It's the final day of the Game Developers Conference. I'm not blogging individual sessions as I did last year (search this blog for "GDC 2006"), though I will post pictures from a couple of noteworthy talks. I did, though, want to post my thoughts on the evolution of the game industry -- thoughts that have been forming for a few months now, and that have coalesced during my week here.
It's an axiom of the gaming industry that new platforms fuel surges in creativity, as game designers and developers imagine and then create new game experiences that wouldn't have been possible with previous platforms. Our industry is in the early stage of a new platform cycle, and as ever, this new cycle is fueling innovation and creativity. However, unlike previous platform cycles, the amazing new technical abilities of the most advanced consoles -- the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 -- aren't driving innovation. Yes, developers are taking advantage of these consoles, and they are producing some very cool new games. But these new games aren't radically innovative. They're shinier than their predecessors, to be sure: better graphics, better audio, larger worlds, you name it. But if anyone can point to something fundamentally new about them, I haven't seen it.
The Wii is definitely enabling -- demanding, even -- innovative game design. Nintendo has shown that they can be successful with an approach that combines low-end, low-cost hardware -- basically, graphics that are last-generation plus just a little bit -- with radically new controller design. I believe the Wii will do extremely well for Nintendo, and I think we're going to continue to see cool new games for it. But I don't see the Wii Remote as appropriate for every kind of game, and I don't want to wave my arms around to play every new game I buy.
To me, the enabling platform for the industry's next surge in creativity -- which is already underway -- isn't the 360 or the Playstation 3 or even the Wii. In fact, I don't see the platform as any one piece of hardware or software. It's a collection of technologies, design techniques, and business practices, all centered around the transformation of the industry from a hits-driven model to one in which independent, innovative game development is seen not as a labor of love, but as a profitable pursuit.
A friend of mine here at GDC put the argument this way: in the 1990s, Hollywood went through a transition from its pure blockbuster model to a model that preserved the blockbuster, but also enabled the profitable creation of independent films, such as short films, foreign films, story-driven ensemble films on the cheap, documentaries, short animation, you name it. Just look at the state of documentary films today: 8 of the 10 highest-grossing documentaries of all time have been released since 2002. It's now possible to make documentaries that make money. Generally speaking, that wasn't the case 10 or 15 years ago. How did this come about? I'm not a Hollywood expert, but my impression is that it was a variety of changes, from new methods and sources of financing to new distribution mechanisms (new cable TV channels, 'long tail' DVD buying on the Internet, short film Websites, etc.), from a new understanding of techniques for writing and directing documentaries that viewers would find compelling to the evolution of a new audience of consumers hungry for more good documentaries.
This same sort of thing -- the rise of indie-style development and distribution -- is evolving right now in the game world. I'm not talking about cheap, imitative casual games. "It's bowling, but with penguins." "It's miniature golf, but in outer space." "It's a match three game, but with glowing alien fruit." Yawn. I'm talking about truly innovative game design: games that aren't large and expansive, but that within their limited scope, offer new types of gameplay and new experiences for their players.
Put another way, I believe there's a creative high ground in game design, between the ultra-low budgets of most of the PC casual games industry and the ultra-high budgets of the console and PC AAA-level games industry. At the low end, budgets are so small that they constrain innovation, leading designers and developers to think first of imitating successful competitors (because they don't have the money or time to do anything else). At the high end, budgets are so large that they, too, constrain innovation, leading publishers to avoid taking risks (because failure would be devastating).
Where is this creative high ground, this sweet spot for innovative game development? There's no hard and fast rule, but I'd say that game budgets between $100,000 and $1,000,000 sound about right. It's possible to create games for less than this that bring it all together (DEFCON comes to mind), and there are games with larger budgets that nevertheless have an independent feel to them (see LocoRoco), but in general, a budget in this range is large enough to enable creativity and innovation while staying small enough that risk-taking is still possible.
I described the platform driving innovation as a collection of technologies, of design techniques, and of business practices. There's no such thing as a definitive enumeration of these components, but we can point to a variety of things that play a role. Low-cost, high-performance game engines such as Torque make it possible for developers to create compelling games without spending half their budgets on engines. Financing schemes such as project-specific LLCs make it possible for developers to find the money for their projects without going to traditional publishers (often losing creative control and ownership of their intellectual property in the process). Community-based game sites such as Kongregate make it possible for developers to find an audience while retaining more control than would be possible with traditional casual game portals. Console game download systems such as Xbox Live Arcade give console owners a continuous stream of fresh new games, most costing $5-10, as a complement to their high-profile AAA-level titles that cost $50-60 (and that cost $5-25 million to develop).
The result of all this is that I do believe we're in the early stage of a huge creative surge in the game industry, but one unlike any of the platform-driven creative surges we've seen in the past. It will change the industry for a long time to come, if not permanently, and this change will be for the better.