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Eight key industry trends we learned from GDC Online 2012

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Eight key industry trends we learned from GDC Online 2012
They say endings are just beginnings you haven't yet explored.

It's certainly a message UBM TechWeb will be beaming out loud and clear as it shuts down the GDC Online conference in Austin, Texas after 10 shows, removing and reinventing the show in 2013 in Los Angeles as GDC Next. It will also include the separate but co-located App Developers Conference.

But before we can begin again, we have to end so let's conclude GDC Online with our learnings from this year's conference.

1. Where goes big Zee, there goes us all

It's strange that a company as large and broadly successful as Zynga could be described as an 'underpinning'. Indeed, Zynga was the most active company at GDC Online in terms of presentations, giving post-mortems about several games, as well as talking about how it deals with subjects as varied as IP creation and server infrastructure.

Yet, Zynga's 'underpinning' of GDC Online 2012 was deeper and wider than the official tracks.

Its travails were the elephant in the corner of every room hosting every talk about monetisation; just as it was the wavering benchmark for every talk about success in the Facebook or mobile space.

It will certainly be fascinating to see what the next three/six months hold for the company which remains massive in terms of reach, has the best analytics in the business, and still employs hundreds of very smart, very experienced developers.

From that point of view, Zynga's ongoing success or failure will be a bellwether for the entire social gaming industry, and that's most of us.

2. Build your own?

When we talk about social games, the temptation is to fall into the trap of only thinking about Facebook and iOS/Android (perhaps also breaking out Amazon).

However, on the mobile the next six months will see Microsoft and RIM attempting to shake things up, and while Facebook sails past the one billion user total, there are plenty of local equivalents whether in Russia, Brazil or China.

More strategically, the rise of content companies such as King.com, Kabam, Miniclip and Kongregate has occurred because they've successfully built their own web gaming platforms. Having millions of existing players and games, and understanding their behaviour has been the springboard to success on Facebook and mobile.

So it's will be particularly interesting to see whether this sort of translocation can be mirrored by the big online browser-based publishers - many of them German - who are currently facing a similar decline to that which hit the MMOGs space.

3. Good games are everywhere

One of the most cryptic talks at GDC Online 2012 came from EA's EVP of Digital Kristian Segerstrale.

Entitled 'Games as a Platform' and described as a "breadcrumb trail" to EA's future strategy, the context itself wasn't particularly radical. As Segerstrale pointed out, EA execs have been giving this sort of talk for the past 12 months.

But clearly, going forward, the company is looking to its franchises - currently focused on FIFA and Madden but eventually everything - to be larger than platforms; that its games will be on all platforms with your activity on any device connected and centralised through the company's Origin platform. In that sense, Origin will become a superset of the App Store, Game Center, Facebook and ESPN etc

So far, so pipe dream, you may be thinking, but what surprised me the most how wider EA is aiming. For example, its technology lab is already running high end content through web browsers using a combination of HTML5 and WebGL.

Sure, we're all heard about HTML5 woes and that Microsoft won't enable WebGL on Internet Explorer yada yada... but when companies such as EA are running high end content such as Dead Space 2 in a browser - as Epic did in 2011 using Adobe's Flash 11 Stage 3D/Molehill technology to enable Unreal Tournament 3 - you have to sit up and take notice.

All games will eventually be everywhere and if you're not fluid enough to go with that flow, you'll eventually be toast.

4. As iTunes gets less friendly, Facebook brings back virality

It's surprisingly how fast the Facebook game bubble inflated and popped.

Partly this is perceptional thanks to Zynga's recent performance, but its mainly because Facebook removed virality from the timeline. This strongly reduced the platform's importance for games companies just at the same time that iOS and Android gaming were on the rise.

Can Facebook regain that lost momentum?

It's unlikely, given the kicking given to the share prices of Zynga and Facebook during 2012, but it seems that the newly mobile-focused Facebook is now looking to unwind some of the damage.

Publicly unannounced but the Facebook platform is now set up so that when you install a new app/game, you can gift and otherwise interact with the complete list of your friends as the default option. Previously, you had to select individuals. This change massively increases viralty; albeit something that is already adverse publicity in terms of wider privacy concerns.

However, the bottomline (its bottonline) is that Facebook will have to become more - not less - open in terms of enabling users and players to spread their in-app/in-game achievements as widely as possible.

Ironically, this is happening just as Apple is deliberately destroying discovery on the App Store in iOS 6; at least app discovery channels it doesn't control. We wonder how long before - like Facebook - it's forced to reverse its policy.

5. What are the odds?

The broad global trend is that online gambling laws are being relaxed.

What this means in the case of the United States of America - notably all the individual states - we await to discover, but the gambling and gaming industries have already positioned themselves in the expectation that real-money gambling games are coming to an app store near your phone, and soon.

Indeed, Apple UK already allows real-money gambling apps to be distributed through the UK App Store, although don't hold your breath in terms of them being featured. This is also combined with the sector's growing momentum through 2012 which has seen casino-style games taking multiple positions in the top 10 grossing charts.

The fact is that - by its very nature - nothing monetises as well as gambling. Expect it to dominate trends in game making, user acquisition and discovery during 2013.

6. Still heading to the core

Similar to gambling, the rise of games for 'core' gamers - apparently the term 'mid-core' is frowned upon - continues apace.

At GDC Online, Industrial Toys' Alex Seropian (ex-Bungie/Wideload) gave a session without revealing anything of much substance about his debut game, while the likes of Kongregate, Kabam and Red Robot Labs gave talks about building and deploying games for smaller but strongly monetised audience.

Similarly, developers such as Supercell and Machine Zone were briefing journalists about their activities in the space.

What's vital about all these games are their deep community hooks, which extend from low density asynchronous activities such as leaderboards, achievements and challenges to real time interactions like chat and PVP.

Obviously synchronous modes are much harder to design, in terms of how they make the most of audience and friends' play patterns, as well as more expensive to operate, but - like gambling - the monetisation is so high, that's where the industry is moving

In comparison, turn-based games such SongPop, Draw Something and the With Friends games are great for building a largescale audience but suffer from low retention and ARPU rates.

That's an audience no one wants to be making games for, at the moment.

7. All up for grabs

It may seem a truism, but what we see from the rise of companies such as NaturalMotion, Supercell and King.com, just strongly from the 'fall' of Zynga, is the social gaming market remains incredibly fluid.

Six months ago, NaturalMotion had released a handful of moderately successful iOS games. Now it's the hottest UK games publisher.

Supercell's rise has been even quicker; its first two mobile games were released in July. Similarly on Facebook, King.com has come from nowhere to overtake Wooga as the #2 games publisher on the platform.

Yet as companies rise up so other fall away. 2011's big hitters in mobile social - Pocket Gems, Storm8, TinyCo etc - have found sustaining their market leading positions in a market impacted by the rise of hardcore gaming, user acquisition inflation and the activities of much larger companies such as GREE, DeNa and Zynga.

The fact is sustaining growth is difficult and very difficult in a market with as much competition and uncertainly as mobile gaming.

In this environment, we can only expect the expected - everything is still up for grabs. Who grabs the most - that's the unexpected aspect.

8. Any place for retrospection?

The reason GDC Online sprouted, grew and flourished in Austin was the city was once the MMOG development heartland of America. With publishers such as NCsoft, Sony Online, Ubisoft, Bioware, Trion et al, the development scene grew quickly, peaking in the late-1990s.

But its decline was preordained. As PC gaming contracted and alternative gaming sectors - casual PC, Facebook, mobile - boomed, spending +$50 million dollars developing a subscription-based MMOG that could be killed by bad press or server issues in week one quickly became a fool's paradise.

So that bubble popped, taking the large scale presence of many of those Austin-based companies with it.

Yet the long development cycles and deep social features of MMOGs had made GDC Online - and indeed the entire MMOG conference space - a vibrant talking shop in terms of the philosophy of games.

It was something underlined during GDC Online 2012, with Raph Koster reinvisiting his seminal A Theory of Fun talk (and subsequent book). As someone lucky enough to hear his original talk and review the book, Koster's reprise was fascinating; almost religious in its delivery, emphasis and call for personal responsibility.

And that's even though his attempt to place games and fun into their broadest human context failed (at least in my humble opinion).

Similar discussions were pitted throughout the show; notably the talk about the ethics of games which focused on free-to-play mechanics. Nik Davidson - a longtime MMOG developer, now with Amazon - is clearly a voice that will continue be heard in this context.

So while we look forward to LA and the new show, our hope has to be that GDC Next won't become the yang to GDC Online's ying. It's very easy to pack free-to-play oriented conferences with hardnosed talks about whales and monetisation methods.

That, however, would be a tragic loss to the industry.
You can check out our complete GDC Online 2012 coverage here

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

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Phil Maxey
The point about asynchronous games is that they fit in well with modern living. Most people will give over a large amount of time to a film/TV show or perhaps a AAA title such as Badlands2/MW3 but that leaves practically no time for any other games, not unless they can be played in small 15 min chunks. And for that reason I think asynchronous will always have a big part to play.

The only exception I would say to the above is if developers can come up with synchronous games that people can drop in and out of.