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The video game industry is going through a massive sea change, and Divide By Zero's James Portnow sits down to examine just what's going on, from tool simplification to distribution network changes, and what it means for games as a creative medium.

James Portnow, Blogger

August 27, 2009

10 Min Read

[The video game industry is going through a massive sea change, and Divide By Zero's James Portnow sits down to examine just what's going on, from tool simplification to distribution network changes, and what it means for games as a creative medium.]

Something's happening in our industry. We can all feel it. We're on a pivot point. We are at a sea change.

But it's not just "a change in the industry", it's not a shift in how we do business or with whom -- that's part of it of course -- it's something much bigger. A tide is turning...

Now I don't mean to be dramatic about these things and I don't intend to be their champion (though my bias may come through; I'm excited for what the future may bring.) However, I think we're at a very important juncture for our industry, our medium and, perhaps, for humanity in general.

In this article I'm going to try and define what this change is, how we got here, and what it means for us in the future.

The Change

When I first wrote this article I originally defined what I felt the coming change might be right here at the beginning of the piece, but without understanding the causes and the logical steps which drew me to my conclusion, even I balked at it: it seemed ludicrous.

So bear with me as we walk through the causes of this yet-undefined change, and see where the inferences lead you:


Game Schools

For the first time in history "game creation" is being taught as a focus of higher education. From the bachelor's degree given out by DigiPen to the masters degrees offered by more traditional universities such as USC or CMU, today people are getting rigorous formal training in game crafting before entering the industry.

But, perhaps more importantly, these institutions are providing the next generation of game developers with a safe space to innovate and create, outside of a corporate environment.

Game schools will do for us what film schools did for film. They are a place for wild experimentation and valuable, if not immediately profitable, research. These schools focus a community of dedicated, energetic young people and give that community the critical mass it needs to allow these young people to learn from each other and formulate new ideas as a group. Our Lucas, Coppola, and Scorsese will come from these schools.

But as much as many people will come out of these schools with fresh ideas and the tools to enact them, others will find in them an opportunity not granted by the industry itself: the opportunity to conduct multi-year research, the opportunity to study games without having to find a guaranteed return on their research.

Of course the schools and the industry don't see eye-to-eye yet, and communication between the industry and the academic facilities which study this field leaves a lot to be desired, but this too is changing. Both academia and the corporate side of gaming are beginning to see the undeniable value in what the other does.

First Generation to Grow Up with Games

Today, the first generation to grow up with video games in their home is coming into its own. They are becoming responsible, even influential, adults. Not only do they have a great deal of capital to expend on the leisure of their youth, they also have a great desire to see it legitimized, to see it become as respectable as playing golf or going to the theater.

But, much as the films you watched as a child are not the films you watch as an adult, this generation is beginning to demand more. They are beginning to demand new types of games, games with maturity and thought, games that can fit into their hectic and ever more demanding lives, games that can be played respectably with a spouse or family.

This demand is pushing the boundaries of what we consider a video game. It is opening up new markets and forcing us to rethink the subjects a game can cover. It is even forcing us to consider new delivery methods and platforms for these experiences, ones which better fit into the lives of adults.

Broadening Demographic

The term "gamer" now means nothing. At best it's a pejorative stereotype for what once may have been the most highly visible form of video game enthusiast. Today the gamer is your mom and your grandmother, the five year old on the swings and the cop directing traffic. Today the gamer is the lawyer and the doctor and the movie star.

This broadening demographic is calling on us to create games which suit their unique needs and, slowly, the invisible hand guiding us, we have begun to do so. Soon we will realize that grail of designer myth, the Universal Game, because the raw economics of our diverse audience demand it.

Distribution Methods

Four years ago you had to be working on 30 million dollar projects and developing for the PS2 or the Xbox. Since then a quiet revolution has occurred. Today there are a myriad of platforms with millions of users which are easy (read "low budget") to develop for.

These new distribution methods lower the barrier to entry to being a game developer, which in turn increase the amount of content put out and ups people's willingness to take risks. This leads to innovation.

The innovation we see occurring on platforms like the iPhone, Facebook, Xbox Live, PSN, DSiWare, Steam, Browser Based Games and so on will have a greater effect on the future of games than all the 30 million dollar Halo clones being put out today.

Technological Advances

We will always be limited by the technology available to us, but we have finally achieved a very important balancing point...

Since the inception of video gaming the visuals presented by games have been a limiting factor. They pigeonholed games as children's entertainment (because we seem to relegate the requirement of imagination to children) and restricted what experiences could be delivered in this medium.

But today we have simultaneous ended up at a point where the quality of game visuals is high enough to be respectable and where, from a business perspective, the most bang for your buck is no longer in searching for the next graphical plateau. This means that more money will flow to areas like R&D, Design, Writing, Sound, and Music.


As limited as we are by technology we are even more limited by our own capacity to use that technology. In the last 10 years game development has gone from an impenetrable wall of cryptic recondite arcana to something... a bit more approachable.

We're still not the point where making games is as easy as picking up a camcorder and hitting the on switch but I've seen eight year olds remake asteroids and college kids turn out next-gen experiences.

We're entering a period where the tools available to us will drastically reduce the cost of making marketable experiences and exponentially decrease the expertise required to make such. This of course means a lot more terrible products, but it also means more independence and a larger number of great works.

Putting It All Together

Without any one of the above factors we wouldn't be in the unique position we are in today, but this confluence provides us with something incredible:

1. Game schools mean more qualified developers are being produced and that these developers are encouraged to innovate.

2. Lower cost platforms makes experimentation economically viable.

3. Improved tools lower production costs while allowing for a greater degree of amateur and "off the grid" development.

4. Widening demographics demand yet undiscovered game types.

5. The first generation to grow up with home consoles is now in a position to fiscally incentivize the creation of new game types. They are also motivated to help games be viewed as a legitimate medium.

6. Graphical fidelity is no longer the main driver for development budget.

So what does add up to?

The Change (as promised)

Simply put, we think of as a "game" is about to change.

Today we have passion aligned with economics. We have new fiscally viable platforms, mechanics and genres opening up. The old AAA games industry/$30 million project studios can't employ all the new talent that ardently desires to break into games and the amount of money available outside of what we've traditionally considered the purview of "video games" means that someone is going to seize it...

Artistically this means we'll be seeing new genres, new subject matters and new methods of play. People will interact with games in ways we can't imagine and through devices we cannot now conceive of.

The breadth of experiences we will be asked to deliver a decade hence will be limited not by market, but rather by imagination.

Commercially, this diversification may fracture the industry, splitting it into a group of branching industries (much as the serious games industry of today). But, more likely, it will just expand who is making games and decentralize the industry.

The big ships of today, the giant publishers and the console manufacturers, will certainly retain control over the areas they currently dominate, but many of them are ill-equipped to deal with the emerging markets and smaller project groups that will herald this change.

The new platforms will provide new ways for developers to get to market, opening up space for a broad range of smaller publishers and developers. This, in turn, will allow for smaller, more focused groups to be commercially viable addressing only niche markets. Which, again, will further our acceleration towards a limitless spectrum of "games".

Another Perspective

I tweeted about writing this article a while back and I was given this image by a Cornell student named Chelsea Howe. I was surprised by the rigor with which topics such as this are being considered.

I offer it here, not as my work but as work better than mine which has appeared independently due to the thoughts and concerns regarding the new direction that games are taking now floating around the milieu of young, scholarly minds:

Click for full size.

The Greater Good

At the top I said that I don't intend to be a champion of this new movement in our industry. Writing this has made me reconsider. We are today becoming one of the world's most important mass media; we have the opportunity, at this particular turning point, this brief moment in time, to determine whether our medium will end up like the worst aspects of television or something without parallel: a grand interactive art.

This concept scares a lot of people. Often people demonize the "games as art" crowd as wanting to take away the fun or turn everyone into indie developers. This is patently not what art means.

Art simply means giving something back, providing your audience with something that enriches their daily lives, even when they aren't interacting with your art. And in this way many games are already works of art, but there's much further we can go... And every day I see companies large and small making strides in this direction.

Why? Because making a profit and doing something worthy do not have to be concepts set in opposition. No one is calling for us to throw down our cubical walls or stop making blockbusters. No one wants only French art-house games, steeped in ennui and devoid of fun. All that is being asked of us is that we step up and accept our place as a mass media, without embarrassment or shame.

If, as an industry, we fail to do this one thing during the coming change, then we will lose control of our own destiny and become what film and television have become. But, at least in the short run, if we accept this transformation our diversity of distribution will allow us to remain masters of our own fate.

This tide is coming. I'm not sure it can be fought, but it certainly can be embraced.

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About the Author(s)

James Portnow


James Portnow is a master's student in the Entertainment Technology department of Carnegie Mellon. He can be reached at [email protected].

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