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The Future of Gaming

A panel of gaming experts look deep into their crystal balls to predict where the industry is headed.

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA).

What does the future of gaming hold? We asked five gaming honchos to reflect on the types of games we will be playing in the future.

Douglas Lowenstein, Steve Dauterman, Scott Miller, Lorne Lanning and Mark Rowland answered the following questions:

What is the next large technological step that will be taken and how will that influence the gaming industry? What do you think gaming (that features interactive animation) will be like in the future?

Douglas Lowenstein also explained current gaming trends that are sure to continue and influence the upcoming years.

Douglas Lowenstein, President of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA)

Heather Kenyon: What is the next large technological step that will be taken and how will this influence the gaming industry?

Douglas Lowenstein: That is a really tough question to answer. We are just at the beginning of the technology curve for 3-D applications. On the console side, I think what you're seeing, and what you will continue to see, is less of a technology breakthrough in the next year or two, because if you follow the industry, you know that this is an industry where technology advances usually occur every three or four years, with the introduction of new hardware. Hardware, obviously is [already] on the market for the next generation, and it has been there for a couple of years now. What tends to happen is the sophistication of the programmers grows by leaps and bounds each year as they have more depth at maximizing the capability of the hardware. It's less a question of any new technological development than it is a question of the new direction that the programmers can take the hardware."

HK: That's going to push people to be a lot more creative when producing games.

DL: Absolutely.

HK: They will need to be in order to keep consumers satisfied?

DL: This is an industry where the end user is an extremely sophisticated buyer, and has extremely high standards. Programmers, developers, animators, everybody involved in the creation of a product is constantly looking to push the creative boundaries to meet the demand of the consumer. It's not simply a question of how the game looks, which is certainly important, but the quality of the animation, the quality of the sound. All of these things are part of the overall game experience. More than anything else, what determines whether the game has a market is the quality of the gameplay.

HK: Now can I have you look five, ten years in the future... What do you think games will be like? Do you think they'll be predominately the same, just more sophisticated? Or, do you think virtual reality will really be here?

DL: I'm not as much a believer in virtual reality as I am a believer in advances in the use of artificial intelligence. I think certainly visually, graphically and otherwise we will, five years out, be looking at machines that are more powerful, faster, with all kinds of bells and whistles that create a visual experience even more stunning and realistic than what we have today. Beyond that, I think that the next great leap forward is in the area of artificial intelligence; the creation of products where users are interacting in almost human-like ways with the characters. That's the area for tremendous technological growth.

There are games out there today that are artificially intelligent, a lot of the product out there relies on the basics of artificial intelligence to describe the gameplay. It's a question of where that technology goes, so that there's a development of characters and personality within the games that are having interactions with the user. This is several steps beyond the kinds of interactions that occur now.

HK: What are the major trends you see today in the industry?

DL: Well, I think that there are several that are noteworthy, that are not so much technology-oriented as they are business-oriented trends. I would say first is the continuing consolidation in the marketplace. As we are in this almost ironic environment now where we are projecting significant growth in the size of the market, at the same time that we are expecting the number of software publishers servicing the market to shrink. I think that's fairly consistent with a maturing industry. It's not surprising, but it is an important business trend that will have an impact on the shape and profile of the business six months from now, and a year from now, let alone five years from now.

Another very significant business trend is the expansion of international markets. We are part of a global business today, more so than ever before. Companies in the United States are generating 50-60% or more of their revenue from foreign markets. Increasingly, they are recognizing that in both the design of products and the marketing of products, they need to think global. I think that's another important trend that will continue.

A third trend, that's profoundly important and gets right to the bottom line, is the explosion of video game consoles. The next generation machines, we are projecting they will be up from 6 million at year-end 1996 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 million by year-end 1997, with every reason to believe that number will grow up to as much as 30 million or more by year-end 1998. Which means that we'll be looking at next-generation video game consoles being in 30-40% of U.S. households, which is getting pretty close to mass-market penetration. That kind of growth, obviously, will power the software side of the business. It means money flowing into the business, more R&D money, a rather historic trend. On the PC side, we are also looking at projections of continued growth install bases of high-end multimedia computers. That too will have a positive effect on the PC games market.

One of the great challenges of the industry continues to be to broaden the market to a more mass-market base of users, beyond the hard-core gamers. And that's starting to happen. We see growing evidence that girls are coming into the market more actively, and in fact, product being very specifically targeted at them. We see well over half of the console market now being made up by people over the age of 18, and over 75% of the PC games market made up of people over the age of 18. These are trends that we think are very positive, very important, in terms of broadening and deepening the user base.

In terms of the other types of products that are showing increased popularity, we certainly have some interesting changes in terms of the types of products consumers are using. This further reflects a broadening of the market, to the extent that strategy and trivia games are capturing a larger market share. I suggest that the user base is older than it has historically been. The younger users have gravitated most heavily towards the twitch, fast action games. I think perhaps the most important trend to watch in this business is what happens with online games. I think that's the $64,000 [big] question. Certainly that segment has potential to alter dramatically the face of this business. It's like the wild west right now. There are a lot of sheriffs in town (laughs).

One other thing I'd like to mentionAbout a year ago, The IDSA created the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. It is an academy of individuals, a separate board, not run by the IDSA, focused on creating a community of the creative segment of the business. It'll be doing its first awards event next year. We believe it will be for our industry, what the other academies are for the other entertainment industries. Within the Academy are a whole series of separate peer groups for the various craft forms. For example, we expect eventually to have a peer group that is focused on animation, and have special awards chosen by people involved in interactive animation, as to the best products and achievements in that segment of the industry.

Steve Dauterman, Director of Development for Lucas Arts.

Steve Dauterman, Director of Development, LucasArts "The biggest technical advance will be the widespread use of accelerated 3-D graphics hardware that is now available for a reasonable price to the home user. These cards are allowing us to make games with real-time 3-D graphics that are becoming more and more realistic. In the next couple of years, there will be machines with this hardware built-in, plus processor speeds exceeding 400mhz. This type of hardware is allowing us to make huge leaps in what the gamer will see on screen.

"I think gamers can expect more and more realistic animation of 3-D characters. With better motion capture techniques starting to be implemented, we will be able to capture thousands of animations rather than just a few hundred that we currently see in most games. Combining this with better artificial intelligence, you will see characters responding and "animating" to specific situations within gameplay. With games like Jedi Knight, we have just scratched the surface on what we can do with real-time animation."

Scott Miller, Head of Apogee Software, Ltd. "I think the next large step is currently happening, and that's the revolutionary advancement being brought about by specific 3-D graphics hardware. If it weren't for this advancement, it would be several years before raw CPU power would allow us to see the advancements in graphics now being seen in games. I think that in a year or two we'll see more than just games use this hardware, we'll see the web (and browsers), Java applications, educational products and other non-gaming products use 3-D hardware to enhance their interaction, appearance and usefulness.

"Five years ago, the computer power we now have on our desk was not predicted to be around until 2002. A new PC now has more power than all the combined computers in Silicon Valley 20 years ago. Obviously, as computing power increases, we'll be able to add more realism and detail to environments, characters and their animations. It's probably only a few years away before we can do the animations seen in Toy Story and Jurassic Park in real-time. That's exciting to think about."

Lorne Lanning.

Lorne Lanning, President of Oddworld Inhabitants "The next level console systems (such as the SEGA DORAL or 600mhz PCs) will allow us to make something really important take place. What will happen is that your individual personality will begin to reflect in the characters you control. This will occur because you will have so many more abilities for basic communication and interactions with the other inhabitants within the virtual world. The co-inhabitants will become much more lifelike in terms of their emotional instabilities and basic attitude responses. The combined increases in character communication, character intelligence, character awareness and dysfunctional character traits, are what will take the gaming experience to new heights. The emotional character will, if designed and executed properly, suck in the gameplayer's emotional attention. These types of qualities are largely non-existent in today's industry and yet these are what we see as the next and most important steps. Once this kind of stuff is experienced, the player will never look back.

"Future gaming is about controlling what will appear to be actual living life forms, not just pieces of animated artwork like we do today. The evolved character will exist within situations and dilemmas that you will grow to care about and even hate. Games will feel much more personal and you will feel much more responsible for the characters within the experience. Whether you are murdering them, helping them, goofing around with them, or having sex with them, you will be seduced by the character's charm in the same way that we have been seduced by the charm of performers for thousands of years.

"Video games today are the metaphorical equivalent to the 1920s peep show. As the peep show grew up and became the major motion picture, so shall the video game grow to become an experience unlike anything ever encountered. We will be free from the moral constraints of the real world, yet feel our actions explode around us in surround sound. The experience will feel more and more like real life as we plunge deeper and deeper into the fantastic. Give us 20 years, and the tastebuds of our mind will grow accustomed to the amplified virtual experience and the rush that accompanies it. Then, just as we love Super Nacho Doritos but spit out the all natural corn chip, we will reject the blandness of the real world."

A screen shot from one of U.K.-based Total Control Media's animated games which is played interactively through a television. © Total Control Media.

Mark Rowland, Director/Owner, Total Control Media "Our games to date have been produced for television and are therefore restricted to one, two or a maximum of four players. Any more and it becomes unwatchable to the millions who would soon switch over or off.

"By delivering to the broadcaster and audience something unique - a 3-D adventure with a combination of game play, speed and video quality that cannot be delivered on home based systems - Total Control Media (TCM) has been able to lead the world in children's interactive games.

"The future is digital. Digital broadcasters will be able to offer the next stage of television-delivered interactive games that will allow thousands of individuals to play games at our quality at the same time, either against themselves or others and not just in their country of origin but around the world.

"TCM has already developed and tested fully automatic programming using 3-D Real Time Presenters, pre-produced and scripted who control interaction 24 hours a day. The programs are easily updated to keep them fresh, giving the appearance of being live, without the usual costs associated with live television.

"The next stage is under development with technology devised by TCM, virtually complete that will allow home interactivity on a massive scale using our automatic system and programming via any set top box."

Heather Kenyon is Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Magazine.