There I was in a suite at the Hilton hotel in Brighton, two floors above the Develop conference. I was chatting with Eugene Evans, a 30-year veteran of the games industry now GM of Bioware Mythic. And I asked him a question: is this the most disruptive era in gaming history? I mean, we have three fading console platforms, their lives artificially elongated by motion control additions, their sales falling; we have the rise of social gaming, this vast engine of skinner boxes and compulsion loops; we have tablets and smartphones offering blipvert interactive experiences to disinterested commuters. Some people fear we’ve seen the end of traditional 20-hour games – and maybe even the boxes we play them on. Some people are really scared.
So I put the question to Evans, a man whose games career started in 1980 at a software shop in Liverpool, a man who has seen it all from the birth of the home computer industry, to the ridiculous promises of the interactive CD-ROM era. He smiled affably and replied, “It’s always been like this”. And he’s right, it always has, and it always will be.
At any period of tumultuous change there are always two groups of people: the fear-mongers and the opportunists. Both were out in force at Develop. The fear-mongers point to the threats: Zynga, the lack of skilled graduates, the influence of Metacritic. The opportunists speak with evangelical zeal about the possibilities: the rise of smart TV, the rise of cloud gaming, the power of the indie developer. And somewhere in the middle of it all, the future lies.
Here are some things we all need to remember.
Joy never becomes obsolete. If something is fundamentally enjoyable, we find a way to maintain it. Just because the delivery platforms may be changing, just because the next consoles may look like glorified set-top boxes which stream content and get us to pay in new ways, it doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of Uncharted and Grand Theft Auto and Ico. When I spoke to Dave Perry, the founder of Gaikai and another industry veteran, he seemed utterly bemused when I suggested that a move to digital infrastructures and the death of physical media might mean we no longer see games of size and depth. People enjoy those games, was his simple and obvious reply, so they will survive.
Look at radio. It’s a broadcast entertainment medium that in raw technical terms was made obsolete by the arrival of television sixty years ago. Yet it exists today and it has always found a way to evolve, because people enjoy it and they enjoy what it delivers. Theatre survives, not just because middle-class people want something to tell their friends about, but because the primal interplay between audience and live performer is an intrinsic human experience that cannot, cannot, be superseded.
This is the thing – at the intersection of technology and obsolescence there is one constant: us. Consumer technology has only ever provided the things that have we have always loved – catharsis, comedy, excitement and social interaction. Technological change never dictates, it can only propose and then respond. We won’t be bullied. In the ’90s, entertainment companies tried to make us consume games as FMV cinematic experiences – and we told them where to stick it, despite the fact that media giants like Disney and Philips had invested millions in the concept. In the 2000s, Sony and Microsoft tried to tell us the future was inevitably about expensive convoluted hardware platforms and then Nintendo released the Wii and 90 million people decided they’d rather be waiving a plastic stick at some really rather average graphics. Now, lots of people are playing games on high-end PCs – even though we were told that PC gaming was dead. Steam has launched Green Light because it has conceded it doesn’t know best. The company that made Half-Life and Portal doesn’t know best. We know best.
Develop was all about the coming technologies and the falling archetypes. The gatekeepers of broadcast TV, the console manufacturers, the developers; everyone must prepare for a power struggle – a regime change is coming. But all these companies, from Microsoft to Google, to Zeebox to Activision all have one thing in common – they want to provide what we want. They want to make money, sure, and they want to funnel us toward their coffers on a production line of cheaply manufactured content, but they have to figure out what we want first. They’re obsessed with social networks and shared experiences, but, oh crap, people are still buying Call of Duty and Fifa in their millions – those bastards aren’t complying.
At Develop, a great conference that always amplifies the fears and opportunities of global gaming, developers, publishers, platform holders and journalists all scratched their heads about the future of consoles, and games, and us. Where is everything going? Will there be room for us? Is someone going to take all this away?
No. I spoke to dozens of indie developers during my three days in Brighton – developers who are young and passionate and excited, who may well be showing games on newfangled tablets or smartphones, but still want to make games that work and feel and live like the games I played when I was young. Those guys aren’t going away, those guys don’t want to make skinner boxes – because depth and emotion will prevail. Language, history, society and culture have all rendered the likes of Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer irrelevant in so many ways, and yet we can buy their works still, and we can gulp at the wounding of Gloucester, the wonder of Paradise Lost, the lascivious mischief of the Miller’s Tale and see in them something eternal.
It has always been like this, smiled Evans. And he was right. Because Grand Theft Auto and Ico and Uncharted and the deep digital games we write about on Hookshot – the Journeys, the Bastions, the Limbos – they are clever and beautiful. And to pretentiously end on a Milton quote, “Beauty is nature’s brag, and must be shown in courts, at feasts, and high solemnities, where most may wonder at the workmanship”.