While previous decades have generally been marked by changes in technology, the span from 2010 to 2019 has been marked by massive shifts in how games are made, played, discussed, challenged, and championed.
We spoke to 16 people who’ve had a significant impact on gaming in the past decade to ask them about some of the biggest trends in gaming during that period.
The decline of publisher power
Jack Tretton spent eight years as the head of Sony Computer Entertainment America, steering the launch of the PlayStation 4, which is now the second best-selling home console of all time. Since leaving Sony in 2014, Tretton has been involved in a variety of ventures, including a company that offers financial and business support to independent game developers.
He says the rise of indie gaming has fundamentally changed the face of the industry. Although so-called AAA-branded games from big publishers remain at the core of the business, they now compete against innovative games from small teams, while often borrowing indie gaming’s best ideas.
“Independent game development and the growth of online stores have been one of the biggest changes in gaming. Developers can market directly to gamers without limitations from large publishers on creativity and direction.
“They are no longer dependent on large brick-and-mortar retail for shelf space. They are no longer subjected to payment delays or deductions. As a result, gamers have more choices than ever on what they choose to play and how much they are willing to pay for it.
“There has been tremendous evolution regarding gamers’ ability to have a voice in what gets developed, and they can actively engage and influence projects for the better. Developers can communicate directly with prospective buyers, and enlist their help in creating a game that will be positively received by the largest possible audience.
“On the negative side, large publishers still focus on fewer projects in limited genres. While the narrow-and-deep strategy strives to create well-funded blockbuster franchises, it leaves a void in creative medium-budget projects that offer variety, genre expansion, and the chance for a surprise hit.
“This void is actively being filled by indie publishers, but the medium-size publisher and the extended catalog of mid-tier, mid-budget games has primarily disappeared.”
Gaming’s mixed response to the culture wars
Anita Sarkeesian’s series of YouTube documentaries, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, was the decade’s most devastating and influential critique of games. It helped cause a widespread reappraisal among game developers about how they portrayed women and other underrepresented groups. As a result, games have changed significantly in the last few years, with more women, people of color, and LGBTQ characters appearing in leading roles.
“It can sometimes be difficult to explain just how vicious, violent, and cruel what we now refer to as GamerGate was, but with attacks like these becoming increasingly common online, odds are that you’ve witnessed or read about one in the last couple of years.
“A mob, riled up by incendiary racist or misogynist rhetoric (or both), dogpiles a target’s social media accounts with death threats, rape threats; sexist, racist, ableist, transphobic slurs; horrifyingly graphic images; and endless, borderline incoherent YouTube tirades full of wackadoodle conspiracy theories on why the person they hate that week is actually an evil demon sent specifically to destroy all that is held sacred by the likes of basement-dwelling Reddit users.
“GamerGate was certainly not the first cybermob or online harassment campaign, but it is one of the most prominent and notable examples because it received widespread attention from the international press and public. While women were losing their jobs, enduring the emotional and psychological abuse of brutal, nonstop cruelty and dehumanization, and fleeing their homes in fear, the vast majority of the games industry stayed silent.
“Most major game publishers and developers remained deafeningly silent, and their silence spoke volumes about what really mattered most to them. Much of the games press remained silent until enough pressure mounted that they made statements — milquetoast statements that were insulting in the face of what so many women had endured. Thankfully, in the years since, we’ve seen real change begin to manifest in games, but we’ll never know what impact it may have had if the industry had roundly condemned GamerGate at its peak.”
Technological advancements in VR and AR
Jeri Ellsworth is an inventor and entrepreneur, specializing in augmented reality. She worked on early development of Valve’s Vive virtual reality platform, and invented the CastAR holographic unit. She’s currently preparing the launch of tabletop hologram platform Tilt Five, which comes out next summer.
“When I was working at Valve in the early part of the decade, we did a ton of experiments around augmented reality and virtual reality. Looking back, I’d say that VR technology has progressed about as I predicted, with augmented reality perhaps coming on a little slower.
“In AR, it’s encouraging that we’ve seen hugely popular games like Pokémon Go, which is AR-lite and has raised awareness. Our Kickstarter for Tilt Five is incredibly successful, and we’ve sold 7,000 units.
“In VR, Sony has done well with PlayStation VR, and Oculus Quest is probably the best stand-alone unit, but adoption is still niche. There are still too many friction points for VR that are a barrier to mass adoption. It’s still a big leap for consumers to accept.
“For most people, the headsets are isolating and a little scary. It’s foreign to human nature. It’s hard to imagine most people being willing, removing themselves from the real world and making themselves that vulnerable.
“I’ve always felt that augmented reality would come first. There’s a lot of utility in augmented reality devices that acclimate customers to having their world blended between reality and games. Fast-forward a decade or two, and those players will be more willing to plunge fully into virtual worlds.”
The esports explosion
Travis Gafford began the decade as a StarCraft 2 fan, and ends it as one of the most familiar faces in esports. He’s been a part of the League of Legends scene for most of the past 10 years, as a podcaster, streamer, and journalist. Mostly, he attends League live events, interviewing competitors and team owners while telling the stories and rivalries that energize modern esports.
“In this decade of esports, we started out in Vegas ballrooms with fans going crazy, [and grew] to sellout crowds at Madison Square Gardens and the Staples Center.
“One of the biggest factors that made this the decade of esports was the fact that League of Legends was a free-to-play game. Virtually everyone who’s into PC gaming and remotely likes multiplayer games has probably played this game. It’s democratized competitive gaming and fueled interest in the best teams and players.
“Another is that there are a lot of people who are sports fans, but hadn’t found their sport until esports came along. I know I’m one of them. The spirit of caring about your team has come to games, and it matters to fans.
“Free online streaming pushed a lot of content to those fans, and its importance shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s worth remembering that a lot of streaming and esports content was behind paywalls at the start of the decade, which is unthinkable now.
“Also, there’s a ton of money swirling around. It’s an easy sell to venture capitalists, to bring together sports and video games. But the economics of this business are unresolved, and we may see a correction soon.
“A lot of games companies tried to jump in on esports by announcing that their games are made for esports. But that’s fallen away, with only a few success stories, like Overwatch and Fortnite. Along the way, esports has become more professionalized and maybe more cautious. When I interview players, they’re like regular sports pros now: They don’t want to say anything controversial. Sometimes I miss how it was 10 years ago, but I wouldn’t go back.”
Gaming’s growth and dominance
Jessica Rovello founded online games site Arkadium back in 2001. The company now employs more than 100 people, and creates branded games for leading companies. She is regularly featured in business publications and national newspapers including Fast Company and the New York Times. She says the growth in gaming’s reach and popularity has created opportunities that did not exist in past years.
“The biggest achievement in gaming over the last decade has been its rise as the single most dominant form of media. From platform and device expansion, to demographic broadening, to new monetization tactics, gaming has grown in every way possible.
“A decade ago, the industry generated $11 billion annually; in 2019, that number will be $150 billion, more than TV and movies combined. Games are now embedded in every American household, whether it’s the mom playing word games on her iPad to her son playing AAA games on Xbox, to grandma playing on her favorite games website.
“Games are also at the center of our cultural life. Soccer stars doing Fortnite dances at the World Cup. Politicians cracking Pokémon jokes in the middle of presidential campaigns. Streamers becoming superstars.
“Unfortunately, there are downsides to this immense growth. Toxicity in the gaming workplace remains a reality for many, forced to tolerate harmful crunch cycles and blatant misogyny on a daily basis. For gaming to continue growing on a positive trajectory, the industry needs to do better with inclusion, generating a positive culture and putting that spirit into the games they create so players can follow suit too.”
The rise of new storytelling techniques
For decades, game design has focused on action, with story serving as its handmaiden. In the last 10 years, narrative has moved up in the world.
Chris Remo is currently a game designer, composer, and writer at Valve. Back in 2016, he was part of the team at Campo Santo that delivered Firewatch, a superb narrative game set in the wilds of Wyoming. He also composed the music for Gone Home, one of the foremost narrative games of the decade. He believes the rise of great stories has been one of gaming’s most notable successes in the past 10 years.
“One of the most encouraging recent trends is the expansion of gameplay models that put story at the forefront, without relying on combat models or traditional adventure game puzzles as the ‘real’ mechanics.
“I grew up loving classic adventure games, and I enjoy deeply systemic games that eschew story as well. But now we’re getting more games that truly grapple with what it means for narrative to be the core of a player-focused interactive experience. I think Fullbright’s Gone Home sparked a realization among many people that you can have a breakout hit with that priority. I consider myself fortunate to have contributed to that game.
“When designing Firewatch at Campo Santo, it was important to us to push player-facing systems where we could, within reason and budget, while maintaining that narrative focus.
“I call it ‘reactivity’: the principle that narrative content dynamically responds not just to dialogue trees but to as many player inputs as the design can support. I’ve given a number of talks about this at various conferences like GDC because I’d love developers to continue to push this approach forward.”
A slow recognition of responsibility
Mel MacCoubrey headed up the narrative team that created the wonderful Kassandra (and Alexios) in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. She understands the work that goes into creating a great game, and the extreme expectations of consumers and employers.
“The past 10 years have been phenomenal for gaming. This decade has surpassed all others in its diversity of compelling and convincing games. Games are more popular than ever. But this comes at a price that the game industry is still struggling to resolve.
“So many experiences let us create what we desire, from characters that sort of look like us to our own user-generated game levels. AAA gaming has matured in its storytelling, and indie studios all over the world allow us, as gamers and developers alike, to absorb wider, more diverse perspectives and experiences.
“Our games are bigger, longer, richer, and more beautiful than anything we could have ever imagined.
“But change is needed to address those negatively affected by this success. There are developers who feel pressured to work overtime with little to no compensation. There are gamers that are not safe in their communities, at industry parties, or in their workplaces. There are companies and developers who think and say that their games don’t have a social impact on the world around them. And there are hundreds of thousands of players that are waiting to see their cultures and identities represented on screen.
“So, with 2020 just in front of us, of course I want to surge forward and hope for the best. But it’s not enough to hope. We, as developers, as CEOs, as gamers, must take responsibility and strive for changes in ourselves and in the spaces around us. It’s up to us to make games the very best they can be.”
Streaming, YouTube, and video content
Danny O’Dwyer left his job in game journalism in 2016 to form Noclip, a company that creates video documentaries about games, often featuring interviews with developers. His work is mostly funded by subscribers on Patreon.
“Ten years ago, the economics of video content were terrible. Right now, they’re pretty good. Thanks to advances in low-cost editing software and streaming apps, the barrier is low. The audience is forgiving and willing to experiment. How long that lasts? I don’t know.
“The biggest factor in terms of revenue is Patreon, because the advertising model is not sustainable for someone like me. I’m able to create in-depth documentaries about games for my audience, who want that kind of content and are willing to subscribe and pay small amounts. We’re all becoming used to an online tip jar culture. Even five years ago, even with something like Kickstarter, that would have been difficult.
“Some of my videos are two hours long. and some are 15 minutes. Some are about the most famous games of all time, and some are about obscure games that I just like. I’m allowed to tell stories about games that I want to tell, without the restrictions that were imposed by earlier platforms, like magazines or television.
“I know there’s some snobbery about video. A lot of YouTubers and streamers are aggressively targeting children, and so we’ve seen this voice developing that’s aimed at kids, and it can be grating for the rest of us. It’s bizarre that there’s now this way of speaking that’s specifically associated with game streaming for stuff like Minecraft and Fortnite.
“But I think of that in the same way as MTV was for an earlier generation. It’s background entertainment that sits at the center of where kids see their cultural lives.”
Tim Schafer began his career at Lucasfilm Games (later, LucasArts), where he worked on hits like The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango. He founded Double Fine Productions in 2000, which went on to release Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, Broken Age and Headlander. The company was bought by Microsoft earlier this year.
“Crunch is a big issue. It’s hard to say that it’s particular to the past decade because it’s been going on longer than that, although now it’s more likely to be talked about. In a way, crunch is almost a positive for the past 10 years, because it’s finally being injected into the discourse about how games are made. It’s very public now, even though it’s still going on at large publishers.
“It raises questions like, ‘How do you lead people creatively? And how do you create a feeling of collaboration within creative teams, without causing harm?’
“Crunch isn’t just a problem for big companies. It’s something that indies have to be aware of. For small companies, crunch can be an unhealthy thing that’s self-imposed instead of imposed by a large corporate culture. You’re on your own and you’re inspired by the work you’re doing, and you’re working yourself to death, when really, the smarter choice is to chill out.
“When I started out in college, we were happy to work all night. We didn’t want to be anywhere else. All I wanted to do was to get my game working, and to enjoy that feeling of achievement, and then I’d walk outside and … it’s the next morning? When I got my first job, we thought that was normal. Nothing mattered but the work. Nothing mattered but the quality of the game. And we expected everyone to be just as focused.
“But as a team leader, I began to understand that it was not normal and it was not healthy. Early on as a team leader, I looked around and thought, Wait, what’s the impact of this on the lives of the team?
“So we started to research different production methodologies and more reasonable working conditions. Crunch is something we don’t have at Double Fine. Sure, if someone wants to come in on Saturday and work on a fun idea, that’s OK. And sometimes we have pressure points. But we’re never going to be saying, ‘Oh hey, we’re going to be working crunch for the next six months, so buckle up.’
“If there’s any whiff of that, we chase it down and smother it. It’s something that should not be acceptable anymore.”
Social media and an erosion in trust
In 2014, Laila Shabir founded Girls Make Games, which runs summer camps designed to allow girls to experience game creation, and to give them the confidence to pursue careers in the game industry. It’s been an enormous success, with 10 camps organized throughout the U.S. in the summer of 2019, and more planned around the world next year.
Shabir is also the head of educational games company LearnDistrict, so she’s at the sharp edge of the industry’s brutal commercial realities, too. She sees greater inclusivity as a positive trend in games, but is concerned about a breakdown in trust between game consumers and the game industry. The issue has been exacerbated by a combination of predatory business models and direct social media inclusion.
“The overall inclusiveness and diversity of the gaming community has improved dramatically over the past 10 years. We still have a long way to go, for sure, but there’s no denying that the games industry has a much greater number of unique voices participating than at any point in its history.
“There are cultural and societal reasons for this, but we shouldn’t overlook the technological influences that have helped give rise to new creative voices. As a young developer, you no longer have to throw yourself at the mercy of larger publishers and studios to begin your career — if you have a vision and the will to pursue it.
“Technology also has its downsides. It has been really disheartening to see how much animosity has built up between gamers and developers over the last few years. It seems strange to say in an age where social media platforms make interactions between the two groups easier than ever, but there seems to be a very strong us-versus-them mentality permeating the community as a whole.
“From a gamer perspective, it really comes down to a lack of trust in developer intentions. Things like microtransactions, predatory freemium models, low-effort cash grabs (especially in the mobile markets), and packaging game content behind excessive DLC drops have all contributed to gamers feeling betrayed and distrustful of developers. There’s a pervasive belief that developers are spending more time trying to leech their players’ wallets, rather than developing a great game.
“This ends up really hurting developers who genuinely want to innovate and excite players with their ideas. Mobile games in particular are generally met with scorn by ‘hardcore’ gamers, and unfairly stereotyped for sharing a platform with lower-effort titles.
“Ultimately, both sides suffer from this type of animosity. It’s a symbiotic relationship — we need each other! At the end of the day, the only thing you can do is make great games and support others that do the same.”
Gaming retail turned upside down
The road from large publishers and established contract studios to independence is now well-trod by many successful creators, who use digital marketplaces to reach consumers directly. But those same digital marketplaces can also be traps, both for creators and customers.
“For me the biggest single success has been online marketplaces. Most of my career, and this was true coming into the decade, I was beholden to the pipeline of physical games — a top-down setup which, at its worst, would mean that game designs were driven by the tastes of GameStop buyers.
“The industry moved slowly, driven by this conservatism. Genres were rigid, and you could only tweak a bullet point at a time. Then digital distribution came and freed us from that.
“It ushered in a new era of indie games and allowed creativity to flourish there as it floundered in AAA. It allowed me to go make something like Her Story. It’s why, outside of Nintendo, my GOTY lists this decade have been largely dominated by independent games.
“But digital also ushered in the game-as-service, and the ability for games to make exponentially more cash by abusing people with weak impulse control. Unchecked economics steered us towards the slot machines/arcade game hybrids, honed and perfected, and mobile gaming became everything everybody always said games were.
“The freedom for us to go make fresh indie games was also the freedom for psychologists to come tweak game designs to make billions from gem bags for investors. Now, as the decade finishes, we approach the next cycle: more new space marine boxes, and new platforms, and the emergence of subscription models and what that means for the freedom of the digital stores.”
Post-launch game development
Grammy nominee Austin Wintory is best known for his outstanding musical scores for Journey, The Banner Saga, and Monaco. He’s intimately connected with game developers, not merely in writing music, but in creating an inhabitable narrative landscape.
Like many game developers over the years, Wintory’s work is based on constant pre-release iteration. But increasingly, games are created after they are released. He sees the release of Mass Effect 3 in 2012 as a key moment in this evolution.
“One of the things that makes games so spectacular is the ability to iterate and respond to feedback. In the last decade, as box titles have all but gone extinct, downloading games has enabled patching, updates, and DLC in ways that I believe benefits everyone.
“It gives longer tails to releases, benefiting developers and publishers, who need revenue streams following a big investment upfront. It gives the players more of what they’ve demonstrated they love. Not to mention the obvious technical benefits of patching bugs post-release, etc. Our forebears only wished they could do that.
“The Mass Effect 3 ending situation, in which BioWare responded to negative reactions to the game’s ending by offering alternatives, was a case in point. The ending doesn’t work, and we have ideas to improve it? Patch it.
“But I was fascinated by the outcry, particularly from within the industry, at the dangerous precedent that sufficiently loud angry crowds can force developers to change their ideas. For some, this was the biggest failure imaginable, doubling down on a weak ending with a cowardly reply.
“Part of me can see that, but I also thought, ‘How is that not different from any other user feedback?’ These days, we’re accustomed to seeing games released in “early access” with the stated intention of following customer suggestions, either through data or anecdote.
“I appreciate the Mass Effect 3 situation’s complexity, but I look back on it as an augur of a positive future. In the end, developers can choose to ignore reactions or not. So I don’t see it as a cataclysmic changing of the dynamic. It’s an ongoing evolution as we all, collectively, continue to ask ourselves how we relate to our own creations and to those that consume them.”
It wasn’t that long ago when the question of “can games make you cry?” was still open. Truly emotive moments in gaming were so rare as to be countable on one hand. That’s all changed. It would be difficult to name all the games released in the past 10 years that have been widely received with tears and laughter.
Katherine Isbister heads up an experimental game lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a popular educational destination for students interested in gaming. She’s also the author of the 2016 book How Games Move Us, which looks into gaming’s emotional connectivity.
“This has been an incredible decade for building out a tremendous range of emotional experiences in games, from sublime shared experiences of leaping across sand dunes together in Journey, to the slow unfolding of nuanced emotions in solo narrative-style ‘walking simulator’ games such as Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, to immersion in political allegories such as Papers, Please, to the poignant experience of autobiographical games such as That Dragon, Cancer.
“It reminds me of the rise of the graphic novel — the proliferation of artistry in shaping subtle and engaging emotional moments for players that move far beyond the brightly colored shock-and-awe range that games have had for many years. It’s great to have this broadly expanded emotional palette. I love the bright colors, and also the subtler shades.
“There are also emotions at play in the growing area of augmented reality. People love to move around and play together. The recent success of Pokémon Go shows this. I hope that the next decade will bring renewed design attention to physical/digital hybrid gameplay, and I’m excited to see what developers create in this emergent space.”
Gaming as a social space
Game companies spent more than 30 years overtly marketing their products to young men, even while the games were being played by a rapidly widening demographic. In the last 10 years, the truth that games are a universal medium has finally manifested itself amongst mainstream publishers — taking a cue from trailblazers from the early days of gaming and the modern indie scene. And games have become social spaces for people to interact with one another.
Chet Faliszek began the decade at Valve, writing for hit games like Portal 2 and Left 4 Dead. In more recent years, he’s worked on a variety of experimental projects that seek to push the boundaries of how players interface with games, and with each other within the context of games. He believes the biggest success of the past decade is creating fun platforms for social intercourse.
“Fortnite showed the public at large that gaming is social, gaming is fun, gaming is for everyone. It became apparent to even nongamers that people weren’t just playing Fortnite as the game was intended to be played, but they were also just hanging out inside the game being social with their friends.
“Games aren’t just something competitive or challenging, but also a social space for players across demographics to come together and just simply hang out and have fun.
“Along with that, we’ve seen the rise of cross-play, which Fortnite itself pushed. Microsoft in particular has moved into supporting not just Xbox gamers being able to play with other platforms, but they are also dropping platform exclusives and going wherever the gamers are.
“We all gain by making it easier for players to have access to games across platforms, and [allowing] us to play on the platforms that suit us best wherever we are. These are two trends that I hope will continue into the future.”
Games media communities and personalities
Andrea Rene began her game industry career covering E3 2008 as an on-camera reporter, and went on to work for various major games outlets as a video producer and presenter. Along with Brittney Brombacher and Kristine Steimer, she’s a co-founder of What’s Good Games, a multiplatform gaming content community. She’s also a regular presenter at game industry live events and conferences, including E3.
“The key change in the last decade has been social media. It allows creators to have immediate and direct interaction with fans and viewers. It enables communities to connect with each other across multiple platforms, including YouTube, Twitch, Discord, and Facebook. Audiences can form their own friendships over the games they love.
“The rise of streaming shows how important it is for people who love games to make connections. Yes, people are watching for tips and other benefits. But it’s really about the connection. It’s about the idea that you’re allowed into the lives of the people on the other side of the camera.
“Some of the most tightly knit streaming communities are built by people who are always in chat with their viewers. They work to get to know each other. That’s propelled Twitch to the enormous success that it has today.
“It’s very competitive, and it demands hard work. It’s essential to be in the public eye, which means accepting a lot of work, which means being offered more work. Being a workaholic helps!
“Most of our revenue comes from Patreon, but business models can be a challenging patchwork. It’s essential to be imaginative and to take advantage of innovations. Our viewers love that we bring more than 30 years’ game industry experience, including news media, marketing, development, and PR. We bring a unique perspective on gaming, from news analysis to criticism. But our audience also loves that we have a very positive, upbeat style. We prefer to talk about the things that we’re passionate and excited about versus focusing on the more critical aspects of video games.”
The rise of retro
Mike Mika’s company Other Ocean has a catholic approach to game development, but is probably best known for making retro and retro-style games for all platforms from mobile to VR. The firm’s most recent release was a PlayStation 4 remake of ’90s adventure MediEvil. It’s also working on games for the launch of the Intellivision retro console.
“The game industry is still relatively young, but efforts to protect and promote classic games [go] way back to the early ’90s. More recently. though, we’ve seen a lot more activity in terms of re-released classics, mini-consoles, and mini-arcade machines.
“Partly it’s about nostalgia, but as a father of two, I also know that young people today can and do appreciate the best of the past. I was very happy to see my kids really enjoying some of the games on the SNES Classic Edition. I think it’s also important that these consoles also use the same control design as the originals.
“Console makers and cloud services will, of course, make all their old games available on new consoles and services, but I think we’ll also see a dynamic market for retro controllers that make playing the games feel as authentic as possible. It helps that hardware is now so cheap that controllers and arcade machines can be released at such a low cost.
“We’ve also seen a lot of classics remade and updated for new consoles, like our release of MediEvil. Players want to go back to these games, but they also have expectations now about how games look and how they play, so updates sit alongside faithful versions of the original games.
“Another major factor has been the growth of mobile games. Some of the biggest games of the past decade were heavily influenced by classic game design, and that feeds back into the demand for the original hits.”
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