I’m not the most experienced and neither the most visionary game developer around. I’ve started out in the game dev business just 3 years ago. But in those years I’ve founded a company, merged that company with another company, released four iPhone games and one downloadable console game and brought an existing game to several new distribution platforms. I generally had an exhausting but extremely rewarding time. In my next couple of articles for this beautiful tome of knowledge called #AltDevBlogADay I’m going to dare to predict the future. New technologies – if you want to call them techs – like Steam, the iPhone and Facebook disruptively introduced new aspects of game development, design, and business. Now we all have to live with social games, flexible pricing structures, gamification, a shorter technology lifecycle, and zero-cost marketing. And with yet another revival of AR. What does that all mean for game design and the games business as a whole? I dare to look ahead. [Grabs crystal ball and stares into it]
Part 1: The future is already here
William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. Looking at the spectacular successes of some new-born gaming giants should tell us where the future lies. Apple, Zynga, and Mojang are suited best for my case. Lets look at them one by one.
A New Breed Of Hardware And Software
Apple has released the iPhone in 2007 and is now the dominant force in mobile and portable gaming. The PSP and the Nintendo DS are still selling well, but they already feel the sting of the iPhone. Looking at the specs of the PlayStation Vita tells how closely Sony is paying attentionbelow production costs at launch. Apple established a walled garden for iPhone development, but the wall is significantly lower than in console development. Sony tried to replicate the lower wall with the PlayStation Minis and Microsoft has XNA. While the diminished costs of entry meant that the iPhone marketplace is crowded and full of cheap knock-offs and shovelware, it also enabled a number of startups to print money. The garden’s wall was lowered even further with of two clever moves by Apple: Having no dedicated dev kits by making each device its own dev kit and releasing easy-to-use free SDK’s. If you compare XCode to Visual C++ it is not on par in most regards, but it is free and developing for the iPhone is (nearly) as straight-forward as developing for the host machine. ObjectiveC made the wall a bit higher, but most games for the iPhone are programmed in C/C++ anyway. Or at least their game logic is. At the same time, the iTunes store is so seamlessly integrated into the product usage that it feels almost natural to buy software, as opposed to pirating it. Combined with the low prices and the automatic upgrade system, a lot of would-be pirates don’t bother pirating software on the iPhone. Just like Steam turned pirates into loyal customers by adding additional value, lowering the prices, and offering more convenience than torrents, Apple offers a service that is more comfortable than the gray market, and nearly as cheap.
Social Is Not A Fad. It’s A Change Of Lifestyle
I know a lot of game designers look down at Zynga because their games are hardly revolutionary in terms of gameplay. With most game mechanics indistinguishable from grinding, Zynga’s games are prime examples of what Nick Yee from Stanford University describes in the following sentences: “The timing and layering of reward mechanisms in video games train players to derive pleasure from the work that is being done. Video games condition us to work harder, faster, and more efficiently” (Yee 2006, p. 70). According to Yee, this careful crafting of challenges and rewards can be traced back to behavioral conditioning (see Skinner 1938). The player pays for being turned into a worker, producing, buying and consuming immaterial goods. Yet Zynga’s games sell like hotcakes. And people love that kind of mechanics. Why is that so? I’m sure part of the reason is that FarmVille perfectly blends into our socially networked surroundings. From its monetization strategy to the marketing, it fits perfectly into the world of today. At the same time, the bite-sized playing sessions fit into contemporary working environments: FarmVille is the Twitter of games**.
The Minimal Viable Product
Mojang is the developer behind Minecraft. By the time of writing, the game has sold Markus “Notch” Persson, its creator, are perfect marketing tools. The success of Minecraft was neither an accident, nor planned.
Minecraft is but the best example of recent games that launched as minimal viable products, hardly in shape for prime-time, and turned into successes later. Yet neither the production methods nor the studio structures of most game developers allow for this way of production. It takes a new approach to game design and development, which is natural to some younger and more agile studios. It requires versatile technology and business models. And there’s hardly any knowledge about how a structured design approach for a minimal viable product looks and how those games can stand out in the sea of shovelware within the low walls of the new gardens.
I will continue this series of articles next time, where I’ll write about the new game studio and what the changes to game development outlined here mean to us as game developers. I’m no expert in any of this, just making up a plan as I go along. So feel free to bash me and tell me I’m wrong. I appreciate any and all critique.
gaming machine (if you don’t count the Archimedes/BBC Master).
** An important implication of social networks is the redefinition of privacy. It was Google who realized that this is where Facebook is occasionally too ruthless. I’d bet that features a la Google+’s circles will become a familiar feature of many social platforms.
- Skinner, B. F. 1938, The behavior of organisms. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.
- Yee, N. 2006, “The Labor of Fun – How Video Games Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play”, Games and Culture, vol. 1, issue 1, pp. 68-71.