Monday, January 28, 2013

The Democratization of Game Development and the Future

Last year, 2012, was a really tough year for game production. Domestically in Japan, the social game network came to the forefront, while “comp-gacha” (method of awarding rare in-game items in mobile games only when the player has bought a full set of other in-game items) became a social problem. Additionally, many consumer game companies jumped onto the smartphone game platform.

With the opening of the documentary “Indie Game: The Movie”, etc., indie games garnered much attention overseas. Minecraft also hit a total of 17.5 million downloads, and this was also made into the documentary “Minecraft: The Story of Mojang”. The overseas indie game scene has the sort of creativity as well as industrial scale that can’t be ignored.

At the end of last year I went to the 4th “Kurokawa-juku”, and an event in which the recipients of entertainment awards were decided was held. Kurokawa-juku is an event held on a voluntary base by Fumio Kurokawa, who has traversed the entertainment industry far and wide, at which well-known members of the industry came together to look back on the entertainment industry of 2012. Items which garnered much attention seemed to be mainly domestic Japanese products such as GungHo’s huge hit smartphone game ”Puzzle & Dragons” and LINE , the free phone/messaging app. However, global topics such as Unity and OUYA were also touched upon on the final floor’s question and answer corner.

It needs no explanation, but Unity is the multiplatform game engine being developed by Northern Europe’s Unity Technologies. As a game reviewer, I’ve personally played many Android games, but in the chaotic Android market, I feel that Unity’s logo mark functioned as a sort of brand. This is because at least a certain level of quality can be expected from games made by Unity. Although in Japan it’s been lurking in the shadows of social game news, there were virtually no game industry conferences last year at which Unity’s name was not spotted. That’s how passionately they’ve been handling promotional activities, and beginning with smartphones, and they are certain to have a large impact from here on out on the game industry, which is becoming more multiplatform-oriented.

OUYA also likely needs no explanation. It’s the “next-generation” game console set to launch this April. Using Android as its OS and providing free developer SDKs which don’t require licenses, its development process is another characteristic feature of this great gaming machine. The project was publicized on the American crowd funding site Kickstarter last July 10th. It succeeded in gathering 8,600,000 US dollars, the second-highest amount ever received, and the project started. Major Japanese publishers such as Square Enix and Namco Bandai Games have announced plans to get onboard. Success is not yet guaranteed, but it is a bright bit of news in the currently dark future of the console market.

“The democratization of game development” is a convenient way to describe these trends such as Unity and OUYA. Unity has been using that as a catchphrase since the early stages. OUYA also uses the term “democratization” to emphasize the open platform. The monetization method known as F2P (basic play is free) which emphasizes mainly the business merits in Japan is mainly used overseas as a method of thwarting pirates, and I am surprised by the fact that is regarded as “the democratization of game value”.

The role that this sort of democratization plays for independent developers is extremely large. This is because game development/distribution traditionally required a large investment just to prepare a development environment and get a first-party license, and democratization makes this all become instantly cheaper. Even domestically in Japan, game engine providers such as Unity are also showing much interest in independent developers. (I was really surprised when Matchlock, the company which provides the BISHAMON Personal game effects engine, displayed a dojin game at last year’s CEDEC!)

Of course, it is undeniable that these screams of “Democratization! Democratization!” are partially just buzzwords. Just as there is a fine line between democracy and ochlocracy, the democratization of the game industry is not necessarily a totally good thing. Actually, on OSs with open platforms such as Android and Windows, there are more than enough garbage applications and harmful programs.
Even so, the simplification of production and the drop in the entry barrier are necessary for the contents industry. Music, into which recording/editing technology was widely introduced, quickly succeeded in becoming a “democratized” industry, and now music is produced all over the world and is distributed via the Internet. An immeasurable volume of music is being uploaded to music-based Web services such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud, regardless of the level of fame of its creators or the quality of the work.

This sort of explosive increase in contents is welcome, but is also a source of headaches. Since life is limited, there’s a limit to how much music you can listen to, so “pulling a winner” out of such a wide base of contents is more difficult than before. In the not-so-distant future, the game industry will likely also encounter a similar phenomenon. And for games, which take the most time to consume, that may become an even more serious problem than it has for music. Considering the historic transformations popular culture has gone through, “democratization of criticism” is one phenomenon that is expected to occur following this “explosion of contents”. Of course, there are new reviews and critiques of video games when they come out. However, for better or worse, these were mainly executed by members of the commercial media with deep ties to the video game industry, and have been stuck in between “advertising” and the other roles played by the media. Furthermore, I don’t k now if the commercial media will be able to deal with the exponentially higher number of contents compared with the package era. In the English-speaking world, from the 2000s, blog media – which produces some very good reviews – came about. For example, Rock, Paper, Shotgun is a blog run by four famous game journalists, and is quite famous among Japanese PC gamers. They deal with everything from major AAA titles to virtually unknown indie games, and would have been unheard of in traditional commercial media. There’s also The Border House, run by female game reviewer/producer Tami “Cuppycake” Baribeau, is a type of media unseen in Japan, which criticizes video games from a feminist point of view.

With these types of blog media cutting out video games in a different manner from existing media types, a new video game scene was born overseas. For 2012 as well, which became a boon year for indie games, it wasn’t created solely by the struggle of indie game developers. Cultural progress is always helped along by the back-and-forth between the creator and the receiver.

The future of the “democratization of game development”, as designated by Unity and OUYA, will be welcomed by Japanese independent developers. However, to truly achieve “the democratization of game development”, you need more than just simply an open game engine and platform. Games freely created by individuals or groups are recognized, played, and compared with AAA titles, and evaluated by end users. When that chain of events becomes a reality, only then will the “democratization of game development” have been achieved. And the “democratization of game evaluation” has many roles to fill in pushing along the “democratization of game development”.