In the recent 30th anniversary issue of Edge, various developers shared their thoughts on the future of gaming, with particular emphasis placed on the role of AI. But they also shared more general thoughts on where gaming is at right now, and where it'll be in the next 30 years. One developer, former EverQuest 2 creative director Raph Koster, painted a particularly bleak picture of gaming's future.
His opinions are based upon an experiment he ran in 2018. "I asked everybody I knew in the industry to secretly tell me their game development budget," he says. "And I gathered all of the data together, inflation adjusted all of it, and put it on a graph." Through this, he discovered that game development budgets are growing exponentially by ten times a decade.
In short, games are in an expensive period right now, and that affects the likelihood of developers taking chances on new ideas. "During those expensive periods, innovation tends to go away, because the return on investment for innovation on game mechanics is terrible. I'm hopeful that in the next ten years we'll see a platform break of some sort that resets things." It's not entirely clear what Koster means by "platform break" but since the latest generation of consoles is only a few years old, he presumably means an entirely new entrant into the market that disrupts the current status quo.
Alongside this, Koster also predicts that the service-model of game design isn't going away anytime soon, and this will have a negative impact on narrative-driven games. "I prefer playing narrative games—despite what I make," he says, which is surprising to hear given the ambitious sandbox nature of previous projects he's worked on, like Star Wars: Galaxies and Ultima Online. "But it doesn't matter. I think they're disadvantaged in a market like that."
Koster doesn't just discuss the games industry itself, he also talks about wider economic and environmental factors, and how those are likely to impact upon gaming. "What happens when everything is a smart device? That’s going to change our world in radical ways. Over the next 30 years, humanity will be making pretty fundamental decisions about whether or not to go extinct. I would not be surprised if many of those new ways of interacting with the world around us [aren’t] repurposed toward trying to save the world."
He cites an example: "Could planting trees end up being a game mechanic in a large, world-spanning MMO, because the seedlings you plant actually have sensors in them, and you can actually see your stats?" In the very extreme, Koster predicts that gaming itself may become prohibitive due to a limitation on energy. "We're going to go into an energy crisis, and we may not be able to afford videogames as power drains any more."
These more extreme claims seem highly speculative. But when it comes to the shorter-term forecast for the games industry, he's not alone in his thoughts. Edge also spoke to Jade Raymond of Haven Studios and formerly Ubisoft. She agrees that we’re in a period of games where innovation is slower and scarcer. "History has shown that people tend to overestimate the speed of change. There's a high chance that many of the games we are playing ten years from now are games that are in development right now." She cites her own experience with Rainbow Six: Siege, which is itself a decade old. "Siege is still one of the most popular games today, over ten years later."
It does seem true that we've entered a period dominated by seeming "forever games" like Minecraft, Fortnite, Destiny and so forth, which take up vast amounts of resources to run, and occupy the attentions of millions of players. But both Raymond and Koster's perspectives are focussed on the AAA space, where innovation isn't exactly common in the first place. One of those forever games, Minecraft, came from a solo dev. We've also seen at least one game this year that could trigger a shift in how big-budget games are designed, namely the mighty Baldur's Gate 3.
Ultimately, the problem with true innovation is that it's not predictable, and while circumstances with AAA developers might make internal innovation less likely, that doesn't stop independent developers from presenting ideas that pivots the whole industry in a new direction.
If you're not familiar with Raph Koster, he's an interesting fellow. One of the bright lights of the early MMO scene, Koster was lead designer for MMO trailblazer Ultima Online, before serving as creative director of the highly innovative (if ultimately doomed) Star Wars: Galaxies. He also worked as Chief Creative Officer of EverQuest 2, a fine iteration over the original, massively successful EverQuest, albeit one overshadowed by the monster success of World of Warcraft. He's a man with big ideas, and he's detailed those ideas extensively on his website. I particularly recommend his essays on the development of Star Wars: Galaxies, which provide fantastic insight into one of the most interesting games of the era.