Off the Map: The future of game content

After a nearly five-year term as executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), I leave the role with a rare perspective on the entirety of the global game industry. While running the IGDA, I was afforded the opportunity to meet with pretty much every possible segment of the industry — from AAA studios to solo indie game developers, from medical professionals to government officials, from aspiring students of all ages to consumers from a wide variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. I traveled extensively across six continents to glean an understanding of the cultural and economic impacts of this art form as well as a solid glimpse into its future.

What emerges from this unique experience is a view of an industry that is something of a paradox, representing one of the most innovative and culture-changing forms of media in the history of human society while also harboring some serious problems that seem antiquated in the 21st century workplace — issues such as “crunch” time (excessive, often unpaid work hours) and a gross lack of gender and ethnic diversity. How can this be the case?

To answer that question, we must delve into the origins of the game industry. We look back to a time when digital games emerged from an IT sector that was very predominantly male and white, and had a reputation for putting technological progress and speed of discovery as paramount over the general well-being of the people doing the work. This model has perpetuated over time, and as game creation slowly became its own industry, it brought with it many of the patterns of the IT industries in which it was forged. Fast-forward to our era, and the game industry has changed dramatically since its earlier days — as has the general IT sector — but many of these challenges persist. Rank and file game developers consistently complain while simultaneously accepting this as “just the way it is.” Trade associations and companies have little explicit interest in changing the status quo because it’s a system that seems to work. And now with the competitive pressures and high financial stakes with large AAA game titles and expensive console technologies, it makes the system even more fragile. Changing the workplace to be much more accommodating of people’s needs can be frightening to management.

Over time this has created a layer of cynicism and weariness that hangs over the game industry. The industry is caught between the balance of attaining total creative freedom versus maximizing revenue, since after all, the game industry is the business of selling interactive, digital art. So, while individual game developers are passionate about their art form and wanting to completely unleash their abilities and create content never seen before, the companies (especially the larger studios and publishers) must focus on maximizing their revenue to ensure the continuation of their ecosystems. The result for the AAA and larger game titles tends to be (not universally) a creative doldrum where companies are creatively risk-averse. This is why you will see the continuation of well-known franchises like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and others. I’m not asserting that these games are poor quality; in fact they are quite the opposite. They’re amazingly polished games that represent the state of the art. But from a content perspective, they’re not necessarily new and fresh — they’re just very familiar to their massive fan bases, and will therefore generate revenue.

So in the context of this dynamic within the game industry, where is the innovation in game content coming from? As I think many professional game creators would tell you, the real innovation is being delivered by “indie” developers. Without the massive overhead of large teams and marketing campaigns, and the constraint of pleasing shareholders, indie developers are more akin to the freelance artists common in many other forms of media, such as art, literature and film. They are free to create whatever they’d like and to follow their artistic passions in a more freeform manner. The result is  games that stretch the boundaries of game design in every direction, providing an infusion of talent and creativity that the industry hasn’t experienced at this scale in years. To their credit, the larger game publishers have fully embraced indie developers as a source of such great content, which is why the latest round of game console hardware all have a robust outreach program to indie developers.

In short, indie game development is quickly becoming the default method of game creation worldwide, and is far more widespread demographically and geographically than ever before. I also firmly believe that indie games are going to be the gateway for broader society to finally embrace games as a true art form and not just as a distraction for kids. For game creators, indie development also means a much closer connection between themselves and their players, with a closer interaction both during and after the development process.

This “maximize revenue” versus “maximize artistic freedom” scenario chiefly describes the more developed game creation hubs such as North America, Western Europe and East Asia. But what about the rest of the world? As I related in a previous column, there is a tremendous amount of game development activity in emerging markets such as Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This is happening despite many of them facing tremendous challenges, including cultural and political opposition, the high cost of game development hardware and software, unreliable power and internet infrastructure, and outdated financial systems.

Since game development has rapidly become democratized and is now just as readily available to learn and implement as it is to learn how to paint or write a novel, the world is seeing an explosion of game creation from across a wide variety of cultures and geographies. The skill sets in various emerging markets may not be quite as polished as their well-established counterparts, but the creative vision that I’ve witnessed firsthand is easily competitive with any of the games being created in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and so on.

Why is this important? Put simply, the future of the game industry is being truly global. According to PricewaterhouseCooper’s projections for interactive media, the global game industry growth will continue to grow at 4.8% through 2020 (worth $90 billion, up from $63 billion in 2012). But the real surprise is the projected growth in emerging markets, many of which will see double-digit growth. Nigeria is predicted at 22%, Kenya at 20%, India at 18% and Vietnam at 15%.

In India and South Africa, social and casual gaming (primarily smartphone-based games) will overtake traditional PC and console gaming. And despite ongoing issues with rampant piracy of game content, Russia is aiming to become the eighth largest games market.

For consumers of game content, this is going to be an exciting time. Over the next several years, we’re going to see a continued diversification of game types, themes and topics that will challenge the typical perception of a “game” and provide more options for a wider variety of game players. And if local governments in emerging markets continue to support their burgeoning game companies and indies, the global marketplace will benefit and consumers will face a revolution in choices. The industry will then need to address how to do a better job of content curation, to aide consumers in finding the kinds of games that would be more appealing to their tastes (this is something the film industry has done well for decades).

As I leave behind my IGDA role but remain an active advocate in the game industry, I’m really excited for what lies ahead and I can’t wait to play fresh, innovative games from around the globe.