The Future of Gaming--PAX 2010 Seattle
PONG and I were born in the same year: 1972. What is PONG? It is a deceptively simple, but incredibly addictive, video game with the instructions: "Avoid missing ball for high score." PONG was a huge hit when it was released and is credited as being the first commercially successful video game.
Today we talk about the current generation growing up never knowing a time when there wasn't an Internet. Heck, most of the kids today have never used a phone with a cord! My generation was the first to grow up never knowing a time when there weren't video games. I grew up with a joystick in my hands. We have reached the point where the majority of the people working in the entertainment industry have always known video games and most of these people have always been gamers.
Up the escalator to the show (Photo: BDJ)
I had come to Seattle to attend PAX 2010 (the Penny Arcade eXpo) so that I could get a glimpse into the future of gaming. PAX's Web site describes the event this way: "PAX is a three-day game festival for tabletop, video game, and PC gamers. We call it a festival because, in addition to dedicated tournaments and freeplay areas, we've got nerdcore concerts, panel discussions, the weekend-long Omegathon event (think mega gaming tournament), and an exhibitor hall filled with booths displaying the latest from top game publishers and developers." (source: paxsite.com)
The first thing I noticed when I hit the large exhibition floor was how dark it was. I mean it was really dark, especially when you are used to over-bright florescent-drenched convention floors that make your eyes ache. But PAX 2010 was not this way at all; it was dark, and quickly I saw why.
Lines and lines of people stood lock-legged and still, shoulder to shoulder, headphones clamped down over their ears, their eyes locked on the flat screen in front of them, fingers adeptly manipulating a game controller with lightning speed. They stood completely still, completely silent. I'm not even sure they even blinked.
Gamers gaming (Photo: BDJ)
This was the soul of PAX: gamers gaming. Make no mistake, that's what it's all about. People happily stood in lines for hours to get a chance to play any number of the mind-blowing new titles that are poised to hit the market this year.
The highlight of the trip was a discussion I hosted called "The Future of Gaming Roundtable." We held it just next to the convention, at the Sheraton in a large posh conference room overlooking the hubbub and crowds.
Future of Gaming Roundtable (Photo: Bo) Nels Anderson, Jeff Ward, Jereme Ruhl, Erika Hoffmeister, Seth Cameron Short, Corvus Elrod, Brian David Johnson, Kate Edwards, Kim Pallister, Eric Sebellin Ross, Deirdra Kiai
The roundtable was attended by about 10 game developers, independent game designers, 3D artists, a semionaut and an expert in global game localization. Over food and drinks we kicked around the general question: What is the future of gaming? Here are some of the highlights:
Future of Gaming Roundtable (Photo: Bo)
The Rise of the Independents
Much like the TV and movie industries, the gaming industry has now reached a point where the cost of making a game for the mainstream has gotten so complicated and expensive that it has created space for small independent game developers to make an entrance to the market. These games do not compete with the large titles using production values, special affects or any of the usual attractions to pull people in. Independent games can use a striking visual style, clever storyline or even innovative game play to differentiate themselves from the majors.
Much like the indie film rise in the 1990's, most of the folks in the room thought that these independent games were far more interesting than the next big blockbuster. Because they weren't under the same budget, time and publisher constraints, it allowed them a little more freedom to innovate. In 2008 an independent game developer, Jonathan Blow, released a game called Braid. It was distributed on the Xbox Live Arcade and received a good amount of attention and critical acclaim. The game cost around $180,000 to develop. In 2010 The Guardian said that Braid was the "Sex, Lies and Videotape of indie gaming, a potent symbol for the saleable potential of non-mainstream productions." This reference to director Steven Soderbergh's 1989 breakout film that revolutionized the independent film movement gives us a clear parallel between both industries. By examining the effect that independent film had on Hollywood at the time, we can see the deep changes taking place in the game industry as well.
I couldn't help but stop and grab some costume pix (Photo: BDJ)
Redefining the Game
What is a game really? How do we define it? Corvus Elrod, the semionaut, told us all a story about his mother-in-law that helped us broaden the way we think about gaming.
Earlier that morning Corvus and his wife had been talking with his mother-in-law on the phone. They were talking about PAX and their trip to Seattle, when Wendy, the mother-in-law, asked again, "What is it exactly that Corvus does for a living?"
Instead of explaining the finer details of a semionaut, Corvus replied simply that he was a game designer. It was obvious that Wendy didn't really like the explanations and after a long disheartening silence they moved on with the conversation.
Corvus asked what Wendy would be doing that day, and she explained that she and her friend were going to figure out how to accumulate their points for that week.
"Points?" Corvus asked.
"Yes, points." Wendy explained that she had just been laid off from her job, and that as a part of her unemployment she was required to perform different tasks each week. She needed to do things like work on her resume, call about jobs, complete training--there was a whole long list. And for every task she completed she got points.
Corvus and his wife were amazed and fascinated.
"Wendy," they replied. "You're playing a game."
"What?" She was puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"You are performing tasks to gain points," Corvus answered. "That sounds like a game to me!"
The entire roundtable agreed that the game industry needs to re-examine what a game is. We must rethink how we think of games.
Most people at PAX talk about the "core." It used to be known as "hard core gaming," but now most of the industry just calls it "core." The core sits at the center of the gaming industry; it is essentially the bull's eye that all game companies are trying to hit. If you develop a game for the core and you hit the bull's eye, then you've hit the jackpot. Lots of gamers, lots of money and your game is a success. But with each year it's getting harder and harder to reach the core gamers and hit that bull's eye.
Waiting in line for a glimpse of the popular "core" game Assassins Creed (Photo: BDJ)
This was what they were all waiting for (Photo: BDJ)
Because of this, developers have been rethinking the types of games they make and how people will play them. The big-budget third-person shooters (TPS) and massive role-playing games (RPG) aren't enough. So developers are looking to redefine the nature of play and how they think about games. Social gaming is one way to really expand past the core.
Social games were a hot topic of discussion, not only for the content of the games and how people play them, but for the very definition of social gaming itself. Is a social game a game that you play with friends? Is it a game you play with strangers? This is pretty cut and dry, including any online game from Scrabble to Medal of Honor.
Gamers trying out Medal of Honor (photo: BDJ)
Is a social game a game that you play and share the results with your friends? Is it a game that you play via a social networking application? FarmVille is probably the most popular example of this at the moment. It's a real-time farm simulation game from Zynga, and can be played on the social-networking Web site, Facebook. In the game, players manage a virtual farm, planting, growing and harvesting virtual crops and trees, as well as raising livestock. FarmVille is Facebook's most popular application, with over 62 million active users (Source: Farmville Application Page. Facebook. July 22, 2010.)
Another way to rethink games is to look at how people in other countries and cultures think about games. If we looked at how people outside of North America and Western Europe think about and play games, it could give us a much broader definition. Kate Edwards from Englobe Inc. talked about Journey West, the most popular massive multiplayer online (MMO) game in China, which is more about the social experience of playing the game with others tied to a cultural, social and historical experience. When we think about games in this way, games aren't games anymore, they are far expanded. They can become a social commentary--games become a mechanism by which we can communicate and learn together.
This is quite powerful when you think about the number of people gaming. As a form of entertainment gaming outpaces Hollywood and approaches the numbers of TV watchers. But to change the nature of gaming and possibly even tap into the massive reservoir of imagination and creativity all over the world, we're going to need the tools and the technology to do it.
Tools, Tools, Tools
Right now, the majority of people making mainstream games are in medium to large game companies with big teams and expensive systems. But what would happen if those tools or a subsection of them became available to average people so that they too could make professional-grade games?
There is an easy correlation here with video production technology--smaller cameras, less expensive video editing equipment and alternative means of distribution have radically changed the entertainment landscape. Now when I say all of this you may be thinking about the explosion of user-generated content on the Internet from places like YouTube. But there's another parallel...
What about cable TV? Video and the 1980's/90's explosion of cable programming fits this same bill. Technological changes and advances in production, distribution and business models took us from NBC, CBS and ABC to niche channels like Syfy, HGTV, and SpeedVision. Think about that. Those channels are devoted solely to science fiction, decorating and racing--unheard of in the three channel world.
The engines that drove these changes historically in TV and in gaming now are advances in technology and innovation in business models. But these are merely abstract concepts without the tools for people to use them.
Not all about video games--tabletop gamers shop for dice (Photo: BDJ)
What to Play?
One of the topics that kept coming up all weekend and that we discussed at length in the roundtable was discovery. How do you find games to play?
With the rise of the independents and greater access to tools to build new and interesting games, how will people actually find something to play?
The roundtable told me that there's this feeling now that there are a lot of really great core and independent games out there but people don't know where to find them. Like the rest of the entertainment industry, people want choice. But with increased choice comes the burden of actually finding something that you'll like.
We talked a little about Netflix being a good example of a recommendation engine that could be good if it was applied to games. I wrote about Netflix and their contest to create a better movie recommendation engine (the Netflix prize) in my book, Screen Future.
Netflix's Web site described it this way: "The Netflix Prize sought to substantially improve the accuracy of predictions about how much someone is going to enjoy a movie based on their movie preferences." The whole idea was to develop an agent that could give you suggestions for movies you haven't seen, based on the movies you have seen and rated on the site. The agent could then go through all of Netflix's available rental library and only give you recommendations to the movies you'd be interested in. Simple enough an idea, but rather tricky to pull off.
The prize was awarded on September 21, 2009 to a seven-member international team called "BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos." To get to a 10 percent improvement the team had to take some unconventional approaches. Their algorithm took into consideration how people rated movies just after they watch them as opposed to a few days later. It turns out some movies drop in ratings while others get better the more people think about them. Each movie has its own curve of how different people might rate it over time. The team also looked at people's mood as they rated multiple movies. For instance, when people didn't like a movie they tended to rate it and other movies lower than if they rated the single movie by itself.
All of this data and behavioral observation led to a single simple goal: better movie recommendations. For Netflix better movie recommendations means happier customers. These customers will remain loyal and continue to rent movies from Netflix's service.
Excerpt from Screen Future
Chapter 6: Personal TV
Discovery is an issue and anxiety that seems to be haunting a lot of people in multiple industries. All of them have similar ideas of how it might be solved. The first way to take a whack at the problem would be good old-fashioned raw computing power. Now at Intel we like this approach. There's no denying that increasing computational power in an ever-expanding collection of devices and gadgets would allow us to apply the intelligence and power of a computer to help people find a game to play or a TV show to watch. But raw power isn't enough.
Many people I talked to at PAX saw social networking as another way to discover the games to play. This makes perfect sense because really that's how most people already find games to play: they listen to their friends. So how do we use this interconnectivity of social interactions and this wealth of connections from social networks?
Some game console and publishing companies are dabbling with the idea of a marketplace for the discovery and distribution of games. Certainly Apple's App Store, Google's Android Market and even Intel's AppUp could provide some clues to where the industry might be moving. But many at PAX thought this wouldn't be sufficient. Games and gamers are a different breed of digital consumption animal and their recommendation and discovery engine will need to be tailored to them.
A sea of gaming--the massive and eerily quiet Omegathon event (Photo: BDJ)
A Failure of Imagination?
Over my days at PAX, it became obvious that the future of gaming and the future of entertainment, movies and even TV are all linked. Each industry seems to be moving on a similar, if not parallel, path. In all my conversations at the event, another interesting idea kept popping up.
When I would ask people about the future of gaming, none brought up technological hurdles. Most people thought that the technology they needed was there and would continue to get better. Also, they didn't feel that the business models were actually limiting the progression of games. Many thought that these business models were in a state of massive change, but no one really said they were a problem.
But there was one idea that kept coming up--though people found it hard to give a name to it. Some said the industry had to re-imagine itself. Others said that games were suffering from a sameness that was troubling. Some even went so far as to say that if the gaming industry didn't make a radical change it would become a ghetto of creativity--vapid, marginalized and inconsequential.
It seemed that everyone was trying to say that gaming was facing a failure of imagination: that, much like the broader entertainment industry, gaming was at a specific point in time where it didn't have long to adjust how it saw itself--to get smarter and dream bigger. I think people were troubled by this because they had a deep love for gaming, but they were savvy enough to know that times are changing.
As I write this, I'm on a plane to San Francisco for Intel's Developer Forum (IDF). Four days of uber-geek-tastic fun. I look forward to IDF every year; I've been going for at least ten or more. This year, we are going to have a big Smart TV booth. The future of TV is coming!
Brian David Johnson
Futurist and Director, Future Casting and Experience Research
The future is Brian David Johnson's business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called "future casting" - using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.