Recently I’ve been thinking about the future of video games. Nothing bad – as far as I can tell, the industry I work in, write about and have loved for as long as I can remember isn’t in any trouble, despite what Nintendo’s recently reported financial results might suggest.

But one thing does concern me, when you look at what the Big Three have got coming up over the next year. I think there’s a fundamental problem with how things currently are versus how things may become: gamers and their tastes are changing, while the games they play are determined not to.

…gamers and their tastes are changing, while the games they play are determined not to.

I heard an alarming statistic the other day, which is ancient news by now. According to an article published by CNN, quoting figures taken from Raptr, which claims to track in-game achievements of its 18 million users: only 10% of all people who played Red Dead Redemption completed the final mission of the game’s substantial singleplayer component.

When you look at some of the sales figures released by Take-Two, the game’s publisher, it paints an even starker picture. As of the end of 2011, 13 million people worldwide believed in the gameplay quality proclaimed via word of mouth, or in the promises offered by Red Dead Redemption’s marketing campaign enough to have bought the game. Forgetting players who rented it, borrowed it from a friend, bought it second-hand or obtained their copy illegally and – for the sake of argument – disregarding the vast number of players who aren’t signed up to Raptr: if Raptr’s estimates are correct, then potentially 11.7 million of the players who purchased Red Dead Redemption never saw all the content created by the talented Rockstar team.

13 million. That's a little less than the entire population of Tokyo.
13 million. That’s a little less than the entire population of Tokyo.

Let’s continue putting this into perspective. If Wikipedia is to be believed, then including its single player component, multiplayer modes and possibly the full Undead Nightmare expansion, “Red Dead Redemption took over 800 people and nearly six years to complete [development], with a total cost estimated at approximately $80m-$100 million, making it one of the most expensive games ever developed”.

That is an incredible amount of money to spend, of time to commit, and of people to enlist for any endeavour, let alone to create an entertainment product that, with the speed that the games industry can move at, will likely age far quicker than a film of comparable scope.

Okay… so some movies with $100 million budgets might not stand the test of time either.

There was a time, even before achievements and trophies existed, when buying a game meant squeezing every last drop of content out of it. Completing it on every difficulty. Mastering every character, every level. Earning an elusive 100% rating… or 200.6%.

But now that we live in a world saturated with exponentially more media than there is time to consume it, with so much freely available or easily obtainable at any one moment, we have grown accustomed to swiftly selecting that which we wish to experience, discarding anything that doesn’t instantly appeal. It’s why the mainstream games industry is defined by sequels, with new intellectual properties too risky to launch without solid plans for a resulting franchise. Gamers these days are of the YouTube and iTunes generation, and soon, I feel the mainstream games industry will reflect such expectations and buying habits.

In some alternate reality, If they ever combined, would they be iTube or YouTunes?

Aside from the significant labour costs involved in producing digital work – encompassing each and every aspect of pre-production, production, post-production and marketing – there are no other overheads. No cost of manufacturing, of printing discs and packaging, of worldwide distribution to retailers with their own overheads to consider (rent, staff wages, heating and electricity etc.). From my understanding, which might be inaccurate, a cut of what you, the consumer, pay handles the bandwidth and ‘stocking’ the product. For instance, Apple takes 30% of whatever someone pays for an app, song, book or film.

For your money, you get a perfect digital copy that won’t degrade over time, which – until the Apple servers no longer ‘stock’ your purchase – can be re-downloaded should you somehow lose whatever your copy is stored on. It’s a win-win situation for the people who make the content you enjoy and the people who enjoy the content you make. Obviously it’s a less happy outcome for the factories, distributors and retailers.

So, what if games were sold in this way? What would happen if the iTunes model of buying music were applied to video games? Not just games for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches – but all games, from the blockbuster console hits right down to the smallest indie offerings? And what if this direct line from content maker to content consumer, removing all the middle-men, resulted in games that were cheaper, but just as good as the full-price experiences you want to play?

Tune in for the concluding part of ‘The Future of Video Games’, where we’ll see that this particular future isn’t as far away as you might think.