søndag 4. desember 2011

A history of computer games: 2000s

The game development industry is currently facing a  suffocating problem, as games have become incredibly expensive to make. The cost of games, as well as the time and number of people it takes to develop them have increased exponentially over the years. Furthermore, the consoles have become more powerful and therefore more demanding. Before, one person could make a game in a few months, by using a computer. Now, developing an AAA title takes several years and  a large team consisting of all sorts of artists, designers, animators and programmers, not to mention the support and marketing teams. Because games have become so expensive to make, the truth is that most games lose more money than they make.

Smaller development studios cannot afford this, and the result is that the big publishers who are able to do so, buy the small developers. The big companies also claim a certain amount of control over the production, which causes a conflict between money and creativity. Whereas small companies might develop games with a genuine love for games and original content, the big publishers are first and foremost interested in the financial return of the game. Thus, new, original and atypical concepts are often culled, because they have less potential to make money than sequels and licensed properties. 
Screenshot from beautiful, quirky Psychonauts. This level in particular was inspired by red velvet paintings; an interesting idea for a game environment for sure. 

In order to increase their potential customer base, publishers push developers to release titles on multiple platforms. This is not a new strategy, but, previously, a game would not be transferred to a different console, if it had not been successful on the console it was originally designed for. Now, a developer is expected to release a game on all the important platforms at the same time, as to maximise the revenue from one title. 

Tasks such as art, music and level design have become a larger portion of the cost of developing games, and these elements can be reused between platforms and the cost of porting thus comes down to programming only. But even so, it is expensive and time-consuming and leaves little time to optimise games to one platform in particular. In addition, console developers have not made an effort to make it easier for game developers. Quite the opposite, they have continuously increased the complexity of their hardware. 

‘Moore’s Law’ dictates that computer speed is doubled every eighteen months. However, instead of computers actually becoming more powerful, consoles have been build that consist of several processing elements which can share tasks to speed up computing. This has made programming games more complex, because to utilise this to the max would have been less complex if the console had only one powerful processing element. 

The complexity of the consoles is as much a matter of marketing as it is of technology. Current consoles are built differently to make porting games from one platform to the other difficult. This is a shrewd marketing strategy to make developers stick to the console instead of porting, a move that makes it more difficult for developers to engage in the current multi-platform trend. 

The downfall of the Sega console was caused by complexity. The Sega Saturn that dominated the market at its time was difficult to program for. It had two CPUs, and only one was normally in use, because of the complexity of multiple-CPU programming. When Sony introduced the PlayStation, which had only one CPU and a 3D graphics processor (which made programming 3D games simple), developers wavering between platforms were grabbed by Sony and Sega lost ground. Though Sega reverted to a much simpler model with the Dreamcast, they never managed to get back on top, and big developers signed the death warrant of Sega’s consoles when they announced they would not support the Dreamcast. 

Sony had now obtained the dominant position on the market. They no longer felt the need to attract the developers, but wanted to consolidate that position and keep upstarts from disrupting their hegemony. Although the Playstation 2 was much more complicated to develop for, there were not really any other options on the market – with Sega out of the way. This made it very difficult for developers to move away from that platform. 

At this point, both Nintendo and Microsoft saw an opportunity to disturb Sony’s dominance – like Sony itself had done with Sega. Yet, they could not really compete with the PS2, which was too established as the dominant console at the time. However, Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Game Cube did well enough to allow both companies a new round in the console war. 

When Sony released their Playstation 3, they thought their position was so dominant that nobody could really challenge it. For that reason, Sony increased the complexity of the console’s architecture, in an attempt to lock developers to that console by making it hard to port to other consoles.

 Although this was not really the case, Microsoft thought they had damaged Sony’s dominant position in the market and were confident enough to launch a more complicated Xbox 360 ahead of the Playstation 3. The Xbox 360 did, however, come with development kits that were meant to make game development for the platform easier. Nintendo, on the other hand, stuck to a simpler, less powerful platform with the Wii. Instead, they focused on innovative technology like motion control to maintain their place and uniqueness in the market. 
The Wii is not really a competitor in the console war, because it is a very different console. It runs its own race, and it is not uncommon for gamers to own a Wii in addition to either a 360 or a Ps3. It caters to a niche in the market that Sony and Microsoft have neglected to a large degree; the young, the casual players and the families. The biggest advantages of the Wii are the flagship series exclusive to Nintendo-consoles; Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Metroid, Donkey Kong and several others. There are few children in the Western world that do not know these series. Thus, although  Microsoft may have surpassed the Wii’s motion control with their Kinect-technology, they cannot compete with Nintendo’s exclusive series. Furthermore, the Wii is sociable. While games on the 360 or Ps3 are usually developed for a single player, Wii-games often have a multiplayer-focus and are great fun playing with friends and family.  
We will be welcoming new consoles in the near future. It will be exciting to see how this affects the market and the developers, though I am afraid the costs of developing for newer and more complicated consoles might be bad news for the small developers. 
Nevertheless, although the increasing costs of developing games are a big problem, we are entering a very interesting chapter in the history of games now. Developers have always sought to improve the looks of games, and today they can achieve amazing graphics. Perhaps, we will reach a graphical peak soon, as it is now already fairly difficult to tell an in-game screen shot apart from reality. 

Games have achieved such amazing imagery, which makes one wonder how we can improve them even more? Games have the potential to tell a good story, move us emotionally, deliver a message, let us explore worlds and concepts that do not and cannot exist, etc. If I had a game development studio, these are the paths of improvement I would explore. 

Thanks to my friend Dieter for proof-reading and editing my text and making it 110% better. ;_;

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