Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Last Video Game

From time to time, I consider abandoning my nice, secure IT job and going into video game development. I have visions of developing original, entertaining games that are well-regarded and are enjoyed around the world.

But after visiting this Tumblr, I see that my opportunities for becoming a video game developer will soon expire, if they have not already.

Game development companies have found that innovation is unnecessary. It is more economical and reliable to find an existing, successful copy, and produce a close copy of that game. If you make your copy quickly enough, you can seize market share both from the original game and from the other copies that will inevitably follow.

As software tools become more sophisticated, we will be able to automate more and more of the development process. Game development companies will develop tools that can find hot games trending on app stores, download them, reverse engineer the code, scrape off any intellectual property, add new graphics and styling, and re-upload the same game with a slightly different name. There will be no software developers any more, simply computer software running 24x7, flooding app stores with homogeneous spam. Even the big development companies will become nothing more than vast arrays of soulless servers, without respect for the craft or for their customers. (Some might suggest that EA has achieved this level of sophistication already.)

The last original game will be developed by a young hobbyist in Ukraine, using a pirated copy of Multimedia Fusion. The game will put the player in the role of a boy with a golf club, standing over a gopher hole. At some random time, a gopher pops out of the hole. The player presses a button, causing the simulated boy to swing his golf club. If the boy swings his golf club at the right time, the club strikes the gopher and sends it flying. The game calculates the player's score based on the distance the gopher travels.

This by itself is not an original idea, but since the author does not include any hint of Bill Murray or Kenny Loggins in the game, there is no obvious copyright violation. The author uploads his game to a few app stores, writes a Facebook post about it, and a few of his friends buy a copy.

This brief uptick in sales alerts automated game development systems all across the globe. Within moments, thousands of Gopher Golfer clones appear. They all appear superficially different: there's a version with a caveman bashing a velociraptor with a club; there's a version with a presidential candidate smacking the opposing presidential candidate; there's a version with a giant gopher teeing off over a miniature golfer; there is a Star Wars themed clone that you have probably already designed in your head while you were reading this.

The real job of the game development engines is to layer on microtransaction content, so the clones of Gopher Golfer all the player to pay real money to buy different clubs, or to buy pets to scare the gopher out of the hole, or to buy snazzy clothes to dress up the simulated golfer.

The casual clones of Gopher Golfer inspire big-budget clones. Within days, every MMO is an endless plain populated by male warriors in elaborate armor and female warriors in tight lingerie, all carrying swords as big as skyscrapers, all lurking outside caves waiting for the demons inside to pop their heads out. A week more, and EA/Bioware releases an epic RPG version of Gopher Golfer, with voice talent provided by several dozen celebrities, and containing a thick web of romance options.

By the time this future comes to pass, copyright laws will preclude any concept of consumer ownership, and the authorities will have collected and destroyed every last DVD, CD, floppy disk, cartridge, or cassette tape produced in more forgiving times. Every game you subscribe to, or buy a microtransaction for, will delete itself as soon as its owning company determines that the game is no longer generating sufficient revenue. There is no legal way to purchase or play your old, expired games. You may only play the latest releases, the games whose owners are still paying game bloggers to write good reviews for. So, within a month of the debut of the original Gopher Golfer, every video game on the planet will be an iteration of Gopher Golfer.

Naturally, game development companies will have also figured out how to automate copyright lawsuits, and millions of Gopher Golfer related DCMA takedown notices will blast through the internet hourly, but these lawsuits will have become a zero-sum game for every professional development company. One penalty paid here is reimbursed by another penalty rewarded over there. Unfortunately, the author of the original Gopher Golfer is not part of a professional gaming company, and when he tries to release an RTS sequel to his own game, the sheer economic force of the lawsuits generated against him causes the global economy to ...

But that's a different sort of apocalyptic story, perhaps for another day.

So cherish your video games while you can. Dust off your old copy of Baldur's Gate, or Freedom Force, or Chrono Trigger. Whisper a silent "thank you" to the men and women who used their talent and imagination to entertain you.

Because your future is made entirely of gophers and golf clubs.