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Hey, Look, I'm The News For Lunch

I give a brief interview to Wagner James Au over at GigaOM.

I ran on at the mouth longer than would fit in that, so here’s my complete answers to questions he posed (reposted with permission):

In a nutshell, what do you mean by “where I think gaming needs to go”?

The current game development model is an arms race that few can even hope to compete in, much less win. Especially in the online/MMO space (which thanks to World of Warcraft is now almost synonymous with PC gaming), development budgets are spiraling out of control. World of Warcraft is estimated to have had a $40 to 50 million budget. Age of Conan cost $25 million to make, was Norway’s most expensive entertainment product ever, and is having retention issues – largely because they had to cut corners. $25 million wasn’t enough. And Grand Theft Auto 4 had a budget of $100 million.

The classic engineering dilemma is expressed as a joke: “Fast, Cheap, Good: pick two”. In game development, we *wish* we could pick two. We either crank out licensed console games on a one year cycle that literally burns through developers. Or we spend tens of millions just to keep up with the status quo. Or we have tiny budgets, which result in development that is neither fast nor good, and most of the time, consequently tiny results.

So in short: it’s broken. And to fix this, some out of the box thinking is required. Embracing open source development, crowd-sourcing content, targeting different platforms such as the Web or mobile phones, all of these are valid. But it entails leaving our comfort zones, both as developers… and as consumers. We need to be willing to see movies other than Titanic, and support games that don’t have Blizzard- or Rockstar-sized budgets.

Do you think the core game industry (big publishers/next gen consoles) are going where you think games need to go? Why or why not?

Is the core industry following this trend? Some are. Sony Online I think is going in the right direction with Freerealms – with a business model that’s new (at least in North America/Europe) and aiming at market niches outside the usual young adult male that we pitch to. Xbox Live Arcade is another example of a place where independent game development is thriving, and with it interesting designs like Braid. Raph Koster has been preaching this same lesson for a while – terming the current developers “dinosaurs” facing extinction-level events. And for the most part, he’s right: publishers and development houses are dinosaurs, they aren’t responding to the changing market because they don’t understand how to work things like web technologies into their current income models. So instead they keep doing the same things – just more of them, and with higher budgets. And, meanwhile smaller products like Club Penguin and Runescape post far higher profits than they are.

Do you see a larger trend of hardcore game developers shifting over to the web-based/casual/Web 2.0 space like you? Why or why not?

I think it’s starting to happen, slowly, because nothing I’m describing is particularly new or difficult to analyze. I think Apple’s iPhone App Store will drive a lot of movement towards small projects – like other mobile development, it’s easily done by small teams using small budgets, yet is the trendy hot thing, which gives a perfect excuse for moving into that market. But is Sony or Microsoft going to start putting games up on BigFish? Probably not any time soon.

What’s been the general reaction been among hardcore dev colleagues and fans at your announcement?

Among fans/players – overall happy for me personally, which I appreciate… some disappointment that the game I was working on was cancelled, and some requests for beta accounts in Webwars: Eve already (they had a public premiere at the Eve Fanfest in Iceland last year). As far as colleagues, the Austin job market isn’t a happy place this month, so I think everyone that’s looking (and there are many) are busy trying to find their own place to land to worry about mine.