You could be forgiven for thinking you’d washed up in a bygone era. John Romero playing Doom. Virtual reality headsets everywhere. Developers caught in the middle of a platform refresh. No, it’s not 1994. It’s 2014, and all of these things were happening at Game Developers Conference.
It’s somehow fitting that the creators of Doom are both just as relevant today as when they created this groundbreaking first person shooter back in December of 1993. Romero now teaches at University of California Santa Cruz’s cutting-edge game development programs, and John Carmack was recently hired at VR darling company Oculus Rift.
(Related: Virtual reality gains developer momentum)
Indeed, VR was the most obvious theme at the show. Sony’s Project Morpheus was on display next to the Rift, the CastAR, and a half-dozen other head-based motion-tracking displays. But underneath those helmets, the games being shown were increasingly running on just a handful of engines.
Those engines (CryENGINE, Unity and Unreal Engine) all made major announcements at the show. CryENGINE and Unreal Engine both revealed subscription-based pricing models. For around US$20 per month, developers can build with these tools, if they agree to a small percentage (about 5%) of revenues going back to the engine’s owner upon the release of their game.
Unity, on the other hand, announced the open-sourcing of its platform. This popular game development engine has spawned resurgence in the C# community because it supports the language for building games. Unity can also deploy to Android and iPhone, making it a growing platform for those markets as well.
Deeper down, it was all analytics
Perforce today announced the release of hybrid version control across its product lines. This integration between Git and existing Perforce repository capabilities brings a unified platform for storing both types of repositories, without having to maintain two separate infrastructures or socially collaborative platforms on top.
Beneath all of these announcements was another, more hidden theme that has been growing in the games industry for years: the expanding relevance of analytics. Hugh Reynolds, CEO of Swrve, said that developers have always been interested in tracking their users, but the online and immediate nature of modern videogames has changed how that data can be applied to their work.
“What happened in the game space, on consoles it was just a $60 purchase, versus now, every day having to make sure the game is attractive to someone to come back to. It’s a bigger challenge; I have to be on my A-game every day,” he said. This change in the industry comes from a shift in the way games are consumed, but also in the way they are paid for, he added.
“The free-to-play model that emerged in the game space… We’re going to see that more and more in all sorts of mobile applications, and in the digital commerce around it. People are getting trained into bite-sized consumption,” said Reynolds.
That day-to-day consumption of smaller amounts of gameplay elements means that product managers need some way to track and understand their players’ behavior on a day-to-day basis. “Traditional game design is about convincing you to buy. We just need to get some good reviews, but other than that it’s not our problem,” said Reynolds.
“Today, however, it’s much more like a TV show. We need to bring a large enough group with us so people tune in to us the next week. An interested product manager can poke around in Tableau, but they’re not going to go anywhere with a Hadoop login.”
Tableau allows users to explore data with ad hoc queries, said Reynolds, while Hadoop requires much more knowledge of and structure in the query.
“As these various ad hoc queries come back, what am I going to do about it?” he said. “Rarely do these ad hoc queries come up with silver bullets. They come up with tarnished bronze bullets. We’re essentially trying to build machine learning under the hood: Big Data, which connects to machine learning, which connects to actions,” which are the goal of most Big Data developers, he said.
Rather than push for some giant AI solution, however, Reynolds’ Swrve gives product managers levers and knobs to twiddle within their games. “It’s not the art of ‘How do I find this great theorem of everything and sit alone with Hive and solve it.’ We very much think you experimentally find your way to these good places for the new users, or the advanced user. It’s not a local maximum. It’s local best cases for different types of players,” he said.
And this is the future of game design: iterative, feedback-driven development. The model has already been laid out by wildly successful games like Minecraft and DayZ, both of which sold millions of copies during their alpha period.
Perhaps that is what enterprise developers can most take away from Game Developers Conference: gathering feedback on your users, allowing them to interact with software in new ways, and above all, making things fun can all be combined to make your applications a success.