The focus of this year’s Develop, the annual game developer conference held in Brighton, was unmistakable: virtual reality. The aim of conference is to highlight and discuss current trends, and last year these included social media, spectatorship, and games as services. This year, however, VR dominated the schedule to the extent that sometimes it was difficult to find a non-VR talk to attend, but with so many developers and other industry members in one place there were plenty of other discussions on the fringes. At least until Pokémon Go came out.
In a Q&A session, Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail said: “The industry moves so fast that I think a lot of advice from two years ago, unless it’s very generic advice, does not really apply in the same way anymore.”
Here, then, is what we heard the games industry talking about this year, and what could change the way games are made in the near future.
1. VR with friends rather than alone
Proponents of virtual reality are eager to fight back against one of the platform’s key criticisms: that it’s isolating. Dave Ranyard, previously studio head of Sony London and now an independent VR developer, made clear at a panel discussion that he believes the future of VR is a social one, and that it will be about being transported to another place and doing something cool with your friends.
In the opening keynote, Oculus’s head of developer strategy, Anna Sweet, said: “When you get two people together in a virtual space, and you actually get to see how they move and how they talk, and how they interact with the world, it lets you connect as if you were really actually in that room with them. And it’s pretty powerful.” She recounted a story where two people who had never met, but had spent 10 minutes in a VR space together, were able to recognise each other by the way they moved. Solomon Rogers, co-founder of a VR creative agency called Rewind, told a very similar story in his talk “Consumer Virtual Reality – Hope or Hype?”, describing his ability to recognise another VR player as his wife from her gestures alone.
Even beyond what Sweet refers to as the “generic blue head and set of hands”, VR is a physical experience, and perhaps with more social spaces, like virtual reality arcades or multiplayer VR games, the medium will be more about a shared space of collaboration than solitary play.
2. Physically collaborative games
Virtual reality and its experimental tech contemporaries are exploring new ways to incorporate the body as more than just an anchor to the physical world. As Ghislaine Boddington, creative director of body>data>space, noted in her talk on virtual reality and the “internet of bodies”, the hope for the future is in recognising and augmenting physical bodies in games and play. She offers technologies like programmable gels used with the body in more intimate ways, such as rubbing “gels on to erogenous zones”, allowing partners to “connect together at a distance”.
Boddington also noted the future of physically collaborative and increasingly social spaces in AR, as seen in the very popular Pokémon Go: “Pokémon Go is definitely a collaborative share space. The Pokémon Go site, along with many others, allow the individual to join with the group into the middle, both in a physical and a virtual way.”
Implications of the physical are vast, as Robin Hunicke, co-founder and creative director of Funomena (Woorld, Luna) and previously of thatgamecompany (Journey), noted on the psychological impact of VR brought about by gestural controls, and recognising the capacity of range of movement from players. What does it mean for a player, psychologically, to encourage them to stand tall and strike a powerful pose? What might it mean to force them into a crouched position, to feel small? The necessity of an embodied experience in VR also brings up new questions, such as what the platform offers by way of accessibility.
3. The future of augmented reality
Pokémon Go came to the UK on the third and last day of the conference, and it felt like everyone in Brighton was catching Magikarp and Shellder and Seel and all the other water Pokémon the seaside town had to offer. Had this international hit been available a little earlier, the conference schedule would surely have contained a few more panels about augmented reality. Whether we can expect to see an AR-heavy Develop 2017 will depend on whether Pokémon Go represents the start of a new trend, or if it’s simply a one-off success carried by an already successful brand.
Ismail thinks the latter. When asked what he would do with Pokémon Go, he said that he would sell it, and that it hasn’t proven anything about AR itself. “We’re seeing a lot of discussion right now about whether AR just beat VR, and I think that would be a very wrong statement. Like, Pokémon beat VR, that’s for sure, but I guess Pokémon beat everything at the moment. Pokémon beat Tinder and Twitter, which is a big deal.”
Hunicke might not be looking to make the next Pokémon Go, but she’s still interested in the potential of augmented-reality games that “make the world more silly and joyful, and less logical”. One of Funomena’s upcoming games, Woorld, is described as “a hand-held Alternative Reality experience”, a “whimsical, exploratory application” that lets you place virtual objects against the backdrop of your physical environment. Created in collaboration with Google, with art from Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy, Noby Noby Boy), this colourful augmented-reality game and sandbox will be available on devices that include Google’s new AR-enabling platform Tango, like the upcoming Lenovo Phab2 Pro.
4. Incremental console updates
One of the biggest changes to the industry in the year since Develop 2015 is the introduction of incremental console updates, more significant than the slim versions of consoles released halfway through previous generations. While the Xbox One S is slimmer, it also supports 4K movies and HDR (High Dynamic Range). Project Scorpio , meanwhile, will use its six teraflops to support full 4K and VR. And with an updated PlayStation 4, codenamed Neo , on its way, this marks the end of long console cycles. Ismail thinks this has to do with the ever-increasing power of mobile phones: “If you keep a console for seven years your mobile phone will be more powerful than the console by the end of that cycle.”
With only a handful Develop sessions dedicated to home consoles, it seems developers aren’t too worried about working with these upgraded platforms. Given the Xbox One S isn’t available until next month , we may see more interest at next year’s conference, especially if VR continues to dominate the conversation.
5. The next step for mobile: TV
As consoles evolve into something more resembling multimedia entertainment devices than dedicated gaming machines, it seems that everyone wants in on the widespread accessibility of the dominating mobile market model. Ismail thinks this points the next stop for tablets and smartphones: “If mobile really wants to make the next step, what it’s going to do is connect to TVs.”
Mediatonic’s Jo Haslam reports that the number of UK households with only one television set has increased, from 35% a decade ago to 41% now, and she says mobile screens are the reason. With 70% of smartphone owners in the US playing mobile games monthly, the need for separate television sets in homes to play games has become unnecessary. While mobile devices might have their technical limitations, Haslam says the aim of successful mobile, and social, game design is to “never let tech get in the way of a good idea”. The overwhelming success of Pokémon Go, despite the app’s many failings, should settle the console/mobile war solidly in favour of the handheld.
6. Sayonara, Steam: the rise of specialised stores
The number of games on Steam is on the rise, and with it, the number of games that go unplayed or unnoticed. Nearly 37% of all registered Steam games go unplayed , and it’s no secret that many indie games – even good, critically acclaimed games – get lost amid a sea of other green lit games.
In light of this, smaller more specialised distribution services are becoming more important. Itch.io, an “indie game marketplace and DIY game jam host” is already hugely popular in the indie scene, offering pay-what-you-want and minimum-pricing models. Just last year, Itch’s co-founder Leaf Corcoran revealed in a blog post about the site’s finances that they had paid out $393,000 to developers. Since then, the platform has only grown and it’s likely that we’ll see more specialised distributors following Itch’s model.
7. The rise of indie studios
In the eight years since games like Braid and World of Goo kicked off the most recent rise of indie games, many studios that started small have grown with their success. Roll7, known for the Bafta-winning gameOlliOlli , began with a core development team of just three, and has grown to 25. “I think as developers we always want to do something slightly bigger, shinier, and more ambitious with each new project,” said co-founder and creative director, John Ribbins. “The reality of that is that either a small team needs to wear many hats, compromise on quality, and do more and more work with each new game, or you need to diversify and have more people who are experts in smaller fields. Yes, a bigger team has management overheads, but at the same time, individuals are more focused on a smaller task and ultimately are less stressed.”
Hannah Flynn, communications director at Failbetter Games (Fallen London, Sunless Sea), thinks that one important way for indie teams to grow is to hire a marketer. “So many indie studios have closed in the past year for want of a marketer on their staff,” she said. “When looking to hire a second artist or developer, I’d advise even small studios to think for the long term and hire someone in communications to grow their audience. Attention is finite. Volume of game releases is only increasing. You can no longer release on a wing and a prayer and expect to change upon a sustainable paying audience.”
8. Rejecting crunch
Crunch, ie mandatory (and often unpaid) overtime in the weeks or months leading to a game’s release, has long been an issue for this industry. More than a decade since Erin Hoffman wrote about her husband’s experiences of unpaid overtime when working for EA, in an originally anonymous blog post known at the time as “EA Spouse”, crunch is still commonplace in studios of all sizes, and people are still fighting it.
At this year’s Develop, Machine Studios (Maia) founder Simon Roth gave a talk called “Killing the Indie Crunch Myth: Shipping Games Alive”, which began tweet:
9. Design that puts feelings first
The design practice underlying Hunicke’s studio Funomena, and the focus of her keynote, is one she calls “feel engineering”. As Hunicke describes it: “Feel engineering is the process by which you create a game backwards from the feeling you want to create in a person forward towards the mechanics and the dynamics of the game itself.” She notes that while feel engineering isn’t easy, due to its time commitment, high cost, and level of emotional investment asked from development teams, it’s worth it. Hunicke speaks to the positive studio culture of feeling-focused engineering, and its contrast to the toxicity of crunch is evident. “The process of making it is so delightful,” she adds. “It’s so much better than anything I’ve ever done.”
We’ve already seen aspects of feel engineering in the mobile market, with games looking to reverse-engineer social situations people already find fun. Haslam outlines how the design of “co-operative shouting game” Spaceteam was inspired by the social experience of playing a board game with friends, an experience its lead designer Henry Smith already enjoyed.
10. Trying – and failing
Much like last year, the process of game development has become increasingly transparent, and not just from studios who have made it big or successfully funded their games on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Developers are starting to let consumers in on the creative process, and that includes the rougher bits.
“We’ve been trying to be perfect for way too long,” said Ismail. “And it’s created very unrealistic expectations, to the point where most people love video games and have no idea how they’re made or that people work on them.” Rather than support the unhealthy practice of crunch, it’s better to nurture trying, and trying with the windows open.
As studios continue to break from traditional publishing models and experiment with different ways to publish or market a game, a certain degree of failure is not only expected, but encouraged. “It’s never easy,” says Hunicke of the development process, “but making things that we already know how to make isn’t worth it.” Experimenting, failing early, and failing often isn’t a bad thing in today’s community. This attitude is slowly making its way from studio culture into games themselves. “We wanted to get a sense of a metaphor for mistakes,” says Hunicke about her studio, Funomena, and their upcoming VR game, Luna. “The ways in which people challenge themselves, and then learn by failing along the way. Much like we’re going through in the development itself.”
Indie studios are also becoming more open about their own experiences with failure. The indie developers Helen Carmichael and Jake Birkett (Grey Alien Games) outlined the reasons why their game didn’t see success on Steam, despite the game’s great press. “There’s life beyond Steam,” they concluded. “And that’s OK.”
11. Feeling twitchy about YouTube and Twitch
YouTube and Twitch have been key players in the games industry for a few years now, but recently the kinds of celebrity YouTubers that Ian Baverstock, cofounder of publisher Chilled Mouse, last year said were “parasitically living off the games industry” have come under some scrutiny .
When asked whether he would distance himself from YouTubers who were found – as some have been – to accept undisclosed payment in exchange for positive reviews, Ismail said, “There’s no value in a review like that anymore, right? If somebody is known to take money for a review, then that review is immediately worthless to everybody, so it’s a waste of time and actually kind of reflects poorly on my business when that goes up.”