When it comes to video games, 10 years feels like an eternity.
In the past decade, we’ve watched independent game development grow from a niche, smoldering corner of the market to a raging wildfire spreading ceaselessly across the world. We’ve seen retail releases dwindle in favor of digital downloads. We’ve looked on as gaming demographics have shifted wildly to include almost everyone we know.
Technological advancements have given us 4K resolutions and smoother performance, opening a door to allow more and more to be packed into a single game. In 2010, Call of Duty: Black Ops took up about 12GB of hard drive space. In 2019, the remake of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will clock in at an astounding 175GB.
Outside of the gaming sphere, cultural shifts and the rise in popularity of social media and streaming have left their mark on the industry both directly and indirectly.
All of this has affected game development in various ways. The makeup of game development teams have changed; the kinds of games being made have changed; the ways games are produced, marketed, and monetized have changed; and relationships between developers and gamers have changed.
Brenda Romero, an award-winning industry veteran who helped create the classic series Jagged Alliance and is currently working on the upcoming game Empire of Sin, said all the shifts in the past decade have been unbelievable.
“Having been in the industry now nearly 38 years, it seems like the last 10 years have been such a rapid pace of change,” she said.
Of all the changes and additions over the years, there is one that’s had the biggest overall impact on the industry, both for developers and consumers: Unity.
The indie game evolution
Unity is a game engine that first hit the world in 2005 as an affordable and approachable option for game developers who wanted to make games for MacOS. Over the next few years, it expanded into more and more platforms, from smartphones to the Nintendo Wii.
The free version of Unity allows anyone with a computer to try out game development for themselves. This created an explosion of independent game development.
“Unity has made game development much more accessible for many more people,” Romero said. “There’s just been a huge, huge rise in the number of independently developed games, and many of them are done on Unity.”
“A game like Untitled Goose Game I don’t feel would have existed a decade ago”
After indie megahits Limbo and Super Meat Boy hit the world in 2010, there seemed to be a steady stream of fantastic indie games, some of which were made with Unity. One of the first notable Unity games, Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone, came out in 2012. It went on to sell over a million copies and was nominated for three BAFTAs, winning one.
Tommy Refenes, co-creator of Super Meat Boy and current developer of the upcoming game Super Meat Boy Forever, said that there’s a stark contrast between how the industry looked at independent games back when Super Meat Boy came out and today.
“A decade ago, it was a struggle as an independent developer to get noticed by any publisher or platform holder even with a stellar game,” he said. “Now if you have a worthwhile game, publishers and platform holders will often try to outdo one another to make sure that they are the platform/publisher that is associated with the game. It’s more in line with how it should work.”
Just look at the Nintendo Switch eShop right now. There’s an that’s packed full of successful and critically acclaimed independent games, many of which never would have seen the light of day at the beginning of the decade.
“I think recent years have hammered home that not everyone that plays games are dudes that like shooters,” Refenes said. “We still have a ton of shooters, but we also have a ton of really off-the-wall, interesting, and chill games. A game like Untitled Goose Game I don’t feel would have existed a decade ago, or if it did it wouldn’t have the appeal that it does now.”
While talking about indie games of the past 10 years, Romero brought up some of her favorites made in Unity, including Gone Home, Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn, and the heart-wrenching That Dragon, Cancer, which Romero compared to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
“There’s just so many different stories we’re getting to see in games now,” Romero said. “Because of the smaller game engines that are out there, we’re just giving rise to a lot more voices and a lot more interesting games… we’re not just so focused on the industry part of the game industry. That’s really what helps the medium itself to grow.”
Ripples across the industry
John Hight is currently the executive producer of World of Warcraft. He’s been at Blizzard since 2011 but got his start in the industry in the early ‘90s and has worked on huge series including Command & Conquer and Neverwinter Nights, as well as helped publish indie games like Flower and Flow.
“The indie game movement, which really happened 10 years ago, was an opportunity for new, fresh blood to come into the industry,” Hight said. “I think it changed a lot of the way we innovate within the industry.”
In 2010, Hight was the director of product development at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio and oversaw the release of God of War 3 on PlayStation 3. It is perhaps the pinnacle of violent hypermasculinity in video games; the protagonist Kratos rips and tears his way through the lands of Greek mythology to bring an end to the rule of the Olympian gods in a bloody spree.
In 2018, the God of War series was given a fresh start. Steeped in Norse mythology, the newest God of War game opens somberly with the death of Kratos’s wife. Throughout the game, Kratos bonds with his son Atreus as they work toward their goal of spreading her ashes on the highest peak in all the realms.
The two games are a stark contrast to each other, not only showing the growth of a character across a series, but the maturation and growth of an industry at large.
The diversity of voices in the industry have changed how characters in games look as well. Brenda Romero brought up her own son and how the shifting industry and diversity has impacted his experience.
“Ten years ago my son, who is mixed race, couldn’t create a character in this one specific game with his hair and his skin color,” she said. “He could deform his face in all kinds of freakish ways, yet he couldn’t make a character look like himself. I find that’s not as common anymore. He can point to games and see himself in those games.”
The ability to see yourself represented in the things you engage with is incredibly important. It’s something Romero experienced as well.
“I couldn’t play as a woman in a video game until 1987,” she said. “It was always rescuing the princess and so on.”
Along with welcoming all kinds of players into games with better representation, games are showing more ubiquitous accessibility options, with some indie games leading the charge and making developers aware of the necessity of making their games accommodating to all kinds of players, Tommy Refenes pointed out.
“Celeste, I feel, paved the way on that front by making an extra effort to ensure the game could be enjoyed by as many people as comfortably as possible,” he said. “Now you are seeing more and more accessibility options in all kinds of games. Super Meat Boy Forever has accessibility options that I wouldn’t have thought to put in a decade ago.”
The rise of streamers
At the beginning of the decade, there still weren’t many alternative ways to get news and impressions on upcoming games outside of a handful of mainstream websites and magazines. Many sites that cover games now (including this one) didn’t have a gaming section back then. (In some cases, those sites didn’t even exist.)
By relying on ads and editorials, there was a lot of pressure to deliver some razzle dazzle, as John Hight put it, in order to appeal to audiences.
“You had to make sure your demo really kicked ass or your print media was amazing,” Hight said, “or you have commercials that don’t even really reflect what the game was about at all… for me as a developer it was really kind of a pain in the ass.”
“Between Twitch and YouTube, it’s radically changed the way games are launched”
But now that streaming video games has become so popular thanks to Twitch and YouTube, the former of which launched in 2011, developers don’t have to worry about those elements as much anymore.
“Streamers are gonna sit down, fire up your game, they’re gonna play it from beginning to end, and people are going to see it,” Hight said.
Brenda Romero noted that developers who may not normally be comfortable being in the spotlight so much have to play by these new rules, too.
“It’s a new thing for me,” Romero said. “As game developers, most of us spent our lives behind screens, not interacting with humans… But now, to promote our games, plenty of game developers are setting up streaming studios in their office. Between Twitch and YouTube, it’s radically changed the way games are launched and, I deeply believe, changed the games that are even getting funded.”
There is a worry, of course, that if someone watches a stream of a game, they won’t buy it. Both Romero and Tommy Refenes said that people who are watching a stream of, say, an adventure game, probably aren’t going to buy it anyway.
But there’s a chance that watching the stream could influence them to purchase it.
“There are let’s play videos with millions of views,” Romero said. “If one percent of those people who watched it bought it, that’s not a trivial thing.”
“I really think it’s just another potential marketing opportunity more than anything,” Refenes said.
New ways to make money
Free-to-play games barely existed before this decade. The idea that a major developer would put a game out into the world and just hope someone would pay for something inside of it later on didn’t seem sound.
It turns out that offering up a game for free to start can get a lot of people interested in it, Brenda Romero said, and there are ways to entice people to pay for content, whether that means figuring out ways to target the whales and big spenders or throwing in things like loot boxes — boxes (or other abstract ideas) that contain random in-game items that players can pay to open.
As loot boxes in particular became more popular as a way to monetize all kinds of games from competitive shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to mobile puzzle games like Dr. Mario World, conversations have arisen about the ethical implications of these monetization methods, which look a bit like gambling.
There’s an important balance that developers have to keep in mind
“There are interesting issues that have come up regarding ethics in games,” Romero said. “Are loot boxes OK? Is this free-to-play pressure OK? And how does that affect people who play the game? How is that affecting the overall game experience if it’s pay-to-win? These are issues that certainly came to the fore in the last few years. And I wouldn’t say that they’re even answered.”
Another method of making money that’s become popular in recent years is the use of season passes and battle passes, an optional periodic purchase that players can make in order to allow them to unlock new items. Fortnite’s battle pass system is part of what makes that free-to-play game such a monetary behemoth and what keeps people coming back month after month to see what’s new.
There’s an important balance that developers have to keep in mind, because if you allow players to buy items with real money and you aren’t judicious about what exactly they can buy, you can ruin a game, John Hight said.
World of Warcraft seemed to find that sweet spot with the WoW Token, an item that players can buy for $20 and sell on the in-game auction house in exchange for gold. The player who bought it with real money will get a hefty sum of gold, and the player who bought it with in-game gold can turn around and redeem it for a month of in-game playtime (which is normally $15 per month).
“It effectively allows players who maybe didn’t have the financial means to pay for a subscription every month to still be able to play and get gold in the game itself and create a market between them and the players who were willing to pay for their game time,” Hight said. “I can see firsthand how it’s allowed a lot more people to be able to enjoy the game and not think, like, ‘Hey am I gonna give up having bread this week in order to play WoW?’ They’re not going to have to worry about that.”
The future is bright
With so much in the industry growing and evolving, there seems to be a consensus that this moment, standing on the precipice of 2020 and a limitless future of innovation and creativity, is an exciting time for developers and players.
Around 2010, Brenda Romero was working on a game for a company that has since gone out of business when the topic of crunch — an intense period of development marked by long hours and few days off — came up in the office.
“I remember going into a meeting and they said, ‘We’re going to crunch all January and February,’” she said. “And I said ‘Why? There’s no reason to do this.’”
That kind of mentality — the glorification of crunch — is going away. John Hight said that as the industry and developers mature, people have discovered that there’s more to life than just making games for 18 hours a day, and that’s important to remember when you have a team of people working together to create something.
“We didn’t want to do that to our teams,” he said. “We wanted them to have a work/life balance and that was way healthier, and, oh, by the way, it actually attracts a much more diverse workplace because not everybody is willing to make those kind of sacrifices.”
Tommy Refenes said that the increased diversity in the games industry has helped cut back on poor workplace conditions too, saying that the industry has moved away from being a boys club with a “work yourself to death” vibe. He also pointed out that social media has helped conversations about workplace conditions go public.
“Now when an employer does something shady it usually doesn’t just stay under the radar,” he said.
There’s still a ways to go, of course. But things continue to get better. The culture around gaming continues to grow, and better, cheaper technology continues to allow more and more people to engage with games. The games themselves are becoming more diverse thanks to these diverse voices that are finally getting their chance to shine.
“You get more ideas coming to market and finding an audience and in turn finding success,” Refenes said. “It’s kind of a great time for games.”