Next-gen gaming: Evolving concepts of creation, consumption, and community

Exploring big ideas on the future of gaming
Brian Crecente |
December 2, 2020
EDITOR'S NOTE: Guest author Brian Crecente founded video gaming site Kotaku and co-founded Polygon. He was also the video games editor for Rolling Stone and for Variety. He currently consults for publishers and the video game industry at Pad and Pixel.

In this “Next-Gen Gaming” article series, Brian interviews a variety of personalities from around the gaming industry to get an objective look at key topics related to the next generation of gaming spanning genres, platforms, team sizes, business models, and more.


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Video games are made of code and powered by technology, but they are also intrinsically linked to nebulous, ever-evolving contemplative theories, and the philosophies surrounding the definition and connotation of words like “play” and “game.” Underpinning these great, high-minded schools of thought -- the ebb and flow of opinion -- is the structure of business, consumerism, and marketing.

Take Final Fantasy, a franchise that has -- perhaps more than any other -- helped to define the prospect and growth of the video game industry. Over its nearly 35 years, Final Fantasy has been there as a hallmark of platform potential, embracing new forms of play, business models, and technology as a cornerstone of the medium. Even today it remains as viable and important as its 1987 launch with the engaging release of Final Fantasy VII Remake and work on an upcoming live-action Netflix series.

It is just one prime example of the industry’s past, present, and future.

Over the past several months, I spoke with a half-dozen great thinkers in the realms of design, research, development, and play to unearth others thoughts on how views and approaches to video games, development, and gameplay will evolve over the coming years.
 

Tracy Fullerton is an experimental game designer and a professor at the University of Southern California Games Program. Her research center, the Game Innovation Lab, has produced a number of influential independent games, including Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Night Journey and Walden, a game


“Today, with the state of the world the way it is, there are clearly some new and important trends,” Fullerton said. “The first is that games are a lifeline right now for almost everyone. They are providing social connections in a time of social distancing, recreation in a time when we are forced indoors, and also educational experiences when all parents are being forced into the role of homeschoolers. My sense is that this current trend will wind up having a lasting effect on how we see games in our lives and culture.”

Fullerton points to her own game, Walden, and Animal Crossing as prime examples of this.

Where Walden, a game is being discovered by parents and educators as a powerful tool to educate and immerse in a time of online and at-home learning, Animal Crossing is highlighting just how powerful a tool games can be for building a sense of community and connection.

“I think that a trend that is being shaped right now as we live through this moment of crisis, is the recognition by a wide community that goes beyond core gamers, of how important games can be to our social and personal wellbeing. Future games that build on that knowledge will be very different, I think, than what we think of as simply ‘multiplayer,’ they will take community building, sharing, and creation of personal connections as a critical pillar of their designs.”
This trend is also helping to rehabilitate society’s perception of gaming, Fullerton notes. “Games have been, quite literally, the low man on the totem pole of culture,” she said. “And so, when things go wrong, the fingers of society always point to games. But now, we are seeing a complete turnaround, with reports of how good games are for people right now and how they are literally keeping us entertained, keeping us connected, keeping thinking and feeling something other than fear or boredom. The question is, really, how will the game industry respond to this moment? Will the industry find ways to make sure that people who can really use specific games get them easily? Can teachers and students get access to games that can be used educationally — not just games that are categorized as educational, but mainstream commercial games that can be used with lessons to enhance education? And can people who are isolated — in quarantine or hospitals — get access to games that provide social connection?”

It’s an opportunity, she adds, for distribution platforms to bundle together such games and offer them to schools and hospitals.

“I have played more and talked more about games with people who are not my work colleagues in the past several weeks than ever before,” she said. “It feels like the current confinement has provided a kind of renaissance for homebrew playfulness.”
 

Sjoerd De Jong is a Senior Engine Evangelist for Epic Games. Throughout his diverse career he has worked in everything ranging from AAA game development to running his own game studio to education, giving him a perspective as wide as it is deep on the complexities of working in real time.

“Developments with hardware and access to fast internet is removing limitations, but looking beyond that, the way we develop games is placing more and more emphasis on tools and workflow,” De Jong said. “What a handful of developers, even a solo developer, can pull off with an engine like our Unreal Engine nowadays is breathtaking to see and very far removed from where we were at with the industry at large just a decade or so ago. The number of tutorials, classes, marketplaces, communities, or content libraries such as the Quixel Megascans is also at a scale far greater than ever before, speeding up access to, and the tempo of development even more. Due to that we are starting to see more diverse games and more variation. New niches are developing. Creating games is becoming ever more accessible and that change is set to continue.”

De Jong likens this shift from the highly technical to the empowered creative, as something similarly seen in the evolution of photography. In that case, technical limitations and processes dominated that medium, he notes, but nowadays -- thanks to advances in that technology -- creating stunning photographs can feel extremely frictionless. 

“AAA and mainstream games won't go anywhere,” he added. “In fact I suspect we will see further consolidation and increased market dominance from that segment in the future, but the sub-communities within games and niches that already have and will continue to develop will continue to have a just as big impact on what games are.”

De Jong believes that the continued advances in technology, coupled with gaming reaching a saturation point as a mainstream medium, will result in games becoming omnipresent and perhaps the biggest driver of entertainment of all media.

“The lines between film/TV/music/sports and games would continue to blur, IP and content would be more readily shared between these different media, and I would expect to see more and more hybrids or at a minimum extensive collaborations happening,” he said. “I think that what we are seeing happening in Fortnite with music concerts, IP crossovers, and so forth is our first taste of this but it will eventually go even further.”

He also believes that as greater portions of society grow to accept video games, they will begin to play a bigger role in things like education.

 

“Game engines are currently used by everyone ranging from big portions of the automotive industry to architecture and engineering to simulation and training to film and TV to banks even,” De Jong said. “And because of all that, what we will see in the future is also an increased collaboration and crossovers to industries well outside games, and that loops us back into my first point about blurring the lines.”

Finally, De Jong believes that the race for ever-more realistic computer graphics remains as relevant today as it has always been. He points to recent improvements in things like lighting, through raytracing, and increased polycounts, through Nanite.

“Our standards will continue to shift, if we were to look back at where we are today in ten years from now then I think it is going to look dated,” he said. “That doesn't mean the games would be any less fun, or that gameplay doesn't matter of course, but it is about enabling the future. For teams of any size. I see many small studios build amazing looking Unreal Engine games exactly because of that. Imagine a world where teams of any size can build, even if it is just one single solo developer, with ease, the most amazing looking games, but also films/series and other creative works. That must be possible, and that dream is what always has been and always will be our focus.”
 

Naomi Clark has been designing, writing for, and producing games for over twenty years. She's helped create games for a wide variety of platforms and audiences, from construction games for kids at the LEGO Group to light-hearted strategy games, mobile sim-management games, and games for conferences and classrooms. She's part of the faculty at the NYU Game Center, where she teaches classes on the foundations of game design, user research, and lesser-known corners of tabletop roleplaying. Her most recent game is Consentacle, a two-player cooperative card game about intimacy, trust, and communication.

“I feel like we’re coming to the end of the long period of almost 30 years of technology really being touted as the main driver of video games,” Clark said. “I think that vein is almost tapped out now. When I look at upcoming plans for PC video game hardware and next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony, they are talking about pretty fancy technology that will ramp up the verisimilitude of virtual worlds. But I have a strong sense, from looking at what type of games are being made and seeing how people are talking about games, that there is a process of diminishing returns there. Even though computing power is increasing exponentially, the effects are starting to diminish quite rapidly.

“After this generation, it will be hard for console makers to eke out another competitive round of hardware. Microsoft and Sony seem to be realizing that too. That will drive a change in where the focus is on the creation of games and values of entertainment going into games.”

In the future, Clark believes, the focus will shift much more toward audiences and how they are being divvied up, targeted, and catered to.

“Instead of saying technology is the avenue to our audience, developers will have to get the audience in different ways,” she said. “The assumptions about what kind of games will be invested in have been a little pat. That was in part because a lot of that was driven and determined by technology and console life cycles.”
That means you’ll see even the biggest of franchises working to differentiate their experiences in ways beyond visual bombastry. That could include driving more innovation in narrative, online play, and the “flavor” of a game. This is all happening alongside a fragmentation of the market that Clark believes will reshape the industry.

“The game industry, as a whole, is rapidly becoming multiple industries,” Clark said. “It’s not going to be one industry anymore. If you go to GDC, it feels less and less like one crowd, it’s several crowds of different people with some focused on services, some focused on products. What really connects all of these people together is the word game, but is interactive narrative, for instance, really a game? Our philosophy has always been to treat all of these things as games.”

Play and its product is a better way to define what is and isn’t a game. Future game makers will likely be more focused on what it means to design and shape play, Clark said.

“The purposeful crafting of play is still early in its history, video games haven’t been around for that long,” she said. “That’s still exciting to me, that we haven’t been doing it for a long time. So we have a lot of mistakes and experiments.
 

Ian Bogost is an author and an award-winning game designer. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and also a professor of computing, architecture, and business at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Bogost is also Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC, an independent game studio, and a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic. He is the author or co-author of 10 books, the latest of which is Play Anything, and his independent games include Cow Clicker, an infamous Facebook-game send-up of Facebook games, and A Slow Year, a collection of video game poems for Atari VCS, which won the Vanguard and Virtuoso awards at the 2010 IndieCade Festival.

“What if it’s just television?” Bogost said. “What if television is the sort of central actor in the next phase of games and their role in culture?”

The idea occurred to him, he said, when he was thinking about HBO’s news that it would be adapting Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us into a television series. That brought to mind Netflix’s successful run with The Witcher, the popularity of esports, and game streaming in general.

“Television is the thing that won the 20th century,” he said .”The internet and social media are obviously extremely influential and powerful, but also corners of it are evolutions of TV, like YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok. TV remains enormously popular and powerful. It’s almost like one of the ways games have been gravity whipping themselves into the future is by riding on the coat tales of the existing momentum and power of TV, of its traditional and evolved forms. I don’t think we talk about this in an honest and open way either.”
In Bogost’s mind, when people sit down to play a game like Fortnite, it looks a lot more like traditional TV than a video game.

“It’s a ritual habit,” he said. “You sit down in front of your tablet or TV-connected console to do it. You do it not to solve a problem, but because it’s a thing you do. And then you talk about it with your friends, like an episode of Law & Order or HGTV.”

That brings us back to The Last of Us and HBO.

“I see in Netflix or HBO picking up these games, an admission that those narrative aspirations for big console or PC games are finally realizing these are minor league efforts,” he said. “We try stuff out there and then they get turned into scripted traditional entertainment. Like how Hollywood mines the book industry for source material that it transforms into film or TV.”

Ultimately, that would mean that a medium like video games isn’t working to overtake television or film, but simply hoping to plug into the power of both mediums. Of course, the same could be said of television and movies, and both mediums' symbiotic relationship with gaming.

“The gamey part of gaming is almost the testbed or proving ground where the real stuff gets hashed out,” he said. “Maybe it’s the path to actual long-term success.”
This taps into Bogost’s other notion about the path forward for games. A chief hindrance for the industry is how typically its best products have a narrow potential audience because of the background knowledge and familiarity such games take to play.

“Compare that to flipping on Netflix or downloading an iPhone app,” he said.

There are examples of game success that seem to have taken this lesson to heart. Bogost points to Fortnite and what he believes is its major innovation: interoperability. You can play Fortnite on just about any platform.

“How simple was that? It should have been a lesson that was learned a long time ago,” he said. Candy Crush is his other example, a game that had such an easy entry point that it managed to grow an enormous audience.

“That wasn’t about technological innovation, it was about user flow,” he said. “The obsession with technology, even today with things like VR and AR, has distracted the industry from extremely simple, innovative ways they can reach a lot of people.”
 

A thirty-year veteran of the game industry, Amy Hennig has served as Creative Director and Lead Writer on numerous titles, including Naughty Dog’s acclaimed Uncharted series and Crystal Dynamics’ groundbreaking Soul Reaver/Legacy of Kain franchise. She has announced a partnership with Skydance Media to explore new frontiers in interactive storytelling.

“It feels like we’re seeing traditional AAA game development mirror the blockbuster age of Hollywood – the skyrocketing costs of development (in terms scope and spectacle as well as schedules and team size) mean we’ll see fewer, bigger bets,” Hennig said. “The big publishers and studios will double-down on the AAA model, but will be more risk-averse, so I think we’ll see a narrowing of genres, reliance on established franchises, an increase in scope and complexity, and a pressure to check as many feature boxes as possible to appeal to the widest possible audience. But with rising costs, longer schedules, and larger teams – and with fewer players actually even completing these games – the question looms: is this sustainable?”

Hennig added that she believes games will begin to make good on the promise of emerging cloud gaming services as well.
“Almost any current game could be streamed on these new platforms, but a few developers will make content that can only be played when connected to the cloud,” she said. “These new games will take full advantage of the scalability of compute resources for things like AI and physics in massive, persistent worlds. Hopefully, these new experiences will evolve beyond the genres we see in AAA games now, but at a minimum, these will be richer open worlds than we’ve seen before. There are new economic challenges in this space to consider, of course (the cost-to-serve on games that use a lot of cloud resources could be considerably higher than most current games, even ones with rich online features).”

Ultimately, that maturation of streaming platforms like Google’s Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud will also offer up universal access to these massively complex games which Hennig believes will deliver a substantial and positive change to the industry.

“Access to top-tier performance on almost any device opens up gaming in exciting ways,” she said. “Players won’t have to buy a $500 console or expensive gaming PC to play AAA content, which will expand the gaming audience significantly. Even more exciting, cloud streaming services will expand our ability to reach an even larger, mainstream audience with high-fidelity interactive content at a level of quality that stands alongside the best television and film they’re already streaming into their homes.”
As cloud-based gaming transforms the game industry and the entertainment landscape at large, Hennig believes it will erase the concept of gamers and non-gamers.

“I think play is an intrinsic human behavior, and we’ve certainly seen that when we create experiences that are narratively rich, visually compelling, and interactively inviting, the ‘non-gamers’ of the household are just as invested in the experience as the gamer in the family,” she said. “Experiences that focus on exploration, discovery, mystery, and problem-solving scratch the same itch for non-gamers and longtime gamers alike.

“It seems inevitable that, in a few years, we’ll be able to frictionlessly discover high-fidelity interactive experiences right alongside the linear content we stream today. But to be ready for this transformation, we need to meet this wider audience where they are, and create content that is inviting and appealing – rather than trying to Trojan Horse existing content to them and think we’re somehow going to ‘convert’ them into gamers. I think this will require some humility on our part, to rethink some of our game design dogma and explore new genres, mechanics, and means of user input.”

The result, she said, would be an “explosion of creative interactive content that appeals to gamers and non-gamers alike, expanding our audience by an order of magnitude. I think we’ll see a ‘golden age of interactive’ in the same way that digital distribution ushered in a golden age of television.”
 

Rami Ismail was one half of Dutch independent studio Vlambeer, known for titles such as Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, LUFTRAUSERS, and  Super Crate Box. He is an avid supporter of game development and games-related initiatives around the world, the creator of the ubiquitous presskit() toolset, and the executive director of the gamedev.world virtual conference.

 

“The biggest thing that happened in the past five to ten years is that there has been an amazing increase in the number of verbs we have in video games,” he said.

That’s because, Ismail believes, the game industry and the tech that drives it have kind of figured out the math that powers games -- the calculus of collisions, physics, and movement — and have started to swing back to creations that obsess less with eking out the highest graphical fidelity and instead focus on what they can communicate.

“Looking around the landscape at the biggest games, some have violent aspects, but a lot of them are community-based or focused on building,” he said. “We’ve seen a push back against flight or fight and more into attending a friend.”
Included in that broadening of experiences is what Ismail calls a rise of “wholesome games.”

“Games that are just a chill place to be, like Animal Crossing, fall into that,” he said. “I think a lot of the games that are getting a lot of attention right now are falling into that wholesome genre. That’s very exciting because it forces a developer not to fall back into the questions of ‘How do I hit? How do I shoot? How do I jump?’ Now it’s more like, ‘How do I interact? How do I nurture? How do I grow.?’”

This growth in game development aligns with a redefining of what makes a game a game, he added. Where the traditional definition of a game is a structural form of play with rules and a way to win or lose, which has since evolved to recognize that winning and losing isn’t necessarily an important element of a game.
 

Jade Raymond is the VP and Head, Stadia Games and Entertainment at Google. Over the last 20 years, she has shown her passion for all aspects of game development playing key roles in programming, design, production, studio-head, and executive jobs. She is best known for helping create the Assassin’s Creed and  Watch Dogs franchises, and for founding Ubisoft’s Toronto studio. Before joining Google, she was SVP and Group General Manager at Electronic Arts’ PopCap Vancouver and Motive Studios, which she founded in 2015. Raymond received the 2019 Legend Award from the Videogame Critics Circle as well as the Pioneer Award at the 2018 Guggenheim Museum Games Festival.

“We are already seeing a transition that games are becoming not really as much just about the game, but more a pastime, and a way to connect, and a means to have social interactions or something to do while you're having social interactions,” Raymond said. “When you think about adults getting together and playing golf, sure you're playing golf, but it's really about walking around, talking, getting a chance to spend time with your friends. Same thing with getting together and playing any sports.”

Fortnite is a really great example of this. It doesn’t really matter who died or how well you did in the match. It’s just, you’re there to spend some time with your friends and you’re having a chat.”

While this transition for games from a platform for play to a platform for play and community has been happening for a while, Raymond said the recent need to stay home has sped up that process, helping to make gaming a much more important type of social platform. This creates an opportunity, she said, for developers and publishers to reexamine the different sorts of pastimes that connect people socially and see how that can be applied in games.
“Right now games are a pastime that still feels too narrow,” she said. “The big question for me is what’s the equivalent of the neighborhood bar, where you can have a pub trivia night, you can have a conversation, you can play board games or card games. I think there’s that kind of opportunity.”

Raymond also believes that the traditional model of gaming -- one that has players pushed up against a brutal challenge that they need to accomplish to get to the next level — is starting to make way for other forms that lean more heavily on self-expression.

“Even in games that aren’t all about that, they are adding creator modes and more accessible modes where you create,” she said. And if it’s not about creating levels in a game, it’s about creating experiences worth sharing.

“People want an anecdote factory,” she said. “What they are sharing is personal and feels like their experience.”

That’s led more developers to start thinking about how they can create games that have experiences that feel more personal and worth sharing by players.

Raymond points to Ubisoft’s Far Cry franchise as an early adopter of this approach. Those games provided a sandbox in which players could craft experiences that, in some ways, were reflections of themselves. And the results often became the sort of water-cooler talk that drove audience awareness around the game.

Experiences are, Raymond thinks, going to be the next big thing for the internet, shifting away from an era driven by videos.
“I think we’re going to move into an era of the internet of experiences,” she said. Instead of people going online to read a document or book about something, or watching a video that explains it, they’re going to increasingly be searching for and finding interactive experiences that allow them to play with the information. That, she believes, could be driven by games and game-like experiences and certainly by the tools traditionally used to create games.

Games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins and its Discovery Tour mode — which allowed people to explore a historic ancient Egypt without needing to deal with the combat or gameplay of the game — is one example of that. But, Raymond said, as the tools to make these experiences become easier to use, more will begin to pop up.

“I think there’s an interesting pivot of all of these people playing games and all of these game tools becoming more and more accessible and then all of a sudden the range of what a game is or what an interactive, immersive experience is just spans in all kinds of directions to encompass all kinds of things that we didn’t look for before.

“As these interesting technologies evolve and we move towards greater and greater tools, we’re going to continue to stretch what a game means and what an immersive, interactive experience provides to people. That’s super exciting.”

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NOTE: Interviewee responses were edited for clarity.

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