Wizard World Chicago 2015: The Future of Video Games panel

 

One of the few video game-related panels at Wizard World this past weekend touched on how some of the ways we play video games may likely develop in the near future.

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Panelists get excited to take questions about video games.

The crowd was joined by host Genese Davis (author of the video game novel The Holder’s Dominion) and panelists Eric Kieron Davis (former cinematic producer for Blizzard Entertainment and current senior producer for Cloud Imperium Games), Ragtag Studios’ Chris Cobb (previously working for Disney and Activision before taking the plunge into indie developing), and Blizzard composer Jason Hayes (whose band, Critical Hit, played Saturday Night at the con).  Our host kicks off the panel asking what got everyone interested in games, and Cobb’s answer is the self-reportedly easy one, saying he grew up on them (like the vast majority of us, for sure).  Davis agrees, stating that early RPGs drove his desire to create more immersive experiences.  Hayes’ introduction into gaming, however, was a little different than most of ours: as a music composer, he said he initially wanted to do music for television or film.  However, after seeing that much of that type of work was pretty repetitive, he found that the video game industry offers a broad variety of available projects for the different genres of games.  That, in addition to the passionate environment of the gaming community at large led him to take his talent to Blizzard, where he was the lead composer on games including Starcraft and World of Warcraft.

Using Twitter to line up some questions, we immediately dive into the impacts of some of the emerging ways of bringing video gaming experiences to the masses.  Everyone’s favorite new peripheral is brought up right away: the Oculus Rift and virtual reality gaming as a whole.  There is most definitely a consensus on the matter, that VR is most certainly going to be the way to play video games in the future, we just aren’t quite there yet.  VR has caused a wave that many developers are jumping into right now, as video games are one of the clear opportunities to take advantage of this kind of technology (and Cobb, who lives near the Oculus office in Dallas, says that any studio would be foolish to not be at least thinking of ways to incorporate VR into their games).  However, Davis posits that there is currently a disconnect between having someone play video games for a couple of hours at a time, and wearing somewhat uncomfortable peripherals.  For the majority of people to be happy with VR gaming, the equipment needs to shrink, both weight- and cost-wise, and a serious decrease in lag time needs to occur to get rid of the of disconnect.  For short stints like 2 minute videos, it’s fine, but who sits down to play a game for just half an hour?  The panel also voices concerns that badly-made 3D movies and gimmicky games (such as most of the Kinect’s library) are really holding VR development back, since many write it off as impractical after having a nauseating or ultimately underwhelming experience.  Cobb seems to think that other, more practical applications other than video gaming, such as medical applications, will bring VR into the mainstream before games do.

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Extended use of Oculus equipment can get heavy and unwieldy.

When yours truly asks whether augmented reality (AR)-type games might make it to the mainstream quicker than VR, Hayes is very excited about the potential capabilities using augmented reality in our everyday lives.  The potential for augmented reality encompasses a wide variety of applications, from displaying factual information for classroom learning to incorporating the environment into play time by turning everyday objects into objectives or quests.  Microsoft’s Hololens technology is working to integrate AR holograms with real life to enhance productivity, and Cobb says he feels that AR will take off more than VR will in the near future.

Next on the docket is how the Free-to-Play model for games are shaping how we access and pay for content.  Hayes talks about how mobile gaming is getting massive, and will only get bigger as time goes on.  Some of the more old school gamers love holding that physical copy of their game; it is a tangible and real-world ownership of the item.  But, as a developer, especially indie developers, reducing the cost and maximizing what they get out of selling the game leads to the need for digital platform distribution.  In the Asian market, free-to-play is the name of the game.  No one there buys a game – let alone a physical copy – due to the massive levels of pirating.  The only way to make profits there is in-game purchases.  This mentality is slowly making its way over here in the west, where it is essentially all but in name taking the place of demo discs.

Cobb references a report on how more than 75% of Apple’s App Store and the the Google Play Store’s revenues come from in-app purchases from free-to-play games.  Not releasing your game at the price of free is almost always developer suicide, even if it is only $0.99.  With this mentality so quickly and almost violently taking root here, the only good option is to let gamers “try it out” as a free-to-play with the hope that people will become so invested that they want to pay for in-game items to get the most out of the game.  This is quickly becoming prevalent in the PC and console niche as well, almost frighteningly so.  Things like Steam sales are becoming so routine and occur so often that developers are forced to think about how to price their games so that they will still make a profit after the (often deeply) discounted sale price.  All of this taken into account, it’s no wonder we hear from many developers complaining about pricing and getting enough players to buy their games.  As Davis points out, “it’s a very delicate balance.”  Whatever the future holds for free-to-play and in-app purchases, it is almost assuredly here to stay, and will be a major contributor in molding how we acquire and digest gaming content.

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F2P games, like Bethesda’s Fallout Shelter, entice gamers with a free base game, but in-app purchases make playing easier.

Talking about console vs. PC vs. mobile platforms got the panel to address how content delivery will likely be one of the biggest changes to come in the very near future.  Cobb thinks that streaming services vis-a-vis Netflix’s delivery methods will become all the rage, although Davis balks at the idea, stating “until I get fiber or faster [internet], streaming is so dumb.”  Additionally, the idea of your favorite gaming service being hacked or overloaded, and going dark for a period of time (like last winter’s debacle, when DDoS attacks forced XBLA and PSN to temporarily shut down) aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.  Until issues such as buffer delays and temporary outages are addressed considerably, streaming probably won’t take off.  However, console integration into other facets of our lives, such as Xbox One and Xbox TV is happening right now, changing how we incorporate video games into our daily grind.

Whether another type of content delivery format, Steam’s Early Access, will be essential in the future for deciding if a game becomes reality comes up from a question.  Cobb is hesitant to give the idea neither praise nor criticism, saying that it’s “a real tricky subject.”  He suggests that the game has to be more or less complete, and legitimately compelling to make use of this system.  Games like Don’t Starve that have a fully fleshed out core game can use Early Access to its advantage, giving contributors more access as pieces are added.  However, Cobb says he would never put his game, Ray’s the Dead, up for Early Access since it is a linear and story-based game, and releasing it partially finished makes no sense.  On one hand, releasing a game like this early access has no value for the developing team since their vision isn’t complete.  And on the other hand, if the gamers don’t enjoy the incomplete product, the (likely poor) reviews they give are as if it is the finished product, which may impact future players from buying it.  Taking these together, it is more practical in Cobb’s opinion to wait until the game is complete to give it to players, otherwise it can be devastating to the developer’s bottom line.

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Will “Netflix for video games” services like PlayStation Now become the major content delivery platform?

The next question asked is how game live streaming services like YouTube and Twitch are shaping the game industry.  Davis says first and foremost, Twitch is great advertising for games.  Although some complain that watching others play games is weird, he equates it to watching a friend play games in the same room back in the day, when not everyone had a system (or even the internet, heaven forbid!) to play at home.  It may be detrimental in some ways (for instance, the “I’ve seen it already, I’m not going to buy it” mentality), but for the most part it’s a boon by getting more exposure of those games out there.

Sites like Twitch also foster video games into becoming more and more accepted as a form of spectator sport, as well as getting eSports accepted as a mainstream event.  Hayes thinks that eSports are becoming less niche, and poised to really take off.  “We’re seeing huge arenas filled with eSports competitions, which is really awesome,” he muses.  Davis talks about how she’s heard that the only thing keeping eSports from properly flourishing is a lack of spotlights and interviews with the players.  Getting to know the players, and knowing who they are “behind the screen” will help spectators feel more connected with them, just like any other sport.  Davis agrees that making eSports a more personable experience will help with its popularity, and even suggests that once these competitions become more organized (high school, college, major league divisions), then having a local “home team” to cheer for, like the Chicago Bears (“They’re overrated,” cries someone from the crowd, to which he jokingly responds “Shut up.  Get out.”), will bring out the “hardcore” fans like we see with physical sport’s teams.

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Video game broadcasting sites like Twitch.tv will help to usher in eSorts and competitive gaming into the mainstream spotlight. Hopefully soon.

Finally, the floor opens to questions from the crowd, who ask the fairly standard fare of questions, including the typical “how to get into/make an impact in the video game industry.”  A number of good answers are given: if you want to make an impact as a gamer, the best way to do so is to be a beta tester and get on forums to have direct talks with the developers and help focus the direction of the game.  These two seemingly simple activities are the best ways for players to give feedback and impact game development.

If you are more inclined to get into the industry to make your own games, the panelists recommend to go to the Game Developers Conference over other conferences like E3.  While E3 is great for showing the world the newest and best games coming out, it is a bigger focus for PR and marketing firms than it is for the actual developers.  At the GDC, developers that you might not meet elsewhere come from all over the world to trade ideas in a very relaxed environment.  There might even be a local International Game Developers Association chapter you can check out!  Chicagoans can find info on their local chapter here.

Alternatively, there is always to option to self-teach game developing.  Download an engine (such as GameMaker: Studio or Unreal Engine) and play around with it.  Some developers sometimes even put out their own tools for modders to play around with in a game that’s already made.  Join a mod community, and your creations have the potential to gain recognition there.  If teaching yourself seems daunting, there are a number of higher education institutions starting up game design programs.  Full Sail in Florida and some community colleges in Austin, TX a starting up such programs that not only teach students how to design and make games, but also help with making and keeping connections in the industry.  DePaul University right here in Chicago has game development courses (the guys behind Octodad came out of DePaul).  If you want creative control over all of your game, going the indie route is your best bet.  If your dream is to be part of a big studio, find specialized niche, such as design, animation, music, or 3D art).  Very specialized training helps, and the best part about jobs with big studios is that they can pull from anywhere, not just video game-specific industries.

There are many ways to get into game developing. Go download an engine or modder’s tools today!

The panel at Wizard World this year was one of the better gaming discussion panels I’ve been to since I’ve lived in Chicago.  The panelists were clearly engaged and enthusiastic about where they thought the gaming industry will be heading in the next few years.  Hopefully we will get to see some of their predictions come true.  I’m especially excited to see eSports and gaming championships take off and become more mainstream.  I’d love to have a local team of gamers to root for (how about the Chicago Cazadors?) and watch every Sunday.  Only time will tell, but we can keep the dream alive.

For more information about any of the panelists and their projects, check them out on Twitter to follow their developments!

Genese Davis: @GeneseDavis

Chris Cobb: @RagTagChris

Eric Kieron Davis: @erickierondavis

Jason Hayes: @jasonhayesmusic

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