The future of game development

Most of the work I have done in the recent past has been on mobile development, with a specific focus in the free-to-play arena.   Going back further my background is primarily in premium console products, with a couple brief stints/false starts in mobile.  I moved out of console into mobile for a number of reasons.  I liked the shorter development cycles, the ability to make changes rapidly and get feedback on the product from users (instead of reviews), and the hands-on aspect of the development work.  On console side, I also had some concerns, one of which is how the console/premium space is going to evolve to support the ever increasing costs as the scope of the games we work on increases.

One of the avenues in which this has started to manifest itself is in the adoption of third party engines.  In past console titles, the performance hits of adopting a general purpose engine was relatively high (proportionally speaking), and so there was a lot of pushback from developers in using an outside engine.  The last couple generations of consoles have changed things in a fundamental way, where the performance hit of using a general purpose engine has been eclipsed by the costs of developing a custom one.  The transition from in-house to out-of-house engine development has been much faster than many anticipated.  The transition started with Havok and other physics engines at first, but has included rendering engines as well as full game engines more recently.  There has always been a percentage that didn’t develop their engines internally, but that percentage has increased significantly in recent years.  If you look at console games that are out there now, a large proportion of them are using engines that aren’t internally developed, and it isn’t obvious from looking at them which ones do.

These things aren’t enough to support the large development costs that modern games entail, so we’ve also seen many studios and publishers moving to incremental updates and add-ons to their game to try and amortize their costs.  On the mobile side, things have moved away from premium products to a free-to-play model.  Developers in the free-to-play model have learned many lessons that will be useful in the upcoming era of live service on consoles.  These things need to be examined carefully, and I’m certainly not proposing that there aren’t large differences in F2P mobile vs console.  For starters, things like session length, player demographics, etc. are VASTLY different.  But be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, there are nonetheless important lessons that can be taken from F2P.  For starters, developers to put a lot more thought into live service, and how to keep users engaged for longer periods of time with their game.

As we move forward, there’s clearly going to be a move towards a live service model on the premium titles as well.  It’s a great way for publishers to keep their users engaged, and provide additional value to players after they have played through the content.  This manifests itself not just with primarily online games (such as first person shooters) but in the live service events provided by games such as Forza 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. It is inevitable on the console side that it will start adopting many of the techniques that have been commonplace in the free-to-play realm when it comes to live service, so that additional revenue from titles beyond what is included in the original shipped title can be earned.  This is won’t be the sort of cheap monetization tricks you see that give F2P a bad name (such as payment gates), but more along the lines of localized leaderboards, synchronous and asynchronous multiplayer play, ways to link up with your friends that increase social activity and competitiveness.  It’s going to make games on console much bigger as far as a gameplay experience without all the additional costs  of entirely new content or a new engine.  It will allow for much faster iteration and ability to stay engaged with our players.  We’ll be able to make better games with this sort of engagement and iteration process, but it will require developers to start incorporating these techniques into their design during the initial development process, and not just tacked on afterwards.