divinationThe first part of this post can be found here.

5.Rise of cloud computing

This is the corollary of trend 4, and of the difficulty of scaling hardware investments. As launches of Age of Conan and Warhammer Online have shown recently, it is a risky position to invest in hardware when you have a lot of volatility in population (eg launch spike, then dwindling population). You also have to decide about how to break down the hardware’s geographical location yourself to give users better pings, have to take the game down to operate scheduled maintenance, renew the machines after a few years , etc.
We believe owning a game’s physical servers is going to be less and less relevant, and doesn’t necessarily represent so much value in the chain, providing you keep control on the virtualized servers. There are already some offerings (Amazon EC2, GNi, etc) that allow scalability back and forth, with minimum upfront investment and good quality of service. The servers become then located where you need them most, scale with the game’s population and geographical breakdown, you needn’t invest upfront in pricy hardware and get the choice between having queues at launch or having risk of overcapacity a few weeks down the line…Again, this is mainly adapted for now for games with low performance requirements, but we think this solution is going to appeal to more actors in the industry.
Another possibility could also very possibly be that we see a game company with a large number of servers virtualizing them to set up its own cloud, allowing better resources allocation and start monetizing its untapped capacity.

6. Externally generated content

Again, quite a safe trend to bet on. Ultimately, harnessing the power of the community is both cheap and efficient in the Sisyphean task of keeping the game fresh. The previous years have already been fruitful for user-generated content in games : from the racing tracks of Trackmania, to the clothes and accessories of IMVU, to about everything in Second Life, to the 300k+ levels of Little Big Planet, to games, avatars and rooms in Whirled, villages in Nord, platform games in Cartoon Network’s Ben 10 Game Creator (1M games created in the few weeks after launch). Even games already launched since a long time like City of Heroes are incorporating UGC, letting players design their own missions. We think the trend is going to grow even bigger in two different directions:

  • User level : it’s interesting to note that with more services relying on the concept, user-generated content will be everywhere in 2009 : game and virtual worlds creation tools : Metaplace, ZipZapPlay, Everyplay, etc, but also UGC inside specific games (Lego Universe, Cities XL and I imagine a lot of MMOs will be incorporating at least some level of user generated content, integrating tools for machinima, providing level editors, etc. ) The winners in this space will have the most easy to use tools, and allow mashups and simple custom changes (eg replacing a character’s head with your picture, replacing a sound file, etc) in order to lower the barrier to entry and increasing the creator’s numbers. It’s like season’s greeting customisable cards : the majority of people are happy to customize something pre-created, not to start from scratch. On the other hand, navigation and sorting tools are essential to promote the best content and allow the service’s audience to grow to “feed the machine”.
  • Developer level : Tools and programs allowing to blur the frontier between professional and amateur development are also flourishing. More and more established content companies try to become platforms and harness resources from outside their boundaries. The barrier of entry to start development with these resources becomes very low as creation and distribution tools are provided for. Development wise this is what Microsoft tries doing with XNA, Flash and Java are ideal for startups, GarageGames or Unity put their engines in the hands of indies for very accessible fees, Acclaim has also appealed to volunteers for designing racing game Top Secret (although it’s difficult to know which part was effectively outsourcing skills, which part was a competition to hire a team of talented people and bring them internally) and recently Chinese MMO mammoth Giant Interactive (operators of ZT Online) has launched the program Win@Giant to harness external R&D. A lot of web games, and some big MMOs like EVE , which started very early, or Wow since the Armory, have released APIs to allow third parties to build tools, widgets, iPhone apps distributing their data.

Distribution-wise, Facebook and Apple are only two of the most prominent indie-friendly distribution channels, who can reach several networks at once  through OpenSocial. More and more games are embracing collaborative work and platform strategy, boosting distribution and content offering while reducing costs. As a result, more innovation will come to the online space.

7.Procedurally generated and systemic content

It’s not a new trend at all, but something that we think will keep growing in 2009. This is the pendant of trend 6, another attempt to solve the “keep-up with content” issues : procedurally generated maps, missions, even narration (as Valve has implemented in Left4Dead), and system-based activities (nothing new here, PvP has been around since, well, stone age and sandbox-like environments are built around these). There are issues to overcome in each case:

  • Procedurally generated content is hard to make fun. The randomly generated level design in Hellgate London wasn’t appreciated very much. Procedurally generated missions can become repetitive and boring. Procedurally generated storytelling can make sense for a small group, short sessions game like Left4Dead, but would it work long-term in an open , massively multiplayer environment?
  • Systems, on the other hand, have proven since long that they can generate a lot of fun, but they tend to be exclusive, imprevisible and unequal in their way of rewarding players (for instance, unrestricted PVP tends to be very rewarding for a small amount of people, and much less to a vast majority), and hard to scale around specific cases. Systems make it hard to guarantee a predictably good experience to every player the way custom-built content would (eg the public quests in Warhammer Online are a way to implement more systems in PvE, but they don’t tend to scale well).

Both solutions are heavily dependent on game grammar (understanding better the rules behind fun) on one hand, and metrics and data on the other hand. We don’t know if anyone will crack the code open in 2009, but that definitely looks like the best direction to look into if you are not Blizzard.

8.    The rise of self publishing and new entrants in the sector

This is more a consequences of several other trends : lower costs of entry to building an online game, funding available elsewhere, different skillset required than what traditional video games publishers and even a lot “Web 1.0” MMO publishers can provide, all tend to limit the added value that publishers provide in exchange from the lion’s share they take in revenue when working with 3rd party developers. Ultimately, development and client direct relationship is where the value lies : if the developer goes bust or stops supporting the game, the publisher is left with much less value for its audience. And developers can only be successful if they have the direct contact with the user to keep their community happy, while leaving this community’s billing info to a third party isn’t wise. As the online word is all about long term, the question of IP ownership is also another point undermining the relationship. We won’t dwell too long here as we are planning to write notes specifically on this, but as a result of all this, we expect more developers to become developers/publishers, self-publishing in their core territories and licensing the other territories to partners. Even in that case, the interests should be converging between licensor and licensee : maybe we’ll see more joint ventures making both parties financial interests similar.

The corollary to this is that as the ticket to entry lowers and the possession of new skillsets induced by the service model are needed, there is more and more room for new entrants. Traditional video games publishers and even the oldest MMO publishers have to quickly adapt if they want to get a piece of the new online game market, as they will be caught in a sandwich between newcomers from 2 different backgrounds, but having the common quality of being well-versed in online science:

  • Huge media and consumer products companies, having already a good mastery of the online space, leveraging their brands in the new spaces offered by MMOs and virtual worlds : Viacom (VMTV, Neopets, Nicktropolis, Xfire, partnership with Nexon), Time Warner investing  in Gaia Online, Turbine (and now  speaking of acquiring more ?), all the while developing Cartoon Network’s online offering (Mini-Match, Fusion Fall, Ben 10 Game Creator, etc etc), Disney (Club Penguin, Pirates of the Carribean, Cars, Pixie Hollow, etc), Mattel (BarbieGirls, and the recently announced Mattel Digital Network , etc etc. Newscorp is remarkably absent from this front apart from MySpace Games, so maybe 2009 will be the year they start acquiring successful services.
  • Smaller indie actors coming from the Web industry, already used to Agile methodologies, iterative development process, A/B testing, audience feedback listening, metrics and data integration in development process, etc , are going to continue entering the online game space. This has already been the case before, with Web agencies like Sulake or Ankama becoming important actors of the video games space, but we believe it will continue, due to low barriers of entry in terms of capital for online web games (and high barriers in terms of skills that many offline video game actors lack)

9. Social games

With the rise of social networks in the last years, a lot of social games have appeared, mainly on Facebook. Playfish games, Lil’Green Patch, Mobwars, Friends for sale, Ratpack… have gained massive traction from proposing something incredibly simple, in addition to the browser-based and free to play accessibility: play with the people you already know, instead of having to try and find new partners in each new game you want to try like it is first day in a new school every time. For all developers can do to favorize the emergence of social relationships inside the games and the services, it’s hard to rival the many years spent forging family and friendship bonds.
Since your real life friends are likely to have different play patterns, most of those games have focused on being asynchronous to remove an important barrier (being logged in at the same time and having the same amount of time in your schedule to play together) that doesn’t exist when you play with strangers who you know precisely because they play at the same time as you.
Social games also rely a great lot on viral propagation to grow fast, since there is minimal friction in both sending invites (that are most of the time incentivized by the game design), usually in 1 click, without having to type email address or a message, and accepting them, without having to pay anything or download a client. The virality can also be a trap if the retention is bad, as everybody gets an invite, tries once, and never returns (especially if the invites are brought very early, or even a condition to actually try the game.)
There is no reason why the social games features should be limited to Facebook games actually, even if building on top of social networks is easy. Making it easier to find your real friends in a game should be a priority, and can be achieved via email address scans through agreements with Yahoo, Google, etc, openness to other existing social networks, showing friends of friends and making suggestions, making 1-click invites easy, fun (eg taunts to challenge a score) and rewarded in the game, opening up the data for everybody to see, use it in widgets, etc.
Some gameplay and architecture features also help : eg being able to play with someone not from your level (like the sidekick in City of Heroes), not dividing the audience between  shards with their characters are stuck there, allowing for some asynchronous multiplayer gameplay (eg cooperation for a task, buffing your friends for the next time they are online like in Dungeon and Dragons : Tiny Adventures, etc etc).

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