The game industry of 2022 is big, messy and hard to find.
Those who define it might be children. They could be solo developers on just enough funding to scrimp by for the next project. They could be retirees, artists or marginalized children in a war-torn country.
They may create works of genius that go undiscovered until long after their death.
Following up on Polygon’s recent fifth anniversary, we decided to ask a range of experts in the game industry the same question: What will things look like five years from now?
While some cited practical predictions, like the rise of virtual reality, most centered around the structures that enable games to be made in the first place. And while many people see things improving, several also sounded warning bells about what the industry may be like and who may be in charge of it.
The future isn’t necessarily what you think
While many developers imagine a future where the game industry is overrun with new and exciting technology, many are split on some fundamental questions. What role will virtual reality play? Will there be new consoles? And if so, what power will the PC still wield?
Harvey Smith, co-creative director at Arkane Studios, which birthed the Dishonored series, says he believes in VR but not as a game platform within the next five years.
“There are many other applications with greater potential and fewer inherent problems to solve,” he says.
Many developers shared this sentiment. Celia Hodent, former head of UX at Epic Games, says until VR become more usable she expects it will “remain on the side,” even by 2022.
Nick Yee, head of game analytics consultancy Quantic Foundry, says he’s “pessimistic” about VR being a dominant platform.
“VR doesn't make sense — or add much — to many game genres. And because the appeal of being immersed in an alternate world isn't the primary gaming motivation for many gamers, these gamers would be unlikely to invest in expensive VR equipment,” he says.
Kellee Santiago, co-founder of thatgamecompany, IndieFund partner and now producer of VR games and apps at Google, agrees that the audience will be splintered.
“As far as rich, immersive worlds, VR is going to be amazing at offering this. But, I think, will it capture the majority of gamers? I don't think so.”
There are still those who see VR as dominating the future market. Pieter van den Heuvel, head of product development esports and trends at market intelligence group Newzoo, is one of them.
“I haven’t seen someone take an Oculus Rift off without being excited about it,” van den Heuvel says. He adds that developers can add extra VR-specific content that sits outside the main playing experience, like being able to explore a League of Legends map in first person, or comb through player data in visually interesting ways specific to VR.
The overall trepidation regarding VR isn’t to say these developers think the industry will play it safe: far from it. In fact, Hodent says she expects to see new platforms that we can’t even imagine:
“It's interesting to see that Oculus is already going standalone. The intriguing part for me is what will be our main interface to access games by 2022, besides computer gaming: TV via cloud or via entertainment networks? Or via physical consoles still? Standalone headsets or goggles?”
Santiago points to the Nintendo Switch as an example of a creative hardware approach that more manufacturers may attempt in the next five years.
“Yes, absolutely there will be new consoles," she says. "I also think by 2022 consoles will take a different form factor.”
Matt Hall, one-half of Hipster Whale, the outfit that created Crossy Road, says the industry will be overcome with new technology by 2022.
“The endgame of augmented reality is that you won’t need an iPhone. You’ll look everywhere with glasses on,” he says. “AR games are going to be huge.
“Still, the perfect device for playing games is the DualShock controller. For mobile that’s a pain point ... what will you be using to control those AR games?”
Harvey Smith says he thinks the smartphone publishing market is ripe for reinvention in the next five years: “It’s possible that we’ll see a major leap there — in terms of genre, storing of game state and UI — that enables an ecosystem of PC-like games to take root and thrive.”
Discovering the undiscoverable
Though Hall feels success with augmented reality is a surety, he also points to an issue that every single developer interviewed for this story brought up independently and cited as the biggest problem the games industry will face by 2022 — the simple dilemma of how players will find good content.
Hall argues there simply won’t be enough time in the day for everyone to play every game — some will slip through the cracks.
“There are hundreds of thousands of failed games on Steam ... and many will be well worth playing,” he says.
Sean Vanaman, co-founder of Firewatch developer Campo Santo, agrees and takes that argument a step further by arguing many great developers won’t be discovered until after they die. By 2022, Vanaman says, the industry will have very low barriers to entry with free tools like Unity and Gamemaker that will allow for new types of stories told by new types of people, but the games will be harder to find in a sea of content.
“Art that is discovered and shared globally is a fraction of a fraction of a percent of things that are being made,” says Vanaman.
“[Discovery after death] will happen once people who grew up making most of their content with democratized tools start to die.”
Harvey Smith goes even further by saying the discoverability problem will be so great that the ability to make a sustainable living — something he acknowledges is already a struggle — will “give an advantage to the establishment players with huge amounts of money.”
What’s the solution to that? Santiago says we could very well see the rise of subscription-type services for games using a Netflix-type model.
“We’re getting to that time now where there could be enough high quality out there that’s of value,” she says. “If someone cracks how to make that a value to the developer, it could be a good way for people to find games they would otherwise not have been exposed to.”
A new vision for publishing games
Some developers interviewed for this story believe the industry may also see changes around development in the high-budget space.
Specifically, Santiago says the industry faces two massive risks: burnout and talent drain. The first will occur as developers simply get sick of working through crunch-style development processes as they get older, she argues.
The second — talent drain — will naturally occur as those same developers look to leave the industry for good, she says.
“I hear talented engineers and designers saying they always wanted to [make games] but they don’t want the lifestyle,” says Santiago.
“The large software companies are tackling many problems because they want to retain engineers for as long as possible ... but the games industry seems very comfortable with using people in their 20s and 30s, burning them out then letting them go.”’
In an industry facing a deluge of independent content, Santiago says that approach will need to change.
Many of those developers may go on to start their own smaller studios, Harvey Smith says (which he points out gets easier as development tool prices drop). He also makes the prediction that new development hubs could pop up in several cities around the world as those same developers look for social safety nets that could help them avoid bankruptcy if they fail.
“I think different countries will have a different approach, and then it becomes a question of ... where do you want to be a developer?” says Smith.
A greater connection with players
The growth of early access development has given developers the ability to create robust and engaged communities to help a game’s chances of success.
Many interviewees say they expect this to continue. But Celia Hodent says developers will need to develop a clearer understanding of that relationship and set strict boundaries — otherwise, they risk negative community reactions that could damage their success.
“Players are not designers ... which is not to say their input is not valuable, but our job is to see how people react, and find the problem,” says Hodent.
“So when you have early access, the systems aren’t built out yet. You might want to change things based on feedback but it might not be the right thing to change ... you might just be too reactive.”
Other interviewees acknowledged that point and took it further, saying it won’t be enough to understand what players do — they will need to understand why players do it.
Nick Yee says the huge amount of data being generated by games isn’t just helping developers understand what players are doing or how to optimise mechanics, but will help designers probe players’ emotions and then allow customised designs based on those findings.
“For instance, if you know a player isn’t competitive do you do things like de-emphasise the leaderboards and so on?” Yee says.
Some publishers are already experimenting with this. Activision recently received approval for a patent that would allow tailored microtransaction offerings.
Yee sees two major changes happening in the next five years when it comes to using data to understand and shape both players and the communities Hodent mentioned.
The first is experimentation. Just as Riot Games put an analytics team to work in analyzing how to reduce toxic player activity, Yee expects more publishers to invest in this type of large-scale testing to see how and what communities respond.
Secondly, Yee says the shortage of data scientists in the industry is drawing in people from non-gaming backgrounds. In just a few short years, he says, that could have a massive impact on how games are designed and bring fresh, new ideas.
“It will be interesting to see whether there are techniques in other fields that apply well in gaming as well as the question of how much does a gaming expertise matter.”
The undefined esports tidal wave
While the game industry has become more dominated by esports over the past five years, the next five isn’t an inevitable road to even more popularity.
That’s according to Pieter van den Heuvel, head of product development esports and trends at market intelligence group Newzoo. He says the esports industry should expect a slew of changes as the market evolves.
Firstly, he says the industry will see more acquisitions everywhere: established sports teams will buy esports divisions, media companies will buy businesses that will enable them to make money off viewers, and sponsorship deals will grow.
Secondly, van den Heuvel says esports organizations will start getting serious. “Business sense is becoming more important and more important,” he says, pointing to ESL which hired a former Vodafone executive this year.
Finally, van den Heuvel says the industry will start finding a way to make money from viewers. He points to the fact even though some players might move on to playing a new game they will still watch a variety of titles.
“Think about something like premium camera angles at tournaments,” he says.
Esports moving to consoles and competitive gaming on the Nintendo Switch becoming more popular are two trends he also says will cement themselves in the next five years.
And while publishers are already considering esports elements in development — like how “streamable” a game is — van den Heuvel says this will be brought up more and more while games are in development.
“The reason Battlegrounds is so popular is because Bluehole made a game that was as fun or even more fun to watch than it is to play. That’s something more publishers will do in the future,” he says.
It’s a mixed road ahead
While some predict that the games industry will undergo massive change, many interviewees say certain aspects will remain. Many expect the PC to be still be as dominant, or even more dominant, than the platform is now.
“It seems to me that PC games will still have its place for a long time. At least as long as we use personal computers to work,” says Hodent.
Santiago agrees. “I don't see the desire for rich, immersive, long-form game experiences going away," he says. "There will be new types of games, and new types of players, but I think there will always be a place, and a desire, for these gorgeous worlds we can lose ourselves in.”
But as for the rest of the entertainment experience? That’s up for grabs, says Hodent.
“The living room environment is more likely to change, along with how people consume entertainment. Netflix, for example, has changed a lot how we consume movies and TV shows,” she says.
“I'd expect our consumption of video games to change in a similar way soon.”
Games will change as the average gaming age climbs higher, says Matt Hall.
“I can’t play Overwatch as well as my eight-year-old daughter, but we play together and I think we’ll see a lot more of that come along where games are designed in a way for any age, any disability or any impediment.”
Nick Yee agrees, saying the concept of aging games is “the elephant and the room” and that this will influence gameplay in a big way.
“We now have an entire generation of people who grew up with video gaming who are age 35+, and they're likely never going to stop gaming,” he says.
“Figuring out how this aging market is different from the traditional focus on age 13-25 gamers will be important, and may usher in new game mechanics and models.
“At the same time, the gaming demographic is broadening in many ways. So opportunities for things like collaborative asymmetric gameplay (across generations even) are emerging.”
Harvey Smith says if you see the forest for the trees, “we’re in an amazing place” when it comes to new ideas.
“Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds ... was made by a fairly independently minded guy, and something like Tacoma would have been unthinkable to have that level of quality in an immersive sim even very recently.”
“Imagine being 10 years old and having a class at school where you have access to Unity or Gamemaker?”
Celia Hodent says many predictions are difficult to make because the game industry is at the mercy of the world, which moves at an increasingly fast pace. However, she points to a quote from Nobel laureate Dennis Gabor: “the future cannot be predicted but it can be invented.”
That should be a rallying cry for the industry, Hodent says.
“Could anyone have predicted the clickbait phenomenon, or the fake news phenomenon? It’s hard to predict and even if you pick up on technology it’s hard to tell how it’s going to impact society.
“We have to participate and create the future.”