15 years of development: The events that changed everything

15 years of development: The events that changed everything
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

December 17th 2015 at 3:45PM

As Develop celebrates 15 years of service to the games industry, visionaries from the games sector look back – and forward – to consider how much games have changed in the past decade-and-a-half.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of Develop magazine. That decade-and-a-half has flown by and, while we launched before Microsoft had delivered a first-gen Xbox to the public, it all feels like yesterday.

But rather than blow Develop’s own chiptune trumpet, we’re using our 15th anniversary to look back at how far games have moved forward since we published issue one.

We gathered industry luminaries, from veterans and indies to giants of the smartphone era, and asked them two simple questions.

Firstly: What is the most important change in the games industry from the last 15 years?

Then we asked for a rather more daring response: going out on a limb to predict what the next 15 years hold in store.

Ilkka Paananen

Founder and CEO, Supercell 

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

Obviously, for us, it has been the rise of smartphones, tablets and the app stores that go along with them.

Without those, and the explosion in mobile gaming they led to, we at Supercell wouldn’t be making the games we make today.

That’s true for a lot of other developers too – those platforms have made it easier than ever to launch a game globally and allowed so many studios to flourish and succeed. They’ve also opened gaming up to so many people who weren’t traditional gamers – everyone has a gaming device in their pocket now.

As a proud Finn, the other big development that I am very happy about is the growth in the Finnish gaming scene over the past 15 years.

It was in 2001 that Remedy’s Max Payne became the first truly global game developed in Finland and since then the trajectory has been phenomenal. Now we have over 250 active studios, directly employing over 2,500 people and generating almost €2 billion in annual revenue.  

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

It’s really impossible to say with any certainty what the future will hold, especially when it comes to gaming.

For mobile games, it is still very early days. I am sure that, over the coming decades, we, as an industry, will invent many new types of gameplay.

The one area that I am particularly excited about is social gameplay and how that will evolve; we’re still just scratching the surface on what will be possible given that the mobile platform is on an always-connected device that everyone carries everywhere.

As for us at Supercell, we’re going to keep doing what we’ve always done – making games that our players want to keep playing for years. What those games will look like in 15 years’ time is anyone’s guess, but you can be sure we’ll be there making them.

Rhianna Pratchett

Freelance Scriptwriter and Narrative Designer

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

The most important in terms of my job is the way in which the industry has become more narrative-focused.

When I entered the industry in 1998 as a freelance games reviewer, one of the questions doing the rounds was: ‘Do games need professional writers?’ It seemed a no brainer to me. After all, they have professional artists, programmers, designers and so on. Why would you want an aspect of your game not done by a professional in that field?

Over the last decade-and-a-half the industry has embraced the idea of adding professional writers to their teams and it’s making a big difference.

We’ve also seen writers gaining hard power in game director and creative director roles, such as Neil Druckmann, Amy Hennig and Ken Levine, with outstanding results.

Likewise, episodic storytelling is starting to take hold and broaden out from being ‘just a Telltale thing’. We’re finding new ways to tell stories, from triple-A right down to indie, and it’s really enlivening gaming for everyone. 

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

We’re going to see episodic gaming become more commonplace. Telltale has definitely led the way, but other studios are going to be picking up the baton and running with it.

We’re also going to be exploring new ways of storytelling with virtual reality – although I do wonder if the clunky headsets will ever catch on.

Over the last decade-and-a-half the industry has embraced the idea of adding professional writers to their teams and it’s making a big difference.

Rami Ismail

Developer and Business Guy, Vlambeer 

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

I honestly, genuinely, absolutely have no idea what’s happening in a year or two – let alone five, ten or 15.

I can tell you it’ll be significant, and I’d wager it’s going to be as big of a leap as it was from Diablo II to Dragon Age: Inquisition, or from Super Mario Bros to Majora’s Mask. It’s probably the same leap as we took from a
small local games store through to XBLA, and Steam to the worldwide App Store.

We’re talking technologies, paradigms and understandings of design that simply do not exist yet, even in a conceptual form.

In 2000, saying ‘mobile gaming’, ‘F2P’, ‘DLC’, ‘Xbox’, ‘Xbox Live Arcade’, ‘PSN’, ‘motion controls’, ‘Wii’, ‘Kinect’, ‘World of Warcraft’, ‘online store’ or any of those things would’ve been preposterous or considered
over-the-top speculation.

In 1985, just 15 years before that, Nintendo considered bringing the NES to the US and Bethesda got founded. I’m just saying.

I’d predict that gaming becomes even more ubiquitous as the generations that grew up with it around them fully become the norm.

eSports will be as common as normal sports, and play a huge role in further mainstream acceptance of gaming.

We’ll be able to further immerse people into game worlds through augmented reality. I don’t believe a lot of VR will survive until 2030.

I’m unsure if the device seperation across PC, mobile and console will endure. Consoles won’t be dead. PC won’t be dead. Mobile won’t be dead.

Game development will hopefully continue to democratise from being practically impossible as a one-man show in 2000, to easy enough that your average person can sit down and make something simple but agreeable in a few hours of trying.

Developers will still be making pixel and chiptune games, and people on whatever storefront is the big deal in 2030 will complain about this through hypercomments.

Siobhan Reddy

Co-founder and Studio Director, Media Molecule

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

The tools for both amateurs and professionals have got better, meaning that making games is much more of a hobbyist thing again, which means that there are a lot of interesting things out there to play. Never has there been so much breadth and choice.

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

I think the number of makers will keep growing, especially as now young people are learning to code in schools and there is growing interest in the industry.

I can see games continuing to bleed more into pop culture, and imagine seeing young people using game technology to create really cool interactive experiences with their friends in the same way that kids jam together in their garage.

The lines between music, film, game and story will blur more than ever before. We don’t know the half of immersion yet. 

I also feel that not everyone that makes games in their spare time will release them professionally, but the skills they learn making and playing games will impact other industries in really positive ways.

Tim Sweeney

CEO, Epic Games

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

Gaming was a fairly small and close-knit activity back in 2000. Today, everyone is a gamer, and there are billions of us worldwide. We can thank the smartphone revolution and the availability of inexpensive PCs with great graphics hardware for this. 

It’s also easier than ever to be a game developer: anyone can download an engine and learn to build games by following video tutorials.

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

Over the next decade, the way we play games will be revolutionised first by virtual reality and then by augmented reality.

Imagine in 10 years being able to wear a $300 device with the form factor of your Oakley sunglasses, with an 8K display for each eye.

You will have a higher-quality and more immersive game experience than is available today at any price, and these devices will be accessible to billions of people worldwide.

It’ll be a new world.

Gaming was a fairly small and close-knit activity back in 2000. Today, everyone is a gamer, and there are billions of us worldwide.

Tommy Palm

CEO and Game Designer, Resolution Games 

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

For me, that was without a doubt the introduction of the App Store.

I had, at that time, been struggling for almost ten years with making mobile games.

The problem before the App Store was that it was impossible for a mobile games developer to reach out to consumers and get paid for your work.

Not long after, Android followed and created a healthy competitor with the Google Play store.

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

The introduction of VR, and eventually AR, are areas that are comparable with the impact of the internet on human society.

Games are going to be one of the driving forces for the adoption of VR. It is in many ways similar to the early days of the mobile games industry: a blank sheet of paper ready to be defined.

Within 15 years, almost no-one will be unaffected by the changes that these two technologies will bring to our lives. When AR technology is ready for mainstream adoption in five-to-seven years, carrying around an extra screen in your pocket – the smartphone – will be redundant. 

David Braben

CEO and Founder, Frontier Developments 

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

It is amazing how many changes there have been since 2000, but probably the most significant for me is the move to online distribution. It has freed up and democratised the route to market.

Previously, games sold only if they got retail shelf space: a limited slot largely controlled by distribution channels and major publishers, so it was only the games the big publishers sold that could be successful, with quality a factor coming after that.

As we move more and more to digital distribution, quality and consumer word-of-mouth have become the dominant factors determining success, and that has moved the balance of power to quality developers. It has meant we now have a wider, more varied selection of much better games than we have ever had before. 

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

Probably the biggest change will be the stronger integration of games within the whole entertainment sector – such that the current boundaries will gradually disappear.

We already see different entertainment media being consumed on common devices. Our kids tend not to watch broadcast TV other than through a digital service like Netflix or YouTube – on tablets, smartphones and smart TVs as well as PCs and games consoles, all of which are basically now broad media devices.

People will watch some films in VR, as well as playing games. TV ‘interactivity’ will not just be pressing the red button, but will become more and more interactive.

Crucially, all the skills for developing this kind of convergence will come from what is now the games industry.

Games will broaden further to include only ‘mildly interactive’ entertainment, but this will be additive to what we have now – though some will see it as ‘dumbing down’ – and we will see more collaborations, buyouts and mergers across the whole entertainment business to create a new, very different entertainment landscape.

Jo Twist

CEO, UKIE 

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

The most significant change that we’ve seen has been down to our constant innovation in business models and technology.

As a digitally native sector, we have a special relationship with our consumers and we respond to what players want through always-on data. That has been key to making games that appeal year-on-year.

The mobile smartphone ecology and free, accessible games engines have also changed the market significantly, lowering the barriers to entry for game makers and making more space for innovation in experiences across platforms; the whole connected world is now your audience.

Now, we just need more people from different perspectives and backgrounds coming into the industry to continue this innovation. 

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

The generation of millions that is immersed every day in games like Minecraft is going to have a huge impact on how products and experiences are made.

This generation sees the world differently because of these games – anything is possible, the world is made and remade according to them. I can’t wait to see how this profoundly influences them.

It’s also clear that the implications for VR go beyond its role as an interactive entertainment product; when it cracks co-presence, its use for social inclusion, role in education, therapy, training and potential impact on the lives of people with disabilities will be significant.

Beyond that, the sensor-driven world is incredibly exciting, and brain-controlled games are already here.

We still have a long way to go to unlock a whole new audience and set of experiences that is yet untapped.

This generation sees the world differently because of these games – anything is possible, the world is made and remade according to them. I can’t wait to see how this profoundly influences them.

Debbie Bestwick

MD, Team 17 

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

I’d argue that, for small teams, development isn’t actually that different today than it was in the 16-bit Amiga era.

What helps now is the massive leap in quality of the middleware game engines available to help creators. One great game right now being built in Unity is Playtonic’s Yooka-Laylee. I’ve never seen anything so visually striking running in Unity thus far, and that’s made possible for the relatively small team thanks to the quality of the tools available.

The landscape of the industry has transformed almost beyond recognition, and that’s partly down to the digital revolution across all mediums – not only in the way we buy, but distribute and play, too.

I’ll also never forget sharing a version of one of our games on mobile internally in early 2000 and being laughed out of the room by a few people who were adamant mobile games would never work. 

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

Building a more assessable and interactive gaming environment for the mainstream is something we’ve been pursuing for years.

As online infrastructure improves, streaming and subscription channels will help greatly in expanding the audience though, once a large number of contenders emerge, it’ll be interesting to see who ends up on top in this space, since I doubt the mass market will accept having to adopt several services at once.

The success of VR depends on how and if the medium cracks the mainstream audience.

Ella Romanos

Game Developer and Consultant 

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

The most important change has been the significantly reduced barriers to entry for players.

Digital, free to play business models, mobile, casual, streaming – all these things make it easier for people to play games and that trend underpins every other change we have seen.

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

With budgets going up – as they always do – we will see growth of some studios, whereas we saw many mid-sized companies die or change over the last decade. We currently have a big rift between huge and small companies – that gap will start to close, with less at the tiny end and more in the middle.

There’s going to have to be some kind of shake-up in discoverability because it isn’t sustainable as it is – but I don’t know what that will be.

‘Games as a hobby’ will become the dominant way of making games, so live services, eSports and all these things will continue grow – particularly expanding in the West.

We will continue to debate the ups and downs, good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, risks and awesomeness, and definition of ‘indie’ until we die or eventually get bored.

VR will create amazing stuff but it won’t be a mass-market audience sitting in their living room with a headset on, playing games as we know them but with VR to make them more awesome.

We will continue to debate the ups and downs, good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, risks and awesomeness, and definition of ‘indie’ until we die or eventually get bored.

Mike Bithell

Game Developer and Designer

Which change to games making in the past 15 years do you feel has been most important?

The adoption of online distribution is the single most important factor, from my perspective.

It opened the market up to people like me, and made achieving success without a game on a single store shelf was not only possible, but an avenue for many, many companies. We’ve been swept along on that wave, looking forward to seeing how the industry continues to innovate in that area. 

What do the next 15 years have in store for games makers?

I don’t predict the future too often, but the biggest challenge and opportunity coming up is going to be a sort of Netflix-style ‘all you can eat’ games platform.

Just like streaming TV, I suspect we’ll see winners and losers in such a setup.

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