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In this reprint from the final (June/July 2013) issue of Game Developer magazine, the editorial staff reflect back on the publication's history and offer some parting thoughts on the future of the industry.
For 19 years now, Game Developer has borne witness to the game industry's comings and goings. As a magazine, we have endeavored to provide a space for game creators to swap tips and techniques, speak frankly about the challenges of making games, highlight and recognize good work and new talent, offer big-picture analysis of industry-wide trends, and advocate for more compassionate development practices, all in the name of helping people make better games.
But Game Developer is over. We know that all our readers will go on to do amazing things in video games, but we won't be able to make a magazine that will help you out. So we've decided to pool the Game Developer and Gamasutra brain trusts and lay out what we see as the game industry's key changes, challenges, and opportunities coming in the future -- because you'll have to tackle them without Game Developer's help.
We know we aren't the first ones to say that we think the writing is on the wall when it comes to triple-A game development. Practically everything new and interesting to happen in game development over the last few years has ended up taking a bite out of triple-A's pie: Indies, better off-the-shelf dev tools, the rise of mobile and social games (and their associated app stores), and the emergence of free-to-play online games all thrive in areas triple-A dev cannot.
Meanwhile, budgets for producing and marketing triple-A games continue to increase even though their respective profit margins appear to be growing narrower. We don't see triple-A disappearing entirely, but we do think it will be relegated to a less central role -- perhaps one akin to the blockbuster movie in film, with only a few major releases per year from the few industry giants capable of funding and sustaining that kind of multiyear development effort.
Instead of making bigger games by hiring more dev teams, we expect that the industry will be forced to develop more efficient tools that will enable smaller teams to take advantage of ever more powerful hardware (whether that hardware is in a PC, a dedicated console, a mobile device, or something else). Toward that end, we expect more and more devs to come to rely on third-party tools and middleware to make games look better and play smarter without relying on massive dev teams (and massive dev budgets).
Over the last few years, we've seen game developers generally focus less on solving cutting-edge tech problems and more on pushing the design envelope, creating a unique visual motif, or solving business problems (monetization design and user acquisition, for example); we expect this trend to continue, and for off-the-shelf dev tools to become increasingly more sophisticated and easy to use.
As game dev tools continue to evolve, more and more people will be able to make games—games that take risks (both of the business kind and the creative kind) that the industry giants won't be able to. We think that the incredible rush of creative energy coming from indie developers will continue—and that their innovation in creativity and business will expand the overall market for games by attracting new audiences and finding new ways to convince existing audiences to pay for games.
On the other hand, this might not bode well for the full-time game developer job market. Perhaps game development will fall into similar patterns as writing, photography, film, and music: something that is really easy for individuals or small groups to do on their own (and possibly even make money from), but harder to break into the professional class than it already is now. More people will make games in their spare time, just like people start blogs or garage bands, while doing something else to pay the bills.
Studios looking to stay ahead of this change will have to do a better job building their brand, defining a stronger "personality" in their games, and attracting an audience that sticks around from one game to another (in other words, developing an audience that is attached to the developer itself, not just the IP of the games it makes)—all while keeping their dev processes as efficient and lean as possible and hanging on to talented teams. It won't be easy.
Think of the term "video game" as analogous to the term "motion picture"; both phrases describe a medium in the simplest, most literal sense possible. Motion pictures are pictures that are moving, and video games are games that you play with a video display of some sort. But when taken literally, "motion picture" could describe movies, television, commercials, music videos, or anything else that happens to contain video content that we watch.
When it comes down to it, the term "motion picture" is simply too broad and vague for us to actually use in everyday conversation. Even though all of the above types of "motion picture" are usually created with the same basic tools (a camera), and there is overlap in the skills necessary to produce each different kind of "motion picture," we typically consider the different formats of motion pictures different media entirely, with different artistic techniques, delivery mechanisms, consumption patterns, and so on.
This is where "video games" are headed, too. "Video games" is quickly becoming a catchall term for all kinds of media that have very little in common with each other besides the fact that they exist in a virtual space and are authored with a set of similar tools. Some games are virtual toys and play sets; some are sports; some are virtual community spaces; some are interactive narrative experiences; and so on.
We expect virtual, interactive entertainment to become the de facto method of popular communication—integrating itself alongside music, film, and other traditionally passive forms of art rather than in opposition to it—and each "genre" of game will eventually grow into a medium unto itself. Imagine having a Game Developer or GDC specifically devoted to developing competitive-eSport games, or toy games, or story games, and you have the idea.
So, how can game developers develop their skills now to prepare for the future game industry? We suggest that you're probably best served by focusing on the ins and outs of a specific sector of games; when it comes to the skills you need to make a fantastic MMO, or a competition-focused sport-game, or a heart-wrenching episodic drama, we suspect that they will only become more specialized and less cross-applicable as the industry matures. We wouldn't expect Steven Spielberg to be good at inventing football, after all, so expecting game developers to be similarly multitalented seems like a losing proposition to us.
(The irony of people working in print publishing offering advice on future-proofing skills—in the last issue of the magazine, no less—is not lost on us, by the way.)