State of Gaming


In 1972 the first console ever was released. For all those that missed the history lessons about that topic: It was the Odyssey from Magnavox. Games like Table Tennis (a game like Pong) or Cat and Mouse (a maze game) were released forit. Very simple titles which everyone could understand almost immediately and were already fun to play.

Now we write the year 2007 and the industry had 35 years to grow. Many things changed during that time, from the games themselves to the mentality of gamers in general nowadays. So let us take a quick and because of the big subject a somewhat sketchy look on the "State of Gaming" with the focus on the Windows-platform and ask the three questions:

- What are the main trends?
- Where do they come from?
- Where will they lead to?

The first question is answered very quickly if you look at the games made in the last few years and what is in development at the moment. This way we can identify at least five trends, which play an integral part in the current development decisions and ultimately the final results:

- Massive Multiplayer Online
- Tighter game experience
- Risk allocation
- Greater adaptation- and customization options
- Better Accessibility

Since we have now identified the trends, let me get into more details and answer the two remaining questions for each trend individually:

Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO)

The beginning of videogames was multiplayer, also limited to two people in the same room, no one really thought about playing against the machine. This was mainly because of the whole family-friendly concept behind the consoles and their place in the house: the living room. Something that Nintendo currently tries to
reintroduce on the console-market with the Wii. But as the first home computers moved in, it slowly changed since they weren't only for playing but also had more practical uses. And of course sitting with four people in front of a tiny screen wasn't really that much fun. So as the computer gained strength, the whole concept of a single player experience began to unfold. Of course neither consoles nor multiplayer died but for a long time the single player environment dominated and still dominates the market.

But not just since World of WarCraft the idea of hundreds or thousands of players playing with or against each other simultaneously in coherent worlds gets more and more accepted by the gamers. Also the market is still mostly filled with role playing Games, the fever already spread across several genres and still keeps gaining new terrain.

MMOs will get more and more important in the next few years and perhaps they even overrun the classic one-level-based multiplayer-modes in favor for a open world one day. After the failure of PlanetSide it will be interesting to see if the game Huxley, currently under development at H-Studio, will show us if the concept itself is flawed or that it can really work if the game itself is of a high standard. If a "plain" First Person Shooter plays well in a coherent world, then there will certainly be no way back to the old "playing in a restricted level"-theme.

The single player experience is and will of course still be wanted from many players out there, which brings us to trend two:

Tighter game experience

"The longer, the better!" is a statement, which is not only not true for certain parts of the male body but often also doesn't work well with games. A longer game means more content that needs to be made. Not only in terms of levels, monsters and such stuff but also story, characters and what else
keeps the player playing the game. This also leads to the issue of a longer production cycle and ultimately more money that is possibly lost without really gaining anything and just making the game more repetitive and boring. And of course there are many gamers out there that don't want to sink 100 hours into a game until they see the end. So the goal of the developers is to tighten the whole experience. This way they only provide the player with 10 to 20 hours to play but those hours are filled with compelling and exiting stuff so that the player doesn't really know what hit him once the game is over. This constrain allows the designers to really concentrate on those "few" levels and get them right instead of looking on the clock and thinking "I need to finish another 10 levels before the end of the day.", which only leads to uninspired and repetitive gameplay. This is also necessary because the current and upcoming technologies with their eye on very high levels of detail consume much more manhours for a relatively small part of a game. Of course with all those polygon-throwing engines that slowly begin to look all alike, there is a new trend unfolding to make everything easier and faster  in order to have a selling point for the engine. John Carmack has already made the first step with his MegaTexture technique and what we already heard of iD Tech 5 seems to indicate an even bigger step of making the process of level designer easier and faster. Perhaps this will then again allow the developers to produce more compelling content.

Risk allocation

Risk allocation basically means that the risk of ruining yourself with a bad game is minimized by several means but mainly with the simultaneous development for all systems and through "Episodic Gaming".

At the beginning of the home computer era you had several systems that were almost mutually exclusive from hardware to programming language which meant that the process of porting was very time consuming and expensive. Because of that, the companies concentrated on one platform first and then brought the
port for other systems when the original was successful. Nowadays the main consoles are much more like the PC so it is much easier to develop a title for more than one platform at the same time. This gives the publisher a way to diverse the chance of failure which is necessary for many publisher and developers nowadays because of the insanely huge budgets that are needed in the production of a NextGen-title. If you release a title for more than one platform you significantly increase the reachable customer base and with it the possible cash flow.

Another approach to reduce the costs is to release only parts of a full game and then add to that depending on how the customers respond. This falls under the category of "Episodic Content" or "Episodic Games". Instead of developing for years and then releasing a full game that could be a huge failure, they release only a small part of a full game. This way they can better react to customer feedback and if they fail, they don't have wasted a huge amount of time and money and can invest the remains in a new attempt. Especially for small time developers, this is a  very important choice. The heritage of "Epsiodic Gaming" is of course from the shareware-concept that is nowadays mainly used in the applications-market.

Another trend slowly entering the market is the concept of downloadable content. More and more developers try to sell additional content for a game or even think about selling only a barebone game and then offering the customer the means to only buy stuff he wants in order to make it into a full game. Also this system is already very popular in Asia, the whole thing is still at the beginning here and doesn't really sit well with most of the gamers out there that feel betrayed because they buy a full game for good amount of money only to discover, that they didn't get it all and have to pay even more money. But also there is much hate, Bethesda showed that there are enough people out there that buy their stuff anyway - especially on the console-market.

Greater adaptation and customization options

The fourth point, hiding behind a rather cryptic topic, is beginning to unfold under the name "Games 2.0" - named after "Web 2.0" of course. The idea behind it is that no longer the developer is in total control of the game experience but he rather gives the control over you, the player and let you play the game you want and how you want it - not just like the developers envisioned it. Ways of modifying a game to your own needs are around since the first home computer but since then it got easier and easier with the help of editors and Software Development Kits. These give you all the tools you need in order to make your own game. The developer hands the customer every possible means to make it easier for the prospective level or game designer.

But this kind of work still requires a great amount of work and learning depending on the complexity of the tools. Because of that, it is the goal of the developers to not only give you a huge amount of customization options in the game but they also want to give you a free world in which you can do what you want. So instead of just giving you a linear path to the end, they provide the player with a sandbox-like playing field in which he can do what he wants to and the world adapts itself to it. Also it is limited to a certain degree of freedom at the moment the possibilities inside this virtual world will grow as technology advances. This is also a step that needs to be taken in order to advance the MMO-trend beyond what a MMO is today. Also I wouldn't call Second Life a game, it is still somewhat a proof of concept for such a highly customizable world. But not everyone wants to customize the world himself so adaptation routines combined with a very intelligent AI will get even more important in order to provide the player with a very high level of personalization without moving a finger. This then leads to the feeling of really being part of this virtual world.

Bigger worlds, more stuff to do and games that get bigger and bigger also bring us to the last trend:

Better Accessibility

A good example
for the last of the five trends is for example the whole idea behind Microsoft's Games for Windows-Campaign. Microsoft wants that you can feel like using a console at the PC. You should just be able to pop in the DVD and then get on playing without bothering with installations and so on. To do so, they need to establish
standards which are strict and every developer needs to follow by the book - just like it is already the case with console-games. Of course the campaign has still some rough edges but the release of Halo 2 for Vista showed a small glimpse what is waiting for us. You stick the DVD in, click 2 or 3 buttons and then you are already off playing while the game still installs itself in the background. Also Games for Windows LIVE isn't working so nicely at the moment and seems more of a proof of concept than a usable environment, it is again the same backgroundidea: Give every developer the same tool so that they don't need to invent some obscure thing that perhaps doesn't work on every PC.

But "Better Accessibility" is of course not only visible outside the game but also inside but these are not necessarily new trends but just the evolution of gaming. Controlling games is getting easier and at the same time you see more of theactual game on the screen without big User Interfaces blocking your view. The
motion is to get more to a hotkey and case sensitive control scheme which means that you only see that, what you need at the moment by placing the information you need directly in the game world instead on a complicated hud. Placing the ammo counter on the weapon or building units by a circle interface around a
tagged fabric are just two examples of what is already done today. There are several more examples I could state but all have the same goal: make it easier and more intuitive for every gamer, may he be the old man that never played a game before or the hardcore gamer that can fly a 747 with a blindfold on, to control a game while showing more of what is really important.

Now we covered the five of the main trends not only I personally see today. Of course there is, as always, much more to say and there are certainly several more big trends to witness but this overview should provide you with a good idea of what is lurking around the corner.[CH]

(Veröffentlicht am 12.10.2007)