How techno-supremacists kill off indies

A good number of folks are excited by the iPad 3. It doubles the visual resolution and quadruples the size of the art assets. The game created for this new technological marvel will certainly be bigger and we are told they will also be better. This is to be expected since there is a long standing techno-supremacists narrative in the our industry that improved technology results in superior games.

The belief goes something like this:
- Better hardware means better graphics and simulation capabilities.
- This in turn leads to more player immersion and richer worlds
- At some critical threshold, technology empowers game makers to break through a magical threshold at which point games become culturally and artistically undeniably relevant.

This tale has driven many computer game developers for the past few decades. The push towards omnipresent 3D, the rote inclusion of complex physics simulation, the literati's constant promotion of extravagantly visualized narrative 'experiences'...all these trends in some manner rest upon the belief that more technology inherently makes games better.

Technologists love this story because it puts them at the center of all progress.

Futurists love the story because they get to convincingly say 'and then magic happens' without ever understanding why games work.

Press loves the story since pretty pictures and lush experiences sell like porn.

Businesses love the story because it creates a constant cycle of new stuff to sell.

Customers have been sold this story via billions of dollars in marketing. Do you actually love 3D or were you a young and impressionable consumer that was fed decades of very expensive propaganda? (I'll give you a hint...the only populations that love modern 3D graphics are those where 3D graphics have been heavily marketed as a positive feature)

I personally believe that this tale is one of the more damaging visions we can hold for the future of games.

Technology doesn't inherently yield better gameplay. It is just one tool of many to be used by design. However, it does have a distinct cost. History has shown over and over again that when it is applied to games, the immediate impact is to erect surprisingly massive barriers to entry that prevent innovative smaller developers from competing with more established companies. Technology may not make games better, it almost always makes them harder to make.

A few people may remember the move to 256-color graphics. It wasn't merely a matter of adding a few more colors. The entire art pipeline shifted towards richer imagery. Per title costs didn't merely increase 10-20%. Instead they doubled or quadrupled and development times also increased substantially. Companies that couldn't make the jump went out of business.

The same thing happened again with the move to 3D and again with each subsequent console generation. There was a point at the end of the 90's just as 3D came online where smaller developers hit a breaking point. They could no longer raise the capital in order to make games that competed visually with the current market standards.

With the first death of the indie movement at the end of the Shareware days, the graphics became richer, but the pace of innovation noticeably dropped off. Consider: we essentially are left with two dominant genres in the retail AAA console market 1st person shooters and 3rd person shooters. There are the occasional saurian kings left over from previous genre heydays (I'm looking at you Madden) but simply hitting the quality bar costs too much to take on any additional risk. Our fixation on technology as a product differentiator yielded a homogeneous marketplace.

Are the games actually better? Is this cost worth paying?
The advent of new platforms such as mobile or social networks and the blossoming of digital distribution, created a small space for tiny, non-technology based games to grab a foothold. And when they did, they multiplied like worms in nightsoil. Will Wright's Cambrian explosion is happening. Low cost development combined with cheap customer acquisition has yield an astounding number of new genres, new forms of play and the fulfillment of unmet customer needs.

Is it a surprise that the majority of the innovation occurs using 2D and relatively unsophisticated engines? Lowest common denominator tech means that small independent teams can focus on making great games instead of paying enormous costs simply to get a pixel on the screen.

These upstart markets populated by decrepit technology and innovative games are growing at double or triple digits. The markets that attempt to differentiate with technology and visuals are either growing slowly or declining (depending on which numbers you select).

At the very least, people seem to still love games even if they aren't sporting the latest whizbang 3D engine packed with 10s of millions of dollars worth of hyper detailed content.

Second verse, same as the first
Apple has released the iPad 3 because they want to sell more hardware. In turns, massive amount of money are being spent to convince players that improved graphics will make their gaming experience vastly better. The story is the same. The technologists gush. The businesses count their coins. The customers are worked into a buying frenzy.

Will there be better games? I'm not so sure. I do know that:
- Costs will rise.
- Smaller companies will find themselves at a financial disadvantage
- Game play innovation will slowly falter as teams become larger and more risk adverse.
- We'll start seeing a rise in the same old marketing messages of 'visuals, immersion, experience and narrative'. Gameplay becomes a solved problem.

I distinctly remember a keynote by Big Fish just as the casual downloadable market was imploding in which the CEO pimped their leading vision for the industry's future. It was surprisingly similar to the last point. He was so proud of how much they had spent on a recent hidden object game in order to craft the world's 'first cinematic gameplay'.

The game industry has a history now.

It repeats.

And will do so again.

What to do
How can indies keep their costs low and avoid being drowned by the constantly rise tech tides?

Avoid the mature markets dominated by techno-supremacists.
Yeah, that means no longer developing for consoles. It means going for odd markets like PC downloadable games or web games that are heavily fragmented and have a wide range of poorly formed community standards. Some may see these markets as difficult. However they have niches that smaller, risk loving teams can live within.

Counter marketing
Counter the techno-supremacist marketing message with your own that focus on the inherent delights of gameplay. Enough indies promoting a counter culture keeps a space for low cost, innovation friendly development. 'Games for people that love game play', not 'bloated experiences for techno-wankers'.

Focus on non-technology dependent art styles
We use pixel art in Realm of the Mad God. It will look the same on the iPad 3 or Flash running in a web browser. The art says upfront "No, I'm not playing your silly game of bigger numbers. But I still look good if you like my aesthetic."

Using broadly available lowest common denominator tech
This future proofs your engine. Pick something that can run everywhere and is used by everyone. Chances are that there is enough communal value in the broad technology choice that the hive mind will figure out a way to create future compatibility even as the technologists push forward arbitrary changes.

Use off the shelf tools
Avoid getting caught up in writing your own technology. The 200% increase in cost is not worth the 10% increase in some minor aspect of the experience that most users will ignore. Take your 'engine' out back and shoot it in the head. Instead use existing tools and game engines that let you focus 90% of your efforts on making a great game. Use them to reduce your costs so that you can iterate more quickly and spend less time reinventing content pipelines.

Compete on gameplay, not tech
If your game is average to mediocre looking and is missing a half dozen cool buzzwords and people still play it because they love the game, you've got a product that can ride out the inevitable tech bubbles. It is no suprise that Tetris and Nethack are still going strong despite their lack of GPU support.

take care,
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