At GDC 2008's IGDA Government and Associations Summit, games industry members came together and asked, “What challenges does the games industry face short and long term?” Drawing on his own experience and audience contribution, Gamelab’s Eric Zimmerman tackled the question with interesting results.
Zimmerman launched right into his presentation by providing a general overview of where the game industry might be headed. He suggested that the industries surrounding games such as policy and media could be considered as important a part of the game industry as development.
Usually most people only talk about the one granular aspect of what they do in the business, but Zimmerman encouraged the audience to consider that games encompass a much wider range of career choices than game developers might appreciate. If these trends had alarming titles, this is because the tone of the speech was cautionary. Zimmerman went to pains to explain how current trends actually worked against these outcomes coming to pass.
This title referred to the notion that most games are not as popular as they might seem: for example, as counted against movies, games are much less popular. And although blockbuster games collect on average about the same levels of profit as top movies, most games are only purchased by the typical "hardcore" gamer who tends to spend a majority of their disposable income on games. The standout titles are purchased across the board by less hardcore players.
The main point was that these titles are made by the people who already make games. The subject matter of games cleaves very closely to the nerd culture of sci-fi and fantasy -- mostly male power fantasy material. The danger of this trend is that games would never really outgrow their hobbyist roots; that they would become more marginalized, eventually dwindling in sales as they become less and less relevant to consumer's lives. In a worst case scenario, this "ghettoization" effect would eventually result in games only being sold in specialty retail stores and eventually becoming marginalized in mainstream culture.
The most important point of overcommercialization was that games are different than other mass media: they are increasingly expensive to make as evidenced by the exponentially increasing ability of new hardware to display greater levels of detail. They are also a constantly evolving platform, both in terms of technology and subject matter.
As a comparison, Zimmerman brought up digital music. Arguably, music made in the present uses many of the same technologies as music made over 50 years ago, whereas games made even five or six years ago may not even be playable because the hardware on which they were created may no longer be available for purchase.
Possible dangers arise because of the confluence of these factors: games are becoming increasingly expensive to produce; game publishers are consolidating in an effort to promote and launch big; the technology base of games is constantly shifting and becoming a more difficult target on which to create. All of these lead to a much more risk-averse environment. So a likely outcome is that publishers only will tend to release established, low-risk IP titles that tend toward “sequelitis.”
Zimmerman did take a few minutes to explain some current trends that directly contradict overcommercialization such as the growth of mass market and casual games, a general broadening of appeal beyond the hardcore gaming audience, and the increasing share of games that take advantage of digital distribution and emerging business frameworks such as the Webkinz model of selling a real plush animal which in turn unlocks a virtual creature and its attendant accessories.
The Internet and New Markets
Moving onto the third trend, Zimmerman talked about the emerging importance of the Internet as a dominant pathway to gaming. Starting with the premise that games are social experiences, he explained that games played over the Internet have the possibility of becoming a fundamental part of human culture and civilization. But a possible stumbling block to the Internet as a pathway to new types of gaming is digital piracy. He asked what would happen to a gaming ecosystem where the Internet is a primary platform for games if piracy is not dealt with properly.
His answer was that game developers and publishers have to establish an ongoing dialogue with their players, taking input from and providing direct feedback to their constituents. The fact that players often cannot play more than one or two of these online worlds at a time very much changes the dynamics of the current industry where players can often pick up and drop several games at once. So the impact of piracy on this online ecosystem can be quite significant. The fact that in order to play these games, one has to connect to a central server does much to mitigate the threat of piracy by linking individual players to accounts.
The fourth trend was New Markets. The idea was that usually when the game industry speaks of markets, they usually limit themselves to North America, Europe and Asia. But Zimmerman presupposes the growing impact of markets such as India. In India, for example, the adoption rate of mobile handsets far outpaces Internet productivity; the main conduit of access to the Web in India is through their mobile phones. A new paradigm defined by markets such as India could define a new way of looking at games -- how they're developed, marketed, targeted and sold.
He also argued that increasingly we're seeing players given more and more of a role in the creation of content for games. This freedom might range from players creating avatars and levels to players being given more access to create in-game objects, such in Second Life. A possible danger of this player content creation is that mid-sized content creators might get drowned in the flood of new asset generation. And when it becomes possible for anyone to create games using web-based tools, these mid-sized and smaller game creators might become casualties of the sheer volume of content.
Living Up To Their Promise
The last trend was that games might never really live up to their promise as becoming a new mass media. Zimmerman asserted that what we are seeing is that many media are on the decline. Radio listenership is trending downward; the music industry is earning less money; the amount of people watching television has been decreasing for the last few years. Certainly, more traditional media such as theater and literature are trending down.
Zimmerman proposed that games might continue to grow for a while, but will eventually follow this downward growth. Although he did not propose what might replace them, he does posit that whatever does eventually take their place will be a greater source of meaning or relevance in people's lives. Mostly, he wants to make the point that the audience shouldn't take for granted that games are destined to become the ascendant medium of choice of the 21st century.
Examining all five trends, Zimmerman asked the audience to choose what they felt would most likely become the dominant trend. Most of the cards raised referenced the threat of overcommercialization. There were a few hopeful respondents who saw the Internet and the emergence of New Markets as forces that might counter overcommercialization.
Putting It To A Vote
Next, Zimmerman asked the audience to vote for the trend that they would most like to see become the defining force of gaming. Most of the respondents displayed the Internet and the emergence of New Gaming Markets. But there were a standout few who voted for overcommercialization, or its friendlier term, consolidation.
One of these respondents, managing director of the Swedish Game Developers Association, Per Strombeck, proposed that most of the time, the audience tends to view the large publisher as being resistant to experimentation and new intellectual property.
However, Strombeck proposed that the actual creativity in gaming comes directly from healthily funded large scale projects. Examples included Spore
from Electronic Arts, platforms such as the Wii and the DS coming from Nintendo, and even relatively easy to use development tools being given to developers from Microsoft.
This point of view was seconded by Toby Barnes of PixelLab, who made the point that most independent game companies are motivated to make enough profit to keep the lights on at the end of the day. Fundamentally, most successful game companies realize that making games is a business that requires a steady and reliable source of funding.
His second point was that up to now, the really big media companies haven't taken much of a risk in the gaming market. For such large corporations, the budgets involved in gaming amount to small change. When that kind of money makes its way into the market, that is when we can expect to see real innovation happening: when developers can put 100+ man teams against a crazily innovative game concept.
Finally, the last vote was on which trends the audience felt would actually hold sway over the industry. The majority of votes came in supporting overcommercialization and Internet. At this point, there wasn't much time left for the audience to support their votes, so Zimmerman went into a summary discussion of the playful nature of games, and that game makers and supporters should remember that in examining the industry, we should keep in mind that it is within their power to reframe how they perceive the business and the purpose of how and why they create games.