On Technology, Games, and Opportunity

 

 

We live in a world where a vast number of people walk around with what would previously have been considered supercomputers in their pocket. Each of these enormously powerful machines remains in high-bandwidth connection with every other connected machine in the world. Clearly we have arrived in the future. What are we doing with all this amazing technology surrounding us? Not nearly as much as what we could be doing, this blog will argue.

 

In the field of video games we have been ever advancing towards photorealism for decades, and with each new technologocial advancement we see an almost immediate improvement in graphics. The vistas thats developers and artists are able to create with this power is undeniably beautiful, and this progress should (and will) continue. However, there is another direction that is in comparison almost wholly ignored. It’s easiest to apply improvements to technology in an incremental fashion, continuing trends where improvement is obvious (higher poly count, more shader detail), but what about the less obvious consequences? What about those pockets of experience that, previously impossible, can now suddenly be discovered?  What about gameplay, AI, physics, connectivity, what new possibilities are created with our latest technology?

 

It is an extremely relevant and lucrative question. In a market crowded with me-too games and ostensibly ‘safe’ bets, there is enormous potential for games that do something different, that push the envelope, and consumers are ready and fast to notice. It is a market incredibly ripe for these kind of advancements. While game makers scramble to recreate the latest hit title, there lies an ocean of unexplored possibilities laid before them. As an example ‘Draw Something’, a game only 6 weeks old, has already garnered 37 million downloads and was today purchased by Zynga for $180 million. How did this happen, and why now? The technology to create a title like this has existed for a few years at least, and the connectivity it requires through social media has been available as well. What can account for that delay? A game where you draw with friends seems like the most obvious idea in the world and the perfect use of this technology, and yet it took this long for it to hit. The fact that a game can go from nothing to 37 million downloads in less than 2 months points to a woefully underserved audience, and I believe games like these have barely scratched the surface of new experiences that technology now allows and that consumers will readily embrace.

 

Looking at the length of time between when a truly new game is created and when the concept would have been possible on current tech is an interesting excersie, and almost always the game trails the tech that makes it possible by 5 years or more. When did the technology exist to create the space-warping gameplay of Portal, or the time-bending puzzles of Braid? Years before the games arrived, and yet no one explored these gameplay possibilities until much later. Notably, in both these cases the leap was created by game industry outsiders.  Braid was created by an independent developer and Portal’s original concept by a student.  The fact that hundreds of companies and thousands of employees in the mainstream games industry were unable or unwilling to create either of these styles of gameplay (both very high rated, industry-defining games) despite the technology being available for years indicates a focus that is critically missing in the games industry. However, rather than see this as a fault and a reason to lament, it should be seen as an enormous opportunity. The tech to make these types of games is here, and the audience is here. It’s simply a matter of taking the ‘risky’ bets and building these kinds of games, and in the current climate of the games industry I would easily swap the conventional ideas of what is safe and what is risky.

 

So in the field of games, what can be done with technology that currently is not? It is a question whose answer has the power to transform the games industry, push games as an artform, and form the basis of a solid business.

 

Through the Loop is a new blog meant to explore that question. Each article will focus on the strange new worlds and expereiences that are just becoming possible with available computing power and connectivity, examining existing instances created by today’s innovators, following where they lead, and looking at ideas on the horizon as they approach. It is written by myself, John Krajewski, a programmer and designer at Strange Loop Games where our primary focus as a studio is creating games that push the envelope of gameplay using technology. At first glance a blog that discusses the very ideas that we hope to develop would seem to give away the cow, but I subscribe to the notion that ideas themselves are cheap, and that sharing them will multiply their value, gaining you both insight and support from the community at large.  I hope you’ll join the discussion.

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11 Comments

  1. Kregoth

     /  March 23, 2012

    Interesting read I can’t agree more! The gaming industry is now just starting to come out of it infantile state… Sure the industry is huge and all, but for the lack of better words it still acts like a child in terms of innovation and originality. It is pretty sad when basement dwelling programmers are capable of wowing the general public more then those with multimillion dollar budgets.

    I honestly think that it’s not due to large companies unwilling to innovate or take the risk on something new, but because they have yet to open themselves up to the public more. They need to break themselves into a habit of sharing there ideas before creation, spreading and sharing information is far superior then the past, they just haven’t tried using it correctly yet. Similar to your idea of sharing your brainstorming sessions to the public (I still want to take part in those FYI :P)

    I think game like yours, minecraft, project zomboid and many others are proof of the industry trying to move in a better direction. In all likeliness though sadly it might be a few more years before these smaller groups are capable of causing enough of a rippling affect to cause this to happen. “Seriously enough with the FPS remakes, and hand holding game play lol”

    I for one though am happy for the future of the industry, we are finally at the point where game design is far more approachable then it was a few years ago, coupled with the ability to share those ideas… I think we will start seeing these changes sooner rather then later (fingers crossed :)”

    Reply
    • John K.

       /  March 23, 2012

      Thanks Kregoth, I actually think this is the best time to be in the games industry, there are so many avenues for inventing and funding innovative titles and a wide-open market for them. The ‘keep things secret till we’re ready’ mentality seems inappropriate these days now that you can be funded directly by your players ala kickstarter, etc.

      Reply
      • Kregoth

         /  March 24, 2012

        definitely, @timoflegend showed just how much people are willing to show there love for something they want to see happen with his 3+ million worth of backed funds :)

        I think the current set of events that have been occurring in the past 3 years is going to really shake up Publishers more so then Developers and I for one am happy to see that happen :)

        Now I just need to get back into the industry, would love to do community work for some indie developer group like yours specially if they are in Seattle :P you hiring by any chance? I am really good at stuff I promise! :)

        Can’t wait to see what else you add to this blog, I already got it added to my RSS reader and am looking forward to reading them… I’ll try my best to always add comments for you.

        Reply
  2. I think you are completely right. Very well written article.

    Reply
  3. Hey John,

    Justin from theBitFix here. This is without a doubt one of the most exciting blog posts I’ve read about the video game industry because it states concretely something I’ve felt in my bones but have been unable to put to words. The two most popular genres for video games (action/shooters and RPGs) are becoming repetitive and are begging for new ideas, but when there’s a market to consider, larger game studios can’t take risks – it’s the downside of creating big projects.

    You guys are famous for your puzzler “Vessel” but I’d love to see how Strange Loop could apply this philosophy to the aformentioned genres. How about an RPG without orcs, elves, magic and swords, maybe like a more complicated version of flOw (http://interactive.usc.edu/projects/cloud/flowing/)? You’ve already got an engine with fluid mechanics, and it would be interesting to play as a liquid-based life-form that can grow and make progress in some way or another.

    I’m working on an editorial at theBitFix regarding the philosophy espoused in this post and its impact on genre. I find innovation in video-games fascinating and there’s a lot to be said on the topic. Hope that you can check it out when you get a chance (I’ll tweet you the link when it’s published)

    Reply
  4. John K.

     /  March 27, 2012

    Hey Justin, great to hear its a sentiment that’s rising in the industry. Putting our tech to work in something new and different is something we’re currently looking at. We’re thinking about making the process for thinking of our next game very public, so you should be able to see it soon.

    Good luck on the editorial, would be happy to weigh in if you want any opinions in there.

    Reply
  5. This just makes me want to quite everything and become an EVE addict… But at the same time I don’t want to spend all the time doing the boring, realistic stuff – like mining for hours and hours, or flying from one spot to another for culminating hours and hours. I do like the idea of realistic chaos, but why do we have to include hours of boredom in our fantasies?

    Also, I’ve always been unattracted to how MMOs usually reward players based on time spent gaming. Of course you want to reward players that play a lot, but, for instance with WOW, you have to get to level 70 (or whatever it is) just to get to the actually fun part of the game, PVP. And then when you get their I imagine the strongest players are the ones who have played longest and thus have the best items. There might be an important difference between learning curve and time-invested curve.

    Boredom and time-investment, two hard nutshells to crack for MMO gaming, perhaps its just a complaint of a lazy gamer. But on the flip side, I have put in hundreds of hours with Counter Strike, which has much less boring time (albeit they do have a wait in-between deaths, but not hours and hours, usually less than a minute) and player strength is based on skill, not items or character level-ups.

    Reply
  6. Ryan Irby

     /  April 17, 2012

    I totally agree with you John and one of the most interesting blogs yet. Games made today have so much more potential in the aspect of structure and game play it’s amazing.

    Back in the 90s we were pushing video and graphics development at a rapid rate to create that next photorealistic feel because that’s what games lacked in. Well it’s 2012, “supercomputers” can now fit in our pockets and I believe we’ve made some milestones in that area. Of course there is always room for improvement in the field of graphic design but like you said, that shouldn’t be the focus now.

    Very well laid out article John. I believe you and your “strange” company will not only inspire a new era of fun and innovative games, but also inspire a new generation of fun and innovative game developers.

    Reply
    • John K.

       /  April 20, 2012

      Thanks Ryan, glad to hear it may be a common sentiment. With this wide-open field of things to try with technology I think it will be a very fascinating future ahead of us in games.

      Reply
  7. Cong Cong Tang

     /  January 10, 2013

    I think permanence is a great concept to work into games. I’ve rarely played a game where I have had to think about the lasting effects my character’s actions have on the game world. I have seen Risk Legacy and would love to see more games where the player is given enough agency to affect their environments to the same level.

    Reply

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