Significant platform shifts reset the rules. They change what people of think of as games from one format to another, but also from one kind of interaction to another. So it tends to be the case that new platforms lead with games that are broad and basic. As new platforms make games all about gesture control, or 3D graphics, or always-on internet connectivity, it breeds new appetites for simple-and-new all over again.
For many game developers, that is a problem.
Games like Angry Birds, FarmVille and Wii Sports are examples of resets. They are the equivalent of television shows created at the start of the era of TV. Broad, simple and thematically unchallenging shows used to be the only kinds of show that would get made, with cheap casts and formulaic scripts, because the audience that they were selling to was media-illiterate and considered television to be something simple that they just watched.
When games reset their platforms, it’s like they’ve reinvented television all over again. In the last five years in particular, the number of new platforms has exploded – from the iPhone to the Wii to Facebook – and it has made games almost a completely new thing for many players in the process.
Everything that was the culture of videogames subsequently became junk from yesteryear. This is why indie developers, for example, hate the social game phenomenon. It’s not just that social game developers are making tonnes of money, nor that they are doing so using a metric-led means of development.
It’s because they are doing so with broad and simple game ideas (farms, city sims) that seem completely backward-facing to indie developers. And also because many indie developers work in the old C++ downloadable game universe, which is slowly being left behind by platform shift.
However good news is on the way. The post-platform future is at hand, for one thing, and for some developers the worry over platforms is slowly evaporating. The platform boom that has marked much of gaming in the 2000’s is settling down. Now that we have gestural controls, app stores, social networks and constant connectivity all pretty much in the bag, there are unlikely to be any more dramatic shifts in the 2010s other than better versions of the same thing.
Some say 3DTV-led games, or the 3DS, will be the next thing to upset the apple cart. Maybe that’s true. Others think that tablets and the Mac app store also represent big shifts. Again, they’ll surely have an impact.
Beyond that though?
For the moment at least, I can’t see any revolutionary changes that will fundamentally alter the landscape. Over the next few years, platform excitement is going to slow down. Cross-platform and post-platform development will once again move into prominent position. This means that the focus will return to software as the leader of platforms rather than platforms as the leader of software.
An age of relative stability in platforms is not too far away, and what it means is that games will once again start to build up sophisticated audiences with the cultural expectations more commonly associated with art than just raw entertainment. The people are not just going to want to play Angry Birds forever you know. Just like they didn’t want to play Donkey Kong forever either.
Are you going to be the one to take them to the next stage?