Category: Opinion

Subversion RIP

It’s a great shame to hear that Introversion Software, a London based indie game developer, have decided to put on hold Subversion, a game of great interest to anyone involved in PCG.  The company has decided to take some of the technology they built for the project and focus on another game called Prison Architect, which should be good news as they’ll undoubtedly be making sensible commercial decisions.

There is a full interview here, and has many topics worth considering for an indie developer, or anyone involved in PCG.

  1. Worlds and Levels created by PCG techniques are, more often than not, really boring to play.  This is a biggie – you can make a computer generate the most beautiful landscapes, plants and water features, but this stuff has a tendency to repeat itself to infinity, which is no fun at all.  Even the makers (well publishers) of Elite limited the number of galaxies from the possible 256 million to only 8, on the basis that the player would lose all interest in the ridiculous scale.  Successful PCG games like Minecraft ensure that the players can design their own unique architecture over the world of mathematics, this generates interest for other players.
  2. Making something more realistic does not make it more fun.  Everyone knows that the KISS (keep it simple stupid) mantra is the most important in UI, UX, product, game, or pretty much any other design, however it’s very difficult for an artist to follow this simple rule, even more so when there is an elegance to making the environment fully integrated to the point otherwise designed laws naturally emerge.  I’ve been following Introversion for a long time and I can see the quandary they would have been in: as proponents of PCG as a necessity to make up for lack of human level designers, it became more tempting to generate everything well past the position of utility.
  3. It’s a highly complex (possible unsolvable) problem to simulate architecture that would otherwsie been created by a human (or even animal) builder.  The most immediate uses of PCG may be as a tool to generate ideas that human (or crowd of) designers then curates by selecting and modifying into something useful.

The direction of my research is in creating software agents that can assist human designers (or crowds of them) generate more interesting levels, either by evaluating the raw creations of PCG, or perhaps by simulating human behavior in shaping their environment, or even learning how designers create content and replicating these fuzzy techniques.  Introversion software have been pioneering these techniques for many years, and so I wish them the best in commercial success with Prison Architect so they have more time to play with creating virtual worlds.

There’s little doubt that gaming is moving towards the mobile and social platforms, and every day there is a new piece of analysis or opinion re-iterating this and suggesting bad times ahead for the console development houses and publishers.

There’s a very detailed presentation here from Digi-Capital which provides a good review of the state of play and who’s investing where.  In summary, there are four main ways to get revenue from consumers:

  1. Massively Multiplayer Online games, like World of Warcraft, where people pay a subscription of £10 a month and generally play for 15 hours a week on a PC.
  2. Classic computer games, usually bought on a CD / DVD in a shop for about £40, although moving towards download services which opens it up to independent game developers.  Played on XBox, Sony, Nintendo, PC.
  3. Mobile games, sold for about $1 – $10 on iPhone, Android, BB etc.  Usually much smaller experiences, can be built very quickly, and use features of the phone to create new fun games.
  4. Social games, which are usually websites, most often built in flash and available free to the customer and supported by advertising.  Now transitioning into the social networks where more casual gamers use the game as a way to interact with friends.

It should be noted that while there are a lot of people declaring the end of the console, in actual fact this sector has a lot of loyal gamers, and while they may decide to buy one less game a year due to having less pocket money (or having spent it on a few Angry Birds mobile games), console games remain a multi billion dollar industry still larger than the film industry.

However it cannot be denied that the mobile and social gaming markets are growing incredibly fast, from small independent studios through to the larger publishers translating existing game characters to the new platforms weekly.  While growth is good, there may be a note of caution attached to looking at the current top players.

Zynga are the hottest company in social gaming with ridiculous growth and early signup stats, yet players seem to be moving on, and not often coming back, causing problems for Zynga’s intended IPO this Christmas.  This may be a factor of the simplistic nature of the current crop of social games, certainly there are high expectations of more sophisticated social games such as Civilisation, which may usher in a wave of traditional games to be ‘socialised’ and push the boundaries of what’s possible with friends.

Another high profile company is Rovio, makers of Angry Birds, who have made many other games yet are concentrating on building up the Angry Birds property through as many merchandising deals as possible.  One reading from this is they feel that it will be hard to replicate their initial success with another game franchise, even with their own advertising network of 400 million users.  The obvious alternative is that now they have established characters with a whole generation of casual gamers, they’d be crazy not to cash in with the merchandising, and don’t need to rush out anything which won’t be at least as successful as their last hit.

Either way, both companies are providing entertainment and inspiration for developers and investors alike, the mobile and social platforms are becoming firmly entrenched as respectable gaming environments, and together this should ultimately breathe new life into the gaming industry and open it’s doors to a new generation of players.