Game Lab: Seeing the future

February 4, 2011

Your humble author pulls off his tinfoil hat and channels the greater psychic flow of the universe to bring you some futurist speculation the likes of which no reasonable person would reliably try to deliver.   

What makes these predictions worthy of your considered attention?  Friends, a magician never reveals how the trick is done; bask instead in the mysterious glow of a tour of a dimly lit carnival sideshow that might pique your curiosity, bedevil your common sense, and perhaps open your eyes to the possibilities.

So check your skepticism at the door and open your mind to a wilder, wider vista of things that could come.


Dynamically Generated Content

You know what’s wrong with every game on the market today?  They’re canned goods.  You get a precisely measured, perfectly manufactured unit of gaming fitted with tightly constrained integrity and completeness.  The most you have to look forward to are bugs and cheat codes you googled on the net – or for the analog side of things some superstrategy analysis that lets you tromp your friends.  And when they try to deliver replayability, the most you get is an alternate ending cinematic and a few more random rolls hidden from sight.

But what about the promise of turning the creation of content over to the users?  Find a clear, easy, reliable system for making the players responsible for entertaining each other while you let the subscriptions roll in – that’s a future worth looking for.  If we can have gangly kid’s cartoons utilize procedural programming for trundling around a boring predictable universe, why can’t we apply that same tech to world spawning, AI actions, and story generation?


Real Social Networking – Gamer Style

You know what’s lame about Facebook?  You never meet anyone.  You have to meet people in real life.  Then, if they pass the test, you’ve gotta get on board with one another on Facebook – so you can what?  Share things you already talk about when you see one another?  Yeah… that’s “useful”.

You know what gamers need?  Gamers need other gamers.  New gamers.  Fresh gamers.  Interested gamers.  People looking to play games.  People you haven’t met yet in real life.  And not anonymous losers and griefers hiding behind crap names like xXSh00taXx and 04BrettFavre.  People rated by previous acquaintances and ranked by games played – if I can thumb a post up, why can’t I thumb a person?  If online matchmakers can put us together for a marriage, why can’t we get a decent crew for an evening of Left 4 Dead 2?  In the future, we’ll put your online presence together and give you a way to reach out and game with someone right for you.


Subscriptions and micropayments and expansions, oh my!

People aren’t going to make great games if they don’t get paid for them.  It takes too much work, too much up front capital.  We’d all like to get something for nothing, but even in the future, no such luck my friend.  Instead, we’ve got at least 2 forms of getting the job done that we don’t see much of today.

First, nanopayments.  Today, too often, people who want to build micropayments into their game end up with payments that sure aren’t very “micro” – US$20 for 5 virtual bucks is digital robbery.  Get that down to US$0.25 – it’s just bits, my friends.  Do you think Angry Birds would have been half as big at $2.99?  Nope.  What’s more, you need to put those little tidbits I pick up here and there into a bundle and charge me once in a while – say monthly? – not run me through PayPal for every dime.  In the future, people like to pay for digital things, but they don’t want to pay much for them or go through a lot of hassle; just tack it on my bill.

Second, advertising.  Yup, everything old is new again.  Not that obnoxious crap before YouTube videos.  That’s just annoying.  No, you’ve got to be more slick and subtle in the future.  A billboard for Geico in the background of my shooter.  A logo on the card backs in my Facebook app.  Don’t just get paid by the users.  Get paid by the people who want to get paid by your users too.



No doubt even in our primitive present we’ve enjoyed some of the rudimentary benefits of cloud computing.  But the future, my friends, takes this to a whole new level.  You’ll carry your data from system to system, evolving it as you go.  You know those charming rigs you can buy at the local console game resale shop that let you play games from when the year started with a 1?  Soon to be charming doorstop antiques themselves – you’ll not need it as all your app needs will be served on every platform that comes out.  You won’t buy that game one platform – you’ll own it for life.  And pass it on to your inheritors.  Along with that totally retro Galaga high score.  Hardware is temporary, but data can be forever.


Cross Pollination

Video games have a lot to learn from the tabletop masters.  Analogs have to deliver on great game play.  They can’t make it happen with flashy graphics and crap mechanics.  It’s gotta have real strategy, great flow.  Today’s games are too often just a song and dance in a pretty dress – a pretty illusion.  Chess didn’t come up through history nor Puerto Rico dominate the tabletop for a decade on looking nice.  They are deep.  They play well.  They stand up to study.  They aren’t going to be thrown to the curb for a new doxy when the bus architecture doubles again down the road.

And analogs have a lot to learn in the future as they move onto surfaces and the web and channel through networks.  They’re charmingly simple and limited, restrained by the necessities of meat brains and meat hands ability to shuffle components on the dining room table in a timely manner.  We have to go beyond instant setup and hidden randomness to serious feedback systems and enriched dynamic simulations with drilldown and zoom out.


Horizontal and vertical integration 

You play EVE Online?  Pretty cool MMO.  Guys who are working on it are supposed to be making a shooter, Dust 514.  Weird thing though – what happens in one will affect the other, even though they aren’t even related genres.  People need to watch that idea; it’s got potential for the future.  What if that stellar empire was populated by farmers your recruited to a Facebook game?  What if your chances for success in a quest were determined by the number of people following your Twitter feed?  Now push that idea another level – today you’ve got bonus content for ordering early or paying extra?  How about for finishing the last title the same designer worked on?  Or being a loyal customer over the past 3 releases? 

Or because you created the most thumbed DLC using the in-game content-as-you-play generation system on the entire cloud community for your virtual region?  And got a nod from the local political candidate for showing his campaign poster in the background sprays?


What’s to come?

Or fevered dream of a madman?  Integration, persistence, leveraging connections, and personal creativity are the big future of games from this little padded cell at the Game Lab asylum… but what does your djinni tell you will be just around the corner?  Look around.  The future comes from today; you can see the shadow of it cast long by the dawning of new things.