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Technology Trends in Gaming Industry: My Views from the GDC

I recently visited the Game Developer Conference at San Francisco. GDC is the largest event for folks in the gaming industry. This year’s GDC attracted a record number of participants from across the world and highlighted some interesting trends that are significantly changing the gaming industry. While I observed various interesting trends during this GDC, I am limiting this blog post to the three that I think are the important ones: Social Games, Augmented Reality and Mobile.

1. Social Games
Social gaming is spreading rapidly beyond the borders of game platforms, and attracting those users who rarely played games before. It has caught on because it’s a lot of fun to play with your real friends and with real identities on social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and hi5. Moreover, console and PC game vendors are also attempting to use social graphs in multi-player games.

Companies such as Zynga, Playdom, and Playfish are thriving on social platforms and earning big sums by selling virtual goods. There is room for experiments as the initial investment is low compared to traditional video games. It is now possible for small game titles to get noticed in the long tail of games competing for attention on the social platforms like Facebook (which has over 400 million users).

2. Augmented Reality (AR)
With AR, the line between real life and games is blurring. Add 3D and HD video to it and what you have is a clear trend towards a more immersive gaming experience. All the top game console vendors are into it, and we will see plenty of augmented reality games in the near future.

Building on Wii’s efforts to change gaming from a sit-down experience into an active and physically involved one, Sony unveiled their motion controller PlayStation Move during the GDC. There were other interesting demonstrations by smaller vendors too. One of it was Parrot AR.Drone quadricopter controlled by an iPhone connected through Wi-Fi where wannabe pilots can navigate, shoot and do other interested things. Although not demoed in the GDC, Microsoft is also planning to launch new motion control system for XBox 360, codenamed Project Natal, where only a video camera is used to get you in the AR game and there is no need of a controller. So, interesting!

3. Mobile
Like many other industries, the gaming industry is upbeat about mobile platforms, and this segment is set to explode with launch of tons of iPhone like devices. Numbers suggest that one out of five mobile applications is a game, which goes to show how much this medium is already popular for gaming. Mobile platforms are increasingly used in almost every type of game that we know: video, MMOG (massively multiplayer online) and social games. Following are some of my observations from the GDC about the use of mobile platforms in gaming:

  • iPhone: It appears that iPhone will continue to dominate as the best mobile gaming platform for some more time. Developers are using iPhone and iPod Touch creatively, be it as a remote for playing games, as an extension to the game development IDEs, or as part of the integration with social platforms. On the flip side, the Apple AppStore is far too saturated, and that may encourage developers to look elsewhere.
  • Android: That elsewhere is increasing looking like Android. As big as it is, considering that share of iPhone in global market is just around 3% of all mobile handsets and 14.4% of smart phones, and looking at the pace at which device manufacturers are adopting Android, there is no doubt that games will take to Android.
  • Windows Phone 7: Microsoft demonstrated new tools (part of XNA Game Studio) that enable developers to write once and publish for multiple Microsoft game platforms – Windows, Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 7. This cross-platform development ability seems to have helped Microsoft in attracting attention. Folks are optimistic about it but they don’t expect an iPhone-killer, I think they are keeping their fingers crossed for something that really adds to Xbox 360, PC gaming experience.
  • Others: RIM (Blackberry), Nokia and Qualcomm (Brew) are also in the game (do pardon the pun!) and doing their best to grab market share.

So what does it mean for the game developers?
Game developers need to look beyond their traditional development tools. For example, in addition to the usual languages and frameworks, many games now utilize the powerful capabilities that 2D and 3D engines and tools like Unity and Unreal. Knowledge of e-commerce and m-commerce API is also a mainstream need in order to realize the huge potential to monetize these games.

Social games themselves are actually a very different breed! Unlike traditional games, most of these games are light on UI and front-end, with complex business logic behind them on the server. So they need expert knowledge of server side languages like PHP, ASP .NET and Flex, frameworks like .NET, J2EE, Spring and Hibernate and integration technologies like Web Services (REST/SOAP), XML and XSL. As if that were not enough to make them look like a complex enterprise system, they also need storage and management of huge amount of data with database systems like Oracle, MS SQL Server and MySQL. There is also a big network effect involved with social games, so the knowledge of architecture and platforms that can be scaled easily, including the Cloud Computing, is also at play.

After attending the GDC and looking at these trends, I get a distinct feeling that, as gaming comes to the mainstream at your home or to a social network near you, the concept of game development itself is changing rapidly.

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