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Game Over: Parting thoughts from the Game Developer team

In this reprint from the final (June/July 2013) issue of GD Mag,

July 4, 2013

21 Min Read

Author: by Game Developer Magazine Staff

In this reprint from the final (June/July 2013) issue of Game Developer magazine, the editorial staff reflect back on the publication's history and offer some parting thoughts on the future of the industry.

For 19 years now, Game Developer has borne witness to the game industry's comings and goings. As a magazine, we have endeavored to provide a space for game creators to swap tips and techniques, speak frankly about the challenges of making games, highlight and recognize good work and new talent, offer big-picture analysis of industry-wide trends, and advocate for more compassionate development practices, all in the name of helping people make better games.

But Game Developer is over. We know that all our readers will go on to do amazing things in video games, but we won't be able to make a magazine that will help you out. So we've decided to pool the Game Developer and Gamasutra brain trusts and lay out what we see as the game industry's key changes, challenges, and opportunities coming in the future -- because you'll have to tackle them without Game Developer's help.

Triple-A, Indies and Game Dev as a Full-Time Job

We know we aren't the first ones to say that we think the writing is on the wall when it comes to triple-A game development. Practically everything new and interesting to happen in game development over the last few years has ended up taking a bite out of triple-A's pie: Indies, better off-the-shelf dev tools, the rise of mobile and social games (and their associated app stores), and the emergence of free-to-play online games all thrive in areas triple-A dev cannot.

Meanwhile, budgets for producing and marketing triple-A games continue to increase even though their respective profit margins appear to be growing narrower. We don't see triple-A disappearing entirely, but we do think it will be relegated to a less central role -- perhaps one akin to the blockbuster movie in film, with only a few major releases per year from the few industry giants capable of funding and sustaining that kind of multiyear development effort.

Instead of making bigger games by hiring more dev teams, we expect that the industry will be forced to develop more efficient tools that will enable smaller teams to take advantage of ever more powerful hardware (whether that hardware is in a PC, a dedicated console, a mobile device, or something else). Toward that end, we expect more and more devs to come to rely on third-party tools and middleware to make games look better and play smarter without relying on massive dev teams (and massive dev budgets).

Over the last few years, we've seen game developers generally focus less on solving cutting-edge tech problems and more on pushing the design envelope, creating a unique visual motif, or solving business problems (monetization design and user acquisition, for example); we expect this trend to continue, and for off-the-shelf dev tools to become increasingly more sophisticated and easy to use.

As game dev tools continue to evolve, more and more people will be able to make games—games that take risks (both of the business kind and the creative kind) that the industry giants won't be able to. We think that the incredible rush of creative energy coming from indie developers will continue—and that their innovation in creativity and business will expand the overall market for games by attracting new audiences and finding new ways to convince existing audiences to pay for games.

On the other hand, this might not bode well for the full-time game developer job market. Perhaps game development will fall into similar patterns as writing, photography, film, and music: something that is really easy for individuals or small groups to do on their own (and possibly even make money from), but harder to break into the professional class than it already is now. More people will make games in their spare time, just like people start blogs or garage bands, while doing something else to pay the bills.

Studios looking to stay ahead of this change will have to do a better job building their brand, defining a stronger "personality" in their games, and attracting an audience that sticks around from one game to another (in other words, developing an audience that is attached to the developer itself, not just the IP of the games it makes)—all while keeping their dev processes as efficient and lean as possible and hanging on to talented teams. It won't be easy.

Leaving "Video Games" Behind

Think of the term "video game" as analogous to the term "motion picture"; both phrases describe a medium in the simplest, most literal sense possible. Motion pictures are pictures that are moving, and video games are games that you play with a video display of some sort. But when taken literally, "motion picture" could describe movies, television, commercials, music videos, or anything else that happens to contain video content that we watch.

When it comes down to it, the term "motion picture" is simply too broad and vague for us to actually use in everyday conversation. Even though all of the above types of "motion picture" are usually created with the same basic tools (a camera), and there is overlap in the skills necessary to produce each different kind of "motion picture," we typically consider the different formats of motion pictures different media entirely, with different artistic techniques, delivery mechanisms, consumption patterns, and so on.

This is where "video games" are headed, too. "Video games" is quickly becoming a catchall term for all kinds of media that have very little in common with each other besides the fact that they exist in a virtual space and are authored with a set of similar tools. Some games are virtual toys and play sets; some are sports; some are virtual community spaces; some are interactive narrative experiences; and so on.

We expect virtual, interactive entertainment to become the de facto method of popular communication—integrating itself alongside music, film, and other traditionally passive forms of art rather than in opposition to it—and each "genre" of game will eventually grow into a medium unto itself. Imagine having a Game Developer or GDC specifically devoted to developing competitive-eSport games, or toy games, or story games, and you have the idea.

So, how can game developers develop their skills now to prepare for the future game industry? We suggest that you're probably best served by focusing on the ins and outs of a specific sector of games; when it comes to the skills you need to make a fantastic MMO, or a competition-focused sport-game, or a heart-wrenching episodic drama, we suspect that they will only become more specialized and less cross-applicable as the industry matures. We wouldn't expect Steven Spielberg to be good at inventing football, after all, so expecting game developers to be similarly multitalented seems like a losing proposition to us.

(The irony of people working in print publishing offering advice on future-proofing skills—in the last issue of the magazine, no less—is not lost on us, by the way.)

New Voices for Video Games

Recently, we've seen conversations about inclusion, diversity, and the game industry pop up at trade shows and conferences, on web sites, forums, Twitter, and just about everywhere else. This is not a new conversation, though it is perhaps louder now than it has been in recent memory.

Each year, our Salary Survey pegs the gender ratio in the game industry at about 89 percent male, give or take a percentage point or two. For comparison's sake, a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce called "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" found that women held 24 percent of STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and 27 percent of jobs specifically categorized as "computer science and math." You read that right: The game industry's gender ratio is twice as bad as the overall STEM fields' ratio.

This is a problem. There is no legitimate normative reason why creating video games should be overwhelmingly a function performed by men. Fortunately, we're beginning to see the barriers to creating, distributing, and playing games come crumbling down, which has given rise to quite a few new groups of people making and playing games. What's more, these new voices in video games are often making games for themselves and each other, which serves to expand the medium's potential both from a creative aspect (discovering new messages and mechanics) and a business aspect (popularizing video games as an entertainment form to new consumer demographics, and deepening games' reach for a higher yearly per-person spend). It's good for everyone, and it's good for games.

The barrier to entry isn't technical; it's cultural. We take it as a basic truth that people get into this business in order to make games that they themselves would like to play. When the industry is historically composed of young men making games for other young men to play, you end up creating a culture around the medium that is also by men, for men. And, at its worst, this culture can be insular, defensive, exclusionary, and downright nasty when prodded to change its ways. Thus far, games have done an excellent job of making money—as an industry, we've eclipsed both recorded music and Hollywood—but as a medium of mass communication it still isn't taken very seriously. As long as game development is primarily the domain of young men, we don't see this changing significantly.

We've framed this conversation so far strictly in terms of gender, but the same could be said for sexuality, race, economic class, and so forth. It's no coincidence, we think, that criticism of game industry's same-ness, particularly in the triple-A mainstream, has continued to grow louder as we've seen more not-white, not-male, not-straight, not-middle-class people start to make games. And when we look at the devs that are admired within the industry— the people who do the creative work that inspires us to do better—we're seeing that more of these folks are the not-white, not-male, not-straight, not-middle-class people who are gradually making games their medium, too.

As a trend, we expect this to continue in fits and spurts, and we're looking forward to that. However, it would be negligent on our part to assume that this trend will continue without asking that good people out there continue to do their hard work to make the game development community more supportive and welcoming. (Many of these people are contributors and friends of Game Developer , so if you're reading this: Thank you.)

We all owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, and our community to make video games as accessible and open as possible, however we can. This could mean initiating and encouraging institutional changes and ideological shifts to further break down these walls; or, perhaps, we can just start by scrutinizing our own individual behavior and attitudes and systematically eliminating the ones which may cause ourselves or our colleagues to behave like assholes despite our best intentions.

Community Management is Important

As journalists, we understand journalism. That doesn't just mean that we understand how to write stories. It may seem like a simple job, isolated from reality, but in 2013, it sure isn't. Just like you have a big picture of your industry and your career, so must we. This is the last issue of Game Developer magazine, so this might sound especially portentous, but look, you have a choice here, too. Not only is it increasingly obvious that you have the opportunity to take control of your relationship with your players, but it has also become quite clear that the players prefer it that way.

The truth of the matter is that we expected things to be much further along this road by now. Why is Nintendo the only major platform holder that completely controls its game announcements, going straight to fans with its Nintendo Direct presentations? Many of the big developers have community strategies -- usually hiring from their player bases or recruiting ex-journalists -- but these strategies look a little myopic at times, inasmuch as they seem based around preserving the status quo of community rather than expanding its role either outward or inward. You can slap a pearlescent purple coat of paint on a 1990s Quake clan, but that's what it is, at its heart. The rest is marketing, and that's not a real connection.

This work doesn't all have to be done by the big guys, and it doesn't all have to be done in one specific way. People are now waking up to the idea of crowdfunding -- fine. But your community is a huge asset across all vectors, and you need smart people figuring out how to best harness it, not just communicate to it or manipulate it for short-term gain. You should be thinking very specifically about how your community likes to interact with you, what they like about your game ,who they are, and how to reach them. We've seen developers use community members for bug tracking, design ideas—whatever. What's more, this is particularly important for smaller devs who might not have direct access to their player communities (if you're publishing mostly on mobile app stores, for example) -- track them down and forge a strong relationship with them. It's an investment in your future (and your future games). At the same time, when the community comes running with the pitchforks, defend your creative vision; if you don't respect it, no one else will.

Crunch, Burnout, Layoffs

The game industry is subsidized largely by the enthusiasm and passion of its employees. At least, "passion" is the only reason we can imagine that devs would enter an industry where layoffs are routine, unpaid overtime is the norm rather than the exception, and job applicants need multiple shipped titles and years of experience under their belts even for entry- level positions.

For some devs, working conditions have gotten better since the "EA Spouse" days. But crunch is still seen as a relatively normal part of a standard game development cycle—one that is still sometimes worn as a perverse badge of pride—and we think this is unsustainable and wrong.

Here's the deal: If you can't afford to make a game without overworking your employees, you can't afford to make it. Make it cheaper. Find a way to use a prototype or minimum viable build to bring in more funding. Make a different game. Budgeting for software dev projects is hard, but once your projects routinely rely on unpaid overtime to ship, you can't use that as an excuse. You can probably get away with it, thanks to a yearly crop of fresh game program grads, but it's a lousy thing to do.

Game developers, by and large, are smart, hardworking people. Smart, hardworking people eventually figure out that other industries are willing to treat them better. When you're young and hungry, you might be willing to put up with the bullshit for The Love Of The Game, but at some point you will probably sit down and think that it simply isn't worth it any more. The human cost of game development can be measured in friendships lost and family time missed by every person in the list of credits at the end of a game. We don't think it's worth it. And sooner or later, we find that many devs tend to agree, especially once they're looking to settle down, start families, buy houses, and so on.

What's more, the endless cycle of crunch, burnout, and layoffs holds the industry back from a quality standpoint. When you let dev talent leave your studio office, you're losing all the experience and expertise they've cultivated specifically for building your games. When we let dev talent leave the industry, every amazing game they could have made walks out the door with them.

A strong work ethic is a fine thing, and worth being proud of. But we don't think it's a good thing to value your work ethic over other important things, like friends and family. And we especially don't think people should be proud of a culture of overwork, especially when that culture has deleterious effects on not only your health and your relationships, but your colleagues' as well. (Also, we suspect that the people who stand to profit from your overwork do not have your best interests in mind.)

Make QA Better

Many smart people have spoken about how one can judge another's character by observing how they treat others; we think the most quotable version is from J.K. Rowling's book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: "If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals." This quote is from a powerful wizard discussing how another powerful wizard treats his servant elf, but it's not that far from describing QA's relationship to the rest of the game industry.

Fact is, in most of the games industry, QA gets no respect. It's a career dead end, the pay is awful, and the best thing that happens to most QA folks is that they get routed into a different discipline. In any other industry, this is called an "internship"; game dev has created an entire caste of people meant to do menial work. We admit that we're just as guilty as the rest of the industry, in that regard; we don't publish a regular QA column like we do for other dev disciplines, and we rarely address it elsewhere in the magazine.

The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. If QA was seen as a field worth staying in for its own sake -- and compensated as such -- we could easily see studios develop a competitive edge by building vastly improved testing methodologies and incorporating them in different stages of the development process, so as to make sure the right feedback and testing reaches the right people at the right time. Career QA specialists could go on to develop specialties related to different aspects of game development. Imagine having a dedicated QA veteran working in tandem with an artist or audio designer to more efficiently ferret out graphical glitches or audio malfunctions, or a game design QA specialist devoted to homing in on balance issues, and you have the idea. Considering more and more publishers are tying bonuses to Metacritic performance (which doesn't allow for changed review scores and thus is heavily affected by bugs and release-day issues), we don't think it's impossible that properly investing in QA would have a significant boost on a studio's bottom line.

Beyond the money stuff, though, we think there's a real human cost to making QA a slog—especially when it's the de facto point of entry for the games industry if you aren't already a whiz programmer or artist. We can appreciate that every profession demands a certain amount of dues -- paying in the beginning (we too were interns once), but from some of the stories we've heard, QA seems like a cold, capitalist version of fraternity hazing.

Think of it this way: QA is the entry point for the industry. As a discipline, QA is largely characterized by endless drudge work for low pay, and a lot of hopping around from contract gig to contract gig until you can find a studio that likes you enough to take you on as a QA lead or entry-level in a different discipline. Logically speaking, it follows that the people who made it into the industry through QA have already established that they're willing to work long hours of drudge work for low money and minimal job security. Now look at the labor issues that extend across the entire industry, not just QA—long hours with relatively low hourly pay, and alarmingly frequent layoffs. We don't think this is a coincidence.

Consoles are Losing the Console War

If that sentiment annoys you, then maybe you'll be okay. Maybe you're annoyed because you know you're in a studio that's on top of the console food chain, with all of the premier talent, the biggest franchise, the biggest marketing resources. So someone saying "consoles are doomed" to you is akin to someone telling you your bike is doomed—while you're riding it.

"Your bike is doomed, my friend."
"No it's not, look. I'm a good cyclist, I'm riding it right now, and it's perfectly fine, asshole."

You may be fine, as long as Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo don't screw things up too much for you. Except your success on game consoles ultimately relies on whether these companies can move hardware units and fight off competition from emerging platforms, and the latest hardware launches surely are not instilling confidence in us about the long-term viability of the dedicated video game console.

Ask yourself this: Can Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo be trusted to move hardware units? The old guard of traditional hardware makers is already answering the question. Nintendo's answering with an emphatic "no" right now with the Wii U, which is driving operating losses so hard that Nintendo missed their forecasts like a small-town weatherman. Even the 3DS, which course-corrected slowly after its launch with a price drop (and which many assume is doing just fine), is behind Nintendo's own expectations. This, in turn, is causing traditional publishers like EA and Activision to feel gun-shy. Nintendo's not making the best argument for the future of the console business.

There's another young console, albeit one that's handheld, that might also serve as a microcosm for the declining state of consoles—the PlayStation Vita. It has some things going for it, not the least of which is its nice hardware, and a network tied to PlayStation Plus's well-played digital business model. But this thing is tanking, and the small installed base is just not giving developers a good reason to make a game for it, because it is priced at a level that forces it to compete against both the Nintendo 3DS and smartphones.

As for future home consoles on the horizon, like the PlayStation 4: Sony seems to have done well so far with the initial details: It has plenty of fast RAM, an x86 processor, PC architecture, and seemingly strong relations with big and small developers, even right now before the console has launched. But as dev-friendly as it might be, we think that new consoles will have to compete against increasingly TV-friendly PCs, whose core audiences will be playing Steam games on one front, and on the other front will be Nintendo and Microsoft, fighting over this shrinking piece of console pie. So can we trust Sony to move plenty of PlayStation 4s? The company expects dollar sales of its game unit to increase in the next fi scal year thanks to PS4's launch. For now the answer is "maybe," in the near-term anyway, when early adopters spend their cash (and mainstreamers play their iPads instead). And barring a drastic change from Microsoft, we'll presume that they're in the same "maybe" boat.

In order for consoles to stand a chance, they'll need to compete with each other's platform on value, openness, power, and convenience. The next console must be powerful enough to offer game experiences that clearly separate console games from mobile games (and compete with PCs); accessible enough to devs that indies and small studios aren't turned away from including those consoles on their new, cool stuff; convenient enough to convince players to turn to their TVs instead of their PCs (or their smartphones, for that matter); all while competing in price against Steam sales and 99-cent app store price points. We don't think that this is an impossible task (see: PlayStation Plus and Sony's recent overtures toward indie devs, for example) but it looks like an uphill battle already, and given technology's lightning-quick pace these days, we don't think it'll get any easier over the next few years.

On the bright side, even though the business of consoles (as we know them) will certainly have a difficult future and will play a role in lots of headaches and heartaches for our readers, developers should take note right now that it's not all bad news. People will still want to pay for the "console experience," even if that experience won't be on a console platform. We already see this starting to happen in the mobile market, and that initiative is growing fast with more "mid-core" developers rising up (just wait till the market is ready for "full-core"!). If you're not already, take into consideration what you need to do to diversify your business and your skills so you can survive: You are your own life raft. Consoles may be doomed, but your career may still be bright.

Stepping Down from the Soapbox

So, that's where we stand -- consider this feature to be a few years' worth of Game Plan editorials. Make no mistake: We believe in this industry, in its future, and its immense creative power. We just won't be able to use these pages to help it along anymore.

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