How gamers will shape the next big thing in video games

Despite economic worries and considerable concern about the sheer scope of contemporary big-budget projects, game developers seem more hopeful and ambitious than ever. This is possible thanks to a healthier, more collaborative relationship with players, along with some cautious optimism about artificial intelligence.

That enthusiasm for working with the public means so much more than just reacting to comments and suggestions on Discord. I spoke with several developers who put not just the initial code, but the game creation tools in the hands of passionate gamers at an early stage, and invited them to help shape the experience – sometimes hiring them to work full time as a result. .

That enthusiasm for working with the public means so much more than just reacting to comments and suggestions on Discord.

Now in its 26th year, the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences hosted its DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Summit in Las Vegas last week. The event draws developers and leaders from across the gaming industry to come together and discuss the biggest challenges of the moment, while celebrating the past year’s key achievements in a peer-judged awards ceremony that we partner with the Academy to broadcast live. This year Stella Chung from IGN joined Greg Miller from Kinda Funny to present the awards, and you can watch it all here.

DICE is different from many of the other events we cover in that the information we can bring you is less about announcements and more about spotting trends and getting an idea of ​​what’s going on in the minds of game developers. Every year, the Academy sets an overarching theme that sets the overall tone, but is usually pretty spot on in terms of nailing what’s on everyone’s minds. In the past, this has sometimes meant there was an element of buzzword compliance in conversations onstage, especially if (some) studio executives were speaking rather than creative leaders.

First, there was the mobile and free gaming gold rush years ago, which evolved into the shift to games as a service. Both trends came with vertigo over the potential for individual games to make billion of dollars, usually spurted by obviously media-trained men wearing Patagonian vests over button-down shirts. That ended up stumbling into the blockchain and metaverse over the last couple of years, and that brings us to the artificial intelligence bonanza of today. At every step along this path, there has always been a healthy dose of cynicism from the DICE crowd, because it is predominantly the game making community that takes the “Arts” part of the “Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences” very seriously.

This year’s theme was simply dubbed “the long game”. In the past it would have been easy to see this and scoff that it would just be more live service games and the relentless new ways to exhaustively deplete content for experiments in search of maximizing fun acronyms like ARPDAU (Average Revenue Per Daily Active User) and LTV (Lifetime Value), but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the predominant ideas that emerged in presentations, roundtables and (most importantly) bar conversations were about the human element of game design and the fact that truly great experiences come from a respectful relationship with players.

What this means is that the next big thing in game development isn’t necessarily a new tool or feature, but incorporating gamers directly into the development process. And ways to unlock this new paradigm were discussed at length last week.

You cannot engineer a compelling experience behind a desired bottom line.

The event’s keynote speaker was New York Times bestselling author Neal Stephenson, one of the few authors, alongside William Gibson, who helped define the lexicon of the modern interactive age. In his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” and described scenes that account for much of the nonsense we so often hear from tech billionaires trying to vindicate the concept three decades later. As part of his presentation, Stephenson quoted Rebecca Barkin, co-founder of her own “open metaverse” company Lamina1, as saying that “you can’t architect a compelling experience backwards from a desired bottom line.” This was a powerful opening comment for an industry that often spends a lot of energy trying to do just that. It served as a great way to frame the event that followed.

In an onstage conversation with Outerloop Games’ Chandana Ekanayake, Double Fine’s Tim Schafer reminded everyone that “human beings make games” and noted that he feels his job is usually to create a bunch of scenes in which an actor from improvisation then crashes to test the limits of. This focus on delighting players and ceding control to their influence was reinforced repeatedly in nearly every conversation I had with developers at the event.

Over the past 20-something years, we’ve tended to think of “generations” of games in terms of how they’re tied directly to hardware capabilities. Improved technology makes things run faster and look cooler with sophisticated lighting and ray tracing and triple-digit frame rates. Right now, though, it feels like we’re going through a different kind of generational shift that’s entirely about giving gamers more control over how games are built and the experiences they deliver.

Rather than requiring expertise in a complex tool like Unreal’s editor, developers are starting to envision scenarios where an AI can understand what’s being described to it and kick-start making that idea a reality.

Schafer noted that historically games were built by a small group of gatekeepers. That’s been changing for some time now, as evidenced by the sheer number of indie games that are helping to push boundaries in every direction, the spectacularly creative mod scene for PC gaming, and the growing power of game creation tools from Roblox to Unity and Unreal. The player empowerment we’re seeing isn’t a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination, but what feels new is the amount of trust and influence that passionate players are having on game development. This also seems to be where cautious optimism about AI comes in.

While much of the conversation so far has been about ethical issues raised because of AI-generated artwork and storytelling, there is a tangible excitement in using these systems as a way to interpret ideas. Rather than requiring expertise in a complex tool like Unreal’s editor, developers are starting to envision scenarios where an AI can understand what is being described to it and kick-start making that idea a reality. Releasing a tool like this in the future certainly looks like it has the potential to completely change the nature of design and implementation. As my colleague Sam Claiborn has mentioned several times on Game Scoop, game development is relatively inaccessible compared to other art forms, much like film was before video cameras. AI has the potential to empower creative people to share their ideas without having to be a programmer, writer, artist and composer at the same time.

One thing seems certain: the next generation of games that are true cultural phenomena on the scale of something like Fortnite will be games made in direct and hands-on partnership with gamers, rather than simply thinking of them as customers.

John Davison is the editor and editorial lead and has been writing about games and entertainment for over 30 years. follow him on twitter.

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