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What's Next? Intel's Pallister on the future of processing power

What's Next? Intel's Pallister on the future of processing power Exclusive

October 8, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

[In advance of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the latest installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]

As the director of content strategy for Intel's visual computing group, part of Kim Pallister's job is forecasting tech progress and emerging trends games and graphics -- in other words, predicting the future. Read on to find out where he thinks hardware will go in the next ten years (and where he thinks it isn't hardware that's holding us back).

Patrick Miller: Hardware standardizing is one of the major trends to come out of "next-gen" -- whether it's mobile devices generally coalescing around more-standard designs, or consoles getting ever closer to a standard PC architecture. What will that change over the next ten years?

Kim Pallister: I think what you are seeing is the confluence of two trends: Increasing IP/Design re-use, together with an increasing sophistication of consumer devices. As such the cost of designing something cutting edge (a single chip, a system design, or a whole platform) is getting bigger, while it's becoming more feasible to re-use and/or customize designs others have built on in order to offset that cost. This has of course happened with PC hardware in the past (e.g. remember PC-based arcade cabinets?), and was true of low-end microcontrollers in low-end consumer devices, but you're now seeing it occur also with ARM and Atom-based designs.

It is worth noting that while there's some convergence around a few architectures as noted above, there is also a trend we'll see increasing toward less standardization, at least in terms of things like form factors, screen resolutions, controllers and input mechanisms, etc. This is a normal part of Geoffrey Moore's technology life cycle; as solutions evolve to address a market, they grow in variety to cater to different needs and niches. Android-based consoles, 'phablets', and automotive entertainment systems are all examples. So while there may be some convergence around, for example, Android, there may at the same time be an increase in complexity of device fragmentation for developers to deal with.
Developers will have fewer quirky architectures to learn the ins and outs of, which is a plus. On the other hand, they'll have to scale over a larger range of performance and range of devices. Those that are set up to handle this will be able to take their games to a lot of different platforms and markets.

PM: What does someone in the hardware biz need to do to stay on top (or stay relevant)? Will this change the balance of power in the games industry?

KP: Well, there are lots of trite answers here. Move fast, stay nimble, adapt to market trends quickly... but I'm not sure these answers are any different than anyone in hardware would have given you ten years ago. They just feel more acute.

I think if there is one thing that is new, it is that vendors need to be more cognizant of the total solution being delivered to market. Consumers have come to expect products to be delivered as complete solutions, ready to roll out of the box. It's interesting to contrast this to what we've seen in games over the past few years, where connected consoles and PCs have allowed a degree of corner-cutting, where people will ship things that aren't quite done, with the intent of pushing an update soon after release. The poor experience many had with the Wii U at launch -- versus the near-magical experience they had with the Wii -- is a great example of this. I think consumer patience for this will wane.

PM: Mobile devices have been advancing at an incredible rate over the last few years. Do you think this trend will continue?

KP: Yes and no. There are some areas where they are going near some physical limits that will at least cause the rate of advance to track to something more like Moore's Law. At that point, they are bound by limits of power, heat dissipation, form factor. At the same time, there is huge demand and a very robust competitive environment fueling the market. This is a formula for breakthrough advances to happen. And at the high-end of the smartphone market, we are nowhere close to meeting the needs of all users and developers, and so aren't at risk of an "Innovator's Dilemma" where we build stuff that no one needs or uses.

PM: Do you think more powerful mobile devices will change the industry/medium in ways that more powerful consoles/PCs have not?

KP: Well mobile is changing the market fundamentally by making it larger and addressing previously under-served consumers. It is changing the medium by enabling new modes of interaction, new styles of play, etc. I think more powerful mobile devices are allowing for a sub-segment of mobile to be focused on "Triple-A mobile" games with larger teams and budgets. Down the road I think there's still a lot of potential with things like augmented reality or other types of gameplay involving the environment, location, camera input and the like. It'll take a lot of experiments before people find out what works though.

PM: The business of making and selling games has been changing rather dramatically over the last few years -- the rise of DLC, then downloadable games, then free-to-play and microtransactions and Kickstarter and so on. What do you think the next big business shift is?

KP: Well, if I knew that I'd be a wealthy man. I do think there are a couple learnings we can take away though. With the exception of Kickstarter -- which is really a funding trend and therefore platform-agnostic -- all the trends you listed having to do with business models and/or distribution happened on PC first; not because it's a PC but because it's an open platform. In all cases it took some amount of time (from a year to a decade) for the gatekeeper-held platforms to catch on. So whatever the next shift is, WHERE it takes root first, and who will capitalize on it, is going to be a function of how open the gatekeeper is to experimentation on their platform. It's very likely going to be something that occurs on PC and/or on the web first, and then the question is whether any of the closed platforms is willing to adapt quickly or not.

While Kickstarter is interesting (I wrote several GD Mag business columns on it last year), I do think there's a high likelihood of a contraction of consumer interest after a high-profile failure or two. However, what it has shown is that there is room for many different types of funding and patronage that the internet can enable, and that some of these can support games that otherwise would never fit into traditional publisher funding models. This has me excited.

PM: What's the next major tech barrier (hardware or software) that you see coming down in the future, and how do you think it'll change things?

KP: I'm a technology guy, so the trends on this front are interesting. High-quality displays being driven by very inexpensive very powerful programmable graphics is interesting. The re-kindling of interest in VR has me somewhat skeptical, but there are so many really smart people working on it right now that something great is bound to come of it. Augmented Reality is exciting as well.

However, I think the bigger barriers have to do with business, legal and cultural issues. We see all the platform vendors struggling to varying degrees with how much 'gatekeeping' to do around their platforms. Console vendors are looking at folks like Apple and realizing that they are at a disadvantage by not simply letting more developers (and thus more experiments in gameplay/biz model/etc) through. At the same time, even folks like Apple are not allowing some types of content, and consumers may start to push back on being told what is/isn't suitable for them -- at least to a degree that is different than other media. These are the barriers that I think offer the opportunity for even bigger shakeups.

PM: Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. What do you think will come back once the time is right?

KP: Well, I mentioned the resurgence of interest in VR. That's clearly an example. It still feels to me like something of an enthusiast niche, but Oculus Rift is quite compelling and may at least sustain a market for that niche. HTML5 seems like something that is in the 'trough' of the hype curve, but that over time will deliver on its promise. Another that comes to mind is location-based games. Early attempts felt very…forced. However, the number of location-aware phones in peoples' hands, together with the time people are spending playing games on the go, it feels like someone just needs to get the right concept out there.

Online registration is in full swing for GDC Next and the co-located ADC; register now and save up to $200 on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP All Access Pass. For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out ADC's recently announced design talks: Intel on building scalable and secure APIs for enterprise apps, and ChaiONE on pairing the latest wearable technology with smartphones.

Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with Robert Zubek, Greg Rice, Chris Crawford, Starr Long, Thomas Bidaux, Teut Weidemann, David Cage, Warren Spector, Sunni Pavlovic, James Paul Gee, Raph Koster and Chris Pruett

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