The gaming industry has undergone massive changes in the last decade, but one of the key ones is the enormous increase in the number of games being produced. This is as important a platform shift as any disruptive technology – perhaps more so. As the industry enters a new era of consoles, it's important to note that the technology base for consoles, computers, smartphones and tablets will continue to change – but for the next several years at least, not in ways that will fundamentally alter game designs.
The early days of the electronic game industry saw enormous effort being expended on technology. Just getting visuals on screens was a challenge, and one that absorbed a huge percentage of development resource. Rapid improvements in graphics technology, storage technology, and screen resolution followed, with grand leaps to such technologies as fully 3D settings and touchscreens. Certainly, there was attention paid to game design, to marketing, to sales and distribution. Many companies rose to prominence because of an aptitude in one of these areas. But technology was the focus of the industry.
The situation has changed. Platforms continue to improve, but the changes are incremental and not ones that will cause designers to completely rethink how games are made. The next-gen consoles coming this fall will have a substantial advance in graphics, but it's not as difficult to handle as the jump from 2D gaming to 3D gaming. The last major technology disruption that caused massive shifts in game designs was the introduction of the smartphone (and tablets), with a touchscreen and an array of sensors built in.
Smartphones and tablets continue to post solid sales gains, and are expanding around the globe. The technology improvements ahead for the next several years won't really cause a fundamental shift in game designs for mobile platforms, though. Faster CPUs and GPUs, better screens, longer battery life, improved cameras are all nice to have, but merely make things better, not different. The touchscreen will continue to be the main interface to smartphones and tablets, and the array of sensors won't change.
The biggest change that affects game design now is the sheer volume of games available. “It used to be that gamers were starved for content and fascinating new releases,” said Scott Steinberg, CEO at TechSavvy Global and noted marketing guru. “Back in the early 90's I'd be happy to get a high-profile new release every three or four months. Anything even remotely interesting had a chance of succeeding. Now, we're at the other end of the spectrum – we're drinking from the firehose. There are too many Kickstarter projects, too many interesting, quirky or fascinating games out there, too many apps, too many interactive entertainment experiences. Even if you're a gamer, there's only so many hours in the day.”
Now the issue is whether someone can find your game among the thousands of new games appearing every week. “Discoverability is the fundamental problem,” said Steinberg. “Games, like many other properties like books, movies, music, are increasingly commoditized in the eyes of the customer. When you have hundreds of thousands of games that are one tap away, many of which are free or incredibly affordable, increasingly brand awareness and the trust factor are becoming increasingly important.”
The basic skill needed, Steinberg explains, is the ability to attract and retain the customers. You have to get noticed, then you have to convince customers to stay with you, and then convince them to come back. Finally, you have to convince them to spend money. A good game in and of itself can rarely do that without good marketing.
“I've argued for a long time – fire your marketing team,” said Steinberg. “Everybody in the company should be in the 'marketing department.' Designers need to think like marketers, marketers need to think like designers, and really think about from day one what they're going to do to drive that awareness, and have something to offer the customer and something unique to say. Think about your customer, think about their needs, and how you're going to offer them something considerably different.”
Steinberg says that games have become 'content' in the eyes of quite a few people, and what that's telling you is they've become a commodity. “The games that succeed are AAA blockbusters or quirky independent releases. Why is that?” Steinberg asks. “The answer is probably that they had something unique to offer, or they stand out at a glance, or they have a tremendous following, or any or all of the above.”
“We're talking about multiple challenges here, game design simply being one of them,” Steinberg notes. “The business, the branding, the marketing piece is every bit as important a part of the equation. Everybody argues content is king, gameplay is king, but you have to have a sound business strategy and a great high-quality game experience. At the end of the day, if you can't stand out from the noise you just fade into the echoes.”
Building and maintaining an audience is a task that's as important as building and maintaining a game. Developers and publishers need to see these elements as equally important parts of having a successful game. Everyone involved with a game needs to keep both of these goals in mind. As the game industry continues to grow, the technology will be just one important issue alongside equally important issues of game design, game quality, community, brand-building, monetization, and business strategy. Successful games and successful game companies will find some way to do well at all of these elements.