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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

How Players Will Shape Video Games’ Next Big Thing

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

This enthusiasm for working with the audience means much more than just reacting to feedback and suggestions on Discord. I spoke to multiple developers that have put not just early code, but game-making tools into the hands of passionate players at a very early stage and invited them to help shape the experience – sometimes hiring them to work on it full time as a result.

This enthusiasm for working with the audience means much more than just reacting to feedback 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 attracts developers and leaders from across the games business to get together and discuss the biggest challenges of the moment while celebrating the top achievements of the past year at a peer-judged awards ceremony that we partner with the Academy on to live stream. This year IGN’s Stella Chung joined Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller to host the awards, and you can watch the full thing here.

DICE is unlike a lot of other events that we cover because the information we can bring you from it is less about announcements and more about spotting trends and getting a feel for what’s going on in game developers’ heads. Every year the Academy sets an overarching theme that establishes the general tone, but it’s usually pretty spot-on in terms of nailing what’s on everyone’s mind. In the past this has sometimes meant that there’s been an element of buzzword-compliance to the conversations up on stage, especially if (some) studio executives are doing the talking rather than creative leaders.

First there was the gold rush to mobile and free-to-play gaming years ago that evolved into the move towards games as a service. Both of these trends came with accompanying giddiness about the potential for individual games to make billions of dollars, usually spouted by obviously media-trained men wearing Patagonia vests over button-down shirts. That eventually sort of stumbled its way into blockchain and metaverse over the past couple of years, and that leads us to the artificial intelligence bonanza of today. With each step along that path, there has always been a healthy dose of cynicism from the group at DICE, because it’s predominantly the community of game makers that takes the “Arts” part of “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 that and scoff that it was going to just be about more live service games and the new and relentless ways to exhaustively poop out content for experiences in pursuit of maximizing fun-sounding acronyms like ARPDAU (average revenue per daily active user) and LTV (lifetime value), but that was not the case. Instead, the prevailing ideas that came up in presentations, roundtable discussions and (most importantly) conversations in the bar was about the human element of game creation, and the fact that truly great experiences come from a respectful relationship with players.

What this means is that the next great trend in game development isn’t necessarily some new tool or feature, but incorporating the players directly into the development process. And the ways to unlock this new paradigm were discussed at length this past week.

You can't architect a compelling experience backward from a desired financial outcome.


The keynote speaker for the event was New York Times bestselling author Neal Stephenson, one of a handful of authors, alongside William Gibson, that have helped define the lexicon of the modern interactive age. In his 1992 novel Snow Crash Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” and described scenes that are responsible for much of the nonsense we so often hear from tech billionaires trying to lay claim to the concept three decades later. As part of his presentation, Stephenson quoted Rebecca Barkin, the cofounder of his own “open metaverse” company Lamina1, stating "you can't architect a compelling experience backward from a desired financial outcome." This was a powerful opening comment to an industry that has frequently spent 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 often about creating a bunch of scenes that an improv actor then crashes through to test the limits of. This focus on delighting players and ceding control to their influence was reinforced again and again in almost 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 directly tied to hardware capabilities. Better technology makes things run faster, and look cooler with fancy lighting and ray tracing and triple-digit frame rates. Right now though, it seems we're going through a different kind of generational shift that is entirely about giving players more agency in how games are built and the experiences they offer.

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 get the ball rolling on making that idea a reality. 


Schafer noted that historically games were built by a small group of gatekeepers. That’s been changing for a while now, as evidenced by the huge number of indie games that are helping push boundaries in all directions, the spectacularly creative mod scene for PC games, and the escalating power of game-making tools from Roblox to Unity and Unreal. The empowerment of players that we’re seeing is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination, but what does feel fresh is the amount of trust and the 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 the ethical questions raised because of AI-generated artwork and narratives, there’s some tangible excitement for using these systems as a way of interpreting 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 get the ball rolling on making that idea a reality. Unleashing a tool like that in future certainly seems to have the potential to completely change the nature of design and implementation. As my colleague Sam Claiborn has mentioned several times on Game Scoop, game dev is relatively inaccessible compared to other artforms, just as film was before video cameras. AI has the potential to empower creative people to share their ideas without needing to be a programmer, a writer, an artist, and a composer all at once.

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


John Davison is the publisher and editorial lead, and has been writing about games and entertainment for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter.

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