The Evolution of Game Development: Everything Old is New Again (and vice versa)

According to a recent survey of game developers, the industry is seeing a slow but steady shift away from console development towards PC and mobile games:

“Thirteen percent of respondents called themselves current PS3 developers, and just 12.4 percent planned their next game for the PS3. The Xbox 360 only does slightly better: 13.2 percent for now, and 14 percent for the future. (Eleven percent of the devs polled said they're making games for the next-generation PlayStation 4 and the "Xbox 720," or whatever Microsoft ends up calling the 360's successor.)

And don't even think about Nintendo's Wii or dedicated handheld game devices. Just 4.6 percent of developers are actively making a Wii game, although 6.4 percent say they'll do so in the future. A mere 4.2 percent are working PlayStation Vita games, with about 5 percent saying they have future plans. Barely 2.8 percent say they're developing future games for the Nintendo DS.” - ReadWriteWeb

The survey went on to say that 48% of developers are developing current games for this platform, and 49% are planning their next games for the PC.  Tablets and smartphones are grabbing most developers’ time and interest, with 58% and 56% (respectively) interested in developing games for these platforms.

The rise of the PC in game development

Console sales are falling. According to one industry analyst, sales of video game consoles, accessories, and software fell in 2012 by 28%. The top-selling game in 2012 was for PCs, which boosted year over year sales by 230%:

"Historically the PC game market has taken a lead in commercial innovation compared to the console sector," said Piers Harding-Rolls, senior principal analyst and head of games for IHS Screen Digest. "This innovation has extended to business model -- the introduction of subscriptions and micro-transactions -- and across digital business." – “Is PC Gaming Making a Comeback?” – CNN Tech

Over $20 billion in sales were made in 2012 for PC games alone, and this number is estimated to go even higher in 2013 even though mobile and social gaming are the most popular that they have ever been. Yearly growth of the PC game market according to a report released from gaming industry watchdog PC Gaming Alliance was 8%, with more than a billion PC gamers estimated around the world:

“The PC Gaming industry showed strong overall growth of 8% in 2012, partly as a result of the Chinese market gaining traction in the $20 billion global market with record revenues of $6.8 billion,” said DFC analyst David Cole. “In spite of media focus on mobile games and struggling social network games, there are now over 1 billion PC gamers worldwide and that number will continue to grow as more PCs connect online.”  - PC Gaming Alliance

Perhaps the strongest advantage that PCs have over consoles in the realm of game development is simply the fact that many people already own a PC, and there’s no need to go out and purchase an expensive system that could be relatively obsolete in a year. PCs are easily upgraded and can be somewhat easily fixed (if you know what you’re doing, of course).

Factors that influence the move away from consoles

Why are developers moving away from consoles and towards PC and mobile game development? According to some studios, money is definitely something that is influencing this move:

“Mobile platforms are much more open than a console, and don’t have the restrictions of a working with a publisher. Console game development comes with a much bigger price: big title console game studios maintain budgets around $80 - $100 million, while most small to mid-size mobile gaming studios have budget closer to $200,000 - $400,000.

However, mobile game development budgets are growing because of the final contributing factor: earnings potential. Supercell reports earnings around $1 million per day for its games, and Gungho’s Puzzles and Dragons game is bringing in around $2 million daily. The monetization potential on mobile is much higher, and coupled with a lower development cost, there’s a huge opportunity to earn significant revenue.” – “Game over? Video game and console sales take a head shot”, LA Biz Journals

While money is certainly something that needs to be factored in, there are other issues that come into play. According to a presentation given by Valve Software on cross-platform game development, common issues include:

  • Developer efficiency
  • Certification failure
  • User experience
  • Programming issues

The presentation is quite long and is meant as a higher level look at cross-platform development; however, the basic takeaway is this: “If it runs well on console, it’s easy to make it run well on PC.” That’s really the $64,000 question though – how many games run well enough on consoles to make the transition to PC easy; or if not easy, at least justifiable?

Different games run on different platforms, operating systems, device models, different screen adaptations, aspect ratios, even different versions of the same platform. Developing games for all the different platforms out there is (to say the least) a time-consuming process. Developers have to optimize game projects for each device, taking the time to test everything so there aren’t problems down the road.  While it’s certainly fantastic that we have a wide variety of devices available to us as consumers, for developers, making games that will function on the majority of the devices on the market is becoming an increasingly more difficult task.

Retro gaming is making a comeback

Don’t count out the console just yet, though. There’s definitely a strong audience for new releases of retro games on both new and classic consoles, as well as the PC and mobile devices. In addition, emulators on the PC, Wii, and smartphones can make retro games function just as well as their more recent counterparts. This isn’t necessarily something that pays well (or even at all); it’s more of a hobby for dedicated developers who are looking to revitalize a fond memory from their younger days:

“When we first started to talk about developing a game for the Mega Drive we had no intentions of turning it into a hit. When the group of developers and designers first gathered after talking on forums about retro games, we simply took the idea seriously and began to work. It felt like being twelve years old and the boss of the arcade game room….. All of our team members have jobs that have little to do with games,” says Roel van Mastbergen of Dutch indie studio Senile Team, which released Rush Rush Rally Racing for the Dreamcast to celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2009. “Game development is just something we love to do in our spare time - if we have any.” – “Meet the Gamers Keeping Retro Consoles Alive”

How many of us have old Gameboys, SEGAs, even an Atari (now that’s a blast from the past!) systems kicking around collecting dust? These systems aren’t as fancy as their current counterparts, but for sheer nostalgia they can’t be beat.

Where will game developers go next?

From consoles to PC to mobile, there are a lot of choices out there for game developers. Problems are inherent on whichever platform they choose, and it’s going to be intriguing to see where the industry continues to head. As a developer, what do you think of the move away from console development? What do you think is the current state of game development and where is the industry headed next? Please share your comments.

 

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