Dave “Shiny” Perry decided to arrange lunch at a posh San Francisco hotel for some industry luminaries, and let us sit in on it. The session, which was hosted by ex-PC Gamer editor Gary Whitta, was attended by Sony’s Phil Harrison, EA’s Neil Young, Peter Molyneux, Gas Powered Games’ Chris Taylor, Mr Perry himself, and MMO visionary Raph Koster.
The lunch began on the topic of what “next generation” actually meant, taking its cue from recent discussions of the term by David Braben, who had argued it had been devalued by the latest hardware failing to deliver actual next generation gaming experiences. The diners decided that what was truly next-generation was, as Phil Harrison put it, what was “in the spaces between what we do,” with the community, with networking, and with user-generated content.
Koster summed it up most succinctly, saying “It’s not the graphics, right? Xbox Live is the next-gen game you play on 360. It’s the connectivity and the meta-games. Next-next-gen will cut across more platforms.”
Koster said that things like achievements across a number of games, and connectivity between them represented genuine innovation for the gaming platforms.
Harrison also highlighted the ideas of what Wii had been capable of in shifting the emphasis of how games are played to social, family gaming, the kind of stuff he’s long been talking about with the SingStar and dance games. Harrison noted that there was something informative in the fact that “the Wii adverts were all from the perspective of the TV, looking at the players”, rather than being focused on impressive game footage.
Molyneux, meanwhile, wanted to maintain respect for other advances, such as those in graphical fidelity. He argued that while the industry heads might call meta-gaming and Wii control systems “next-gen” a consumer was just as likely to tag Call Of Duty 4′s incremental improvement to the FPS as next-gen. “Call Of Duty 4 is about how much you experience, and I think that is next-gen,” said the veteran Brit.
Perry chimed in agreement, saying “the games I want to play aren’t on the Wii.” Molyneux did concede that the Wii was too valuable to ignore, saying “the numbers for Wii are massive, we have to bring games out for it.”
The discussion moved on, with Neil Young (the EA one, not the singer) saying that because of the cost of Wii game development was slightly less the big companies could “afford to be a little more experimental.” He argued that the development community needed to learn to utilise the specific features of what made the Wii appealing such as “family play”, rather than simply porting PlayStation 2 games over. Young highlighted action-quizzer SmartyPants as an example of how this could be done effectively.
This led Phil Harrison to point out that games are taking too long to make. “The speed of iteration has to change,” said the Sony giant. Koster argued that games were shamed by the web, whose speed of iteration of web-sites was lightening fast. “Flickr patches ever half hour!” he exclaimed.
All this talk of the status of traditional game development segued neatly into the second topic, which was the status of simplicity in gaming. Gas Powered’s Chris Taylor argued that “people want simple and deep”. He cited WoW, saying “When WoW starts out the screen is clear, when it’s level 70 it looks like a helicopter. That’s exactly right, and we know its right because of the numbers WoW has done.”
The discussion then moved rapidly into discussion of casual games, piracy, and all the other bugbears that terrify the classic large-scale development companies. Koster, ever the fact-machine, noted that PopCap’s casual gaming surveys had suggested that there were around 20 million people playing casual games like Peggle. Molyneux was aghast and didn’t seem to believe the figure: “200 million? It’s inconceivable!”
“There are 500 million phones going to be sold with games on in the next year,” offered Harrison. Again Molyneux was incredulous, only this time at the idea that people would really use those phones for gaming.
Returning, via love for the iPhone, to the notion of simplicity as a driving principle for game design, Neil Young argued that older generations, who had played the early arcade games and then been out off by difficulty and complexity, were now returning to gaming in droves. “The Wii is bringing people back to gaming,” he said. Harrison took it further: “It’s not just the Wii, it’s the web, and everything else.”
Perry agreed, telling a tale so many gamers have told about non-gaming friends picking up the plastic guitar and then wanting to go right out and buy a PlayStation. “The cost of making a peripheral is not too much,” said Perry, who argued that hardware costs should be accepted when developers can come up with such impressive design as Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Hardware interfaces, he said, should not be a problem.
Molyneux agreed, saying that he wanted the new Fable game to be picked up by newbies: “We’re just using one button for Fable 2. For us there are too many buttons on the controller.” Koster had another fact, saying that there were “eighteen dimensions” of control across the 360 controller. “I counted,” he affirmed.
Harrison too wondered if the controller was the biggest stumbling block for accessible game design. He said that handing a non-gamer a gamepad was like “handing them a loaded gun, or a grenade with the pin pulled out.” He waved his hands about the emphasize the point in comedic fashion.
This brought the discussion full circle, with the lunch gang seeming to agree that next-generation interfaces would have to be simpler. Koster delivered a provocative tangent to this idea, saying that “Flash is the next gen console.” He illustrated this by citing the fact that he could play a Flash game at home on his PC, or with a stylus on his pocket PC, or even on his phone. “There are more Flash installs that there are consoles in the last two generations,” Raph pointed out. And it’s a technology that is evolving exponentially, as GDC keynote speaker Ray Kurzweil (who was referenced several times in the discussion) had highlighted. Koster also said that Flash will have 3D polygon transforms in Flash10, and OpenGL in the canvas tag was something that was being worked on for Firefox.
“Good luck making money on a Flash game,” said Neil Young. He saw the current trends as simply dispersing how and where games were played. Flash games might be ubiquitous, but they were not the future for the man from EA, who argued that the proliferation of platforms and interfaces simply served different needs for different games. He did have some suggestions about what that might mean for hardware, however. “Maybe there doesn’t need to be a device in the home,” he suggested. “Can it be rendered on a server and delivered via the network?”
Harrison said that the speed of light might have something to say about such undertakings, but journalist turned developer Gary Penn, sat in the background, said that it was already happening.
Chris Taylor seemed to think that something like that was close to the nature of where he wanted to go with gaming. “Secure PC gaming is the future,” he said. “All server based.”
At this point Whitta chimed in, paraphrasing something Harrison had said in a previous session. “Is this the last generation where physical media has any relevance?”
The group seemed unsure, but Harrison was admitted that “it’s moving away from the disc as a business model.” Was Whitta’s Blu-Ray collecting the behaviour of a dinosaur? Yes, they joked, but the reality seemed to be that no one saw physical media has having much traction in the coming years. Koster underlined he point by recalling a student recently asking, “What’s a CD player?”
Finally Molyneux made us all turn off our dictaphones so he could talk off the record about Fable 2. And… we can’t talk about that just yet, but obviously that was next-generation too.