Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Independent Developers Doom: The future of Game Development

With the arrival of the next generation consoles, and with the recent release of Windows Vista, developers for console and PC games alike are called to reciprocate the platform changes with revolutionary new games. The PS3 the X-Box 360 and the Wii provide an unprecedented level of performance, discussed previously, and Windows Vista boasts, “great features like the games explorer, Direct X10 and parental controls”; all this seems like a developers wonderland and simply begs for them to forge some software to take advantage of these exciting advancements. However, the call for new games seems to have only been made to larger contracted developing firms. This move may cultivate a monopolistic style of game development and push the smaller independent “casual” game developers slowly out of business.

Since its’ launch on December 8th of last year, the Wii has been wildly popular and painstakingly difficult to obtain. This trend of low supply and high demand is only a consumer isolated phenomena but also applies to the aspiring independent developers of Wii games. Nintendo projected that by January they would have Development Kits for smaller development firms or at least begin reviewing the applications. This has proven to be untrue. According to Ian Bogost, an academic game researcher and designer, Nintendo, “doesn't have enough kits to cover the demand for all those crappy licensed games, let alone more original work.” Seemingly, Nintendo is ignoring this outcry despite the lack of quality development from its licensed, contracted game makers. However, a lucky few independent developers have indeed received the coveted Wii Development Kits but does this negate the legitimacy of the disgruntled attitude of developers who have not? No. Nintendo projected that by this time they would be reviewing all applications from all parties desiring a kit. This process would allow for a standardized method toward acquiring one, which is what was promised; allowing a few exceptions does not meet the expectations raised by their previous statement. Nevertheless it does show that Nintendo may not be bent on pushing out the little guys.

Similarly the release of Windows Vista has spawned many obstacles for the developing community. Vista is intended to completely replace Windows XP on all desktop PCs making it the new standard for developers. Apparently this news is not inspiring for independent, casual game developers. The operating system has integrated a Games Explorer designed to provide “game players, the safest, easiest, and most fun experiences of any platform,” due to its new fangled features. DirectX 10, the most current version of Microsoft’s graphics Application Programming Interface (API), an upgraded set of security features including parental controls and an entire explorer with specialized functionality just for games, are the focus of the gaming component for Vista. There are many on the development side who feel differently about Vista's approach to games.

Apparently the features can inhibit the gaming experience in many more ways than enhance it. Alex St. John, CEO at Wildtangent, whose website is displayed on the right, brings attention to the, “heavy handed implementation of parental controls” and how it, “ presents several problems for PC game developers,” including his own company. Vista locks down the game installation process in such a way that could greatly discourage people from downloading game content, forcing them to deal with multiple dialogue boxes and a prompt for username and password. These games target casual gamers who need quick and easy access and any hindrance to the flow of this process could deter them from playing. One major criterion for the Game Explorer’s assessment of a games appropriateness is the ESRB rating. For many online game developers “most free family and casual games are 'unrated' because the ESRB rating service, designed for multimillion dollar boxed titles, is too expensive,” making their games instantly unsuitable by default within the new game explorer and creating more red tape for the end user. These new features can be detrimental to the convenience aspect that these games so heavily rely upon. Developers of online games can only wait and hope that either users are not easily frustrated, or that Microsoft makes some form of adjustment.

Independent or not, developers need to acclimate to these new platforms for games; however there seems to be an inherent discrepancy favoring the larger and contracted game makers. Hopefully as the games roll out, independent game makers are granted the resources they need to catch up and work on par with their currently advantaged competitors. If not, game development might lose an invaluable source of ideas and innovation.

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