The state of games: State of development

The industry is changing. It's a good time to be an agent of change.

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This is the final part of a five-part series on the state of games, written by the editors of Polygon, following Thursday's "State of gamers," Wednesday's "State of mobile," Tuesday's "State of indies," and Monday's "State of AAA." The entire series will be re-published in total on Monday. - Ed.

"Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change" -Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

If the first four parts of our State of Games series have made any one thing clear, it's that the video game industry is experiencing great and sudden change. Just as in Mary Shelley's classic consideration of science and technology, this metamorphosis is causing pain. But in an industry defined by technological progress, change shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. In the eternal struggle between stability and opportunity, the latter is taking a decisive lead. The good news is that stability may ultimately be the end result anyway.

The modern game developer should expect a constant diet of change and opportunity, as painful as that can be. But these transformations that rack the game industry are also what make it so resistant to collapse; where one business fails, many grow to take its place. And for the young student eager to break into the industry, or the AAA veteran, this is good news.


Stay in School

"Just like games themselves, academic programs are popping up across the globe," Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association Gordon Bellamy told Polygon.

Where once we had only vocational programs like the Portal-producing DigiPen in Washington or the Florida-based Full Sail, we now have a variety of elite university programs like NYU's Game Center or USC's Interactive Media Division offering eager students academic approval of their one-time hobby. And while those examples are all in the U.S., schools around the world are also joining in.


For the self-learners, a community of bloggers focusing on thinking critically about games has taken root. These blogs are written by professors, designers, journalists, and hundreds if not thousands of enthusiastic hobbyists. An abundance of intelligent criticism of games is available to anyone with an internet connection. Gamers are growing up, and being educated, within a historical context that didn't exist 10 or even five years ago. They are now able to learn more about games than just what the editors of a few magazines feel like covering.

The result is a growing knowledge base of all sorts of games. While previous generations of game developers may have grown up wanting to work on Madden, today's game developers have another set of role models: indie developers.

Indie Again

Nearly 20 years after two guys named John founded id Software in a lake house in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1991, Markus "Notch" Persson turned down what many would consider a dream job at Valve Software in order to start Mojang and continue development of his soon-to-be mega-hit Minecraft. In the late '90s and early '00s, the promise of fame and fortune offered by success stories like id Software mostly evaporated while gaming publishers, and their AAA franchises, grew increasingly massive (id itself was bought by ZeniMax Media only three years ago). Now, thanks to digital distribution, new platforms, and easy-to-use middleware like Unity, it's possible to make commercially viable games in your garage again.

While navigating the rocky shores of distribution options may be intimidating, would-be indies have far more data available to them than ever before. Gaming websites, blogs, social networks, forums, and digital acquaintances combine to provide a density of support that made such navigation all but impossible just five years ago. Want to know why Xbox Live Arcade may not be the best choice for a young studio? Let Hello Games and Team Meat tell you, via conference coverage from video game websites. Want to read up on PlayStation Network's "Pub Fund," in which Sony invests in indie game development and allows indie studios to self-publish? Sure,there's plenty on that.

Shared knowledge allows for a more distributed video game industry, where development can coalesce around new aggregators, like schools, or shared workspaces, or affordable regions in which to develop a game (like Philadelphia, as noted in the sidebar below). It also simply makes for smarter developers, which in turn makes for a more stable industry.

Edmund McMillen, Team Meat IT'S A BRAVE, AND LUCRATIVE, NEW WORLD FOR VIDEO GAMES Sandbox_markus_notch_persson_405
Markus "Notch" Persson, MojangSandbox_peter_molyneux_405
Peter Molyneux, 22Cans Sandbox_frank-lantz_405x223
Frank Lantz, NYU Game Center


There's a reason we're all suddenly (too?) familiar with the M word - monetization. Back when most video game developers were indie developers by default, we had experimental models like "shareware," which was successful enough to spread Doom across high schools like a virus. As AAA franchises exploded, and "premium" console experiences became the norm, pricing experimentation died. PC games still enjoyed the "expansion pack" but until the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005, $50 retail games were the standard.

With a generation of internet-connected consoles, a strong resurgence in PC gaming (thanks in large part to Steam), and entirely new platforms like touch-based mobile gaming, web-based social networks, and free-to-play games, the video game industry's focus on a AAA price point has been challenged like never before.

It's a brave, and lucrative, new world for video games, with an emphasis on the "world" part. For much of its history, video game development has been concentrated in Japan and the United States; however, Montreal is now a major capital of AAA game development thanks to some well-timed tax incentives. Blockbusters can come from companies as far away as Espoo, Finland (Angry Birds), or McKinney, Texas (Words With Friends).

As of May, Angry Birds has been downloaded over one billion times, with 648 million of those happening in 2011 alone. To put that into perspective, if Wikipedia's franchise numbers are to be believed, there are more downloads of Angry Birds in the world than there are physical Mario games. Weird, right? And that's from an independent company, founded by three university students in 2003, years before Apple's iOS App Store changed the rules for mobile game development.

When Microsoft closed the Dallas-based Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios in early 2009, four new studios were formed. Though one didn't survive, the other three have shipped games across the monetization spectrum: Bonfire Studios released WeFarm for iOS and was purchased by Zynga in October 2010, then renamed Zynga Dallas; Newtoy shipped the immensely popular Words With Friends for iOS and was subsequently purchased by Zynga later that year and renamed Zynga With Friends; and the exceptionally prolific Robot Entertainment began work on Microsoft's free-to-play Age of Empires Online, and shipped the XBLA and PC game Orcs Must Die and the iOS tactics game Hero Academy.

All of these studios have one thing in common: their games are less than $15. Most are free.

All of that output was born from the collapse of a single AAA developer and there are plenty of other examples (including more with "Zynga" in them). There are myriad new opportunities out there for the adventurous student or the veteran developer.



But what if you don't want to make the world's best free-to-play mobile game that totally leverages social? What if you've sharpened your teeth in the AAA space? The good news is, there's now a spectrum of project sizes that have been proven viable in the market. While the buy-in for massive AAA projects expands beyond the already enormous studio sizes to include multiple enormous studios &em; Ubisoft, in particular, has spread its AAA game development across its global studios to great effect with the Assassin's Creed series, and others — the opportunity for other products along the spectrum from free-to-play to AAA is growing.


Case Study: Final Form Games

Final Form Games was founded in 2009 by brothers Tim and Mike Ambrogi, along with friend Hal Larsson, after the three spent time in California pursuing their shared dream of being professional game developers. They worked for companies like LeapFrog and Planet Moon Studios (which lost its funding and was acquired in 2011), and on projects like America's Army, before heading eastward to establish their independence in the thematically appropriate, though professionally unlikely, city of Philadelphia.

"When I went to college I studied animation and computer art, and Tim studied music composition and primarily computer science," Mike Ambrogi told a panel in Philadelphia earlier this year. "And when I got a job in the game industry, Tim got a job at the same place I was working in San Francisco. This was a big, AAA, traditional Unreal Engine-driven ..."

"First-person shooter ... military," brother Tim interjected.

"Very standard. And we just got a lot better at the things we were interested in doing during that time, and we were also getting paid quite a bit more than we needed to live, so we saved pretty aggressively during that time."

In fact, the Ambrogi brothers had been planning to found their own game studio since they were kids, as early as the 7th grade. They grew up playing and, in some ways, making video games.

"Our parents made sure that computers were always in the house and we were probably at the very front edge of the first generation to grow up with personal computers in their homes," Mike Ambrogi said. "My dad brought home Lode Runner in 1985 or something and it had a level editor that it came with, so I was literally making levels for games when I was 5 years old."

So after saving money for their inevitable game studio, the brothers had to decide where to set up shop. Despite being one of the largest cities in the country, with myriad colleges, Philadelphia has never been known for game development.

"We came to Philly specifically due to family. San Francisco has a very strong game community and it was very hard for us to find stuff at the time about the game industry in Philadelphia. Now it's not very hard at all; it's quite easy," Mike explained.

"We didn't know what we'd find. [But] when we got here, hiding under all these little rocks were really talented, motivated game developers everywhere. So we've started to tie into that community and that's why we're still here."

And from Philadelphia, long a symbol of independence and freedom, Final Form shipped its first game in June 2011, a game that 1UP awarded its highest score writing, "Jamestown can't be called anything but a fully realized labor of love." The affordability of Philadelphia, the stability of family in the region, the support of a nascent game development scene, and the power of a childhood dream - not to mention hard work, talent, and creativity - all worked in concert to make Jamestown a success and to provide another example of the many opportunities available to game developers in the always changing game industry.



You don't have to look far to find former AAA developers who've struck out on their own, forgoing the not-all-that-secure security of working for a major publisher to start their own studios. Last year's award-winning Bastion was made by former EA Los Angeles developers; Kickstarter project République is being built by Seattle devs, including some Halo 4 vets; none other than gaming luminary Peter Molyneux left Microsoft in March to start 22Cans, which he hopes can be more nimble than large developers. The list goes on and on.

Both inside and outside of AAA development, studios have an appetite for new skills that are applicable in this new landscape. Take, for example, foreign languages. While most global publishers have settled on English to organize their teams, being fluent in other languages could land you a spot at a big publisher in Europe or Asia. Or, if you're an indie, being fluent in other languages can help you with outsourcing components of your game. Have a background in statistics and analytics? Boy, has the video game industry got a job for you! The biggest publishers and the smallest mobile developers all paid attention when Zynga veep Ken Rudin said, "We're an analytics company masquerading as a games company."

If you're from the PR or marketing side and you're good with a Twitter account, direct-to-customer relationships are increasingly important as you vie for the attention of the increasingly nomadic gamer and the hard-to-please press.

With great change comes great opportunity. I can't tell you exactly where the industry is headed and if you know, you've probably already put all of your money eggs into that (potentially holographic?) basket. For everyone else, as painful and frightening as it may be to accept, realize that the industry is headed in whichever direction you take it. There is no roadmap and it's a big open world, full of possibility. The change is yours to make.