Decentralized Game Development

There has been a movement towards decentralization of content creation in many industries (Youtube for video, WordPress for writing, Podcasting for radio). These creators and storytellers now have the tools to deliver high quality experiences (without massive budgets) and have access to distribution platforms to find and grow audiences, which was very hard to do in the past. I think there will be a movement towards the decentralization of game development next.

The power of games is in the mechanics, the stories and the world. Even for large game studios, the visionary is usually one or two people (also true for Pixar Movies – see Creativity Inc for more). However, most of the cost and the time for games is spent in the ‘production phase’ for AAA studios which means many independent game makers cannot compete with large franchises.

If small, independent teams had access to free/cheap and high quality game engines, reusable off the shelf content (entire rule based worlds + logic), asset libraries (textures, photogrammetry, user generated) and common game mechanic libraries (leaderboard, ELO) then their focus can be on the story, the world, the core gameplay.

Flexible, cross platform game engines like Unreal and Unity are not quite good enough yet to realize this vision although I think we will get there very soon. I spent some time in 2017 making a VR film entirely in Unity and was really impressed by the power and flexibility of the platform.

My mind was blown when I learned that The Mandalorian was made in a single room and all the worlds were created in Unreal and rendered in real time during filming on massive LED screens (short video below).

Game distribution platforms like Steam, Google and Apple App Stores (and communities like Discord) are going to become even more powerful and influential for creators to find players and engage with them (and each other). Franchises will still be very powerful, but independents will be able to access (niche) audiences much more easily than ever before. I think there will be a lot of pressure on app stores to reduce their take rate as 30% feels much too high. Epic and Unreal have the most developer friendly agreement I know (free to use and then 5% after $1M in sales)

I’m particularly excited for young people (even children) to be able to have access to the tools that will allow them to conceive, create and publish games the same way we publish a blog, podcast or youtube video today. Roblox is a great example of a game creation tool that embodies these principles (30M DAU, 7M Active Developers & $600M Revenue) and has exploded in popularity over the last few years, especially with young people. It still lacks the power of Unity and Lua is not that easy to learn for non-technical folks.

There is a lot of innovation on both creation and distribution that will continue to empower creators. Combined with the general trend in ‘no code development’, this will democratize game development which, I hope, will continue to become more mainstream. The game engines and distribution platforms are very well placed to both create and capture value over the next decade if they build for the long tail of creators.

Finally, more of our social lives are now lived online and combined with lasting effects of physical distancing (from Covid-19) this will accelerate the development of games where people can have meaningful, deeper interaction online. For example, I play Fortnite with my nephew in Paris (he’s 9), from America and it’s a really nice way for us to have fun together and hang out.

My family and friends live all over the world, and I’m rarely physically present with them. If we had more options to socialize over games (both simple as well as immersive) maybe even made by us together, that would be pretty dope.

Making great games

I started working in the games industry in 2010 and joined Pocket Gems as the first product manager to help us create free to play gaming as a new category on mobile. Mobile phones are personalized, portable computers that are carried around everywhere by people, and it made sense to me that for many people in the world, this would be their primary gaming device.

It was a really interesting time to be in mobile games; Apple had just launched in-app purchases, app discovery/advertising was nascent, and almost all causal developers were focused on Facebook/Web vs. Mobile.  In 2010, for some additional perspective, King.com (Candy Crush) which now has an annual revenue of >$2BN (95% mobile) had zero mobile revenues and Supercell (Hay Day and Clash of Clans), which is now valued at >$3BN, did not even exist.

In 2010, in order to succeed we had to create products that had mass appeal and were first to market. People played our games because they were casual and fun at a time where few free to play games existed on mobile. Our design was simple, and often inelegant, and we did an excellent job with merchandising and tactics but often lacked insight into player behavior beyond what our (fairly sophisticated) analytics told us. We lacked empathy for our players and designed products which were inauthentic to us, and over the long term I think this became evident to our players as well.

We have since realized that we will never be a creator of really great products and games if we continue to develop them in this manner. I was responsible for the design and development of one of the simulation games in our last cohort, Animal Voyage, which will end up making a small profit but we don’t consider it a success because we didn’t create a lasting franchise. I was never a player of sim games, and struggled to get into the mindset of the player. It resulted in a product that was inelegantly designed, with too many disjointed mechanics and a lack of attention to player experience. Over time, our players realized this and long term retention was poor despite really strong early metrics (which we used to determine the game’s viability). In the end, lack of empathy for our players and lack of focus on making the game really fun (measured by long term retention) led to the downfall of the product. 

I’m now working on a new title, and the emotions I experience while playing the game remind me of games that I loved growing up. I’m excited to tell my friends about it, I’m excited for our daily throwdowns and I’m really excited about how energetic our team is about the product and the vision. I have come to the realisation that to even have a shot at creating something great you have to have great passion for the product, care greatly for your players and make design decisions that are consistent with your mission and objectives. I have also realized how important it is that your team cares about the product, is deeply invested in the outcome, and makes every decision, no matter how small, with the player in mind. I think that even a team with all the right skills and talents needs this mindset to be able to create something amazing, and I’m personally really excited to be developing new games with this philosophy.

I hope it leads to a game that has many loyal fans and becomes a lasting franchise but even if it does not, we’ll feel much better about the path because it at least gives us a shot at achieving this goal.