The Future of Video Game Design

Video game designers have an almost pathological distaste for "suits", those nefarious types which worry about the nasty details of how to run a business and how to make money. But the role of game designer is changing - and designers better get comfortable with Armani and Brooks Brothers.

For those of you who haven't been paying attention, the game industry is in a seismic shift. Now, there's a tendency to say that every few years. But believe it or not, this time it's for realsies. Promise. 

It's because of a confluence of factors. For one thing, the console business as it used to be is done, finished, finito. The economics of developing for a console platform are rapidly becoming untenable. Game budgets roughly tripled since the last generation of hardware. And believe me, the install base of users did not match pace. There simply will not be a next generation of consoles unless somebody figures out how to make money on them. 

Which is where online comes into play. DLC and virtual goods and all that cool stuff that the interwebs makes possible. It all boils down to making incremental revenue by pushing digital content. 

The rise of social gaming also plays into this mess. Quite simply, "gaming" is shifting into the mainstream. And guess what, its not going to be pretty for a lot of people. In a very basic way, gaming has been a rarified field. It's been a small segment of the population making games for themselves. All you have to do is consider the difference in reach between getting 15 million people to play Modern Warfare 2 - and getting 80 million to play Farmville every month. 

But there's a downside to the world of the mainstream. Besides the fact that many designers are not looking forward to crafting games for Mr. and Mrs Middle America, it is fundamentally more challenging to make a viable business of it. It's not that money can't be made - simply that its far more complicated. It used to be you just made a game and sold a number of copies of it. X units times Y price equals Money. Now, there's numerous overlapping revenue sources from virtual goods to ads to referrals to upsells. 

So whether you are trying to keep your console and PC business alive or venturing into the bold world of mainstream social gaming, your business is extraordinarily sensitive to manipulation through the game mechanics. 

To put it another way, game design will be the difference between a viable business and moving back into Mom and Dad's basement.

Game designers are going to be driving the video game business. It will be through design decisions that new business opportunities will be created and exploited. The measurement of success for a game designer will be coldly objective and often brutal. Ubiquitous online connectivity means all designs will be mercilessly vetted. If your customers like the new digital widget you're pushing or find they can't help but come back every day to play your game, you will succeed. But if you fail to connect with your customer.... 

Game designers will need not only mastery of DPS balancing and leveling curves but also revenue models and ARPU and cost to acquire users. Game design is going to be a bold world that combines game mechanic theory, human psychology and business savvy. 

The game designer of future will look in the mirror - and find someone in a suit starting back at them.

- Sean Dugan is a designer who figures if you have to wear a suit, it might as well be a tuxedo.

1 comment: