Despite financial concerns and considerable concern over the sheer scope of today’s big-budget projects, game developers seem more optimistic and ambitious than ever. This is possible thanks to a healthier and more cooperative relationship with the players along with some cautious optimism about the AI.
This enthusiasm for working with the public means much more than just reacting to comments and suggestions on Discord. I’ve spoken to many developers who have put not just early code, but game-building tools into the hands of passionate players at a very early stage, and invited them to help shape the experience – sometimes hiring them to work on it full-time as a result.
Now in its 26th year, the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences hosted the DICE (Design, Innovation, Communication, Entertainment) Summit in Las Vegas last week. The event brings together developers and leaders from across the games business to meet and discuss the biggest challenges of the moment, while celebrating the top achievements of the past year in an awards ceremony we’re partnering with the Academy to live stream. This year, IGN’s Stella Chung joined Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller to host the awards, and you can watch the whole thing here.
DICE is unlike many other events we cover because the insights we can bring you from it are less about announcements and more about spotting trends and getting a feel for what’s going on in the heads of game developers. Each year the Academy sets a general theme that sets the general tone, but it’s usually pretty spot-on in terms of capturing what’s on everyone’s mind. In the past this sometimes meant there was an element of buzzword compliance in onstage discussions, especially if (certain) studio executives were speaking rather than creative leaders.
First there was the mobile and free-to-play gold rush years ago that evolved into the shift to games-as-a-service. Both of these trends came with accompanying giddiness about the ability to create individual games billions dollars, usually spewed by apparently media-trained men wearing Patagonia vests over button-down shirts. This eventually stumbled into blockchain and the metaverse over the last couple of years, and this leads us to the artificial intelligence of today. At every step along this path, there’s always been a healthy dose of cynicism from the team at DICE, because it’s primarily the game development community that takes the Arts part of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences very seriously.
This year’s theme was simply called “the long game.” In the past, it would have been easy to look at it and scoff that it was just going to be something more live service games and the new and relentless ways to exhaust content for experiences aimed at maximizing fun acronyms like ARPDAU (average revenue per daily active user) and LTV (lifetime value), but that didn’t happen. Instead, the dominant ideas that emerged in presentations, roundtable discussions, and (most importantly) bar conversations were about the human element of game creation and the fact that truly great experiences come from a respectful relationship with players.
This means that the next big trend in game development is not necessarily some new tool or feature, but the integration of players directly into the development process. And the ways to unlock this new paradigm were discussed at length last week.
The event’s keynote speaker was New York Times bestselling author Neal Stephenson, one of a handful of authors, along with William Gibson, who helped define the lexicon of the modern interactive age. In his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Stephenson coined the term “metaacres” and described scenes that account for much of the nonsense we so often hear from tech billionaires trying to claim the concept three decades later. As part of his presentation, Stephenson quoted Rebecca Barkin, co-founder of his own “open metaverse” company Lamina1, as saying “you can’t build a compelling experience off the back of a desired financial outcome.” That was a powerful opening comment for an industry that has often spent a lot of energy trying to do just that. It served as a great way to frame the event that followed.
In an onstage chat with Outerloop Games’ Chandana Ekanayake, Double Fine’s Tim Schafer reminded everyone that “human beings make games” and noted that he thinks his job is often to create a bunch of scenes that an improv actor crashes then to test his limits. This focus on pleasing players and giving them control over their influence was reinforced time and time again in almost every conversation I had with developers at the event.
For the past 20 years, we’ve tended to think of “generations” of games in terms of how they relate directly to hardware capabilities. Better technology makes things run faster and look cooler with fancy lighting and ray tracing and triple-digit frame rates. But right now, it seems like we’re going through a different generational shift that’s all about giving players more power over how games are made and the experiences they deliver.
Schafer noted that historically games were built by a small team of gatekeepers. That’s been changing for a while now, as evidenced by the sheer number of indie games that are pushing the boundaries in all directions, the spectacularly creative mod scene for PC games, and the escalating power of game creation tools from Roblox to Unity and Unreal. The player empowerment we’re seeing isn’t a new phenomenon, but what feels fresh is the trust and influence passionate players have in game development. This is also where the cautious optimism about AI seems to come in.
While much of the discussion so far has been about the ethical questions raised by AI-generated artwork and narratives, there is some palpable excitement about using these systems as a way to interpret ideas. Instead of requiring expertise in a complex tool like Unreal’s editor, developers are starting to envision scenarios where an AI can understand what it’s being told and make the idea come true. The release of such a tool in the future certainly seems to have the potential to completely change the nature of design and implementation. As my colleague Sam Claiborn has mentioned several times on Game Scoop, the game developer is relatively inaccessible compared to other art forms, just like film was before camcorders. Artificial intelligence has the potential to empower creative people to share their ideas without having to be a programmer, writer, artist and composer all at once.
One thing seems certain: the next generation of games that are truly cultural phenomena on the scale of Fortnite will be games that are created in direct, hands-on collaboration with players rather than simply treating them as customers.
John Davison is the publisher and editor-in-chief and has been writing about games and entertainment for over 30 years. Follow him Twitter.