming model is thus:
A game that you go to your favourite store to buy for £45 / $60, take home and play on a console or PC in the comfort of your own home. You expect that there's a single player component that will last you at least 8 hours, if not quite a bit more, and a multiplayer component that will be polished and fun.
With that in mind:
Is AAA is dead?
Eighteen months or so ago, this wouldn't have really even been considered. There were signs that the model was struggling, but sales were still plenty high enough on the big hits of the year and there were plenty of rumours that Sony and Microsoft were working away on the next consoles - a sure fire way to inject new life into the fire.
Today though, it seems to quite a few people's minds. Sony and Microsoft haven't unveiled any new hardware yet, and it's costing more than ever to produce a current generation AAA game, which is against what has happened in the past. I've previously mentioned that making AAA games is hard, and nowhere is this more evident but in a simple table:
These are averages - naturally there are games that go against the grain, both up and down. If we take the middle-of-the-road for all of these, it took 19 man years to make a PlayStation 1 game, back in 1995. Fast forward to 2001 and it took 124 years to make a PlayStation 2 game. Today, it takes 420 man years. That's 22 times longer than it took in 1995, yet games still cost £45 / $60 at retail. Thanks to mobile gaming, people are starting to become unwilling to pay £45, even though in real terms they're cheaper than ever. In fact, people don't even want to pay 69p - a lot of people expect entertainment for free. Currently, no one expects Assassin's Creed III on their mobile phone for 69p, but, as the speed of mobile phones increases, so do customer expectations.
The number of copies you'd need to sell at 69p to make a profit on a game that's taken 420 man years to make is astronomical, and highly unlikely to happen. Something has to change.
Technology will save us
The two most time consuming elements of making a AAA game are making the game engine and then creating the content to go in. A modern day game engine has a lot of boxes to tick:
- Deferred Rendering
- Texture and Geometry Streaming
Online Multiplayer Support
Blended Animation System
Rigid Body Physics and IK Solutions
Full Body Rig
SSAO (Screen Space Ambient Occlusion)
Not all of these boxes have to be ticked to make a game, but to get anywhere near the visual quality expected by the audience and gaming press your engine is going to have to do a lot. Technical accomplishments will only get you so far of course - your game needs solid art direction and high quality assets, so you'll also have to spend a lot of money on high calibre artists, animators and sound designers. When so much money is being spent, it's rare for a team to be afforded the ability to experiment too much with game mechanics: instead it's safer to tread the well worn path that successful games have already laid.
As a games designer, this feels wrong to me. Thankfully, it feels that the tide is turning.
A lot of this comes down to the sheer power of hardware becoming available. Right now a mobile phone has more processing power than a top of the range desktop from 6 years ago. That is, officially, bonkers. And it's only going to get even more so - in another couple of cycles mobiles phones will easily be as fast as current generation consoles, and they'll continue to get faster.
Speeding up engine development
This power starts to give game makers a little bit of breathing space, because it begins to reduce the requirement to squeeze every last ounce of processing power out of the hardware to get the same results. That, in turn, gives you the ability to make more use of pre-written software libraries. In the past, these might have been avoided or rewritten to be tailored specifically to your exact needs and any additional code removed. As well as software libraries, CPUs and GPUs continue to advance and provide specific processing units for performing some of the heavy work on the chips themselves, such as physics, and this frees up valuable coding time down the line.
In addition to on-chip improvements, APIs, software libraries and even off-the-shelf game engines continue to advance at a good rate, as do protocols to bring about a level of standardisation between devices. In fact, these are the two areas that I think can bring about the biggest change in how game engines are made. This year looks like it's going to be all about new hardware, with Ouya, a Steambox, an nVidia console, GameStick and a handful of others, and that's before even considering that the Wii U is only just out and Microsoft and Sony might have something new this year too. That's a lot of potential fragmentation, and I've not even mentioned mobile phones or tablets...
How about, instead of buying a specific device to play games on, you just run the platform of your choice on whatever you have to hand. Think of something like DirectX, but imagine it as a whole console layer. Imagine if you just wrote your game for Steam, and let the APIs, libraries and protocols do everything else to make sure that it runs on the device in your hand, from providing the input layer to rendering the graphics. This is a few years ahead, but I think it will happen. For instance, it wouldn't matter how many buttons a device has, as long as it adheres to the interface protocol. That layer may be physical buttons, a touch screen, a motion sensor or something else entirely. The device would deal with how the user interacts with it, and push that information to the game as a series of standard inputs.
This might sound slightly ridiculous, but this is already how browsing the internet works. The websites you visit don't know if you're using a mouse, a touch screen or a TV remote. They don't need to: the browser on your device deals with the input layer, and also does all the rendering of the data that gets sent back. Could this be a future for game engines too?
Shorter term, asset creation is going to benefit greatly from more computing power. As with the engine, the requirement to optimise a model to within an inch of its life is reduced if there's more processing power and memory available. Equally, as engines continue to become more sophisticated, they can offer perfectly acceptable optimisation of models on the fly. The requirement to create multiple LODs reduces and, soon, should disappear. This will save a lot of time.
In addition to this, the tools that create the content will continue to improve. It makes full financial sense: if you put resources into better tools, you need fewer people using them. If, for instance, six coders working on tools could reduce your art team by twenty, surely that's the best thing to do?
The ability to scan objects in real time and generate models is becoming a reality. Faceshop for Photoshop can take a 2D image and create a 3D head from it. The results aren't professional quality yet, but in time tools like this will get better and better.
Finally, the way we interact with computers is constantly evolving. There are a lot of UI developments just round the corner, some of which could help massively with content creation. Imagine sculpting a 3D model using a LEAP controller, or sketching out a 2D layout on PaperTab and having a tool turn that into 3D for you.
With all these developments, and many more, combined:
Gameplay becomes king
If development teams aren't focused on ticking engine feature boxes, and art teams can produce high quality art in a fraction of the time currently required, then the focus will hopefully shift more onto just making great games. This has already been kickstarted by the mobile and independent scene, and it's where AAA development is heading. But wait a minute... didn't we say that AAA might be dead?
Well, yes and no. There will always be a market for high budget entertainment, and there will be developers that will cater for that. They may have to seek a different funding model, possibly a combination of a kickstarter campaign, a traditional publisher deal and in-app purchases. With development cycles being shorter and it being sold as purely a digital download, it should be possible to sell a game for less and still make a profit. See the Steam model.
Will technology have an impact on the type of gameplay? Motion controllers and Kinect opened the door to different types of gameplay interaction, and it's hard not to assume that new interfaces will bring new gameplay experiences. New controllers are great, but inherently create fragmentation. If you look at mobile games, the ones that are successful aren't necessarily breaking new gameplay ground. In fact, if anything, they're relying quite heavily on paradigms that made games successful in the 1980s and 1990s. They are very highly polished, and very well defined - distilled almost down to a few core mechanics. Interestingly, too, is that mobile and independent games often offer a greater challenge than AAA games. Getting 3 stars on every level in Angry Birds is not easy at all, yet people who can't finish the first mission in Halo will happily sit there for hours until they get them. I still haven't managed to complete a game of Faster Than Light, but I'm having a lot of fun trying. I could list 50 such examples, but this article is already far longer than I originally intended.
The point I'm trying to make here is that there will be a meeting point of polished gameplay experience that looks as good as the top budget games of today: but for a fraction of the development cost. At the point that it doesn't cost tens of millions to make Call of Duty, people will have room to take bigger risks with the gameplay.
Wrapping it up
Quite a bit has been made of Ingress, a location based game on Android. You go to a real location - predefined as an 'energy source' - and hack in. You've already decided side you're on. Currently, I've heard (I haven't tried it myself), it's not very engaging. It's currently in beta and an interesting experiment, and a sign of potential directions that some games will take. Coupled with Project Glass (aka, Google Glasses), it's not hard to imagine that you could be playing games all the time, as you walk down the street or go shopping.
The technology to synchronise data automatically between devices is already with us, as is the ability to connect your mobile phone up to your TV - effectively turning it into a Wii U controller (iPhones achieve this via Apple TV, whereas other manufactures are looking to incorporate Intel's WiDi protocols).
All of this means that we'll be able to play games wherever we are, whenever we want. Whether or not that's a good thing... I'm not sure because it doesn't take into account why we play games. Partly we play them for a distraction, a way of turning the mundane into something more. But one of the biggest pleasures of any leisure activity is making time for it. You may be meant to be doing something else, but you've decided that for the next few hours you're going to play a game. This is important, and isn't going to go away.
The great thing is, there'll be a huge amount of great games for you to play on whatever you've got to hand.