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09.15.10

The New Revolution in Videogames

The gaming world may be having a big week with the releases of Halo: Reach and PlayStation Move, but what’s really shaking its foundation is the move away from blockbusters to social and downloadable games and iPhone apps.

It’s a huge week for the videogame world, with Xbox 360 sci-fi shoot-em-up game Halo: Reach shipping Sept. 14 and Sony’s new PlayStation Move motion-sensing control system following three days later. But this year, it’s about survival more than sex appeal, with industry sales down 8 percent over 2009 and even the mighty Madden NFL franchise struggling. Still, the irony for giants like Microsoft, whose own controller-free interface Kinect debuts Nov. 4, is that these products’ success or failure may be irrelevant. From social games to iPhone apps and digital downloads, the field’s destiny is increasingly being defined by emerging high-tech platforms, scrappy startups, and revolutionary forms of interactive entertainment. In other words, the most exciting things going on in the space are actually happening outside your local GameStop.

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One need only look to Facebook and the success of titles like Mafia Wars, Pet Society, or FarmVille to see such seismic changes in action. Not only do these offerings turn gaming on its head by offering instantly accessible, user-friendly titles that are appropriate for all ages free of charge, but also an estimated 200 million people are lining up to play social games each month, while demand steadily declines for the $60, male-focused first-person shooters or fantasy dungeon hacks of yore. Tellingly, from FarmVille to Nightclub City, audiences that easily eclipse or rival that of traditional juggernauts such as World of Warcraft are increasingly tuning in for fun in brief, 15-minute spurts. And across the board, all of these games share traits: They are easy to pick up and enjoy, don’t cost a lot, feature an electric range of topics, play vastly differently from disc-based outings, and come from companies with strange names like Playfish and Zynga. Most troublingly for current market leaders, they can’t be found at Target or Walmart.

Call it a return to gaming’s garage days. Thirty years ago, hundreds of enterprising bedroom coders hustled diskettes in Ziploc baggies from their kitchen tables, giving birth to famed franchises like Ultima and Wizardry, companies like Sierra and SSI. Today, a handful of corporate behemoths, including Activision and Electronic Arts, control the retail landscape. But courtesy of Apple and Android smartphones, as well as online distribution services like Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network, the transition to digital takes us back to the start.

Consider that the scale of software development has changed. Making blockbuster videogames is presently comparable to building a Hollywood film. With software creation an increasingly dicey bet, innovation has been shrinking, leading to countless predictable sequels from risk-averse publishers. (See 2010’s hottest releases, from Fable III to Fallout: New Vegas, the vast bulk of which are all token follow-ups, spinoffs, remakes, or retreads.) But by connecting developers directly with fans and giving creators the tools to change game features rapidly based on real-time feedback, digital game distribution shatters the fiberglass ceiling. Witness the meteoric growth of titles for devices like the iPhone and iPad, presently home to more than 40,000 games alone.

With a little luck, any single individual or small team can now invent the next Doom or Tetris in his or her basement, just like 15 years ago. Rovio, a small crew from Helsinki, invented the iPhone sensation Angry Birds, a goofy puzzle game that’s been purchased a whopping 6.5 million times. According to Variety, plans to produce toys, TV shows, comic books, and, yes, the obligatory movie, are in the works as well. Not too shabby for a title that few are familiar with, looks like the idle scribblings of a bored teenager, and sells for just $0.99.

Downloadable games such as these are more convenient for gaming fans, capable of offering more value, easier to grab on-demand, and sold for a fraction of typical disc-based costs. They’re also a major win for industry insiders. Using digital platforms, developers can afford to make smaller games that experiment more and push the bar for gameplay experiences and subject matter. Publishers also are finding success by digitally remaking classics with tiny but loyal followings or creating downloadable games for niche audiences. Both are dabbling with new delivery methods, including short, episodic titles serialized like TV shows and optional downloadable content, e.g. new maps and missions, that can keep even yesterday’s hits from collecting dust.

Indeed, many of the field’s biggest advancements are happening right on your own desktop. Sites such as Newgrounds, Shockwave, and Kongregate offer thousands of games free to play in any Web browser. Complementary virtual worlds including Free Realms and Dungeons & Dragons Online let users explore sprawling online universes alongside friends at no charge. Cloud computing solutions like OnLive and Gaikai promise to process cutting-edge games remotely, then stream them back over a high-speed connection even to clunky old PCs, eliminating the need for hardware upgrades. Government organizations, advocacy groups, and nonprofits are beginning to see the possibilities, building serious titles designed to teach, inform, and raise social awareness.

But step outside the house, and the fun doesn’t stop, as more and more location-based services (Foursquare, GoWalla, etc.) and corporate websites incorporate game-like elements. Augmented reality applications, which let you use your PlayStation Portable or cellphone’s camera to superimpose 3-D graphics and information over live video feeds, also are just beginning to take off. Paired with the rise of new gaming outlets such as downloadable apps for TV sets, eReaders, and assorted mobile devices, it all adds up to more high-tech ways to entertain ourselves than ever. Including, that is (hallelujah), a multitude of options better designed to fit players’ changing social and financial priorities, as well as hectic, mobile lifestyles.

With a little luck, any single individual or small team can now invent the next Doom or Tetris in his or her basement, just like 15 years ago.

For those who’ve watched the industry evolve from Atari 2600 to PlayStation 3, Game Boy to Nintendo DSi, these may seem like strange and monumental times. Just don’t tell those whose interests end at reserving a copy of Rock Band 3 or the promise of pricey accessories that transform their body into a living gamepad. We’re on the cusp of a new gaming renaissance. All it takes is a look beyond the joystick, and local software shop, to get a glimpse at its shining promise.

Scott Steinberg is the head of technology and videogame consulting firm TechSavvy Global and creator and host of online video series Game Theory. He tweets here.