India - the final frontier for games?
Date: Thursday , December 04, 2008
This is a battle that has raged around the world and has now come to rest on the opposite side of the planet [India] from where I was born. I wrote my first games while I was a high school student back in 1982 so I and many others have been fighting this fight for quite a while now.
What is the fight? It’s really about establishing a new art form. If the 20th century was all about movies, then I believe that interactive entertainment will be the defining art form of the 21st century. Interactive entertainment is the combination of software and the traditional art forms of story telling, music, painting, etc to form something new and much more powerful than what has come before. A medium that the observer doesn’t just passively watch, but instead becomes part of, influences, interacts with and is immersed in.
But I’ll talk more about that later. First some news on the war: we are winning.
Just last month the Pew Research Center in Washington DC published the first comprehensive, nationwide study of video game usage in the U.S. They found that virtually all teens in America play video games. 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls surveyed play games. Half of them reported they played yesterday. The average age of game players in the U.S is now 35 years old.
The dollars generated by video game sales passed box office movie sales several years ago in the U.S. This year we passed music sales.
Which brings me to India. In some ways, this is the last big stop on the interactive entertainment world domination tour. As video games come into your culture and begin to take over as they did in Japan, the U.S, Europe, Korea, and most recently China, what can we learn from what has happened in those other countries and how can you influence how video games are adopted here? What combination of technology and art will unlock the explosive growth in the Indian gaming market?
Those are tough questions and I don’t have all the answers but I do know that if we want to understand what might happen here, we first need to understand what happened everywhere else.
Probably the first country to truly embrace interactive entertainment was Japan. With a booming economy, a government supported embrace of new technology and a playful cultural attitude, Japan became the birthplace of many of the core ideas that underlie all of interactive entertainment today.
In the U.S, imported arcade machines from Japan mixed with those produced by local companies such as Atari. Atari became the first to successfully bring the arcade experience home with the release of the Atari 2600 in 1977. It was incredibly popular and videogame play boomed in the U.S. In a mad rush to take advantage of that boom, game publishers started to rely more and more on licensed rather than original products. Games were developed in 3 months or less and rushed to market, regardless of their quality. This resulted in a huge consumer backlash and prices crashed. What had been a multi-billion dollar market in 1982 was almost completely gone by 1984, along with virtually all of the U.S game companies and console manufacturers. It would take almost 20 years to fully recover from this misstep. The next successful U.S. developed console, the Xbox, wasn’t released until November of 2001.
But it’s not like there was no gaming in the U.S. during that time. Instead, the Japanese moved into the market with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES in 1985. Nintendo carefully rebuilt consumer trust in the video game business by releasing a small number of beautifully crafted, high quality games.
They were followed and challenged first by Sega with its Genesis system and then by Sony with their very successful Playstation.
But U.S. based game development wasn’t dead, it had split into two groups. Some developers worked with the Japanese console manufactures and adopted a more or less Japanese style. These games tended to be light and colorful with strong characters and beautiful attention to detail.
But many others developed for the growing PC gaming market. These games had a much more “American style”. They were often more violent and visceral than their Japanese counterparts. Whole new genres were invented such as the First Person Shooter with the release of games like Id’s “Doom” and Real Time Strategy with Westwood’s “Command & Conquer”. These more mature titles helped break the stereotype that games are just for kids.
While the Japanese consoles were doing a great job in the living room, perfecting mass market appeal and ease of use, in the den the PC games were exploring the possibilities of this new technology, pushing forward in the areas of cutting edge graphics (thanks to the introduction of graphics accelerator cards) and networked play through the rapidly expanding internet.
The release of the Xbox in 2001 was a milestone, not just because it was the first U.S. console in a long time but also because it was built using PC parts (an Intel CPU, a hard disk, Ethernet port) it was the first console that was appealing to traditional PC game developers.
This led to a creative merger of console and PC ideas. The launch title, Halo, published by my group at Microsoft was a PC style shooter brought to the console. Not only did it have a PC style attitude but it also included PC like features such as co-op and networked multiplayer combat.
The merger of these styles continues to this day. With the latest generation of consoles, some kind of hard disk like storage is a necessity and all of the three big consoles support networked multi-play. Consoles became enough like PCs that publishers now commonly release more or less the same game on PCs and consoles.
But PC games had another trick up their sleeves and this is where the rest of Asia comes into the story.
PCs were never broadly adopted in homes in Japan, at least not the big powerful machines that were needed in those days to run PC games, so the market was dominated by consoles.
But In Korea a new idea was hit upon. If the average Korean family couldn’t afford or didn’t want a PC in the home, why not create rooms full of PCs that people could rent when they need them? These “pc-bangs” or cyber cafes were supported by government subsidies and quickly spread throughout the country. Combined with some of the best broadband infrastructure anywhere in the world, the PC-bangs effectively became permanent lan parties. In 1997 Starcraft was released and became a phenomenon in Korea. Whole classrooms meet and play together. All the people from the same floor of the giant apartment buildings play together. Korean entrepreneurs saw the opportunity this market presented; they also saw the rise of the first Massively Multiplayer Games or MMOs in the U.S., specificially with Ultima-Online. This led to the development of very successful local games in Korea, such as Lineage, that were a better fit for their culture.
The Korean style of play spread to China and although the government resisted it to some degree, it soon came to dominate. The pattern was very similar. First foreign games were adopted (in this case mostly from Korea) but then local content was developed and began to replace it. A new style of lighter weight MMOs emerged under the name “Free to Play”. These games rely on players purchasing in game items through micro-transactions rather than on the traditional monthly subscription models of bigger MMOs. Those games are now being exported from Asia into the U.S.
So what can we learn from all that history that might apply to India? I think there are several points to be made. The first is that it’s quite possible to screw it up. In the U.S. in the early 80s the poor decisions of a few big companies managed to destroy what was a thriving business and it took years to recover. History has shown that it is important to take a long-term view, build your market carefully, and focus on releasing a small number of high quality games.
Governments too can be a strong force that can accelerate or suppress the adoption of interactive entertainment. In Korea, for example, the support for high-speed broadband infrastructure and the cyber cafes laid the groundwork for rapid expansion of the business. In the US, the record has been much more mixed.
Every new technology and every new art form has had to fight to overcome the fear of the new. This fear typically shows itself in the form of hysterical claims and censorship. The graphic novel art form or comic book, for example, was so effectively censored in the US in the 1950s that even now, more than 50 years later, books that combine pictures with words are still considered by most Americans to be just for kids. Of course this isn’t the case in many other parts of the world, most notably Japan, where the graphic novel, or manga format is a huge business and encompasses every possible form of content for every age group. For interactive entertainment to become important in India, fighting this misperception that games are just for kids will be an important part of the battle.
In the U.S., the most effective tool we’ve had for managing government intervention in our business has been the creation of the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA. Virtually all of the major competitors in the U.S. video game space saw that it was in their common interest to come together and form an industry organization to lobby government, fight censorship, and support the industry. The ESA created E3, the industry trade show. It created the ESRB, the industry game rating system. It has also been involved in dozens of lawsuits against federal, state and local governments that have attempted to censor and suppress the video game business.
Usually the lawmakers involved haven’t played games and just don’t understand that there are games for all age groups, just as with movies and TV shows. The industry rating system is in place so that parents can know what content is appropriate for their kids. It’s important to have a ratings system in place so that content is restricted to appropriate audiences and then it’s important to fight for artistic freedom within that system.
I’ll give you an example of one such lawsuit that I was involved in a few years ago. In my home state of Washington, a member of the state legislature wrote a bill that would have effectively banned violence involving law enforcement officers in video games. Now this is in the home state of Microsoft, and Nintendo’s U.S. office, but that didn’t stop it from passing the legislature and being signed into law by the state governor. Never mind that any night of the week you can turn on the TV and see television shows and movies that involve police officers and violence, somehow they believed that completely different standards should apply to the video game business. Different rules should apply because this is something new, or that this is something “just for kids”. The ESA came in and had me file a 200 page brief explaining in detail why this law was both ridiculous and unconstitutional and demanding an immediate stay and summary judgment. State lawyers tried to fight it, but at this point in the U.S. the ESA has accumulated enough similar examples from other lawsuits at the state and federal level that this case was a slam dunk. The law never went into effect and not only did the ESA succeed in having it overturned as a clear violation of first amendment rights to free speech, but Washington State was forced to pay the ESA’s legal bills for the case.
You will undoubtedly face similar battles here in India. In the U.S. there have been repeated attempts to tie video games to youth violence, despite the fact that violent crime rates have dropped precipitously over the same period in which video games have grown as a cultural force.
Another point we can draw from the history of games to date is that every major market has developed in a completely different way. What worked in each of these countries was a complex blend of what was possible from a technological point of view and what was acceptable from a cultural point of view. The game business will explode here when someone finds the right mix of those two things, just as it has in other parts of the world.
In Japan the culture was built around Arcades and arcade style play. The first consoles were really just home versions of the arcade games that were popular at the time. In the U.S. it was a culture built around PC games and blended with the Japanese arcade style. In China and Korea it’s all been about networked PC play, with the emphasis on RPG and RPG like gameplay.
So what will it be for India? I don’t know for sure, but the people who figure it out are going to be at the ground floor of something really incredible.
Let’s look at a few technology trends that might influence what is going to happen here:
Powerful cell phones: A great platform for game development and distribution here in India may well be the cell phone. Cell phones are already culturally acceptable but historically as a game development platform they have been challenging. The carriers have a high level of control over what content appears and at what price and the consumer shopping experience has been pretty poor. But things are changing. The iPhone, for example, shows how things could be. It has a big beautiful screen. It has built in accelerometers that can be used as an input method for all kinds of unique, Wii-like game experiences, and best of all it has a simple, powerful and secure shopping method that is much more consumer and developer friendly. Obviously this phone costs too much for the mass market here in India today but it shows where things will be for everyone in just a few years.
Broadband networks: Everything interesting going forward is going to happen around broadband networks. Whether wired or wireless, over cable, power lines, or fiber optics, having a reliable fast broadband network is going to be a necessity for the next big leap in gaming adoption here in India. The days of going to a physical store to buy digital stuff, whether movies, music, or games, is rapidly coming to an end. If there is one thing that the government here in India can do to promote the modernization of this country from a technological point of view it should be to help develop this vital national infrastructure.
Cheap laptops. One of the great things about technology is that it gets cheaper and more powerful all the time. Take this new class of notebook computers called Netbooks. They can sell for as little as $200 but include (or will soon include) everything you need for a great gaming experience. Connected to a powerful broadband network, these machines will become something every student will want to own, and once they are in many hands here in India, they will be a fantastic game publishing platform. Using the network to prevent piracy, as in China and Korea, this is one potential platform for huge growth in India.
Conversely, consoles may not fare as well here in India. They are relatively expensive and have limited functionality compared to a laptop that can be used for work or play. They are also somewhat vulnerable to piracy and although they have superior graphics capability, it may be that we are reaching the level where graphics are “good enough” for most people. Consoles also exact a relatively large tax on developers, which in turn requires that the software carries a higher cost to the consumer.
Cloud Gaming: The last technology that could have a big impact here in India is the concept of server side gaming or to map it onto the latest buzz words, Cloud Computing for Games. The silicon valley company Trion, recently raised over $100 million to explore this space and I expect others aren’t far behind. Basically the idea is to have banks of big server machines that handle the heavy duty processing for today’s complicated games, but to have relatively lightweight and cheap clients in the hands of consumers. This could be the cheap laptops I mentioned earlier, cell phones, or even network connected TVs with 3D rendering capability built in. Effectively this gives everyone a cheap virtual console that plays high end games over their connection to the internet and is highly resistant to piracy.
But that’s just technology. Technology alone isn’t going to change things here in India. You also need content. The market may start, as it did in other countries, by first adopting foreign content, but if you want it to really grow and thrive it will be important to develop local content that is culturally appropriate to the lives and desires of Indians today. For this reason it is vital that you develop within this country the skills needed to create your own games.
And that brings me to my final point. Games aren’t just about technology. Games are the marriage of Art and Technology. If you take out the Art what are you left with? What art brings to games is the same thing it brings to everything else. Humanity. A relevance to us as human beings. A celebration of the things that make us different and the things that make us the same.
When I started making games in the early 1980s there were no artists. Games were made by programmers, usually just by one. In the 1990s we tended to have an even mix of programmers and artists, maybe 10 or so of each. On the game team I’m on now there are 10 programmers and 50 artists and additional artwork is developed out of house, including here in India. These days the programmers work for the artists, building tools to make them more creative and productive.
And this is really the final battle for us in the game business. Not just to conquer the world. After India we’ll pretty much be done with that. No the final battle will be, as I said at the beginning, to establish interactive entertainment as the defining art form of the 21st century. To have it studied and honored as film is today. To have it affect people, the way they see the world and each other. To become the preferred medium for story telling, for teaching, for remembering the bad things that happened, for thinking about how we should treat each other. For dreaming about the future.
So, in conclusion, I hope that all of you out there can be part of it. We are building something new based on new technology, but the goals are as old as people and just as important and they are important to everyone in the world, including Indians.
the author is the Founder of FigurePrints, a company that makes 3D models of a player's characters. Prior to this Fries was vice president of game publishing at Microsoft during much of the Xbox's lifecycle. He was a prime evangelist of the platform to game developers and had an important role in the acquisition of developers Bungie Studios, Ensemble Studios and Rare.