If you missed it, here's part one of our discussion of the current state of Western game development, which included charts and figures related to salary, technology use, and more. In this installment, we're going to focus on the major trends that have revealed themselves over the last few years of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra.com articles and discussion. We'll talk tech trends, design trends, marketing trends, crowdfunding, the indie game movement, and more.
Tech trends often fluctuate with platform cycles, and what becomes important to programmers changes over time. This section, then, is essentially a brief on what some developers are thinking about right now, technology-wise. Some of these summaries are a bit brief, since there's a lot to cover, but should be enough to give you some fodder for further independent research.
Fixing the problems of last-gen. We're currently transitioning between console hardware generations right now, and many companies are releasing their last big games on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. So a lot of the tech advances right now are in cleaning up things that were glossed over before, like lighting and shadow.
We've had no less than four big articles specifically about shadows in Game Developer in the last year and half, as people try to figure out how to remove jagged edges, artifacts, and dithering from shadows. As Hao Chen, Bungie's senior graphics engineer told me, "A lot of the things people consider solved problems are actually quite far from being solved, and shadows are one of them." To rectify this, most people are still looking at MLAA -- or morphological anti-aliasing.
Going big while scaling small. Essentially every big game development tool out there is simultaneously preparing for the next generation of high end consoles and computers, while also trying to figure out how to appeal to the growing indie scene, and smartphone platforms as well. This is pulling technology in two directions simultaneously, but ultimately is all about scalability. The ideal tool now is one that can scale across platforms -- even if, as we saw earlier, developers may not always use the tool to port across platforms. They still want one tool that could theoretically work across everything for different projects.
Telemetry and game analytics. In social games, you've got all sorts of data points to analyze to figure out what players like and don't like. How do they feel about this menu? What items are they buying? But in triple-A games as well, heatmaps and analytics have been used to figure out what areas are giving players trouble, where they might need more challenge, and how engaged they are with the narrative. This is essentially a map generated by player data, with red areas indicating lots of activity of a certain sort, but also with the potential for trails for player paths and discovery. The game analytics used are somewhat similar to what you might see in social games, but with greater awareness of how players are moving through the world in 3D space, and what they're doing why they're there.
Voxels. Voxels are an interesting one. They were introduced decades ago as 3D pixels, and an alternative to polygons. But there was no efficient way of animating them, so they never really made it into most games in any meaningful way, aside from terrain. In fact, some companies still use voxels to map out their terrain, then replace this data with polygons later, simply because voxels are so precise. More intriguingly, sparse voxel octrees have been used to good effect with global illumination techniques.
Random generation of terrain. This is more for indies than it is for triple-A, but randomly generated terrain using algorythms like perlin noise have been gaining in popularity to generate worlds like those in Minecraft, or elaborate cave structures, and we're just starting to see the potential of these techniques. This is obviously a cost-saving feature, since artists don't have to model these worlds themselves, only tweak them.
Sculpture modeling. 3D sculpture-style modeling tools came to prominence in the game world with ZBrush, and have since become the defacto tool type for building highly detailed facial models. These tools make 3D character creation more like molding clay than ever before. Now there's also Mudbox, Sculptris and others, and almost every character modeler is now well versed in these tools.
Web development pipelines. Web development pipelines are a relatively new development in games, popularized by people like Mike Acton of Insomniac Games. Web development pipelines allow standardization, the ability for the client to be agnostic from the development environment, and easy deployment. They are also relatively future proof since one update affects everyone on the team instantaneously. This very much seems like the way even triple-A pipelines will be going in the future.
Security and web back ends. One big concern for social, MMO, and mobile game developers is security from hackers, so we've seen a whole lot of time and thought invested into a safe back end that has as little interaction with the player as possible, while still maintaining a quick player experience that is frequently saved and updated.