As a gamer, you’ve probably noticed a bunch of really interesting stuff happening in the games industry over the last few years. It seems like only a while back, we were stuck in a situation where, as gamers, our options were limited and frankly, boring. Pretty much the only games of note were big-budget console-based sequels created by large publishers and bought from stores. Game design was conservative, graphics were photorealistic and every game was full price.
Fast forward to 2012, and things have changed a huge amount. Sequelitis still sadly infects the few remaining AAA console games, but alongside those experiences sit a multitude of options in terms of platforms, gameplay and ways to pay.
On the PC we’ve got free-to-play high-end PC games like League of Legends and Team Fortress 2, mid-priced more niche games on Steam like War of the Roses and Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, plus an enormous world of experimental indie titles from blockbusters like Minecraft & FTL to smaller titles like Zafehouse: Diaries.
On mobile we’ve got everything from ultra-casual infinite runners like Jetpack Joyride to ultra-hardcore rougelikes like Sword of Fargoal and Japanese imports like Rage of Bahamut. Hey, you might not be a fan of Facebook games, but despite Zynga’s rather embarrassing Icarus-like story, there are still hundreds of millions of (mostly, older female) people clicking cows, buildings, bubbles and chefs on the platform.
As a developer, the options for getting your game funded have expanded massively. In the old days you’d rely on an ‘old boys network’ of contacts at major publishers, or you’d need a job at a major publisher. Nowadays you can build and distribute a game in your spare time, like Notch did for Minecraft, seek funding via Kickstarter like Double Fine, try to get noticed on Steam Greenlight or even approach Silicon Valley big-hitter Venture Capitalists like Riot Games or (Hawken creators) Adhesive Games did.
We’ve had a massive power-shift, away from major publishers and console manufacturers and towards the developer. This power-shift and subsequent opening-up of new distribution channels has meant more innovation, fresher experiences and ultimately a better selection of games. In short, it’s never been a better time to be a gamer.
How did this happen? Will it continue? Do we have any formal way to understand why it happened and whether this wonderful chaos will continue in the future?
Well we do, and in the most unexpected of places — with a 60-year-old Harvard Business School professor who’s probably never played a video game in his life.
The Disruption Against An Old Industry
Clayton Christensen is considered a god to many who study and work in the technology business. His 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma was, for instance, one of Apple founder Steve Jobs’ favourite books. Flicking through it’s pages, skimming passages on hydraulic excavators and perusing graphs of the steel industry, you’d be forgiven for wondering how it could be relevant to the games industry. But with a bit of patience — and inside information about how the games industry works — you’d definitely see the connection.
‘Disruption‘ is a word used a lot in the book, and in Christensen’s further teaching and research. His specific, academic definition of the term ‘Disruption’ is most definitely what’s happening to the games industry right now.
‘Disruption’ (in this context), describes a powerful, seismic impact that hits an old industry, when new products enter that space that aren’t necessarily ‘better’ than the status-quo, but that often offer a cheaper, more convenient or just a different solution. These ‘disruptions’ are often fuelled by a technological innovation that enables that new type of product.
Clayton Christensen would point out how the Personal Computer in the 1980s (powered by new, cheaper CPU chips) offered a cheaper but less powerful computing solution than the old IBM mainframes, but a younger reader might connect better with the falling out of favour of the high-end CD-based hi-fi system in favour of the tiny, portable MP3 player, fuelled by faster, cheaper broadband connectivity.
Faster internet connectivity has disrupted industry after industry as it has enabled the average internet user to download bigger and bigger files — we’ve already seen print media and advertising disrupted by online news and blogs, paper photographs disrupted by the digital camera, the music industry up-ended by Napster and later iTunes. [clear]
Well, what media has the biggest file-sizes? Games.
The snowball of internet speed and (more recently) mobile internet availability and quality is fuelling this rapid and exciting disruption of the games industry. It’s enabling the creation of amazing games, and a diverse selection of interactive entertainment for all kinds of people. It’s also anointing new millionaires and billionaires while simultaneously causing companies that just a few years ago seemed untouchable to almost crumble into dust right in front of our eyes.
Over the coming weeks I’ll be delving into this phenomenon — examining recent news events to see what they mean, how they might affect us as gamers as well as the companies and creators we love. Who’s wielding these weapons of mass disruption, what ordinance are they planning to fire, and who do they have lined up in their crosshairs?
Ben Cousins (@benjamincousins) is a 13-year veteran of the games industry who’s worked at Lionhead, Sony and EA among others. He currently runs Scattered Entertainment, a studio in Stockholm owned by Japanese mobile gaming giant DeNA — where his team are working on disruptive AAA mobile FPS The Drowning.