The Future of Gaming with Michael Schmalz

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity of sitting down with Digital Extremes’ (creators of the recently-released The Darkness II) very own Michael Schmalz. Before our conversation, he’d mentioned how he predicted things reluctantly, just because the whole landscape could change so fast. It’s true; seven years ago, who would have thought mobile adoption would have grown as quickly as it did? (If at all?)

Nonetheless, we started chatting about the current state and the future of gaming, and emerging trends and changes in patterns in the industry.

Freemium Model Solves Piracy and Appeals to More People

It helped propel games like League of Legends to stardom, and is a necessary adaptation to World of Warcraft’s domination of the subscription model. Games are finding it extremely difficult to break into the subscription niche (read: Lord of the Rings Online) just because users aren’t usually willing to play and pay for more than a couple of subscriptions at once. Free games remove money as a switching barrier, and have succeeded in profiting off selling unique items or other unlockable things in-game.

Freemium has its own benefits: it appeals to the price-sensitive, and caters to people on both extremes. For example, price won’t be a barrier to more budget-minded consumers; however, if people want to get ahead and really make their characters stand out, they have the option to pay for this luxury.

The emerging Asian market is lucrative, but piracy also runs rampant. A free game will encourage people to download it, and will also have first movers’ advantage relative to all the rip-offs that emerge. (Yeah, people create entire fake versions of games.)

Traditional Methods of Distribution Out of Picture

According to Schmalz, it would cost around $10 to get into Wal-Mart, and another $5 for the green packaging on Xbox games. That’s a whole $15 that could be removed from the equation, and Schmalz thinks that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

Steam’s no spring chicken, but it has completely changed the playing field with its own successes. Valve’s own creations Half-Life and Counterstrike helped make it happen, and Steam has been able to partner up with other companies to distribute their games. As internet speeds start to accelerate and there’s more room in the pipeline, downloading large games will become more and more feasible.

Similarly, each console already has their respective stores; this positions them to have the infrastructure and software to be able to transfer games via the internet.

Stability of Console Gaming

Rovio failed 51 times before creating Angry Birds. That’s exactly how mobile games work; companies look to throw things against the wall, and see what sticks.

Comparatively, larger game studios like Digital Extremes and Epic Games are able to take a more consistent approach to creating things. Schmalz remarks that it’s a lot more consistent, and that reception/feedback will be generally predictable. That’s also why console games aren’t too worried about budgeting more money into games; they know (to a certain degree) how well it will sell, provided they don’t collide with the release date of a competing game.

Hollywood Metaphor

These first-person shooters are tending to become bigger and better. They’re the blockbuster hits of the video game industry. We can compare Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to Transformers 3. The two have huge budgets, and are thus capable of excelling in terms of technical specs and visual effects.

Call of Duty is the result of five studios collaborating together (Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software, Treyarch, and Neversoft). More and more,  we’re going to start seeing developers work together to create bigger and shinier games; the focus of these games will no longer be storytelling or originality, but using tried and true game mechanisms and outfitting it with a new look.

On the other hand, there are games that will be cult classics and will live on as generally great games, with new methods of control or a brilliant storyline. Schmalz says that Digital Extremes is out to create blockbusters; as a tactic, Digital Extremes will use storytelling and the freshness of new in-game mechanisms to set their projects apart from everyone else’s.

Two Different Gaming Experiences

Schmalz also commented on the differences between console games and mobile games. Console games are fully immersive; they’re best played 6-feet away from a big TV screen, preferably with the lights off, in two-hour chunks.  

Comparatively, mobile games are distractions; users play them when they’re bored or on the go, and not for that many hours on end. In fact, your hands and fingers could get fatigued and worn out from the friction by performing all those gestures on the iPad screen.

However, mobile platforms are starting to catch up in terms of hardware. The iPad 3 has hardware almost as strong as the Xbox 360 (which is rounding 7 years old!). However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the iPad 3 will be able to replicate the experience; the capabilities are there, but will people ever use the iPad for a fully immersive gaming experience and not a distraction one?

Also, will developers ever start creating more immersive games for mobile platforms (a la PS Vita)? Schmalz noted that there will need to be a new norm for that to happen, where games at $39 and $49 price points start becoming more common on the App store.

All in all, it was a very remarkable and interesting conversation, and a look into the road ahead. The team at Digital Extremes has already gotten its feet wet with the release of Retro Pinball on the iPad. They’ve begun experimenting with the Freemium model.

It’s going to be an exciting couple of years for games, and really seeing where the behemoths and console gaming developers explore. (And we didn’t even get to speaking about the incorporation of motion into games yet!)

Photo: London Free Press