Hundreds of game developers, publishers and analysts recently descended on Brighton for the annual Develop conference. There were controversial keynotes, there were talks about how to make money in a rapidly fragmenting marketplace, but there were also some interesting forward-looking sessions, concerned with where the games industry as a whole is heading – not so much in terms of game design (that’s the domain of events like the Game Developers Conference and SXSW), more in the way the sector will operate as a business. Some of it is pretty weird.
Here, then, are the major trends that we picked up on, all of which could completely change the way games are made – and played – in the near future.
1. Parents as gaming advocates
During her talk about the gaming habits of modern teenagers, Alison York, research director at Nickelodeon, talked about how we’re now seeing the first generation of parents who grew up playing games themselves and are passing that passion and knowledge on to their children. Through a recent survey of UK families, the channel found that 75% of parents they surveyed now play video games with their children, and that children aged 10 or under take most of their gaming recommendations from their parents.
At the same time, families are spending more time together in the living room, with a reduction in the number of children with TVs in their rooms. Everyone may be on different devices (each household now has an average of 8.4 digital gadgets according to Nickelodeon’s figures, drawn from its own surveys as well as Ofcom figures), but they’re closer than they’ve been for years. This could all lead to a steep rise in titles that seek to challenge and entertain both parents and children together – a sort of Pixar effect. Of course, Nintendo has operated in this space for years, as has the Lego series, but the parent/child co-op market may well increase substantially as more millennials become parents.
2. 360 degrees of freedom
According to Nickelodeon’s research, 34% of children under 11 have a tablet, and they are now tending to get their first smartphones as they enter secondary school. “As a result, this ‘swipe generation’ seamlessly navigates between the digital and real world,” says York. “They expect 360 play, where each platform adds something to the experience.”
We’ve already seen brands such as Moshi Monsters, Bin Weevils and Angry Birds seamlessly working as physical toys, games and merchandise; there’s also the rise of the toys to life genre, with Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Nintendo’s Amiibo figures leading the way. We can expect more of these 360-degree franchises, as children become even more used to navigating between screened and live entertainment. The Angry Birds activity parks hint at how games companies will use brand extensions to broaden their scope. We’re also seeing the reverse happening: Legoland in Windsor, for example, has an app that offers games and features that interact with areas of the park itself.
This won’t be confined to family brands. We’re likely to see more “hardcore” titles conceived simultaneously as games, movies and animated TV or web series, often sharing digital assets. There have been rather mediocre experiments in this area – notably the Halo Nightfall series and Defiance – but this won’t deter new projects, as cross-platform distribution evolves. “There are so many channels now and they’re typically looking for digital content,” said Todd Harris of Hi-Rez Studios during a panel discussion on the future of games. “You want your game to be a lifestyle, a hobby, a passion that people spend money on regularly.” Look out for Microsoft’s experimental TV/game title Quantum Break in 2016.
3. Indies get physical
It’s likely that creating toys that tie-in or interact with games won’t be confined to major publishers like Activision and Disney; 3D printing is getting cheaper, allowing the manufacturing of action figures. We’re already seeing the growth of companies like Sandboxr, which make it easier for game makers to create and distribute models based on their titles, while Amazon has launched a 3D printing store for customers.
At the same time NFC (near-field communication) technologies are also becoming more affordable, possibly allowing the wider development and production of toys-to-life experiences. For example, Tawain-based studio Monkey Potion has developed a fantasy strategy board game named Project Legion which has NFC chips in all the pieces – this allows the game to interact with a companion app, which tracks each move and shows it onscreen.
Hi-Rez Studios, meanwhile, has a service allowing players to buy 3D printed figures based on its game Smite, but it has bigger plans. As Harris explained during the Develop panel: “We want players to be able to go to Amazon, buy the game, see a 3D print, buy that too, and then have that open up a cool item in the game.”
Peter Heinrich, a games development evangelist at Amazon, suggested that this prospect is very close. “I think we’re at a tipping point. Over the next 18 to 24 months RFID and physical devices are going to play a huge role.”
Indie devs are also looking into alternative ways to combine digital and physical play. UK-based designer Alistair Aitcheson is using cheap Arduino circuit boards to create wirelessly connected game “buttons” which can be placed around an environment. His game Codex Bash has up to four players unravelling a code and then running around a room trying to hit the correct symbol buttons in the right order, before their opponents do. His next project features wearable buttons, turning participants into walking game controllers. There’s even a whole festivaldedicated to games created using alternative controllers.
“Electronics has got very affordable,” says Aitcheson. “It’s possible for people to buy an Arduino off the shelf, and it’s something that’s easy to program and requires very little setup. It means that making weird object-based games, new controllers and new interfaces is possible for anyone with a tiny bit of electronics knowledge and some imagination.”
4. Blurred lines between games and social media
We’ve already seen plenty of virtual worlds – like Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin – that operate both as games and social spaces. But a new generation of games is exploiting improvements in broadband connectivity and networking features to make more dynamic social experiences. Minecraft has become a popular venue for friends to meet and talk while working collaboratively, and titles like Destiny and The Crew have emphasised the sense of socialising, sharing and connectivity. Forthcoming co-op titles are likely to build on the idea of multiplayer titles as social rather than just gaming experiences.
At the same time, the current consoles have built-in social sharing systems, so players can easily take screenshots and videos and distribute these on social networks without leaving the game. The recent smartphone word puzzler Alphabear has built sharing mechanics into its intrinsic gameplay, which creates weird, amusing sentences that can be immediately shared on Twitter – a perfect word-of-mouth marketing feature. Expect more games to make sharing integral to design.
5. The spectator experience
In the era of Twitch (120 million viewers a month) and celebrity YouTubers, it’s becoming increasingly important for developers to consider how their games will be viewed as well as played. “The statistics in terms of the hours people spend playing games and watching games, are beginning to tilt toward the latter very quickly,” said industry veteran Ian Baverstock, founder of small publisher Chilled Mouse. “It’s like the MTV moment for the music industry – suddenly you have to have something that is enjoyable to watch. Over the next 18 months, we’re going to see more developers trying to exploit that, specifically aiming their games at YouTubers.”
This is already happening of course. Indie titles like Goat Simulator, Gang Beasts and Speed Runners have been built to appeal directly to YouTubers and Twitch streamers via fun co-op modes, quirky visuals and lots of potential for funny video footage.
Dave Ranyard of Sony Worldwide Studios also envisions an era in which “how to” or “let’s play” videos and video production tools are incorporated into the games themselves. In this way, players won’t have to venture outside of the experience to see hints, tips and playthrough videos.
6. The era of transparent game design
Developers have spent the last three years using crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter to both finance new projects and gain a dedicated community. On top of that, initiatives like Steam Early Access and the new Xbox Preview programme allow fans to buy games before they’re finished and have a say in how the development process pans out. This is likely to become ever more common as small studios break out of the traditional publishing model and seek financial assurances before committing to major new projects.
We’ll also see more studios seeking to make the development process itself more transparent, perhaps by live-streaming from the office. “It’s hard to do but it’s really powerful,” said Todd Harris of Hi-Rez studios. “Think about Vlambeer – they stream all their development online. They’ve got something like 12,000 subscribers who are paying a monthly fee to access that stream – that’s a huge amount of revenue on its own, but then they’re also interacting closely with their audience in real-time. Those people become amazing advocates for the game when it’s released.”
Rami Ismail says we can expect these changes in the ecosystem to have an effect on the types of games that are made. For example, he suggests that roguelike games have become popular as a genre because people like the Steam Early Access service and roguelikes work well on Early Access.
However, Alexis Kennedy of Failbetter Games thinks narrative game designers will also learn to use early access effectively. In his talk, Choice, Consequence and Complicity in Interactive Stories, he admitted that while “narrative games in early access are a much harder sell than sandbox games in early access”, there are ways to make an early-access narrative game work: write the beginning and end first so that players will at least be able to finish it, “keep your roadmap public”, and make sure you pay attention to both players who’ve been involved since the start and those who are new to the game.
More recently, Ismail thinks, the introduction of refunds on Steam (which let users get their money back on downloads if they play for less than two hours) may begin to affect the length of narrative games. Whether people actually start to return to shorter games after completing them or not, developers may worry about that happening, and stop making short games anyway.
7. Players as creators
Gamers won’t just be watching development taking place in the future, they’ll be contributing too. A rising number of Kickstarter campaigns are offering backers creative roles in the project, whether that’s appearing as voice actors or helping to compose the music. We’re also seeing the return of user-friendly map editors with titles like Mario Maker, Hotline Miami 2 and Doom set to offer powerful creative tools, allowing players to construct their own levels and then share them online.
Of course, modding has always been a vital part of the PC gaming scene, but player-generated content may be about to hit the console sector in a big way, leading to a new era in which developers are effectively able to outsource development of new content to dedicated fans. We may even see a mainstream version of Valve’s Steam Workshop, which allows PC game modders to sell their creations to other players.
8. Coworking creatives
In a talk entitled Killing the “Lucky Indie” Myth: How to Build a Sustainable Micro Studio, Simon Roth of Machine Studios spoke about how another developer rents a desk in his office in Oxford. This is becoming increasingly common as an increasing number of smaller studios set up without the funds to rent their own offices. Dedicated spaces like the Bristol Games Hub, the Arch Creatives in Leamington Spa and Playhubs in London offer cheap shared working space to developers, who are also able to share ideas and resources.
These sites, along with university incubation projects, could facilitate a new generation of developers who aren’t reliant on publisher support or investor funding, perhaps leading to a wider variety of experimental projects.
9. Minor indies becoming major players
We’ve seen how digital distribution and cheap tools like Unity have empowered a new generation of independent developers. However, that sector is evolving, so that, instead of producing niche titles for small audiences, indie teams are now working with console platform holders and Steam communities to create genuine crossover smashes. Developers like Mike Bithell, Hello Games, ThatGameCompany and FullBright may be small, but they’re operating more like the mid-sized Double A studios of the 90s, aiming at mass audiences with highly polished titles.
“One of the great things I’m seeing is the transition of indie development to the mainstream – the whole definition is changing,” said Amazon’s Peter Heinrich during the panel session. “There’s been a democratisation of development, so now those one- and two-person teams are armed with the resources they need to bring their games to a much wider audience.”
10. Mainstream games become services and platforms
We’ve seen how smartphone developers like Rovio, Zynga and SuperCell have turned their games into platforms by reacting to metrics data, tweaking difficulty accordingly, and then adding downloadable additions to their big brands – rather than bringing out regular sequels. This sensibility is now feeding into mainstream console and PC development.
“We’re starting to see free-to-play design and ethos coming into premium games,” said Baverstock. “Developers are learning how to use metrics to evolve games in the face of user data”. The result may be more games like Destiny. Bungie’s online shooter is geared heavily toward co-op play and the studio has a whole internal team dedicated to watching and interpreting server data, as well as player feedback, which is then used to tweak the experience. Activision has also focused on delivering regular content updates, rather than announcing a sequel.
“Retention is key,” said Heinrich. “Keeping your current customers is easier than going out and finding new customers, particularly as acquisition channels increase. The consoles have embraced free-to-play, and that retention line is starting to come to the current machines.”
Ismail blames the “platform dance” and other trends on what he calls “the revenue problem”, which he says results from the prices of games going down in real terms (thanks to the notion that games need to “stay the same price”, plus inflation) and the cost of development going up.
Ways in which developers have attempted to make up for lost money include: “increased efficiency” (ie the damaging overtime and increased pressure late in development known as “crunch”), patches being sold later as DLC, micro-transactions, and pre-orders and special editions.
Indeed, in this new era of post-release purchases and games as services, annual iterations are likely to get more rare, perhaps confined to the really big, very traditional titles like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.
11. eSports becomes Sky Sports
So far, game publishers have allowed their content to be streamed for free on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, but that is unlikely to continue. “The YouTubers are massive celebrities, and they’re effectively parasitically living off the games industry, making a lot of money out of it,” said Baverstock. “We’ve got to figure out how to make that work for us as well as it does for them”. Of course, Nintendo has attempted to introduce revenue sharing programmes with YouTube gamers, and there’s been an angry backlash – but if the likes of Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft follow suit, there’s not much that viewers will be able to do.
This could well extended to the eSports world where, currently, the major tournaments are all available to view for free. This runs counter to traditional sports broadcasting where rights are charged and consumer must pay for subscription access, usually via satellite or cable channels. A similar model may well find its way into pro-gaming. “Fifa charges an awful lot of money to view its content, but in the games industry we don’t charge anything,” said Ranyard. Already, Twitch allows partner channels to charge a subscription, and Major League Gaming has added subscription packages to its own eSports streams. More will follow.
12. The evolution of crowdfunding: first deviation then regulation
Through large-scale projects like Elite: Dangerous and Shenmue III, we have seen crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter being used as a way to gauge interest in a product before full development (or wider investment) begins.
As the use of crowdfunding evolves, we can expect to see a wider variety of experiments with the process. Major eSports games like Dota 2 and Smite have both used crowd funding to boost the value of prizes offered at pro-gaming tournaments. Last year, Valve managed to raise a prize pool of $10m for its Dota 2 championship by charging players $10 for the game’s Compendium virtual sticker book. Hi-Rez put in a prize pool of $600,000 for its first Smite tournament, but then managed to bring in an extra $2m by offering players paid in-game items. The company has also used in-game item sales to raise money for charity.
However, it’s likely that crowdfunding will become the subject of greater regulation as its use expands, and as we see more high-profile controversies, likethe recent upset over the game Godus.
“There was a recent ruling in the States,” said Harris. “For the first time, The Federal Trade Commission came in and made a ruling for a Kickstarter campaign. In that case it wasn’t just that the project didn’t reach completion, the FTC judged that the developer had misrepresented how the funds would be spent. That was interesting and there will be more of that in the future.”
13. Rise of the silver gamers
As the population ages, we’re going to see an increasing number of people either carrying on gaming into retirement, or perhaps discovering gaming in their later years. That’s a huge market for developers to explore.
Helping people to cope with isolation could be one huge benefit. “We are social beings and social interaction is very important,” says cyber-psychologist Berni Good who presented a talk about silver gamers at Develop. “We know that people’s thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviours are influenced by real, imagined or even the implied presence of ‘others’ and, even if that’s with non-player characters in video games.
“As psychologists we are beginning to understand that eudaemonics (the theory of being happy) can be realised with engagement and immersion on video game play. Research on character identification suggests that audiences regularly imagine being the character, and research around parasocial experiences suggest that people react to character as if they were real, physical beings.”
So there may soon be a large market for games that simulate social experiences in a very different way than current titles – or that emphasise or exploit the greater range of life experiences of older players. Good argues that ageing gamers may find they have important roles to play in shared co-op experiences with younger relatives. “With added moral and ethical choices in games, older people may have more emotional intelligence than younger players,” says Good. “Older players may not be able to pursue the hobbies they used to because they just don’t have the same stamina or capability. This is where video games can really help, by playing games, older people can still get a sense of purpose, they can relate to others in a meaningful way.”
14. Managing trolls
As the interaction between developers and customers increases, so does the amount of anger and abuse that studios open themselves up to. A key element of making games in the future will be learning to manage this influx. In his keynote speech at the Develop conference in Brighton, Gearbox Software chief executive Randy Pitchford advocated trying “to get fuel from” haters as well as fans because, “if they tell us they love what we’ve done or tell us they hate what we’ve done, we’ve still moved them”.
Rami Ismail of Vlambeer, however, took a different approach in his keynote. “The implication is that you need every single one of your customers,” he said, and then showed the audience a particularly offensive email he received. “I don’t need this guy.” He summarised his talk with a similar sentiment: “You don’t have to accept something from a consumer just because they might give you money.”
15. The “platform dance”
In his keynote speech, Ismail mentioned something he calls “the platform dance”, in which developers are moving from one platform to another. Several of the talks from the conference reflected this movement between platforms, like Relentless Software’s Andrew Eades’ From Console Superstars to Mobile Wannabes and Back Again. According to Ismail, the pattern he sees is that developers move from mobile to PC because of its lower user-acquisition costs, from PC to console, in pursuit of higher discoverability, and from console to mobile because they want to make more cheaper games.
Furthermore, Ismail said that because PC customers are split into those who buy day-one special editions and those who wait for Steam Sales, “we’ve effectively recreated whales in the PC segment”. In other words, PC developers may have to start thinking more like smartphone developers, specifically developing and then exploiting a small group of higher-spending fans.
16. Virtual and augmented reality become commercial realities
Talking about the arrival of virtual reality as a mass consumer phenomenon, Sony’s Dave Ranyard said during his Develop panel discussion, “It’s not if, it’s when”. Most of the Evolve day at Develop was dedicated to sessions concerning the development of VR games. The key headsets are almost here: the HTV Vive is out in November, the Oculus is possibly February 2016, the Morpheus will follow in the second-quarter. Microsoft is preparing its Hololens augmented-reality headset; Google is backing the Magic Leap. On top of this, there is already a vast development community, experimenting with the tech, ironing out some of the technical problems and forming the design conventions that will create brand new (and non-nauseous) experiences. Big publishers like Ubisoft are also stepping up their research into the area.
For game developers, there could be a huge boom in business as major corporations suddenly scrabble to provide their own virtual-reality applications. Because of this, venture capitalists and angel investors are apparently crowding in on the sector. As Ian Baverstock put it at Develop: “From an investment point of view, oh my God, virtual reality is the place you want to be.”