I have had a series of unconnected events in the last week that all made me think about the progress games have made and where they will go in the future. I had the pleasure of listening to BioWare’s doctor head honchos at GDC Canada on emotionally engaging games and where they are going. They followed this up with a great description of how the events outside of the game in the real world also engage the player. While packing up my old book collection I came across some Game Developer Magazines from the late 90’s and the covers showed me how far we have really come. Finally I had a chat with a friend who is starting his own video game company targeting the console market. All of these events lead me to the conclusion that the current PS3/360 generation of games is transitioning from technology based success to quality/polish based success and that games in 10 to 20 years might not be all that different but will be incredibly polished.
Dr. Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka had an awesome keynote at GDC where they described how they connect with their audience on an emotional level. Half of the presentation was comparing the evolution in their games by playing videos of similar interactions in their products over the years. I missed a little bit of the point of their presentation because I couldn’t help but think that all their games conversation systems acted essentially the same. Ultimately you are picking from a branching choose your own adventure. Is Dragon Age going to be much more engaging than Baldur’s Gate II was? Having more advanced story telling mechanisms may make games more like movies than novels and that may lead to more sales but I do not think it makes the games themselves more engaging. However story telling mechanisms make the games message more clear and accessible which can lead to having more people getting engaged. I was looking at the core of the product when I should have been looking at the audience. Audiences seem to want movies not novels. Always think of the customers.
BioWare has always been a leader in supporting their community. I have always admired BioWare’s dedication to their audience. They were one of the first game companies that really listened to fans by having message boards, dedicated community managers and encouraging user created content. Ray and Greg took a bit of time to describe how all of this activity really builds fan base and a story around the game. When I was playing Baldur’s Gate II simultaneously with my room mates we all had different parties and were amazed by how all of our stories were different in a significant way. I still feel guilty that I let Aerie die! Creating enough emotion to have conversations about how you felt in the game with friends is building a community and I do think BioWare is the best in the business at this.
If the strategy that BioWare is taking is the future of gaming I would think that more movie like story telling devices and polish will be combined with massively involved community. When I dug up my game developers I saw a cover for Shattered Steel (a BioWare game) which looked great at the time but sure is dated. It makes me think that games of the past were really the equiavalent of early experimental films where the novelty of the game was what sold the product. That is what I call technology based success. This is still happening today with things like the Wii. There is room for growth in this market, but in order to sustain success games need to contine to get even more polished and accessible.
Chatting with a friend starting a new studio made me think what I would do if I was starting a studio myself. Some of my friends think it is crazy to jump into the AAA console market. If you are jumping in, I think you have to realize that you have to target a very broad range of skillsets first and foremost and then find ways to engage them in your game before launch. Many companies can barely get the product done and as a result as successful game does not become a successful product. This is one of the things that I think is much different between the movie and game industry. In the movie industry you can have a sleeper hit on DVD because the cost of investment in this is relatively low. Gamers follow studios and you need to nurture a fan base. That means investing in your product for years after launch.
In the future games will be separated not by their technology innovations. Instead games will be set apart by the emotional journey they take you on by involving you in a way that no movie can. Innovations that add to this immersion will be successful. When this kind of thing happens I think there should be a separation between “games” and “games as an emotional experience”. Take chess as an example, it doesn’t explicitly tell a story and is not Art in my opinion. The future will hold many more games that introduce audiences to new experiences but if it doesn’t connection emotionally it isn’t art to me. The classic debates will continue but companies like BioWare will make more people believe in games as art in the future. Can’t wait to see it happen!