GDC Week & Predictions

Like a lot of others, I’m heading to GDC today.  I’m mainly going for a couple of summits, some meetings, and to see people who are good friends whom I see once or twice a year.  It’s a bit of an odd sort of relationship, as it feels sometimes like a deadly serious meeting of circus clowns.

Anyway, I’m not going for the talks (and am not giving one this year)… and so I have pretty low expectations of anything significant coming out of them.  But as this is also sort of the beginning of the game-year, I thought I’d take a few minutes for some pre-GDC predictions for the conference and for the rest of the year – social games, MMOs, 3D, AI, the works.

Social games are not only hot, they’re a lifeboat. Saying “social games are hot” is a bit obvious.  But it seems lately I’ve been getting this vibe that everyone who’s not already making one — people working in PC, console, or traditional online games — really want to be there.

I’ve seen this before, especially with MMOs.  Other game sectors get a little wobbly, something new comes along, and suddenly it’s The One, the thing that will save us all!  Over the past six months or so everyone’s figured out that social games aren’t just a fad, are making lots of money, and cost a few percent of a “regular” game to make.   So I expect to see a flood of people and publishers clamoring to get into this space — some of whom will think about what it actually means before they release their first game.

The long fat tail is going change… a little. Right now social games, especially those on Facebook, have the shape of a nice long fat tail.  There are thousands of games on the site.  More than 100 of them have over 1M active users — an astonishing number considering a) the cost and quality of most of those games, and b) the historical curve where the top 10-20 games ate the vast majority of the audience.  But given the lifeboat factor above, I expect to see more high-profile entrants, some of which will fail badly for the same reasons they always do: high-dollar studios get into the field thinking that what made them successful elsewhere will work here too (I’m looking at you, EA).   Ironically, this may help the small developers gain more players if they can produce high-quality games (see below).

Facebook solidifies its gains, but that’s not the end of the story. Facebook isn’t going away or even declining (I disagree a bit with Daniel here).  It’s a huge platform now with over 400M active users.  With the recently implosion of MySpace, Facebook’s role in this ecosystem seems secure for the near term.  The rules are changing to make blunt-force methods of getting your friends to play social games a little more difficult (and thus subtle), but the importance of Facebook is going to solidify this year.

At the same time, social games are increasingly going out onto the web.  In part Facebook has made this possible with Facebook Connect — head out onto the web, but bring your social network with you.  But even without it, the concept of “play a game with your friends” where “with” now doesn’t have to mean “at the same time or at the same computer” has gained sufficient traction that these games are going to flourish like a thousand wildflowers.

The indie-auteur model becomes real. In a sense this is already happening.  Social games aren’t free to make, but they are still — just barely — within reach of the individual auteur who has a vision and sufficient tech and art skills and who can also design something sufficiently playable, social, and monetizable — okay, that may be a small set of people.   But it’s a much larger set than exists for PC or console games, where such a thing is all but impossible.

What happens when individuals and small teams who would otherwise be ignored or paved over by the publishing  juggernauts has a direct line to many paying customers?  Some wackiness no doubt ensues, but this is a Very Good Thing for everyone — game developers and players alike (okay, maybe not everyone: the disintermediation continues, and large publishers are the most likely victims).

3D continues not to be an issue, despite everyone’s best efforts. Everyone is buzzing about Flash 11 and HTML5 (and of course, the fact that Apple still won’t let Flash play on its devices — a move that I believe will be seen later as being as self-limiting as AOL not letting its users on the open Internet).  But this is the developers: the players mostly don’t seem to care.  There is so much gameplay space to explore without burdening our hardware, development paths, UIs, designs, and players with the inherent complexities of 3D that I see little reason for developers to go there.  Some will, sure.  Engines like Unity (and maybe a darkhorse like Yogurt3D) make this very tempting.  But I have to say, I’m no enemy to 3D, and yet I have many highly monetizable designs to chew through before it becomes anything like a necessity from what I can see.

Traditional MMOs circle the wagons, become a smaller niche. New entrants in the traditional MMO space have been having a difficult time recently.  The market seems to have shifted out from under them: games like the kids-oriented LEGO MMO are outshining what you might consider to be a slam-dunk in geek-land like the Star Trek MMO.

The 5000-pound canary in the coal mine (to really mix those metaphors) is going to be the Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic.  It’s a traditional MMO from top to bottom, despite attempts to react to changes like the rise of free-to-play revenue models, and it has one of the most evergreen properties in deep-niche gamedom behind it.

So will it do well? Will it somehow attract the millions of players needed to justify the multiple tens of millions of dollars that have been poured into it? If it does, expect to see a few more large bets in this area, for those publishers who somehow overcome their risk-averse nature.  If not, then this might be the last hurrah of the heavy-MMO form that we’ve known since the mid-1990s.  To me, it’s too close to call.

No significant advances in AI are forthcoming. In a different direction, really good AI will remain elusive.  By “really good” I mean something beyond the chat-bot level, and beyond the “hey that’s cool tactical/pathfinding AI!” level.  I’ve done a lot of work on ‘social AI’ — agents that interact with you and each other in socially plausible ways — and I continue to believe that this is a huge breakthrough that will be incredibly important to games and other applications.

Someday.  It’s been “someday” since I started on this work in 2002, and it apparently still is.  The market — meaning in this case, “people who authorize the money to build stuff” — is a lot closer to recognizing that, hey, plausible NPCs could be really good for us.  But we’re not there yet.  And despite efforts at places like Xaitment, Novamente, and even some more serious (less game-oriented) places like ICT, I don’t see this changing any time soon.

Funding a game will remain the worst part of the process. As any game developer knows, getting the funding you need to get the people and the technology to make your game is the most difficult and noxious part of the process.  If you’re in a studio, you have to navigate the swamp of upper management, where crocodilian execs snap at each other.  If you’re an indie, you have a choice between a publisher, an angel, or self-publishing, each of which has its significant down-sides.  Notice I didn’t mention VC funding, because really, unless you already have a game out that’s making solid revenues, your chances of getting VC funding are slim at best (and even if you do, the strings that come with it make it unpalatable).

More on the funding question in a later post.  The short of it is: not much change on the horizon there … with one possible interesting exception.

More to come during GDC.  For anyone who’s going, I hope to see you there!

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Explore posts in the same categories: AI, Facebook, games, MMOG, Online Worlds, social games, technology

One Comment on “GDC Week & Predictions”


  1. […] Friend Mike Sellers has great post on GDC here. […]

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