Monday, August 11, 2014

The Rise of Facebook Games and Teaching the Game Developers of Tomorrow

In 2011 I wrote a pair of features I'm very proud of for Yahoo's contributor program. Unfortunately, the program has now been shut down leaving these stories without a home. So I fixed that. Here they are!

The Rise of Facebook Games and Teaching the Game Developers of Tomorrow

The Rise of Facebook Games
How Farmville is Changing the Industry

Turns out there are millions to be made selling virtual crops.
In this poor economy, services typically seen as unnecessary, like entertainment, take a bigger hit. But while other sectors of the industry, like movies and music, have seen declining sales recent years, one continues to grow: the video game industry. That field is not immune from the recession either, but one aspect of it in particular has begun bringing in larger amounts of revenue into the changing market. Social and casual games, such as Facebook games, are having more and more of an impact on the entire medium.
According to the NPD group, an organization that tracks sales data numerous industries like movies, music and video games, the most profitable games of 2010 were "Call of Duty: Black Ops", "Cityville" and "Farmville". While the winner, Call of Duty, a mature rated, high-definition shooter, is what one would typically think a successful game would be, it also cost millions of dollars to produce and $60 to buy. Whereas Facebook games like "Cityville" and "Farmville" cost a fraction of that to develop and are free to play, gaining their revenue through ads and optional in-game transactions. Yet, combined they easily overtook "Call of Duty" in terms of revenue. Clearly these new types of games are doing something right.
"Facebook and a lot of the games we see on handheld devices are way more accessible to more kinds of people, women and older people, that didn't use to play games," said Caryl Shaw, an executive producer at ngmoco, Inc., a game developer that deals primarily with more casual games. "The platforms are there now that didn't exist 10 years ago." Although games like "Call of Duty" continue to succeed, they also require the user to own an expensive console. Meanwhile, all one needs to play a Facebook game is a computer and Facebook, vastly increasing the potential audience.
Not only is the increase in Facebook gaming bringing in more game players, it is also bringing in more game creators. "There are a lot of more developers bringing content to these platforms because they are cheaper and easier to produce," said Jeff McCord, who was been making games since the 1980's and whose recent projects are showing up on platforms like the iPhone. "It takes a much smaller team or even an individual to do it. It opens up many more possibilities for these small artistic expressions and creativity in gaming."
However, while these game developers say that the increase in popularity of Facebook gaming is a positive trend, some players comfortable with more traditional games are not as excited. "I would say Facebook games are absolute trash and it is sad such low quality gameplay experiences are raking in so much cash," said Dave Lazaar, 19, a resident of Woolwich, N.J. and an engineering student at Rutgers University. Lazaar was one of many self-described "hardcore gamers" at a pre-order event at a Chicago GameStop, a popular video game retailer. "I can only hope they introduce some casual players to real games."
This more pessimistic attitude towards Facebook gaming was the norm at the event. "To put it simply, they are entertainment traps," said Shelby Kurz, a 19-year-old from Swedesboro, N.J. studying Psychology and Philosophy at Rutgers University. "They give the player the illusion of controlling how they play the game. You can choose to grow a plant in 15 minutes of three days and the game doesn't even have to be good because either way, the player will come back."
There have even been examples of casual players getting into Facebook games only to regret the experience. "I think they are a huge waste of time and a big distraction," said Morgan Monahan, 18, an RTVF student at Northwestern University from Erie, Pa. "I used to play Café World which required checking Facebook at least every two days. I would be in class and be worrying about whether I was going to be home in time to serve my food." Monahan was not the only member of her family to succumb to the addiction. "My parents played too and were just as if not more addicted than I was. My mom would often call me from work and make me serve her food. One day my whole family decided to stop cold turkey. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders."
Currently some may see Facebook games as low-quality time wasters but the burgeoning genre still has potential in the eyes of others. "Right now games like Farmville seem really inconsequential but I think that can change," said Sam Barker, 20, from Kendallville, Ind. who is studying English at Northwestern University. Barker is also a more traditional gamer but thinks that in time these new games can live to the standards of their predecessors. "Perhaps they could give the games more of a point. One of my favorite things about video games is their ability to be viewed as an art form."
The increase in Facebook gaming may continue to threaten the time of undisciplined students and working adults but fortunately for gamers more resistant to this shift, the expanding market does not necessarily mean they will be excluded. The rise in Facebook gaming does not have to cause the fall of traditional gaming. Shaw demonstrated this more hopeful attitude. "Call of Duty didn't go away because Farmville was created. There are always going to be games for all types of gamers."

Teaching the Game Developers of Tomorrow
A Look at the Increase of Video Game Design Schools


At DePaul University's College of Computing and Digital Media in downtown Chicago, students can relax in the lounge and play some of the biggest, newest video games on huge, high-definition televisions. However, the real fun in this school is happening in the upstairs labs. Here, students are laughing and working furiously on computers not playing games, but making them.
Such a sight shows just how far video games have come since the days of Pac-Man and Pong in 1980s bars and arcades. What were once kilobyte-sized files with blocky graphics have become massive productions on par with the latest blockbuster movies in terms of budgets. In the past all one needed to make most games was a basement and a friend who could program. Today though, it's a little less simple to get into one of the most expanding and profitable sectors of the entertainment industry. Like with any other serious career, one needs a serious education.

A Growing Trend

According to the Entertainment Software Association, one of the governing bodies of the video game industry, the number of schools offering video game design programs has been steadily increasing. This past academic year, that number reached 300 in the United States, a 20 percent increase from the year before. Currently, there are only eight states in the union without one of these schools.
"Our game design programs officially launched in 2008 and since their inception, interest has grown very rapidly," said Angela Kugler, admissions director at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash. DigiPen was recently named the third best undergraduate school for video game design by the Princeton Review. "Our enrollment grew last year about 10 percent over the previous year. I think our enrollment growth is also a product of a lot of new initiatives and not just because we started offering the game design programs."
There are more careers in the game industry besides designing that these schools can prepare one for however. Ross Derham, a 19-year-old from Swedesboro, N.J. studying game design at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., hopes to get a job writing scripts for games.
Champlain is number eight on the Princeton Review list, and one of its more appealing aspects is the flexibility it offers students like Derham. "They have specifics in the game majors (game design, game art, game programming) whereas in the other schools it is all lumped under one big major. I wanted to specify what I would want to do in the major because I would rather be amazing at one aspect than mediocre at all three."

Is It Really Necessary?

While the video game industry itself is a relatively recent development, having only been around for about 30 years, schools for game design are even newer. The oldest courses started about a decade ago. Therefore, those who have been in the industry for some time now are unsure of how effective they are.
"If you want to break into the industry, get a university education, but it doesn't matter if you go to a 'Game Design Course.' In fact, I'd probably recommend you don't," said Simon Phipps a veteran, self-taught game programmer and designer. After getting his computer studies degree from Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England, Phipps has gone on to work for major companies like EA and Eurocom.
Instead, Phipps suggests that aspiring designers get degrees in fields related to game design but not exclusively tied to it. "I'd recommend that anyone go and learn coding, web or art and animations skills so they've got transferable skills to another field if you can't get into games," he said. "At the end of the day, the vast majority of people working in the industry are coders and artists. Get a good grounding on that, get a job with a games company and then work your way into becoming a designer."

Breaking In

When hiring though, studios look for more than just education. Again, like in most other careers, the experience of prospective designers is very important. "Have a strong website that showcases what you are capable of," said Sarah Beck, a representative from WB Games. "Make sure you research trends in the industry and are applying at studios that are making games that are similar to your portfolio. Internships and software knowledge are also very useful."
However, proper education is still crucial. "You should have a bachelor's degree of some kind related to the field," said Beck. "Types of degrees can be in many areas since it takes many different skills to design and develop a video game."
These days though, with the game industry becoming increasingly niche and fragmented, student designers do not always need to be hired by big studios to get noticed. More and more student-developed games are getting attention, mostly due to the advent of free, online game sharing and the independent games scene.
After getting a lot of positive press from game publications and festivals, "Octodad," developed by students at DePaul University, has become a viral hit online. Ronimo Games was formed by Norwegian game design students who had sold the rights to their student game "De Blob" to major publisher THQ. The game's subsequent remake was a hit and Ronimo used the funds to develop another critically-acclaimed game "Swords and Soldiers."

The First Generation

The newness of game design programs also means they have an exciting, potential future in term of their applications. "Look to the work being done in serious games/edutainment to see the approaches being taken," said James Portnow, CEO of Rainmaker Games and a freelance game design columnist. Portnow thinks it's important to foster the development of better designers in order to make better games because they have so much potential as a medium.
"Games can help educate, help us overcome national and international barriers, see past stereotypes," said Portnow. "They can let us explore ideas and challenge our suppositions."
We are in a time where the children who grew up playing video games are going to be the ones making them. Going to school for coding or programming is one thing, but the concept of going to school specifically for game design is one whose benefits are still unknown. However, these aspiring designers are eager to uncover this mysterious, uncharted territory.

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