In a recent his interview in Develop last month, Valve’s co-founder Gabe Newell noted: “Right now it feels to us that the games industry is changing faster than ever... As much as we’ve tried to be flexible and adaptable in the past, today it’s more important than ever.”
Newell’s comment speaks to the tectonic shifts occurring in the games industry, all of which seem to happening at once: new platforms; new genres; new distribution channels; new monetisation strategies. To some game developers and middleware companies, the speed of these changes has spelled disaster. To those flexible enough to adapt, the changes are creating greater opportunity.
Two years ago, most middleware companies were focused on game developers with large development budgets. But new mobile platforms, social platforms and distribution channels have given indie developers more outlets. As a result, the number of indie developers has swelled, and attracted the attention of ‘traditional’ middleware companies.
RUBBING SHOULDERS WITH INDIES
But here’s the rub. Many indie developers, especially those developing for mobile and social platforms, don’t have or need the development budgets that their PC and console brethren require, making them a far more price-sensitive market. What’s more, the technical specs on these new platforms are new. So how do middleware companies continue to address traditional PC and console developers and the growing mobile and casual market?
The answer is flexibility. The growing number of platforms with varying technical specs and limitations requires middleware technologies to be highly flexible at their core. Technically, middleware solutions designed from the ground up for openness and modularity have the advantage. Flexibility enables the middleware developer to implement new features, to plug-in third-party technologies, to replace libraries, without major investment. This in turn gives developers greater freedom in using a solution across multiple platforms and pipelines with fluctuating toolsets. Closed systems simply cannot handle those changes easily.
We know this from experience. When we started supporting consoles, we recognized the need for this kind of flexibility in our Vision Engine’s architecture. Since then, technical flexibility, modularity and openness have been core to our development plans. This has enabled us to extend our engine to browsers, NGP and soon, mobile platforms, without huge investment or resource shifts.
THE PRICING PUZZLE
There has been a lot of news lately about middleware products with pricing that addresses casual and mobile developers, such as Unity’s per seat pricing and UDK’s royalty model. While the creation of different pricing options is great for developers, it should also be noted that the need is not new. Independent developers have been around for quite some time, and so too has their need for flexible pricing. We saw this need five years ago, and decided then to change our pricing to offer both a flat-fee model and a percentage-of-project-budget model.
The trick for us – and one other middleware providers are now facing – was finding a model that enhanced, rather than diminished, product quality, support and those other benefits that developers of all sizes should expect from a middleware provider.
Some middleware developers are turning to other revenue streams to augment lower prices to indie developers, e.g. an asset store. These complementary strategies could make sense so long as middleware developers continue to focus resources on their core competency, not their secondary revenue stream.
This brings me to my final point; the shift in the gaming industry is forcing middleware developers to become more nimble. Given the shifting business models and revenue streams, we’re seeing the automation of more functions, such as sales, more community-based operations, such as support, and adjunct business units to handle the various revenue streams.
Support is particularly important to developers adopting a new technology and putting it through its paces. More and more developers want to focus on developing content for their game, not on building or supporting underlying technology. Community-based support can only go so far in that process. At some point, developers will want the peace of mind that comes in a close partnership with a middleware provider.
To a certain extent, the tectonic shifts in the games industry should come as no surprise. Game developers have always pushed technology to its limits, and have always been on the forefront of technology adoption. While daunting, the new changes bring with them opportunities for re-conceiving the middleware business and for driving the whole industry forward. All it takes is flexibility.