[In advance of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the latest installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]
NCsoft and Origin veteran Starr Long is probably best known for his work on Ultima Online, but that isn't the only forward-looking credit you'll see on his resume. Long is giving a talk at GDC Next on Nine Trends for the Next Decade of Video Games" -- read on to find out what didn't make the cut, and why he thinks user-generated content (UGC) is a big part of our future.
Patrick Miller: You're giving a talk at GDC Next about the future of games, so this interview is rather opportune! I'm curious: Which trends got left on the editing room floor for your talk?
Starr Long: My talk is focused on current trends that will dominate in the future, so I had to leave out some things that don't have currently strong trending. The biggest edit I had to make was artificial intelligence, because I just don't see enough evidential trends to support a dominating event in the near future. Another big edit I made was cloud computing.
The really interesting trends are going to be mashups of existing trends. My favorite prediction is when 3D scanning and printing collides with user-generated content in games.
PM: What were you hoping to get out of AI and cloud computing?
SL: The AI dream is to have AI that can pass a Turing Test and be fun to interact with at the same time. I still haven't experienced that. Physics as we know it now feels like the limiting factor for Cloud -- the speed of light and all that jazz.
PM: It seems to me that much of the next wave of tech innovation in games is about reducing barriers to entry -- 3D printing and ready access to versatile, cheap electronics for hardware prototyping, Unity and other off-the-shelf dev tools and middleware for easier small-team game development, etc. Which tech barriers do you think will be coming down in the next 5-10 years, and which do you think will remain strictly in the hands of triple-A?
SL: The barriers are already coming down! Right now you can license an engine or middleware for just about anything you need. Some of the middleware is very specialized. For example, there is middleware now for customizable human avatars. Even now, the issue is less about technology and tools, and more about the time and resources required to make content. 10 years from now the only thing that will remain in the hands of triple-A is the huge amount of content large teams can produce.
PM: Much of your recent work with Disney Interactive has been for younger audiences. How do you think the next generation of gamers are going to shape the expectations for the rest of the industry? What do you see children playing or watching now that will have resounding effects on the business of game development when they're old enough to have their own disposable income?
SB: Some of the changes are obvious and happening right now like the dominance of mobile. I think the more subtle changes are related to user-generated content. Minecraft is a true bellwether of this trend, but it doesn't yet have economic rewards for the users for making content. That is going to change, however, as we can already see in the crowdsourcing movement. This upcoming generation is going to expect not only to make their own content, but to be rewarded economically for it. Also, touch interface is an obvious expectation, but camera input resolution is increasing rapidly and it will quickly become as ubiquitous as touch.
PM: You've mentioned UGC quite a few times; it strikes me that while UGC might solve the problem of having players burn through content (especially for online games) faster than devs can build it, it also means you have to have really powerful dev tools and a game that is designed to allow players to make meaningful, unique contributions that don't dilute the overall quality of your game. After all, not everyone who plays your game is going to be a professional 3D modeler, or level designer, and so on.
SL: I think there is a strong correlation here to your previous question about what will remain the domain of triple-A. I think a good argument could be made that triple-A studios will have the resources to make powerful dev tools and a game. Of course, Minecraft is a counter example!
PM: The Internet has gone and disrupted several other content-production professions (speaking as an ex-magazine editor here...); sustaining a professional career in writing, music, and photography, for example, is much different in a world where anyone with a computer or phone can readily publish their work online. So: What happens to the role of the professional developer when UGC becomes more widespread? What happens to a 3D modeler's pay rates when thousands of your players will do your work for free (or cheaper than your salary, anyway) in their spare time?
SL: To be clear, UGC and crowdsourcing can be considered different from each other, but in the future that line will become very blurred. I think crowdsourcing is actually a great thing for professionals as it offers an additional source of income that can bridge employment and/or supplement a regular gig. So while this will be (and already is) disruptive, it also has a huge potential upside.
PM: Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. Is there anything you think we might see come back once the time is right?
SL: Virtual Reality Goggles are something that has been chased after for a long time with no large successes so far. As far back as the game System Shock in 1994, games have tried to make VR catch on. Oculus Rift and Google Glass are harbingers of how this can finally come to fruition but even they are too early.
Registration is now open for GDC Next and the co-located ADC. The first 500 attendees who sign up can save over 30% on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP Pass -- but reduced-price passes are selling fast, so register soon! For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with Thomas Bidaux, Teut Weidemann, David Cage, Warren Spector, Sunni Pavlovic, James Paul Gee, Raph Koster and Chris Pruett.