Trendspotting at GDC 2010

Earlier this year I was planning to do a “Top ten trends for 2010” post. But then, I got busy, friends of mine were doing it, and I figured hey, things are a little crazy, maybe I’ll do it later.

But then DICE came around, and GDC, and I started thinking – wow, if I’d written that post in January I’d look like I was really prescient now. Dang it! Seeing the games industry move in some unusual ways this past year has been fascinating, and there were some marked changes at GDC this year that I’d like to call attention to for those of you watching the game industry. Here are a few things that have caught my eye lately. I’ll keep it to six.

Disruption! Or, the diversification of platforms, distribution mechanisms, and business models. Dean Takahashi really nailed this at GamesBeat this year. We used to only have to think about a couple consoles, the PC, and maybe Gameboy, with all games delivered as boxed products. Now when planning a game we have so many more choices! Of course there is PC/Mac/Linux. And then PS3/X360. PSN/XBLA. Wii or WiiWare. PSP or DSi? PSP Mini? DSiWare? iPhone/Android/WinPhone7/Palm/Blackberry. Facebook and other social networks (Flash games largely). Oh wait, distribution? Well, aside from boxes, about a zillion digital distribution channels, including Steam and Direct2Drive, as well as social networks and mobile app stores. Ultimately the question for a business person is: if I have N dollars to spend creating a game, what platforms, business models, and distribution systems are going to maximize my likelihood of making N+M dollars in revenue? Will I make a free-to-play game selling virtual goods, or stick a disc in a box and sell it at a brick-and-mortar store? Or, oh yeah, OnLive? Gaikai? So many questions. It didn’t used to seem like the world was a simpler place. But it was. (A corollary to this is that platform providers will need to work harder to attract developers, since there are so many platforms.)

Broadening of the mobile space. At GDC this year I sat in on a Blackberry technical session. Later in the week I visited the Palm booth. Google was giving out Android phones. Microsoft was talking up Windows Phone 7 in a series of talks. And almost everyone in San Francisco seemed to be sporting an iPhone (God knows why, the AT&T signal in San Francisco stinks!) Now, as a developer, how am I going to make an app that works on all these devices? Yikes! Two years ago, I only needed to worry about targeting the iPhone. Now, at the least, I’m thinking about iPhone and Android, and planning to be ready for Windows Phone 7. And I’d really like to support Blackberry. And Palm. If you’re a game engine developer or providing cross-platform libraries or tools, now is your time to shine! I was surprised not to see many cross-mobile-platform tools at GDC. Unity is coming to Android… ShiVa is coming to Android. There aren’t too many others! There’s a huge opportunity for cross-platform mobile game engine technology.

Increasing interest in “serious games” and “game-ification”. I’ve been incredibly excited to see the White House engage with the videogame industry on several game education initiatives recently. The question “can games really affect learning?” is almost as common as “are games art?” and just about as useless a question, in my opinion. The answer to both questions is, “Of course!” Now let’s stop talking about it and go make some good-quality and effective learning games. At the same time, “game-ification” (thanks to Tim Chang for that term) is also growing. The increasing use of game design techniques in the “real world” is fascinating to watch. Using games to encourage people to lose weight is low-hanging fruit here (weight is an awfully easy “scoring” system). The new Ford Fusion has a game-like interface designed to encourage you to conserve energy. And leveling up at your local coffee shop by buying 12 lattes to receive a free one is a simple form of game. Game techniques are spreading out into the culture, and this is understandable – the language of games is one that more and more people grok, as kids who have grown up immersed in games become adults and continue to seek out ways to improve their lives. Game techniques (leveling up, reward systems, design loops, etc) make more and more sense.

Production quality rising in social games. The rise of social games was not something many people saw coming. The number of players playing Farmville itself each week strikes both fear and awe into many a videogame developer. How does one go about trying to compete with that? A way to compete which many have turned to in previous generations is not to build a better mousetrap, but to build a more beautiful mousetrap. We’ve already seen games evolve from Mafia Wars style spreadsheets of numbers to 2D Flash games. Some of the latest Flash games include a bit of 3D (Café World). What will come next? Full 3D games of course! Games made using Unity, Torque, or ShiVa (or Java) all allow for a full 3D gameplay experience but require the player to install custom plugins. Unfortunately, without installing a custom plugin, players are stuck with the simple 3D experience that can be created using modern-day Flash. There are a few Flash 3D engines out there (Yogurt, Papervision3D, PushButton Engine), highlighting the growing demand for 3D on the web. There are also a handful of native 3D technologies for the browser under development currently. Which will break through? O3D? WebGL? ANGLE? NaCl? Over the next 12-18 months it seems certain that we will finally get hardware-accelerated 3D on the web.

As the production quality of social games rises, budgets go up, making it riskier for companies trying to make money in the space. Smaller companies get squeezed out, and larger established companies find accelerated success via branding and co-marketing opportunities. It’ll be interesting to watch the space to see who survives!

The increasing use of external technology. Whether it’s the use of licensed game engines or the use of freely-available open source tech, it seems that many people are overcoming their fear of using other people’s code. I still remember the arguments years ago about the idea of licensing someone else’s game engine. And the original idea for Game Programming Gems was to give people code and algorithms they could use to jumpstart their development. These days open source and licensed tech is all over the place. No longer are people rolling their own game servers, for example, they’re using LAMP: Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Small game developers are looking for every advantage they can, and turning to the vast environment of open source software such as free engines (OGRE, Irrlicht, PushButton Engine), tools (Blender, Gimp, VirtualDub), and physics libraries (Bullet, ODE, Box2D). New students coming into the game industry recognize that they can more quickly bring their game to life if they start with someone else’s code, so using an engine and toolset like Unity is a smart solution. Traditional games companies have had issues in the past with the use of open source code in a game they are boxing up and selling – too many potential legal issues – so what will they do with the flood of open source use from the indy community?

Increasing viability of game schools. I remember when the first few schools started teaching game development – at the time most people got into game development by dropping out of school and creating their own game, or perhaps they got in by spending time in the QA department. People going to school to learn game development? That was just a crazy idea! Thankfully, that was awhile ago now, and it has been a long road. But just in the past year, it seems a tipping point has been reached, and more people tell me about the GREAT students they’re getting out of schools now as opposed to the inept ones. The new graduates may not be able to code in assembler (and probably won’t need to), but they think about software engineering, engine architecture, and are creative in their use of data structures. They may not know how STL works and how to use it (or not use it) efficiently, but they can code up some really useful tools for your game, quickly. And those programmers you just hired also have design backgrounds, and have worked with other disciplines before, and shipped indy games, or iPhone games. Certainly there are good schools and bad schools, and good students and bad students. But this year I’ve been really pleased to hear about so much GOODNESS.

The past few years in the game industry have been tumultuous. But it always heartens me to see so many great games, and so many people playing them!