GDC: An industry maturing

This article started out as a review of the first day. However, it quickly degenerated into a thread about the maturing of the games industry, especially as it relates to MMOGs.

The tutorial itself had some great content. I took a number of notes, some that were just filler, but others that were more of the "here's something to learn" variety.

One thing that continues to strike me as amusing is the Game industry's determination to figure things out on its own. Having been in the software industry since the late 1970's and having been in the Internet industry since the 1990's, I have a certain perspective on software development, tool usage and customer service. What keeps coming back to me is that every time there is a "unique" problem, I can draw a direct correlation to a problem in one of the previous fields.

This shouldn't be terribly surprising, since the boxed game industry is a bit of an anomaly in comparison to most software development. For years, this industry has been much like the music or book industries. Individual authors (small teams of people) develop a product idea and then mold it into something they think people will like. As they need money, they sign up with a publisher and get an advance, and then they rush to get the product completed. Once the product is done and shipped, that is pretty much it. Until the Internet, that was absolutely it, because there was no reasonable way to get additional content or new features, or even bug fixes out to their user base. This was a fire-and-forget industry. There were some people who tried to apply software development techniques, but mainly they were bashed back with the usual claims that "every game is different", "performance is king", and "all available tools are not right".

Enter the Internet. As is the case with many industries, the game industry was dramatically changed by the introduction of network access and the ability to communicate with the players without having to build massive infrastructure for each game. This lead to the ability to create patches that allowed for new features and bug fixes. It was also the beginning of a move to make game software more like other kinds of software. Whereas previously, the players bought a single version an expected everything to be in there and just work, now they were expecting to see fixes for the problems that they found, and in many cases they were expecting to be able to change the experience and then share those changes (mods).

With these changes, the industry started to mirror less of a book or music model and more of a traditional boxed software model. People were concerned about the need for additional development (or at least bug fixes) after the release of a game. This lead to a proliferation of add-on packages (expansion packs) that build on and required the previous game to be useful. At this point, we see the industry concerned with things like maintainability and ongoing development. The possibility for "dot releases" to do bug fixes, full- time website support and other issues that are commonplace in the software industry, but had been unknown in the game industry.

Not surprisingly, though, like any immature industry, the members had a hard time seeing analogies between themselves and people in the more "boring" software industries. They felt that they were different and that the problem they had to solve could not be helped by tools designed for other industries. The networking software business was the same way when it started to move from it's university and garage phase into the commercial phase as it did in the late 1980s and even more strongly in the early 1990s.

In the end, many of the same issues are being seen by the game industry that have been seen in the networking industry (especially on the service side) and in other industries before. Once companies come out of a niche and are no longer just producing easy to use widgits, they are called upon to do more, act more professionally and provide more support. This is true now in the gaming industry as well.

Whether this is the "end of an era" or merely the beginning of a new phase will be highly dependent upon whether people can find a way to continue innovating in a market that will be pushing more toward the mainstream and therefore more toward the safety and security of the known.