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What Games Are: The Future Of Pervasive Games

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He has recently moved into managing developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Pervasive gaming is a well-worn idea that’s drifted through the pages of design theory for at least 20 years. It’s the idea of a game that goes beyond the bounds of one screen. You’d play your game on your computer and then go out into the world with your PDA and keep playing. Your game would seep in to your life in a variety of ways and maybe even the boundaries of play and not-play would become illusive. While the target devices have maybe moved on from computers and PDAs to tablets and smartphones, the idea is alive and well.

Pervasiveness forms the meat of transmedia and gamification. The former is interested in using it as a way to tell stories, going from one format to another. The latter is more concerned with ways that games and behavior usefully coincide. Pervasiveness also features in much of the thinking surrounding massive multiplayer and social game experiences, or at least where the designers of those games believe they should go. When futurist game designers look at smartwatches, smart TVs, iPad minis, microconsoles and other upcoming device types, they invariably forecast a kind of game that hooks into all of the above and gels together.

Yet what we actually see in pervasive gaming is pretty thin. It boils down to little more than notifications nagging players to come back and play some otherwise thoroughly normal game along with some data sharing. Pervasiveness simply means messages that remind you to take your turn and cloud saves.

There are many sensible reasons why it’s not been a big deal so far. The first is the technology. While the pervasive game sounds good in theory, in practice it’s meant getting a lot of different devices to play nice, and that’s not easy. Look at how long it’s taken simple office software to go from a single-device to a cloud-based experience, and you get some sense of the challenge. Until recently PCs didn’t talk to mobile phones. Mobile phones didn’t have reliable-enough connectivity to maintain conversations with clouds. Consoles didn’t talk to anything almost as an article of faith.

The second reason is expertise. Developing a game to work on one platform is hard, never mind porting to similar platforms. Trying to take a game across many form factors and control types and yet somehow make them make sense is a daunting challenge  and many game makers balk at the manpower required. This is why many pervasive gamelike experiences (such as Foursquare) tend to be rudimentary, and in turn why they struggle to maintain engagement levels.

We may be starting to overcome many of these issues. The Unity 3D engine, for example, has made cross-compatibility between platforms much easier. It is now much less daunting for a small studio to consider publishing everywhere, and the performance trade-offs that used to exist with middleware have become a non-issue. There’s also the convergence of core technologies in the computing sector. Microsoft may have gotten the implementation of this idea wrong with Windows 8, but the notion that screens of all sizes will start to operate in similar touch-based ways is likely correct. As device categories become better at being interoperable and clouds offload some of the heavy lifting, possibilities emerge.

But there is also a perception issue. Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that multi-screen multi-device households are becoming the norm (in rich countries at least), game makers tend to think of that as a one-percenter perspective. They believe that the idea that players might move from screen to screen is a nice dream, but most of them won’t. And there is some precedent to this. In the more dedicated end of the video game market gamers tend to be loyal to specific brands and formats. In more casual markets players tend to have a default device, even a default game, that they play regularly but don’t seem inclined to change up. There is also the fractious history of alternate reality games and how they didn’t attract a lot of long term interest.

Video games are usually designed with a target environment and control method in mind, indeed making that control method part of the challenge of the game. Starcraft works really well as a mouse-and-keyboard game but would suck with a joypad. However the experience of playing Mario demands a joypad and would be boring in touch. That close relationship is not easily unpicked, and arguably not one that many players or developers want unravelled.  You can’t play World of Warcraft on your iPhone. You can’t even conceive of how it would work because the whole game is designed from a PC perspective.

Pervasiveness is just another way of saying as-a-service. We predicted for a long time that software would move over to that model, and it has. Barring a few holdouts like Photoshop and Maya, the clear direction for growth in the software industry has been all about service for a while. It’s changed how software is thought of and what’s considered to be an important feature versus just another bullet point on a box. It’s changed how community works with software, often being the force that drives its direction.

As a result the powers in the pervasive software landscape look completely different to the older kings. Basecamp to Microsoft Project. Gmail to Outlook. Perhaps the new Numbers to Excel. Successful pervasive games will probably have to do something similar, to be designed from the ground up rather than to think of extra platforms as value-adds.

Imagine, for example designing a pervasive space-trading game. The king of the genre, EVE Online, has existed since 2003 and is designed entirely with the PC in mind. It has a hugely loyal user base that’s sensitive to changes. The game is persistent but not necessarily pervasive unless you sit in front of your PC a lot. It’s attempted to branch out into other platforms (such as through Dust 514) but not been successful in doing so.

Creating a pervasive space-trading game does not mean taking EVE and adding some mobile features. It means rethinking everything from the ground up. It probably means making a game that will always be much simpler than EVE, but that’s okay. The target of the experience is that pervasive feeling rather than the super-featured depth of the current king.

Designing for pervasiveness probably needs a whole new approach and this is one of the bigger challenges that game makers will face over the next few years because pervasiveness is already here. It’s Netflix remembering your position in a TV series from device to device. It’s collaborating on a Google document on the train while your colleague is doing the same from his desk. It’s checking your text message on your wearable smart watch. It’s whatever a sexier looking Google Glass turns out to be good for. None of these new software experiences really fit the mould of uni-device usages, and increasingly the idea that software in the future would work that way will seem quaint.

It’s not that games will all need to become pervasive to thrive, but the opportunity is opening up for studios willing to think that way to deliver new kinds of play experience.