Gaming Then, Now, and Tomorrow

Gaming evolves and is continuing to evolve.  Unlike nature, however, there’s no argument over where video games started, but there is still a creation myth.  And like it or not, games are changing how we, as humanity, connect and interact.

Back Then

Back in the 1940s, a couple of nerds were fiddling around with cathode ray tubes and figured out that you could make games out of these new-fangled electric thingamabobs.

Ya, I said 1940s.  Specifically 1947 when two guys named Thomas T. Goldsmith, Jr. and Estle Ray Mann filed a patent request for an invention involving cathode ray tubes as part of an amusement device.  Yep, someone in the 1940s had an idea to use cutting-edge electronics to make a game system.

Another school of thought, by the way, says that the Babylonians, who had batteries, might have had their own version of the Coleco or Atari.  Thus proving that no single creation myth isn’t without competition.  Think of the 1940s version above as Genesis from the Judea-Christian creation story and the second version as the Odin tossing pieces of a dead giant around to make the earth option.  The stories are basically the same, one just had mud and the other blood and guts.  Sort of a Lord of the Rings Online vs. Conan thing, I guess.

Anyway, it took a while for the idea of video games to catch on and whether or not Goldsmith and Mann ever built anything out of their patented idea, I don’t know.  But by the 1970s and early 1980s, electronic games were seriously laying some funkadelics on the modern scene.  From pinball machines to standup video arcades to home gaming consoles to PC games and eventually to massive multiplayers and casuals , games are now a part of the lives of nearly all adults in the developed world.

Just to show you how old I am, I’ve been gaming since consoles like the one pictured above were a brand new thing.  In fact, when we got that Nintendo, we’d already worn out an Olympus machine.  My younger sister, by the way, was completely addicted to Mario Bros and Contra.  Now she plays World of Warcraft and Everquest II.  See?  It runs in the family.

 The Now

Today, of course, there are games of every imaginable stripe.  You can play at home on your console (PlayStation, Wii, Xbox, etc), on your computer, on your mobile phone, and now even on some other appliances and devices.  Games are everywhere.  Even the dumbest of mobile phones has games on it.

Most games are now interconnected as well.  The days of the truly solo game are waning – and fast.  Nearly every game made for play on consoles and PCs has a connected component that attaches to a network via the Internet.  Sure, for now, some of those console games don’t require that Internet connection to work or be played, but that’s changing.  And fast.

Online gaming is no different.  PC games are now moving more and more towards Internet-based play.  As Shelby Reiches at Cheat CC says,

“This, depending on how one looks at it, is either good or bad. For those who still seek to use gaming as a solo pastime, without the influence or interaction of other gamers and friends, it’s extremely difficult. Consciously cutting out that online framework is a difficult process and, in some cases, either illegal or impossible. That’s, in part, because games, especially those for the PC, have been pursuing a “perfect” form of DRM for a while now.”

Still, good or bad, it’s how the console and PC gaming world are.  Then there’s the realm of MMOs and casual gaming.

Massive Multiplayers like WoW are currently dominating the online gaming market, but their appeal and business models are having a rough time coping with the emergence of the extremely popular and fast-rising casual gaming market.  Most MMOs still rely on a pay-per-monthly-access model with the only way to play the game for free being to play for a limited amount of time or under very limiting circumstances.  The free to play (F2P) model is sweeping the MMO industry, but it’s also cutting profit margins and forcing a re-think for how game makers turn players into payers.

Many MMO producers are looking to casual games for inspiration.  In the world of Facebook and other social network gaming, micro transactions are where it’s at.  The games make money in two ways: first, with small payments from player and second, through advertising embedded in such a way as to force interaction with the player.

The first model is a proven winner and is the one that many MMOs are turning to.  In it, players who end up paying something for the game are averaging around $20 a month or so in game transactions at levels of $2 to $5 each.  This tiny transactions add up and give the player premium content or faster game play options.

The second model gives players many of the same benefits, but doesn’t require them to pay any money.  In this model, players can trade their time watching and participating in advertising campaigns in return for the same premium benefits that would otherwise be had by paying a dollar or two in cash.  This has obvious appeal to many advertisers.

Meanwhile, as the MMO market gets saturated with game options for players to choose from, competition for ever-shrinking revenues from those players is fierce.  Even the venerable World of Warcraft, with its millions of players and dominating control of the MMO RPG market is losing ground.  Results aren’t in yet, but it’s likely that while the latest Mists of Pandaria release will entice many new players and returning players to the game, industry trends say that will be short-lived.

The Future

The way it’s going, the future of gaming is going to be something of a mashup between the way MMOs are now and casual gaming.  Most massives are moving towards a “dumbed down” model where occasional players can have a better chance of competing against the hardcore, marathon players.  While previously those highly devoted, obsessive players were the bread and butter of the MMO industry, their numbers are dwindling on a per-game basis and thus they are no longer capable of carrying a game largely on their own.

In order to appeal to more casual, occasional players, games are making themselves more accessible and “easier” so that those who only have a few hours a week to play can still experience much of the game’s world and content.  Although this generally causes rumblings of discontent from the hard core crowd, it is a continuing trend.

As this more casual approach progresses, the micro-transaction model of revenue has grown with it.  More and more games, even the venerable WoW, have in-game content that can only be purchased with extra money over and above the subscription price.  It’s probable that subscription costs will drop in most MMOs as the number of micro-options increase.  Casual gamers are far less interested in paying a set monthly fee to access a game than they are to pay as they play.  Micro-transactions are currently the most plausible way to accomplish this in an MMO.

As these changes continue, many MMOs will become less and less in-depth and, sadly, much less story driven (something we’ve already seen happening).  A few holdouts might continue on with the story-centric model (LOTRO for one), but they’ll become the exception rather than the general rule.  They’ll also almost assuredly become more expensive to play.  Meanwhile, the more casual MMOs will likely have a faster update schedule with much smaller additions each time.  The player who only logs in once or twice a week for a few hours in total is more likely to find this kind of faster-paced schedule appealing than is the long-term, heavy access player who wants large chunks of new content for fast mastery and exploration.

Interestingly, back in 2005, event at that late date, nobody really saw this coming.  Jeremy Reimer’s article for Ars Technica at the time concluded:

“What the future holds for gaming is anybody’s guess. Both PCs and consoles will continue to get more powerful and graphics will continue to improve. If the development of next-generation titles like Oblivion is any indication, game play will also continue to advance. New ideas like Nintendo’s Revolution controller have shown that there is still a place for innovation even in the basic way in which gamers interact with their games. One thing is for sure: I can’t wait to see what the next thirty years will bring.”

While the trend of better-and-better graphics and hardware dominating the scene continued for a few more years, it’s largely been usurped in favor of more standardized graphics formats and simpler hardware requirements to go with a much more social approach.

Just as then, today we can’t predict more than the next two or three years of trends in gaming.  Still, it’s very clear that those handful of years ahead will focus on new ways of creating revenue through the games being produced.  Games will likely get smaller and be on a faster track from conception to release and the ones that prove popular enough will see faster update cycles (two or three a year, at least) as these smaller games grow on the fly rather than releasing in large chunks every year or two as before.

This approach will lower costs and speed up production times as well as give marketing something fresh to promote all year long.  The number of games being released will continue to increase, but many will be flash-in-the-pan instead of long-term productions.

Meanwhile, games will continue evolving as gamers change how they use them.

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