By Fiona Chatteur

Just think about it for a minute – where were you on the April 3rd 2010? Okay so it was around seven years ago. Maybe still in high school, swatting for that maths exam, or in primary school. Well would it surprise you that it was only seven years ago that the first iPad was released? And smart phones, you know – phones that could do quite a bit more than just make telephone calls? Well the term was invented in 1997 for Ericsson’s GS 88 “Penelope”, but smart phones didn’t really take root in the market until the mid 2000’s, starting with the BlackBerry around 2003 (or did I mean CrackBerry because of their addictive nature). The first iPhone? June 2007. Only ten years ago.

The idea of smart phones and tablets had been around for quite a long time, but the mass adoption and marketing of these devices to consumers was a ridiculously short time ago.  In 2012 tablet growth was nothing short of incredible, with sales increasing by 75.3% year-over-year. In 2013, tablets outsold PCs for the first time. Smart phones have overtaken PCs as the preferred internet browsing platform. Last year, tablet sales took a hit, with overall sales reducing 6.6%. Ipad sales dipped 14.4%. I make this point simply to illustrate that the whole business of predicting where an industry is going is a tricky one. It’s quite difficult making predictions about the video games industry when technology will arise that hasn’t been invented yet.  Or maybe it has been invented, we just don’t know about it. Or we do know about it, but can’t accurately predict where it will go.

Steve Fawkner, Australian gaming developer said that he predicted in 2004 that games for smart phones wouldn’t take off. He laughs at how wrong he was. In 2012 he ported two games including his popular PuzzleQuest to tablet/smartphones sold through iTunes. He sold “a couple of million units”. These are numbers that would have been cause for massive celebrations if his PC games had sold as well. But not so for the low cost app market, developers often struggle to make money, particularly on platforms such as GooglePlay and the Microsoft store. The whole video games industry has been revolutionized in the past few years and as is the way of industries in their infancy – we don’t really know what it’s going to be like when it grows up. It might be that hard lessons in the freemium economy are being learnt and smartphone gaming and developers will have to start charging realistic prices for their product.

The industry is going through a period of change. The large behemoth gaming companies have given way to sleeker independent developers. The rise of the “Indie” has been facilitated by a revolution in publishing and distribution networks. Gone are the days that the only place you could buy a game was at the local mall, distributed by large publishing companies that took a chunk out of your profits, with all the costs and logistics involved with physical CDs in boxes. Now we have Steam, we have GooglePlay, we have iTunes/App store and the Windows Store both for phones and Windows 10. (However, the Windows phones have been missing in action for some time now.) All you need is a credit card or PayPal, an internet or wifi connection and you’re free to play.

The future of gaming consoles is murky. Xbox took a hit in 2016, with its gaming revenues decreasing 3% in the last quarter of 2016. Sony Playstation is doing better, looking to reach its target of 7 billion Playstation 4 consoles by the middle of this year. However Sony overall is not doing so well, its profits were down a massive US $1.8 billion than the same quarter of 2015. That’s an 84% drop in profits. It seems that the gaming sector of Sony is heavily subsidising its other divisions, with its movie division having taken a massive loss in 2016. Nintendo, on the other hand, saw insane profits from its augmented reality game Pokemon Go. By the end of 2016 it saw $1.2 billion Australian dollars in consumer spend.

So what is the future of gaming? I put is question to three greats of Australian gaming – Roger Keating, CEO of Strategic Studies Group (SSG), Australia’s longest running gaming company, Gregor Whiley, Producer at SSG and Alister Lockhart, a multi-award winning art director.

Whiley suggests the rise of new genres due to enhanced realism. “It has always been possible for artists to create graphics that exceed the capabilities of computers to usefully display them, and this situation will continue for some time. However, today’s systems are approaching a movie like level of realism that was unimaginable in a world of pixel art. I think that the limitations and compromises forced on artists by hardware capabilities, while not removed, are diminished in their severity. We can create, animate and manipulate our new digital worlds in new ways that make new genres possible.”

While Whiley’s statements are certainly true of PC and consoles, the limitations imposed by the lighter tablet and phone systems means that the “loosening of the reins” in terms of file sizes, polygon counts and available RAM has suddenly halted. Games developers have to suddenly again pay attention to data optimization in order to get their games to run on smart phones. Data optimization is again a necessary evil.

Lockhart says that much of the high-end graphics capabilities which in the past were the realm of multi-million dollar studios are now available to anyone with a reasonably high-end desktop computer. Quality computer graphics are needed for marketing purposes, “you need good graphics for a good game, otherwise it won’t sell, but if it’s a bad game, good graphics aren’t going to matter a damn. The game design it’s really a form follows function thing. On the other hand, a poor graphical presentation for a really good game can damage its chances, because a lot of people will judge a book by its cover they will judge the product by the first look that they have. If they’re not impressed by the first look, then they won’t explore further.”

That said, Lockhart thinks that in-game graphics are going to get better and better in the future. “Until they can’t be easily discerned from actual shot video. But I don’t suppose it will do a lot to improve game play. In the past ten years or so there’s a great many games that have come out, better and better graphics every time, same game.” He notes that the same has occurred in the movie industry. Advances in computer graphics has made digital storytelling more attainable, but crisper graphics doesn’t necessarily make for better movies. “In a sense we’re sort of going backwards. Many horror movies for example that are shot at 60 frames per second, they look like they’ve been shot on video.” Lockhart acknowledges that this might be a perception issue, because people of his generation association the “crisp, clean, high frame rate aesthetic with cheaply produced video. That the next generation as they become used to that look will associate it with a big screen movie”.

Keating agrees with Lockhart. He says that “essentially to make good sales, you need to have good graphics. It is a bottom line and that has not changed.”  He acknowledges that a very few people have gone retro and have achieved good sales with text based games, but that is an extreme exception. He cites Minecraft, which could not be said to have great graphics, but it has swept the world and has done spectacularly well – so there are exceptions to this rule. “But essentially, I would say if you want to put it onto any one thing – graphics will sell a game.”

When asked where he sees in-game graphics going in the future, he says that no-one really knows. He sees graphics getting a lot more realistic but at the moment we are at a stage that if we were to get 10 times the realism in graphics no-one is going to care. Graphics look very good now. We are at a stage where no-one really cares how big a program is, the graphics are able to display, the sounds are there. “So it’s going to be up to the imagination of the individuals designing the games and the companies involved to decide what is going to make the game a success.”   He says that when World of Warcraft came out, it was a shattering game (not only because of its addictive nature). They chose a comic style as opposed to a realistic style, and even now that style is very successful. He doubts that Blizzard will break away from that particular formula. “If you wanted to look at one single rule about a game being successful, graphics would be it.” Keating says that he puts computer graphics at the very top of successful games, now and in the future. “I’d put graphics at the top, then you’re down to things like game play.”

Keating believes that within 10 years, all games will be open-world games. You will be able to connect to anyone via any game you wish, on your local network, to anyone around the world. Even on smart phones. He isn’t into immersive environments such as the Occulus Rift, HTC Vive or Playstation VR but feels that will satisfy part of the market. He doesn’t believe it would be a generalized gaming platform. He also notes that he didn’t think Nintendo’s WII would have a great uptake, and notes that it wasn’t widely adopted in the gaming community, but was popular with the general consumer. It succeeded because it created a market for itself, primarily among younger users.

New technologies such as virtual and augmented reality have created a new environment for gamers. Games that involve running around the real world, such as Pokemon Go will become increasingly popular. The future is co-operative, collaborative with real-time communication between friends in the gaming environment. The future of PC games is looking bright because the funding model for PC games is currently more secure than apps. This past year has seen a surprising uptake in PC games, with the overall sales of PCs down, but PC games up. With basic computing functions being taken by smartphones and tablets, the PC is now becoming a “power user’s tool”. This re-emergence of PC games could be a reaction to the limited capabilities of mobile gaming, leaving users with a richer gaming experience.

So who knows what the future holds? We might see the virtual and real worlds merging with the Internet of Things so that we have a gaming environment that extends beyond screen technologies. We could see PCs further becoming the domain of specialist users and consoles projecting gaming environments beyond the screen. Could we see a future where it is difficult to differentiate reality from game?