Over the years I’ve built up a collection of really good friends that I deeply respect, many are from the Games Industry and so this year at GDC I decided to do something a little different.
This year my team helped put together a lunch with some of the industry’s most famous luminaries. Frankly, I don’t even need to explain who they are – Peter Molyneux, Phil Harrison, Chris Taylor, Neil Young, Raph Koster.
Gary Whitta flew up from his movie set in Burbank to Moderate the conversation, to keep us on track, and also to add some of his wit. (He told funny stories about nearly every one of us.)
You can hear him talking in detail about the whole thing on his podcast here: GAME THEORY
To make sure the discussion would not be forgotten, we invited some of the top press in the world to listen in on the conversation, and wow did it get interesting. Everyone spoke openly and at one point Peter Molyneux even had all the tape recorders turned off so he could reveal a secret to us all.
GameDaily just posted their first coverage, the article is by James Brightman.
PART 1 IS HERE
PART 2 IS HERE
PART 3 IS HERE
Just in case the links are broken, I’ve pasted the text here.
What is EA Blueprint?
Young: It’s a secret. We’re not really talking about it much right now, but it’s essentially my studio group, which has Maxis and Spore – Will Wright’s group â€“ and we have the partnership with Steven Spielberg and a bunch of new things we’re trying to develop in a different way.
David Braben has said that the term “next generation” has become devalued in recent years, his point being that while gaming technology advances the concepts behind the games haven’t generationally evolved at the same rate. … What’s next-gen actually mean to you?
Young: He’s sort of right. Everything’s become incremental to some degree. I think one of the things that happened from the transition from the last generation to this generation was how essentially the same games, with up-res’d visuals, outperformed new games with new engines trying to do new things; and I think that speaks a little bit to the customer too. I’m not sure the customer is necessarily ready for or accepting of things that are completely 100 percent totally different and new.
Perry: I look at it more like… as a designer you’ve got a certain amount of tools and the tools keep improving; there’s new things added. The idea of user-generated content is something that’s going to be hot obviously. The online component, by having online for everything means [a lot to the designer]. Another thing is offline server power â€“ we haven’t really been able to use that. Imagine I’m playing my DS game and I have small supercomputers running offline serving information to me. That’s just a tool. Is it of any use? … I don’t know, so it’s like, what’s really next-gen? What is it whenever you add one of those new components, is that really next-gen or is it literally just the scaling of graphics?
Koster: It’s not the graphics. I think there are a couple of clear [examples of] next-gen games. One of them is… [Xbox] Live. That’s the game you play on the 360; that’s the next-gen game. You’re getting your achievements, you’re getting your points â€“ it’s the meta game. The [Nintendo] Miis you’re assembling, that’s a meta game. The stuff coming on PlayStation Network, Home… that’s where we start getting next-gen. It isn’t the graphics, it isn’t the processor, because that’s just like going from the one-liter bottle to the two-liter bottle. It’s not really changing the drink inside. It really is the connectivity and the kind of meta game things that cut across the entertainment spectrum. “Next next gen” is going to be about cutting across way more kinds of platforms â€“ it’s not going to be just the two-liter bottle. It’s not going to be just the console; it’s going to be way more kinds of things.
Harrison: Ray Kurzweil’s keynote this morning… His topic is a well-trodden path but he delivers it in such a brilliant way that it’s incredibly compelling I found. He talks about these paradigm shifts in silicon process, or going from mechanical valves to transistors to integrated circuits, and you can plot those kinds of big paradigm shifts in the game industry, going from 8-bit, 2-D, cartridge to 32-bit, 3-D, CD. That I think was a big paradigm shift. It changed the business model and it changed the production model and it changed the consumption models, so that was a big shift in all aspects of the business. The 8-bit to 16-bit transition was not a paradigm shift; it was the same things done bigger, but the market grew. And it was the same with PlayStation and Saturn and N64 moving to PlayStation 2, Xbox, etc. The market grew but the paradigm didn’t change. So, to David Braben’s question “What is next generation? How do you recognize it?” it won’t be characterized by graphics and processing power and storage media in this generation. It’ll be characterized by servers, community, user-created content and all the things the game developer doesn’t do.
That’s quite an interesting thing for our industry. All the things that are going to be cool about our future products are stuff that we won’t actually be making. It’ll be the space between that’ll actually create the value, and the emergent things that’ll happen that are unplanned like what Peter [Molyneux] just showed in the Fable 2 demonstration, which I thought was really cool.
Koster: I’d still be at Sony if people were talking to me that way! [whole room erupts with laughter]
Platform allegiances aside, are there any specific titles that are even touching on where you think this industry is going?
Harrison: Wii Sports. You have to give them credit…
And yet that’s the least connected from online and the stuff we just talked about.
Harrison: It’s a very interesting and frustrating thing for me to experience because I’ve been banging the drum about social gaming for a long time, with Singstar and EyeToy and Buzz!, and our Japanese colleagues said, “There’s no such thing as social gaming in Japan. People do not play games on the same sofa together in each other’s homes. It will never happen.” Ping! and out comes the Wii. [room filled with laughter]
And what’s interesting about the Nintendo adverts is that there the same the world over. They always show the view from the television back to the sofa, which I think is very clever. And what do you see? A family or four friends all on the sofa… So how pissed off was I?
Molyneux: To [Braben’s] question, I think it’s an interesting one about next generation, and what I wonder is while we’re talking about this I think there’s some great inventions and things happening in the industry… but if I was a consumer, what would I be thinking is next generation? I think Call of Duty 4 with all its drama and all its excitement… would I call that next generation or would I call Wii Sports next generation? I suspect the great inventive ideas in our industry quite often we get excited about, but I wonder if consumers really get excited about it.
Harrison: I think the connectivity numbers on Call of Duty 4 would say “Yes, that is a next generation title.” There is so much community being built around that title.
Molyneux: It’s a wonderful example of how this industry has come along… I was talking with a journalist earlier today about going back and experiencing retro games and how incredibly hard these games were. Back in the 1980s, if you picked up those games now, you wouldn’t have a chance. In Defender how far would you get? And we’ve gone from that to Call of Duty 4, where Call of Duty is all about the experience â€“ it’s not about how many people you shoot, it’s about how you experience it.
But isn’t it fundamentally the same experience since Doom and Quake?
Molyneux: It is, but that’s kind of like saying, “Well, you know watching Dr. Who is the same as watching Star Wars.” … I think when it comes down to it, we’re in an incredibly inventive, amazing time in our industry. And that’s because we’ve got lots of things all colliding together â€“ we’ve got the Internet, and Live, and social networking and lots of things happening completely outside of our industry, and we’re coming in with amazing production quality and cool new ideas like Wii Sports and those controllers… it’s a fantastic time to be in our industry.
What’s interesting about Braben’s comments now is that the Wii, the one console that doesn’t have any next generation hardware under the hood, is the one that’s being talked about most as the new paradigm of next generation play.
Molyneux: I suspect that if you ask consumers what they think is the next generation console, I suspect they would actually say the Wii. How brilliant was [Nintendo’s] marketing? The problem is of course it’s just Wii and Wii Sports, and they don’t think there’s really much more than that.
Perry: The problem is I keep getting myself in trouble with the Wii because while I respect it and I love the thought of it, all the games I personally want to play â€“ I want to play Assassin’s Creed, the Grand Theft Autos â€“ none of them are on the Wii. I made a list because I was challenged on the forums, “You Nintendo hater!” and that’s not the case at all. I respect the hardware so much and the idea of what they’re doing but all the games I want to play aren’t there.
Molyneux: I wonder how much longer that’s going to be like that, because I know that the publishers are scrambling and saying, “Well, the numbers on the Wii are so compulsive that we’re going to have to think about making a Wii version.” Of course the bizarre thing about that is then its very next generation nature works against it, because you’ve got to reinvent the game.
Harrison: For all the things it does right, Call of Duty on Wii was absolutely unplayable.
Perry: Do you remember when Mortal Kombat came out on Genesis versus Super Nintendo? Super Nintendo took the blood out so it became the slightly lame version, and people started selling their consoles at that time because they realized they would always get the slightly lame version, and that’s my concern…
Young: We’re not thinking about it that way at all. We [EA] had to scramble to get into position on the Wii. That’s no secret at all. Our first set of efforts were just those sort of classic EA franchises â€“ you know, you get the PS2 version and get it working on the Wii and modify the controller interface. What we found is you’ve really got to organize yourself around the unique feature of that machine, and that’s family gaming, social gaming, active gaming. If you were to look at our SKU plan over the next couple of years on the Wii, yes you would see some staples, and yes you would see some of those staples with new features like the “family play” mode in our sports products, but you’d also see a lot of new things that are really just taking the controller and saying, “What can you do differently with this?” The great thing about the Wii is the economics are such and the cost of development is such that you can actually afford to take a few more of those risks.
Harrison: This next comment is not meant to be a kind of platform competitive comment… [laughter all around]
Young: It doesn’t have any Cell chips in it!
Harrison: What I want to ask EA as the largest multiplatform publisher on the planet, if you look at the Wii publishing economics, your addressable market is only 40 percent on the installed base because Nintendo’s own products generate 60 percent of the software sales on the platform. Does that change your investment strategy?
Young: The development expense and the time to market for ideas are orders of magnitude less on that platform. I’ll give you an example and it’s a very simple example. Smarty Pants, which is a game we built on the Wii, it was GDC last year when we sat down with the Planet Moon guys who helped us develop that game, and they said, “You know what? I’ve been playing this game in the car with the kids where we scale the questions and I think there’s something to be done in this space.” It was very easy to very quickly to build a product that we could build around a simple mechanic of raising your arm to raise a question, which fundamentally felt much more fun than pressing a button. It didn’t cost very much to make, didn’t take very long to build, commercially it’s been pretty successful, and I think that â€“ along with a set of other things we have in the portfolio â€“ it’s almost like Xbox Live to some degree, or PlayStation Network in terms of the round trip time between idea and bringing something to market that is commercially viable.
Harrison: That’s a huge issue for our industry; our iteration speed as a business has to come down. That’s why I’m so interested in what you’re doing because that has to positively influence that curve.
Koster: It’s interesting to hear what you’re saying because each time you talk about iteration speed or cost of development or any of those things, I go “And the web… and the web!” Because the iteration speed that’s happening on the web is insane. It’s interesting half of our team now is web people. We’re not a very big company, so we’ve managed to do a blend there of the cultures, but just the base assumptions on pace are astounding. Flickr patches every half hour. And when web companies are doing things like focus testing… the web has it down to this insane science where they’ll put up the same content five times in parallel and measure and do A, B, C, D, E testing and adjust it, and by the end of the day they’ll have gotten 500 percent improvements on all kinds of metrics.
Molyneux: Can you give examples? If someone said to me Flickr is patching every half an hour… they’ve got problems. [Big laugh in the room]
Koster: Some of the funny buzz words are things that you know like fail fast, fail often, and launch early. They really do a lot of those things. A lot of it is based on A-B testing. … They’ll say, “Oh, we’re going to run a promotion. How many promotions should we have on the front page?” And they’ll start with three and then they’ll say “Well, let’s make every other visitor see two instead of three â€“ how does that affect our registration records?” So they do lots, and lots of that kind of thing…
Harrison: Web analytics is such a huge part…
Koster: It’s a huge burgeoning thing and we don’t have any good way to do that. And on top of that it’s so hard to build the games in the first place that saying, “Let’s make five versions and see which one works better” is just impossible.
Harrison: I was talking to a VC about this and he was telling me about his funding and his investment methodology, and he was talking in context of web products, whether consumer or professional… and he said if the company was unable to have their first offering up and running in six weeks he wouldn’t invest.
Koster: I guess most of us have just been doing the VC dance…
Perry: These guys all go to the same conferences and they hang out together and they hear about multi-variant testing and so the first question you’re asked is “Are you doing multi-variant testing?” We’re doing it right now on our MMOs and it is literally down to the point of “Should the button be red? Should it be green? Should it be blue? Should it be yellow? Should it be big, small? Here’s the different text on them. Should there be animations behind it? Should there be video playing? Should there be a set of screens shots? And what is the impact? The impact is eight percent. Okay, sh*t. Well let’s do that. Eight percent actually does matter when you’re thinking of millions of people.” So we just keep tuning these knobs and it’s all done… they don’t know it’s even happening to them while they’re playing the games; they’re just getting different screens served.
Harrison: That kind of game analytics used to be a huge part of our industry in the coin-op business. The game analytics was the coin-op would go on trial and every week somebody would walk over and have a look and see how many quarters were inside the cash box.
Koster: So think about what we could be doing, right? I mean… you see the wonderful stuff that Microsoft is doing with their user, usability research, whatever the name of the group is… the heat maps and all that kind of stuff. I mean think about what could be getting done in terms of, you should be sending back all of the play transcripts from every game on PSN, right? [laughs] Think of the tuning data that’s sweeping by there, right?
Molyneux: If consumers hear about this then they will suspect some terrible thing is happening.
Koster: Consumers always expect terrible things. [laughs]
Harrison: Web analytics is a fact of life in every part of somebody’s daily experience.
Young: Yeah, but they didn’t pay $59.99 to go to that website.
Harrison: What do you think the loyalty card in your supermarket is all about? All it is doing is tracking your purchasing behavior. They rack it up as a benefit.
Koster: They’re beeping our badges as we walk around this conference! I mean come on! [laughs] “You had the turkey sandwich,” you know. [more laughter in room]
Young: My point is that those things are super valuable, and when you build online games and you build MMOs, of course you’re looking at the data. If you build one of those things you basically sit there clicking refresh. You see the data changing in real time, you capture it and measure it, and you try to make meaningful changes for the benefit of the software. I think if you want to go the other way and say “Let’s put software out there and start modifying the software as we go,” you’re going to want to do that much further upstream in the development process. In the Korean MMO marketplace, which I think is interesting in the way that software is made live very quickly. The public beta is very, very long â€“ and relatively few things ever make it out of public beta. There’s something interesting in that model, but along with that would have to go a shift in the economics.
Harrison: I’m quite disturbed by the implications of what Peter just said that if consumers find out that we’re modifying the software that they would go mad or be upset by it.
Koster: Why make it a secret?
Perry: This is something that happens every single day on Facebook.
Harrison: But it happens on World of Warcraft everyday.
Perry: I got into a discussion based on this… I thought the name [of EA’s] Smarty Pants, meaning it’s an attractive name if you want to do that kind of quiz-based game. And the conversation I had was about Hot or Not, which is one of the Facebook games and I said that whoever who came up with the name, that was the slam dunk. And the guy I was talking to says “Not at all. It’s not about the name at all; it’s about knowing that you don’t have the right name and having all the knobs saying ‘this is the wrong name, this is the wrong name’,” and then the users clearly showing you that you have the wrong name and you try some different names, and you hit Hot or Not and then ‘boom’ and the scale goes up and then you know you have the right name. So effectively the users can help you find the Smarty Pants name if you’re designing that way and doing your testing that way before you launch. … So it’s not like just genius from the start.
Harrison: Blizzard’s Rob Pardo was giving a talk and it was very interesting the way he was breaking it down, that play balance is what it’s all about. If you discover that there is a fundamental imbalance in the game, you have to patch and you have to modify…
Molyneux: We’ve been kind of doing that for a long time with PC RTS games especially, and a lot of them are things you can patch pretty quickly after release.
Koster: I must interrupt just for a moment because Chris [Taylor] has been uncharacteristically quiet so I wanted to give him the opportunity to curse now. [laughs]
Taylor: It’s funny, you’re not the first person to say that. There was a time where I was quiet for an entire half an hour; I think it happened about 14 years ago. It was [a meeting with] Don Mattrick. I remember the day. [laughs] … Thank you Raph. I’m curious how to get a game out to the 200 million people who’ve been downloading the Peggles… that’s what I’m going after.
I’ve been cooking something up and you guys have been circling it here… Man, those guys want something a lot more sophisticated but as simple. And we can’t complicate simplicity. It’s the idea that depth and complexity are not directly linked, and the other [idea] is that is simplicity is being ordinary; that if something is simple that it’s not boring. But something can be simple and deep, and people want simple and deep.
World of Warcraft, when you begin the screen is clean, and when you’re at level 70 it looks like a helicopter [dashboard]. That is exactly right; that is the exact formula. We know it because it’s literally one of the most successful video games the world has ever seen. So that’s what the world wants, and we should be focusing our energy on that. There was a PopCap study, [saying] 200 million people are playing casual games. Nvidia’s been a Forbes company of the year… because they’re highly profitable. People are buying Nvidia cards. There’s people out there that want to play on their PCs, but they’re not buying a lot of PC games. Why? Because they can get their games for free but they have to buy the hardware. It’s really hard to download a high end dual SLI video card over the Internet from a warez site. [chuckles] So clearly there’s a lot of hardware out there and people want to play games on their PCs.
Molyneux: Do you think that means that we have failed as game creators? If we’re creating these games which are hailed as the most successful of all time such as Halo, which is a fantastic game, but you compare that to the 200 million, and I don’t think it can be 200 million…
Koster: Why can’t you believe that?
Taylor: People in offices, people at work, moms at home… all over the world.
Koster: You walk into some big building and there’s the woman at the front desk with the headset and I guarantee she’s playing Peggle and she’s playing Solitaire, absolutely.
Molyneux: I can believe that.
Koster: Solitaire’s our industry!
Molyneux: Well it is but Solitaire comes on the PC. I think it’s millions but 200 million is an enormous number.
Koster: I have no problems whatsoever believing it.
Harrison: There’ll be a billion mobile phones over the next 12 months and about half of them will have some kind of game preinstalled.
Molyneux: That’s true but it doesn’t mean a billion people are playing that game.
Harrison: 500 million. [laughter in room]
Molyneux: For me, I think mobile phone games have completely failed because I don’t think anybody looks at the games on their phone… it’s a very fractured experience.
Harrison: The point I think we’re getting at is that everyone’s a player now. David, Neil and myself have known each other through various connections for 20 years, and when we first started out… admitting that you made computer games was not the coolest thing that you could do.
Taylor: To answer your question, there was a sharp turn in the road and we missed it.
Molyneux: That’s what I was saying. We’ve failed.
Taylor: You know back in 1978 everybody walked into arcades. My wife’s grandmother loved playing Pac-man. She’s 83 years old, and she talks about how she loved to play Pac-man. She hasn’t played a video game since Pac-man. Why? Because we haven’t made a game she could play!
Young: That’s the interesting thing about the Wii. What it’s doing is bringing people back to games. There’s a group of 30-somethings [for whom] games got too complicated and took too much time and bust into their life the wrong way, stopped being fun, started being frustrating, and I think the wonderful thing about the Wii is it’s bringing those people back.
Harrison: It’s not just the Wii. I think there are many examples of it that exist on the web and on other consoles where you don’t have to finish the game in order to have fifty dollars worth of value from it. You can have a huge amount of fun just on a systemic basis and playing the game once in a while. The thing about Pac-Man… I think Ms. Pac-Man was the biggest selling coin-op… and then that got overtaken 15 years later by Golden Tee Golf… I think I’m right.
Whitta (Moderator): And probably not coincidentally, that game was based on a control mechanism that everybody could understand and equate to the real motion.
Perry: I find that Guitar Hero has actually helped as well so when I go to someone’s house I take Guitar Hero and I have seen women that clearly don’t play games â€“ a mother or someone â€“ saying, “I’m off to Best Buy to buy a PlayStation,” so they are just so blown away by the experience of being a rock star. So to me in a weird way that was the big step, that I had something I could take with me that I know everyone’s going to have fun with.
Harrison: Yeah, you hand somebody a game controller and it’s like you’ve handed them a live gun, or a hand grenade with the pin taken out. [laughs]
Whitta (Moderator): I think it’s really been fascinating over the last 20 years or so to see the evolution of control devices from a one-button Atari joystick that we all remember fondly to controllers now that have just a bristling array of buttons. I think it’s more than a dozen buttons. How many buttons are on a Sixaxis?
Harrison: 14 buttons and two thousand different input combinations…
Koster: And worse, a bunch of them are analog, not digital. So I counted and I think it’s 18 dimensions, or something like that.
Whitta (Moderator): Those controllers are just repellent… but they can instantly just pick up a Wii remote.
Harrison: You give them a non-game-centric device and that democratization has been very powerful.
Perry: That’s a big deal â€“ the fact that people realize peripherals aren’t too expensive to make for games.
Whitta (Moderator): If the assumption is that a move towards simplicity is “a good thing,” it seems possible that can be as reliant on the control scheme as the physical device. Peter, you’ve spoken before about Fable 2 relying on one context sensitive button…
Molyneux: We’ve got too many buttons. We don’t use half the buttons on the controller, the 360 controller, simply because the whole dream that I’ve got is that someone sits down and plays Fable 2 that has never played a game before â€“ and I wish there wasn’t so many buttons on the damn controller â€“ and they can play with someone who’s played games the whole of their life and that’s the dream for me, that these two people can enjoy it and you have to approach that in design terms of, “we’ve only got one button.”
Perry: My dream is that someday we do a configurable controller that a faceplate comes with the games in the box…
Molyneux: Well, look at the iPhone. It’s pretty configurable…
Harrison: Squidgy plastics is the future of controllers.
Molyneux: Isn’t someone working on a force feedback touch screen? You touch it and it “pushes back” slightly, because that’s what you need. The trouble with iPhones is their too slippery; you don’t have that tactile feel.
Harrison: I saw this first hand a few weeks ago where a two-year-old was playing with an iPhone and knows how to get the pictures up and knows how to find pictures of mom and dad… For him, even as a two-year-old he intuitively thought all electronic devices were [controlled via touch screen]. He went up to the television and his way of changing the channels was go like this [makes touch screen motion with hand]. And he’s right and the rest of us are wrong! That should be applied universally and I think Apple should be applauded for that innovation.
Whitta (Moderator): So if Apple were to make a game console it would be the best game console ever made?
Koster: No. [laughter in room]
Perry: I guess the question is if Apple were to do it, what direction would they take it in? What would they do? It would come in an envelope, that’s for sure.
Young: A manila envelope.
Perry: What would be their approach? Would they do anything surprising?
Young: I think the iPhone, if configured properly, could be a pretty cool gaming device.
Harrison: There would be a few technical challenges of implementing graphics that we need for games with the power consumption of mobile phones. They’re not entirely compatible bedfellows but if you can solve that, and if Mr. Kurzweil is to be believed it’ll be solved exponentially quickly…
Young: I think also you’re talking about games on mobile phones. You know the challenge in finding those games and how the deck is managed by the carrier sort of feels ripe for being reinvented, and the ability to be able to directly download games.
Molyneux: The trouble with mobile phone game is the input device, strangely enough; the phone buttons are made for dialing numbers. They’re “clicky” and they’re horrible. The games just feel terrible on them. I think, for me, it’s all about accessibility, and this is why I question the 200 million [figure]. You know, I have go to Google and type in “where is a cool game?” and it gives me 3,000 listings and then I have to go to Reflective or Big Fish or whatever and I have to download the free trial and it’s a real hassle.
Koster: It’s much less of a hassle than GameStop. [laughs]
Molyneux: … If we had an iPhone or some phone or some device that we carried around with us and we could just download something in the press of one button and it was there and we were playing in five minutes, I think it would be enormous.
Koster: So you’re describing the challenge of the Internet in general, which is there’s too much to sort through. But huge strides have already been made on that. These very same students, housewives, non-techies manage to find YouTube videos; they manage to find all these other things. There are a lot more YouTube videos than there are games on the web, so I think we shouldn’t underestimate their capability for finding stuff that’s cool and passing it around. I mean they’re smart people; we shouldn’t say they can’t use Google.
Harrison: If you extend Amazon’s recommendation engine and Kindle, which are really powerful innovations for the consumer, based on what you read it could push the book to you without you actively having to choose it. And the same could apply to games. The recommendation engine based on what you play, how long you played it, how skilled you were, how far you got into the game, and what your friends were playing â€“ the next time you pick up your game console or your portable device, the game would just already be there. You wouldn’t have to download it; it would be pushed to you.
Koster: Kongregate is already taking steps towards that. I think a lot of the game portals are taking steps towards that. … I think one of the things that is becoming really interesting about the games on the web scene is that so much of it is driven by Flash, which is rapidly becoming the “web’s console.” It doesn’t know what kind of device it’s going to land on. If you have a phone capable enough you can play flOw on it. It was actually very disappointing to me that I wasn’t able to play the web version of flow through the Wii’s browser, and I had to buy flow because I couldn’t play it through the PS3’s browser since the version of Flash was too old.
Harrison: It’s a scam to make you buy it… [laughter]
Koster: We have always focused on games as the interface â€“ the buttons is where the rubber meets the road. But the whole web metaphor says “I actually have no idea what buttons you have.” And that’s part of why the iPhone works. You’re browsing the web and the web is assuming you’ve got a mouse and yet on the iPhone it works beautifully with fingers. But I think it’s really interesting because we’re going to start seeing a lot of games that are not going to know what devices they’re landing on as we get more and more devices that are connected that you can download stuff to. My laptop is a Tablet PC, and I can play games with a pen that were not designed to be played with a pen. So we’re kind of losing control of the controller, so to speak, because the devices are becoming so robust. That’s sort of an interesting “problem” to have.
Harrison: All the things that we thought were important like frame rate…
Koster: Yeah, a lot of thing are yanked out from under us.
Molyneux:What you’re saying really harks back to the resurgence of platforms other than consoles being the primary games platform…
Koster: Okay, I’ll throw out my controversial thing. I actually think Flash is the next-gen console in a lot of ways. I think it’s pointing the way to the future more so than the current generations of hardware, precisely because it is well on its way to being completely ubiquitous. There are more Flash installs available in people’s homes and even on mobile devices than all the sold consoles of the last two generations put together, right? It is everywhere and yes, currently its tech level is, what? We can make games from about 1993 on it, ’94? But you know, they’re going to have 3D transform polygons in the next 12 months. There’s going to be an open GL canvas in Firefox in the next 12 months. They’re kind of recapitulating everything we’ve done, just very, very quickly. And I do think that’s a bit of an upheaval because right now, PC, retail PC certainly, is in dire straits apart from some exceptions, but overall you look at audience reach, quantity of games made, and for that matter â€“ difficult to measure â€“ creativity of games made, the web is kicking the console industry’s ass. I mean, in a major way.
Young: It’s all about that roundtrip time between idea and expression. I can tell you this: if you want to try and make money building a single Flash game, good luck.
Koster: But that’s the other piece of the puzzle, right, which is you can’t make money on it. [laughs] And that’s another interesting dilemma…
Harrison: We use this term about platform and in our sort of proprietary view of what a platform is â€“ the combination of technology and business model and consumer experience, and in order to have a successful platform you need all three. The web/Flash concept is missing the business model aspect of that. It’s missing the consistency of the consumer experience and once it figures that out, and I’m not saying it can, but once it figures that out then what you just said will become absolutely true.
Young: As you were talking, I was thinking… different machines are serving different markets and different needs for people. So if you think about the Wii, what it’s replacing is the “sit around the table as a family playing Monopoly” [experience]. What the big web gaming experience is â€“ it’s pretty reliant on your having a keyboard. I’m not talking about straight Flash games, but it’s really about the ability to communicate with people, to connect with other people and to be able to express yourself. To some degree it’s a huge limitation for an Xbox or PlayStation to not have that keyboard accessible, or if it is accessible it doesn’t feel natural. What the PS3 and Xbox  are very good at doing I think is providing escapism and fantasy and experiential things where you can kind of go on a journey.
My guess is that all of these things end up kind of co-existing; they probably live in different places in the house or are used at different times in different ways by different members of the family. And so they all have a role, and the exciting thing for people who are capable of creating things, your canvas just got bigger. You could very easily be making things today where there are three venues for that thing in house â€“ there’s the Wii, the next generation console and the web. I’m not saying that same game lives across them, but the market is just getting bigger by virtue of there being more devices inside the home that are serving different segments of people’s lives.
Koster: The way I bridge those is I think they’ll probably all be serving off of, if not the same back-end and the game will be on the back-end and you’ll get different kind of heads of the game on different devices, and we’re already kind of getting to that stage now.
Young: A question for you [Phil], would be â€“ and I’m sure you don’t want to even talk about PlayStation 4 â€“ but if you think about sort of the general trend, it seems to me like everything is moving toward the network, and a huge game changer in our industry would be for there not to be a requirement to actually be a machine in the home. That the game is playing as an instance on a Google server farm in Oregon, being rendered, sent down the pipe, shown on the television that you paid an extra five or ten dollars to your cable company to guarantee that you had a good enough bandwidth for gaming. I mean that to me is…
Koster: A really good idea! [laughs all around]
Young: It seems inevitable, right?
Harrison: Some of it does exist now, although there is that challenge of the roundtrip of input to server…
Young: But doesn’t that get solved in like five years?
Harrison: There’s a fundamental problem called speed of light, which is really a difficult thing to overcome.
Young: So you’re on the record as that’s never going to happen?
Harrison: No, I wrote down at the very beginning of this discussion based on something that Raph said about public utility computing. Public utility computing is absolutely the future of the game industry where we will have these monolithic servers. There was a great article in the Financial Times about two [or] three weeks ago about this, where in the industrial revolution every factory had their own power source. So a factory’s employee base included specialist people to keep the power source going whether it was steam or fire or hydroelectric or whatever and then somebody said, “Well hang on a second. Why don’t we centralize this and have a public utility, the Edison approach to power?” and suddenly all of those specialist people were redeployed to other things and everybody closed down their vertically integrated power plant on their factory. Well you can see exactly the same thing happening. I don’t imagine there will be many companies in the future, ten years, twenty years from now who hire their own network engineers to look after the servers in their own office. That will completely move to centralized locations and the same will happen for games.
[Taylor announces he has to leave]
Taylor: I will make one last statement… PC gaming isn’t dead. Secure PC gaming is the future and that’s going to thrive in the future. We’ve all got to get on that. All online authenticated, server based, you can’t pirate it, you can’t download it from bit torrent or some other sites. I really must say I am a PC guy. I’m doing stuff on console, I do stuff on both, but I love PC. I’m super excited about QuadCore; I’ve got a QuadCore machine with a big 30-inch monitor with 2560×1600 [resolution] and I’ve got liquid cooling and oh, Peggle is awesome on that. [big laughter in room]
I’ve got six million frames per second and when I turn the machine on the lights dim, and we heat the room with it. It’s a wonderful thing and I don’t want to see it go away. It’s cool and I love my MacBook and all the rest of it too, so I’m just really into it. But it’s all got to be secure. We can’t afford to make this stuff and give it away for free, but I don’t think we should be sending the message to anybody that PC gaming is dead.
Molyneux: I agree with you. I think it’s a different model. I think the worrying thing is these hugely powerful people at that side of the room [where the journalists are] are saying that at the moment that PC gaming is dead. I personally agree with you; I think it is just changing. I think the consumers are changing. But I also think it’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those guys say it, and that means the publishers don’t build the stuff for it anymore and then people start looking elsewhere but I think that will be a very, very sad day.
Taylor: Yeah, absolutely. We’re going to secure it and our customers have to know why we’re securing it, so that’s part of the messaging and they have to appreciate why we’re securing it now and protecting it, and it inconveniences them a little bit but now they know why and then we can get the economics back in line and maybe heck, we can actually start offering it up at a lower price point in the future. So it’ll come around full circle.
Perry: They really don’t mind it. It’s something we’re doing right now, so we authenticate all our games and have a single log-on for all games from Acclaim. And that means wherever they go, the game is with them, so they can login from their office and everything is as it was [at home].
Taylor: Yeah, that’s great. So there’s a really big upside to it too.
[After Taylor leaves, conversation switches to distribution]
Harrison: The children in school now will be the generation that in aggregate will never buy a physical piece of media. There will be exceptions; there will be the vinyl record which seems to continue but it’s very niche… but there is a generation of kids already on the planet who will never ever buy physical, atom-based media.
Whitta (Moderator): You’ve suggested before that this could be the last hardware generation in which physical media has any relevance.
Harrison: Yeah, that was a discussion where we were talking about disc as a distribution method, and the disc may continue in the future but the business model will shift away from the disc and move to the network; and I think at some point it will completely move away from the disc. I think this is the generation that we’re in now, which will be the last generation where the entirety of the business model, the revenue for the developer and publisher, is encapsulated in a piece of shrink wrapped plastic. This is gone, going.
Koster: Yeah, absolutely.
Young: I actually think you’ll get to choose. I think you’ll get the choice of having that physical media printed for you if you want…
Harrison: No way, absolutely not. It’s like saying to somebody you could put Amazon on a disc. It’s a living thing that will exist on a set of servers â€“ you can’t encapsulate it into the confines of a disc, however big that disc is.
Young: So my point was, if it can be transferred to a physical form, you will have the choice to do that.
– If you made it all the way here, well done!!! Hopefully you enjoyed the Lunch and hopefully we will do something like this again!
My Lunch with the Luminaries…
Over the years I’ve built up a collection of really good friends that I deeply respect, many are from the Games Industry and so this year at GDC I decided to do something a little different.
Be the first to start the conversation!