The Importance of Inspiring Tomorrow’s Game Makers

Nintendo 64 Kid

You know what this is. Click to watch 1:07 of pure childhood joy.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve had that Christmas morning moment. Unwrapped presents jumbled in a pile, wrapping paper strewn everywhere – and then you spot that last package in the corner, so small you almost missed it. Your tiny heart starts beating faster as anticipation courses through your body, and you rip open the box to find – yes! That game that you’ve been pining for, the one you never thought they’d get you! And you race off to start playing as quickly as possible for as long as you can until you get yelled at to come to dinner.

For me, it was Donkey Kong Country (and it was a Hanukkah evening, but you get the idea). For many, it was Mario or Zelda or Sonic. That moment of finally obtaining and experiencing a game I had heard so much about multiplied the sense of wonder and joy that kids can so readily experience from games. Ultimately, barreling through Nintendo’s elegantly-crafted sidescroller in such a fit of enthusiasm was a significant step in inspiring me to enter the games industry. But in an age of Youtube playthroughs, free-to-play titles and virality-oriented social games, will the next generation be able to share these formative moments? Can you really unwrap Angry Birds on Christmas morning?

Because while Tetris, Q*bert, Bust-a-Move, Zuma and Peggle are all fantastic games, I have yet to come across a developer who cites any of them as their reason for wanting to get into the industry (Not to say they don’t exist – if this is you, I’d love to hear your story in the comments below). In my experience, it’s been narrative-based games like Atari’s Adventure, Metal Gear, X-Wing and Prince of Persia that have left deep impressions of wonder and majesty on young minds, with promises of unbelievable adventures to come if only they could figure out how to make these things, too.

Bust-a-Move vs. X-Wing

Bust-a-Move vs. X-Wing: Which do you think inspired more kids to become game developers?

The argument could be made that the rush to adopt free-to-play models has damaged the level of wonder games can impart. Because with that low barrier to entry comes a deceptive price – an equally low barrier to exit. And here, more and more developers are faced with the dilemma of the time: Do you focus on designing your game to organically support microtransactions and support the health of your game and studio, or do you take pains to envelop the player in a sense of awe and delight to keep them playing, at the expense of a more sustainable business model?

“That’s a false choice – you can do both!” you might say, but the back alleys of the App store are littered with bootstrapped developers who learned first-hand how hard it is to create a fun game, let alone one that has fun mechanics and seamless microtransactions and that can compete with established players’ marketing dollars and reputations.

Valve's Teach with Portals initiative uses game mechanics to teach a number of subjects.

Valve’s Teach with Portals initiative uses game mechanics to teach a number of subjects.

In this respect, making games actually is about more than just turning a profit. Games like Skylanders may engage kids’ hand-eye coordination and sense of wonder (or at least as long as their parents keep buying new Skylanders figures), but pale in comparison to the sheer creativity unleashed by Minecraft, especially in a directed educational setting. The same goes for Teach with Portals, Valve’s re-purposing of their celebrated series as a means to teach kids physics, math, and of course, game design. If you thought playing The Oregon Trail, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? or Word Munchers in school was fun, these games would blow your little mind just thinking of the possibilities. Who wouldn’t be inspired?

Like it or not, this is a responsibility we have to future generations, and it’s a choice we should constantly be weighing. Do we invest in their potential to improve upon what we leave behind, or do we come up with more ways to get a nickel out of them every ten minutes?

The next generations of game-making tools will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen. We’ll have wearable companion computers ala Google Glass, true virtual reality systems, Turing test-quality AI interactions, and other technologies we can’t even begin to imagine. Are we ready to empower the developers of the future with the creativity to get the most out of these platforms?

Let’s give the generations to come something beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Let’s give these kids the Christmas morning of their lives.

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Posted in business, future, game design
  • Why in the Universe is there so little discussion here. I love this article!

    I think the key thing here is that there is a cost to digital far beyond the means of the short-term wins we’re seeing. The cost I’m referring to is the integrity of our art.

    Integrity is a strong word but I feel it is the right one because games being created that cannot resonate with an audience on an emotional level will lead to a huge influx of games developers attracted to the industry primarily to get rich.

    Like it or not an art-ethic what I call the ‘Bohemian game designer’ keeps this industry creative and gripping so that the allure is a good wage AND the means to express oneself through the greatest digital canvas there is. Sadly I think your article is increasingly relevant, with the games industry believing that free-to-play is the way forward, the clones of what’s popular will only increase as popularity is pivotal to turnover. Just look what happened with the zombie fad — we have zombie game abundance. I rest my case.

    I believe we will see a crash with free-to-play, as the model becomes more widespread it will be in fact harder to advertise and get people to their games. With such an ‘impulse-download’ culture, player fidelity will begin to evaporate and the “whales” that the industry has banked on will decrease their expenditure as they move to newly advertised games. Look at Zynga. I rest my case.

    My team sussed this out ages ago to much belittlement from other studios. However, I certainly stand by our view that artistic resonance with your audience will always be the key element of a healthy games industry both for producers and consumers. Otherwise we’re just shovelling software. How much will that inspire fresh talent? Look at Rovio. I rest my case.

    This is exactly what we need to acknowledge. The industry needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Thanks for writing this so well Ben.

  • Just for the record, I see Rovio as a studio that is NOT just shovelling software but instead believes in its content holding artistic integrity in high regard.

  • Ben

    Thanks Jay! This blog’s pretty new, so congratulations on being a savvy early adopter 🙂

    I’m inclined to agree – and while acknowledging Rovio and Supercell’s titles as well-made games, you can see their dollar sign-eyes in their products. I’d say free-to-play doesn’t really exist in more established media largely because, like you say, it compromises the integrity of the experience. Imagine going to the movies for free, but every 20 minutes you have to pay to see the “real” scene.

    At the heart of the experience is integrity, and if you’re constantly second-guessing if what you’re getting is the real thing, it lends a feeling of lesser quality overall.

  • Ben – what is your take on shareware in the 90’s? Shareware was fundamentally a free-to-play business model, and it brought many games to millions of players. DOOM came out as shareware, and inspired many of the people that lead the games industry today.

    I agree with your desire to see more inspiring games, but I don’t think the blame can be placed on the F2P business model.

    • Ben

      Great point Dennis, and one that people don’t usually bring up in these discussions. I wouldn’t call the shareware model free-to-play though; it’s more of a free-to-try model that boils down to a generous demo release. I’d say the main difference between the two is how the business model is or isn’t tied into the DNA of the game.

      For Doom and the shareware games, you knew that if you liked what you played so far, you’d be paying a one-time fee to unlock the rest of the game. For F2P as it is now, payment transactions are ongoing for as long as you enjoy playing and want to participate in a game’s more advanced features, which calls for a more integrated approach in how the game and its microtransactions are set up.

      Simplifying it, you could say that shareware, retail releases and traditional buy-once games are based on single point of sale (SPOS), while any F2P (or subscription-based) title would be inherently multiple point of sale (MPOS).

      For MPOS-based games, the risk is that developers shift their focus to increasing the amount and frequency of subsequent transactions instead of working to make the game more intrinsically fun to play, which can lead to less inspiring games.