Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Video Games: From Consumer to Creator

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Describing the
maker movement as in full bloom is both accurate and premature. Maker spaces have risen throughout the country, from large metro areas like Austin to small cities such as Watertown, SD. The idea behind these spaces is simple, provide tools for creation to a general audience and watch them create. For the most part, the creation occurring in these maker spaces is largely physical. Sure, 3-D printing is greatly assisted by AutoCAD or other computer design programs, but the idea is to turn whatever is produced on the computer into something tangible. To me, the maker space is indicative of a larger trend that is at this point obvious: consumerism is shifting to something more active, something more engaging. This shift is not only impacting the physical goods we buy, but also the digital goods we consume.

For the last three decades, video game creation was an esoteric art. Few possessed both the artistic acumen and technical know-how for combining various artistic fields (music composition, graphic design and animation) and computer programming. Triple A video games of today (a term used much in the same sense as the movie industry: high budget, tons of special effects, high quality) can take years to develop with hundreds of staff leveraging countless skill sets. It presents the same logistical challenges as creating a film, only everything is digital and the audience has an immense impact on how the story unfolds. Game production is at a crossroads –
some even question whether the industry is in decline. Triple A games of today have a habit of overpromising and under delivering, leaving many gamers wondering “haven’t I already played this?” or questioning whether their time is better spent elsewhere.

Indie games have been the game industry’s one bright spot (excluding mobile gaming) as of late. Online marketplaces such as STEAM have provided indie game developers with a large, captive audience. The Indie space has also seen a number of high profile successes. The most notable of which is Minecraft, recently acquired by Microsoft to the tune of $2.5 billion (with a B), is perhaps the indie movement’s greatest success story, so far. As indie games continue to rise, game developers are doing something rather unusual – they are providing their creation tools at low or no cost to the general public. It is akin to Steven Spielberg putting a camera in your hands, giving you access to his special effects department, and telling you to go make a movie.

Epic Games, Inc. kicked things off this week with an announcement that their video game engine, Unreal 4, would be
free to the public – stipulating a five percent royalty for any sales over $3,000. Unity Technologies, a company solely focused on providing indie developers with a user friendly game engine, followed suit announcing that their new Unity Engine 5 is free for personal use, royalty free for sales under $100,000. With these tools available to an increasingly discontented audience, gamers may quickly adopt the maker movement – shifting from content consumers to content creators.

So, what does this all mean for economic development? As we continue to preserve space for makers, those engaged in producing physical products, we must also set aside creation space for those engaged in digital creation – ideally, both should be co-located. Moreover, just as makers need high end CNC equipment; digital makers need high end computers with top of the line graphics cards that may be financially out of their reach. Ensuring access to this equipment as well as collaborative space could spur entrepreneurship activity in the electronic entertainment industry.