What's in a Game?

What's in a Game?
Gaming at the Margins

Warren Spector | 21 Mar 2006 07:00
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In November of 2005, I gave a talk at the Montreal International Game Summit. To say the reaction to my talk was "incendiary" might be something of an overstatement, but not by as much as you might think. I thought I was providing a relatively straightforward counterpoint to what I saw as relatively foolish optimism on the part of many of my peers, the press and industry analysts. "Things will be great in the grand and glorious future," everyone seemed to be saying. I saw a more precarious and unpredictable future for gaming, and the organizers of the Montreal conference gave me a marvelous international forum to talk about that. (If you want to check out the slides from that talk, they're posted here - you can also check out talks by other conference participants, which I highly recommend.)

Recently, The Escapist offered me the opportunity to return to the topics I'd discussed and expand on them in a way I couldn't in a 45 minute lecture. Those of you who attended the Montreal conference will find what follows familiar (though I hope there's enough new material here to keep you reading). Those of you who didn't attend the conference can judge for yourself if I'm completely off my rocker, instead of having to depend on press reports and forum posts for your facts.

So, without further ado...

We work in a medium of staggering potential. I believe with all my heart in that potential and in the creative capabilities of the people who create, critique and play games.

Our ability to take people places they've never been before and allow them to do things they couldn't do in any other way is hugely powerful. The opportunity to allow players to walk a mile in someone else's shoes makes us, at least potentially, the most remarkable medium of expression in the history of, well, expression.

And though I sometimes worry that players seem willing - even eager - to settle for the mediocre, the rehashed, the non-interactive experience masquerading as interactivity, I have hope that, as gamers grow up, they will begin to demand more than they did as children or adolescents.

Unfortunately, despite my hopes and our medium's potential, I have to be honest with you: I often find myself despairing, these days. For all the good, positive signs I see, there are an equal number of problems and pitfalls before us.

We are in a "best of times, worst of times" situation.

It's the best of times because...
We live in an era of powerful new hardware, sky high sales, $25 billion in revenue world-wide, new business models and big media interest in what we do, and those big media types both promote our efforts in the press and, increasingly, seek to involve themselves in the creation of games.

But that's not all. We also live in a time when older players, women and an increasingly international audience mean we're no longer limited by an audience of adolescent males. As a result, industry analysts project double digit growth in revenues, and we enjoy unprecedented cultural credibility and interest in what we do.

Wow, things look great!

But, it's also the worst of times
It doesn't take a genius to see that powerful new hardware is threatening to drive development costs even higher than they already are. To drive sales to levels that justify those development costs, marketing costs are skyrocketing, too. And, if you're paying any attention at all, it's hard not to notice a glut of "product," not all of it original. We're awash in licenses, sequels and "me too" games - vain attempts by publishers to increase the odds of breaking even or, dare I say it? Profiting...

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