Spot On: The Future of Entertainment Conference

At Stanford conference, industry biggies say the future is up for grabs, but all agree that costs, creativity, and content will determine tomorrow's winners in the space.

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STANFORD, Calif.--What will games and the game industry be like in 2010?

On Saturday, at the fifth annual Future of Entertainment Conference, hosted by the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, a panel of industry professionals attempted to answer just that.

Entitled “2010 Game Odyssey--Visions of Electronic Gaming,” the panel was moderated by game journalist Geoff Keighley and featured representatives from game companies including Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Nvidia, and the Entertainment Software Association.

Prompted by Keighley, the panelists began by addressing the industry’s need to further establish itself as a form of mainstream entertainment. Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, opened by criticizing the “narrow-mindedness” of many digital entertainment companies, arguing that “they still don’t understand how the demographic has shifted.” Elaborating on the stereotyping of games, Lowenstein explained, “We’re a victim of our terminology--people tend to pigeonhole us as toys...people don’t appreciate [games] as an art.”

Jeff Brown, VP of corporate communications at Electronic Arts, offered a decidedly different take on the failure of mainstream entertainment to fully embrace games. Pointing out that “when you are playing games, you are not watching Viacom [television],” Brown concluded, “I think we’re feared.” Brown argued against the stigma that adults are “outgrowing” games and instead suggested that the steep decline in gamers over the age of 37 simply demarcates the first generation that grew up with the medium.

Identifying other problems facing game companies, both Lowenstein and Brown emphasized the need to cultivate more creative talent. Citing the potential consequences of the current technology race, Lowenstein warned, “Every time we have technology increases, it drives costs higher...I think that’s very worrisome. It’s going to lead to significant creative consolidation.” Brown shared this worry and expressed concern about the lack of a “talent pipeline” within game design.

At times, panelists edged toward heated argument. Jeff Brown and Mark Jung, for example, took especially opposed viewpoints on the future of game business strategies. Brown, speaking about the increasing scale of game development, strongly asserted, “It is impossible to Blaire Witch this industry--it’s just too complex.” Instead, Brown proposed that companies remove some of the publishing risks by riding established franchises and using shared tools and libraries. At one point, Brown even joked that the future would see a “Darwinian evolution” among game companies.

Jung, however, interjected by asking, “What about the rest of the industry that’s not EA?” Pointing to the increasing risks of product marketing and inventory, Jung suggested that companies will need to “recoup losses” through new distribution methods. In particular, Jung proposed that companies might sacrifice product volume and instead aim for longer game life cycles.

Lowenstein and Peter Moore, senior vice president of Microsoft’s Worldwide Retail Sales and Marketing Home and Entertainment Division, further proposed that companies could build volume by establishing new long-term channels. Alluding to untapped markets in Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East, Moore explained that “we’re only in 10 percent of the world markets right now.” Lowenstein seconded the idea but emphasized the need to first reduce high piracy rates in those markets.

Toward the end of the sessions, panelists focused on the subject of storytelling in games. Again alluding to the “talent bottleneck” in game design, Brown remarked, “I think one of the biggest issues is that we’ve lost the storytelling.” Bill Rehbock, general manager of content development at Nvidia, also stressed the importance of storytelling, citing Half-Life as an example of a game that, years after its original release, continues to sell because of its masterful storytelling.

Moore, on the other hand, placed the future of storytelling in the player’s hands, predicting, “In 10 years from now we’ll be telling our own stories…We as game developers create the structure for our story.” In addition, Moore repeatedly told the audience to read Neil Stephenson’s novel Snowcrash for an insightful depiction of the future of gaming.

Lowenstein echoed this vision of player-based storytelling and expressed concern about the industry’s “overreliance” on movies. Like Moore, Lowenstein urged developers to take advantage of the amount of “authorial control” uniquely given by games.

Ending the panel on a somewhat unresolved note, Lowenstein warned the audience that increasing realism in games will pose a fundamental threat to the industry. Lowenstein, who has worked with the Senate on the regulation of the industry, pointed out that violence in games--regardless of its actual psychological effects--will only continue to cause societal alarm, and as a result, the game industry must figure out how to respond.

The conference itself opened with a talk by McKinsey & Co. Media and Entertainment Practice director Luis Ubinas. Throughout the presentation, Ubinas highlighted the “unprecedented era of choice” made possible by digital technologies, from more television channels to quicker music access. Ubinas argued that, as a result, entertainment companies must avoid the “enormous mistakes” of the music industry by shifting focus to a “depth of coverage” that consumers now demand. Interestingly, however, as Lowenstein later pointed out in the 2010 Game Odyssey panel, Ubinas only sparingly mentioned video games specifically, if at all.

Moderating the 2010 Game Odyssey panel for the third year in a row, Keighley lauded the success of the panel, remarking after the session that “Stanford assembled a who’s who of the video game industry for the panel. It was one of the best roundtables I've moderated.” Keighley continued, “My favorite exchange was the discussion about what might lead to the bubble bursting for the game industry. It's easy for this industry to pat itself on the back and be very insular--to not think about the bigger picture...It was relieving to hear industry leaders admit that there are serious problems that need to be discussed--and eventually solved--if this industry is to continue to prosper and grow.”

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