Frankfurt, Germany (Weltexpress). The Games Industry’s first quarter of 2012 kicked off with three of its biggest US events: CES in Las Vegas in January, followed in March by GDC 2012 in San Francisco and SXSW in Austin, Texas. These mega get-togethers are precursors to a host of similar exhibitions, festivals, summits and conferences that will take place throughout the rest of the year around the globe, almost anywhere you care to poke your pin: Quo Vadis in Berlin in April, GDC China in Shanghai in July and Edinburgh Interactive in Scotland shortly afterwards, to name but a few.
Add the vast number of regional and sector-specific events such as Games for Health in Boston, Nordcon for fantasy games in Hamburg, Germany, or the Mobile Developer Summit in India and you have literally hundreds of events with veritable armies of organizers behind them – and the nagging sense of repetition.
But although there is some skepticism about the value of these industry gatherings, they serve as vital touchstones especially in this industry, whose momentum leaves even those driving it breathless and perplexed. Like a photo, these events capture a moment in time, establishing benchmarks in areas such as game design, apps development, social gaming and so on. This is especially useful in the games industry, which requires a vast range of skills to drive it: from writers to programmers, art directors to game design geeks as well as all the business skills needed to herd the cats that work in a typical game development or publishing company.
In the games industry nothing is what it seems. Many of the rules that govern other fields of entertainment or commerce seem almost not to apply to games. Nothing is a given – apparently not even confident assertions that the games industry is recession proof.
We are confronted daily with media coverage and industry reports on the worldwide games industry that reflect wide disparities in expectation and delivery: an off-the-wall concept with a brilliant delivery (e.g. World of Tanks) hits a nerve amongst core gamers and becomes a fantastic success within months, taking its creators to previously undreamt-of heights of income and popularity. And at the other end of the spectrum, established companies attempting to sustain their own success somehow miss the mark. The industry is characterized by unpredictability which serves in many countries to put off serious investors and delay sorely-needed government commitment and support.
When giants such as Sony and THQ start posting losses and shedding employees, and the 2011 Q4 sluggishness in the US hardware market is attributed to a “lack of new titles” we have an eerie sense that all’s not right with the world. But are we right in thinking this? Is it true to say that perceptions that have governed commerce and industry in other areas – i.e. that stability is key, growth should be measured and sustained rather than meteoric, shareholder value and the bottom line are the most important things – are either less significant or are differently paced in the world of games?
Industry veteran Peter Molyneux asserts that the games industry has come of age – it is a real industry, and needs the rigours of business plans, setting up proper financing, knowing your audience and so on in order to deliver the successes it needs, especially among smaller, so-called “indie” companies.
As to pace, it has taken on a whole new dimension in the games industry. Company start-ups that result within a year or two in phenomenal success (Wooga, Zynga) are nothing unusual. And daily there are discoveries, innovations and developments that will have an impact in the years to come – not only on games but in a much wider sense, on us all. But these innovations are so numerous and in such disparate areas that the fleshing-out, evolutionary process which is a natural part of the growth of an industry, simply has not been able to catch up.
So what is it about games that makes us care so much?
It is storytelling. Games are the modern-day expression of a primeval compulsion to tell our stories that has driven mankind since time immemorial. The earliest cave paintings, apart from their ritual significance, are a silent reminder of this need. Imagine the satisfaction of the hunters who not only brought back food to their caves but could bask in the delight of their captive audiences as they mimed exaggerated accounts of their exploits. And then embarked on their next foray, leaving behind indelible proof of their prowess etched onto the walls of their abode. Today we have our James Camerons, Damian Hursts, Dan Browns. We have architectural stories, ecological stories, commercial stories, space exploration stories and a myriad more. And then we have games.
Games are different because they go beyond the passive consumption of a “story” that traditionally elicits an emotional response. Games open up a whole new perspective on how storytelling works. They address our need to interact, our playfulness instinct, our desire to be entertained and the visceral gratification of being rewarded – a compelling combination that taps into a range of emotions and has a permanent effects on our neural fabric .
Add the social integration aspect, and we see how games have upped the ante in every way. When we play, we either want it to be with our friends, or we want to make friends out of the people we play with – no matter whether they are halfway across the world or just down the road. And once we have found a game that appeals to us – we might like the story, the exciting environment, the way it enhances our identity or perhaps we just enjoy playing it to pass the time – there is the matter of choice. We’re being offered our ‘fix’ in a variety of appetizing and dynamic forms. The experience is often seamless, the game-world immersive, and the rewards often more potent than those that gamers – especially core gamers – can obtain in the real world: empowerment, an endorphin-reinforced sense of pleasure, achieving objectives and the knowledge of having successfully mastered a series of increasingly complex tasks. Self-improvement and wish-fulfillment all rolled into one.
And it’s spreading out across the generations. What we predicted after GDC Europe last year is already with us: as emphasized clearly in the 2012 GDC social games summit at the Moscone Center San Francisco, developers quickly cottoned on to the fact that if they’re designed and pitched right, games can appeal to anyone. Eyeballing an older demographic, especially in the social games arena, there has been swift development of games that draw older generations into the playing field. Today the definition of “gamer” is blurred.
Over the past few years there was much debate about the impact of what was perceived as a mass exodus from the real world into a virtual environment. We were going to “lose” all these people, all those man-hours, the ability to interact socially and to function in the world around us. But what we are seeing now is a diametrically opposed influx of game-driven technology, attitudes and life-enhancing activities into the real world – from leaderboards linked to gas-efficiency gauges on hybrid cars to middle school kids working out maths challenges using their iPhones. There are digital natives and digital immigrants – but to all intents and purposes, the world today is digital and we are a part of it, whether we like it or not.
The games industry might still be quantum leaping its way from GDC San Francisco to GDC China, from sophisticated cinematic 3D experiences to indie disaster, leaving a trail of evolutionary gaps behind it. But as its earlier developers become eminences grises and bring their experience to bear, the industry is gradually becoming legit, which will, in turn, bring with it a different set of dynamics and their attendant anxieties.
Perhaps soon, the only uncertainty factor will be how long it will take your granny to start playing games.