Despite financial worries and considerable concern about the sheer scope of contemporary big-budget projects, game developers seem more optimistic and ambitious than ever. This is made possible by a healthier and more collaborative relationship with players along with a cautious optimism about artificial intelligence.
This enthusiasm for working with the audience means much more than just reacting to comments and suggestions on Discord. I spoke to several developers who have put not only the initial code, but also the game creation tools in the hands of passionate gamers at a very early stage and invited them to help shape the experience; as a result, I sometimes hired them to work on it full time. .
Now in its 26th year, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences hosted its DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Summit in Las Vegas last week. The event brings together developers and leaders from across the games business to come together and discuss the biggest challenges of the moment while celebrating the past year’s top achievements in a peer-judged awards ceremony that we partner with the Academy to broadcast. live. This year, IGN’s Stella Chung joined Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller to present the awards, and you can watch it in full here.
DICE is different than many other events we cover because the information we can give you is less about announcements and more about spotting trends and getting a sense of what’s going on in game developers’ heads. Each year the Academy sets an overarching theme that sets the overall tone, but it’s usually pretty spot on in terms of capturing what everyone’s thinking. In the past, this sometimes meant there was an element of buzzword compliance to onstage conversations, especially if (some) studio execs were speaking in the place of creative leads.
First there was the free-to-play mobile gaming gold rush years ago which evolved into games as a service. Both trends were accompanied by a vertigo about the potential of individual games to make thousands of millions dollars, usually delivered by obviously media-savvy men wearing Patagonia vests over button-down shirts. That eventually made its way into the blockchain and metaverse in the last couple of years, and that brings us to today’s AI bonanza. With each step along that path, there has always been a healthy dose of cynicism from the DICE crowd, because it is predominantly the game making community that takes the “Arts” part of the “Academy of Arts and Sciences” very seriously. Interactive”.
This year’s theme was simply called “the long game.” In the past, it would have been easy to see that and scoff that it was about something more. live service games and relentless new ways of exhausting content from experiences in pursuit of maximizing funny-sounding acronyms like ARPDAU (average revenue per daily active user) and LTV (lifetime value), but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the predominant ideas that came out of the presentations, panel discussions, and (most importantly) bar conversations were about the human element of game making and the fact that truly great experiences come from a respectful relationship with the players.
What this means is that the next big trend in game development isn’t necessarily a new tool or feature, but the direct onboarding of gamers 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 the few authors, along with William Gibson, to have helped define the lexicon of the modern interactive age. In his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” and described scenes that are responsible for much of the nonsense we so often hear from tech billionaires trying to reclaim the concept three decades later. As part of his presentation, Stephenson quoted Rebecca Barkin, co-founder of her own “open metaverse” company Lamina1, who stated that “you can’t design a compelling experience around a desired financial outcome.” This 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 conversation with Chandana Ekanayake of Outerloop Games, Double Fine’s Tim Schafer reminded everyone that “human beings make games” and noted that he feels his job is often to create a bunch of scenes where a improvisational actor then crashes to test the limits of. This focus on delighting players and relinquishing control to their influence was reinforced over and over again in nearly every conversation I had with the developers at the event.
For the past 20 years, we’ve tended to think of “generations” of games in terms of how they’re directly related to hardware capabilities. The best technology makes things work faster and look cooler with fancy lighting and ray tracing and triple-digit frame rates. Right now, though, it feels like we’re going through a different kind of generational shift that’s entirely about giving players more control over how games are built and the experiences they deliver.
Schafer noted that, historically, games were created by a small group of gatekeepers. That’s been changing for a while now, as evidenced by the plethora of indie games that are helping to push the boundaries in every direction, the spectacularly creative PC game modding scene, and the ever-increasing power of mod tools. game creation from Roblox to Unity and Unreal. . The player empowerment we’re seeing isn’t a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination, but what feels fresh is the amount of trust and influence passionate gamers have on game development. This also seems to be where cautious optimism about AI comes into play.
While much of the conversation thus far has been about the ethical questions raised by AI-generated artwork and narratives, there is tangible enthusiasm for using these systems as a way to interpret ideas. Instead of requiring expertise in a complex tool like the Unreal editor, developers are beginning to envision scenarios where an AI can understand what is being described to it and bring the idea to life. Releasing a tool like that 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 at Game Scoop, game development is relatively inaccessible compared to other art forms, just as cinema was before camcorders. AI has the potential to empower creative people to share their ideas without having to be a programmer, writer, artist, and composer at the same time.
One thing seems certain: the next generation of games that are truly cultural phenomena on the scale of something like Fortnite will be games that have been created in direct, hands-on collaboration with gamers rather than simply thinking of them as customers.
John Davison is the editor and editorial leader, and has been writing about games and entertainment for more than 30 years. follow him on Twitter.