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The Undertow                                             Home
A column dedicated to sucking you into the muck and mire of gaming.

The Future of Game Development.
Monday, July 13, 1998

I seem to have struck a nerve with my last column based on all the attention it received on the internet and in the gaming community in general.   Because it pertains to the ramifications of incorporating more realism into future games, this column could be looked at as the second part.

For years, game consumers have been fat, dumb, and happy.  We've run to the proverbial slop trough as developers and distributors have beckoned us to stick our hungry snouts in and gobble up some garbage.  We've consumed their offerings without noticing what we're stuffing onto our computer's drive.   Prices are low (if you shop right) and offerings are abundant.  When this happens, quality usually goes by the wayside...which is immediately apparent.  Just go browse your local software store and lock your eyes on all the fine examples of game design taking up shelf space.  Hey, that space could be put to better use by displaying Beanie-Babies!

I've heard if before, and I'll hear it again:   "Well, if you don't like it, go program your own game"!  What!?   You paid $7.50 to see Godzilla and didn't like it?  Go film your own movie!  You don't like that Spice Girls CD I know you all own?  Hey, go record your own album!  My point is, just because we don't like something doesn't mean we can go off and make it better.  We're all guilty of criticizing things we like...even if we don't have the talent to go off and do it ourselves.

So where am I going with this?  There's a big change coming to the future of game development...but not for the better.  I see dark stormclouds looming on the horizon.  After it passes and the dust settles, the gamers will be the ones footing the bill and wading through the shelves looking for that one diamond in the rough.

We've all heard of the "Software Spiral."  This is the mechanism by which Microsoft and Intel (and many smaller software and hardware companies) have become very rich corporations by leapfrogging over each other's technologies to drive demand for their respective products.  The Software Spiral has all but died in the business and home applications market.  There is a new Software Spiral hitting the streets...the "3D Spiral," and it's still in its infancy.

I call it the 3D Spiral because it is more applicable to 3D game development.  Developers of sprite based games, for the most part, are lagging a substantial distance behind the system requirements needed by many 3D titles.  Just look at Unreal.   This game is the biggest resource hog created to date!  Granted, if you have the right stuff under the hood, it looks absolutely beautiful.  3D game developers are putting the old Software Spiral to shame without batting an eye.  For the consumer, there is always help on the way in the form of faster processors, faster 3D chipsets, and new multimedia extensions (KNI and 3DNow!).  But the 3D developers are always pushing the envelope.   If we want to keep up with this never ending battle, we are forced to drop our hard earned money into semi-annual hardware upgrades.  This is one area where we have to foot the bill for the 3D Spiral.

The detail level of 3D games has increased at an alarming rate.  Though some of these early games were sprite based, I am going to dump them into the 3D category, because they were the impetus behind today's 3D monsters.  The birth of 3D gaming began with Wolfenstein 3D back in 1992.  In a very short four years, we went from primitive sprite based 3D games (Doom, Doom II, Heretic, Hexen, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces, etc...), to Quake...the first polygon (and true 3D) based first person shooter.  Four years!  Roughly one year later Quake II arrived, and not even six months after that Unreal hit the shelves.  Sprite based engines are being replaced by polygon based engines in all categories of games, not just the 3D shooter category, whether we like it or not.  It's an inevitable fact that nearly all future games will be based on polygons and meshed terrain models.   What effect is this going to have on the gaming industry, and more importantly, the gaming consumer?  As I alluded to in my last column, it will take time and money.

Development time of most games are longer than most movie development times.  To me this is ludicrous.  In the case of some games (Unreal, Falcon 4.0, Prey and many games never to see the light of day) much longer.  The games produced in the future are going to be a far cry different than those made today.  There is only one way that developers are going to continue cranking games out in the future with the heightened level of detail we're all screaming for...throw a lot of money (and people) into the development cycle.

As the inevitable polygon count of games increase, I see three things happening:

1)  More money will be thrown into games to produce the increasingly complex level of detail within a reasonable amount of development time.

2)  Smaller development companies will either drop like flies or be assimilated by the "big boys" because they will not be able to sink the big bucks into development.

3)  Games will never see the light of day because not enough resources will be thrown into them.  They will become out of date DURING their development cycle.

As the larger companies need more talent, they will suck up the small independent developers like Jell-O.  This is contrary to what seems to be happening now.  Many developers are leaving their parent companies to strike out on their own.  This may be feasible now, but not in the future.  In fact, many of these small independent development companies are one release away from going under.  To top it off, they are usually only dedicating their resources to one title at a time...no backup.  This isn't done by choice, it's caused by a lack of budget.  So, if we don't run out and grab up their latest release, they'll have to pack up shop and go running home to the money.  Now just imagine how risky it will be for these small firms when more money and people are required to produce a complex product in a reasonable amount of time?  Yup, many of them will go down the tubes.

The game development model will become more and more like the movie development model.  We already see this happening, but it will increase drastically in the next few years.  Just as we see a handful of major movie studios, we will see a handful of major game companies.  These game companies will have both publishing and developing resources under the same roof...out of necessity.   They will have the capital and people to throw into big budget games.  Small, brilliant independent projects will trickle down to nothing.

LucasArts and EA have been following this studio model for some time.  Thankfully they have put out some excellent products.  Others which may eventually absorb the studios for which they publish are:  Eidos and g.o.d. (if their startup is successful).

This model is finding its way into almost all corners of business.  Telecommunication companies are merging.  Banking organizations are merging.  Everyone is buying out whomever they can get their sweaty hands on.  Why?  So they can survive.  The same thing will happen in the gaming industry.

What does this mean to us, the consumers?

Less selection:   Fewer independent developers mean less selection on the shelves.

Higher prices:  The cost of producing these complex games of the future will trickle down to us in the form of actual game price increases.  We will also be required to sink more money into the latest hardware.

Lower quality:   This model doesn't necessarily mean an increase in quality.  The "complex" games today are suffering from a serious setback in quality.  I only see this getting worse, no matter how much money they throw into a game.  If a game is to be released before it falls behind the technology curve, it will be nearly impossible to increase quality to keep up with complexity.

Dead projects:   Those companies unable to stay ahead of the technology curve because of money constraints will have their games fall into oblivion...this is happening today.

Is this change a bad thing?  Of course it is.  Any situation which causes us, the game consumer, to get less product selection at a higher cost and lower quality is definitely a no-win situation.  Sure, some really cool games will be released; but I think they will be few and far between.   What can we do about it?  Absolutely nothing.  The PC gaming industry has become a juggernaut that rolls along at its own accord.  I guess the only thing we could do is be more fickle about what titles we buy.  This is hard to do when nearly everything is hyped to look fantastic.  The ad propaganda in Eidos' catalog says about Daikatana:  "Believe the hype."  Nope, buy the game...not the hype.  This is probably the only way we can have an affect on the industry.

So sit back, and watch what happens as independent developers try to survive on that one "killer" game they've been developing for years.  Ironically, it's probably the same "killer" game that ten other studios have been working on.  Now throw in a dash of "complexity" and a pinch of "not enough capital" and see what happens.  It isn't going to be pretty.

~ Neal Ulen

Drop me an e-mail and let me know what you like and/or dislike about gaming, a particular title, or the industry in general.  As always, all (non-belligerent) criticism welcome!

The Undertow Copyright (c) 1998-99 Neal E. Ulen and GamesFirst!