The good news is things are slowly starting to broaden in videogames. Nintendo's success with the Wii and DS has opened gaming to new people. Casual games on both the PC and console networks are continuing to grow in popularity, providing new avenues of exploration for developers. And the independent game development scene, bolstered by students and hobbyists, grows larger each year. But to really break open videogames as a new medium, available to all, we have to crack the tough nut: making game development easier.
There have been many efforts over the years to lower the barrier to entry. The mod scene, which grew around id Software, created a generation of game developers who broke into the industry by making small games on the back of an existing game engine. And games like The Sims have enabled people to create movies and varied gameplay experiences without an intimate knowledge of game development. But to make a small, standalone game you can share with your friends, there are few options.
Let's say you want to make a game today. Where would you start? Assuming you want to share the game with your friends, the consoles and handhelds are virtually off-limits due to their strict distribution rules. Microsoft's XNA Creators Club for the Xbox 360 is about as flexible as you get, and even after buying into the service, you can only share your games with other members of the club. The PC and cell phone aren't a bad way to go, but conquering the installation process on systems with such varied hardware is hard, even for a professional. Your best bet is probably the web, which leaves Adobe's Flash, which is installed on 95 percent of today's PCs. But even Flash is fairly complex, and the development environment is expensive. Really, it's very difficult for a novice to strike out on his own.
Luckily, the industry is beginning to take notice of the problem, and Flash developers are leading the way. Newgrounds.com allows users to share their Flash games and review others', and provides tutorials on creating games using Flash. Kongregate.com similarly allows users to share their Flash games, but it's far more community-centric, and the development community is a great resource for first-time developers.
Videogames are a powerful way to communicate, educate and express yourself. However, to reach their full potential, we need to make them easier to create and distribute. Otherwise, we'll be a Hollywood with no Ed Wood, a TV empire with three channels. And nowadays, that's just not good enough.
Mark DeLoura is the creator of the Game Programming Gems series of technical books. He has had past lives as the technology director for Ubisoft San Francisco, manager of developer relations for Sony Computer Entertainment America, editor-in-chief of Game Developer magazine, and lead engineer at Nintendo of America. These days he is doing consulting work in game development technology and production, and focusing his attention on the use of videogames for communication and education. Mark maintains a blog at www.satori.org.