The Revolutionaries

The Revolutionaries
Gaming at the Margins, Part 3

Warren Spector | 4 Apr 2006 08:02
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This article is the third in a four part series, beginning with Gaming at the Margins.

In the last installment of this series, we talked about what might be called "soft" problems - games and culture... gender, age and ethnicity issues... gaming as a social or solitary activity...

This time, I want to talk about "hard" problems - hardware and business issues. And I want to talk a bit about content.


The Situation
Existing hardware allows us to do amazing things. New hardware on the horizon offers staggering possibilities.

In anticipation of the Xbox 360, Revolution and PS3, I'm digging out proposals and design concepts conceived 15 years ago because, finally, the hardware seems capable of realizing a vision that was literally impossible to pull off back then. Everything's about to change and, in all likelihood, get better - graphics, sound, AI, physics... you name it.

Shortly before I gave the talk that inspired this article, I showed a friend an early, un-retouched screenshot from a game we were prototyping at Junction Point Studios and found myself marveling at it - not out of any sense of ego, but, rather, out of a sense of awe. It looked like something pre-rendered, not something playable in real time.

But power comes at a price. Once the hardware is capable of something, someone's going to do it. And once someone does it, everyone will be expected to. So, for example, once someone throws 100 artists at a game, and it looks like something from Pixar but real time and interactive, we're all going to be expected to "ooch" ourselves above that new, higher, way more expensive quality bar.

When that happens, team size goes up for everyone, development time goes up, costs go up. That means marketing costs go up. Next thing you know, independent developers have it even tougher, the rich get richer and finding someone willing to back you in any sort of risky endeavor becomes harder than it's ever been - and it's never been easy.

In the last decade, my games have gone from $2.5 million dollars and 30 person teams, to $5 million and 40 people to $12 million and around 90 people. Looking to the future, that seems like the place you start if you want to play in the next-gen, triple-A game development game. And it may be more hype than reality, but I've talked to plenty of folks planning on spending $20 million and up on future games.

And I'd bet that 90% of that cost is down to that terrific new hardware coming, with all sorts of incredible capabilities we "have" to exploit!

There is an upside in all this. Games will look better than they ever have. And there's at least the possibility (remote, I fear) that someone will harness the power of the Xbox 360, PS3 and Revolution (and whatever comes after them) for something other than putting prettier pictures on the screen - non-combat AI, characters you care about, problems that can be solved without resorting to guns, knives and baseball bats, anyone?

But the cost of exploiting all that power, even for Good, is going to be great. And the experiments we get to try will be determined by the folks with money - the same folks who've proven risk averse in the past. I'm not optimistic.

Not just next-gen consoles and more powerful PCs...
As if powerful new consoles and PC's weren't enough, they're only part of the near-future picture. We also face another set of hardware challenges.

  • Used to be, there were computer games.
  • Then, there were computer games and videogames.
  • Now there are computer games, videogames, PDA games, handheld games
  • Heck, my cell phone is more powerful than the computers on which we developed the old Ultima and Wing Commander games!
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