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GamesBeat 2011: The dark days will soon be over

Trip Hawkins, Brian Farrell and Jordan Weisman see great changes ahead for the industry

Like so many recent conferences the message at GamesBeat 2011 is one of change, though some speakers anticipate that change with more enthusiasm than others.

For someone in Brain Farrell's position, change has been necessary for his company's continued survival. Speaking from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco yesterday, THQ's CEO outlined the importance of high quality products and rapid response to market trends, particularly to seasoned publishers.

"You really have to act like a startup, [and] think like a startup within the company in order to survive," he said.

This change is already apparent in THQ's renewed commitment to quality for console games, but Farrell explained that the intiative also applies to its handheld projects - though not necessarily on PlayStation Vita or Nintendo 3DS.

"The dedicated handheld market is going to find an audience, but it isn't going to be as broad because of the competition from other operating systems," he said. "What the market is telling us, is consumers want a very quickly consumable mobile experience; it doesn't necessarily have to be deep."

Farrell also predicted that the new consoles from Microsoft and Sony would shift their focus away from power and graphics, and toward building accessible ecosystems with a greater range of input options. More importantly, the next generation will be more crowded than just three companies.

The next generation of consoles...are going to be less about technology and more about service orientation of the gamer

Brain Farrell, CEO, THQ

"We believe Apple is going to be there, Google is going to be there," he said. "Our view is that the next generation of consoles, if there are consoles, are going to be less about technology and more about service orientation of the gamer."

Industry veteran Jordan Weisman wholeheartedly agreed. Weisman co-founded FASA in 1980, and in the time since has worked on a wide variety of projects, from pen-and-paper table-top games to ARGs to a brief stint as creative director of Microsoft's entertainment division.

He believes that consoles have reached a plateau in terms of power, and the emphasis must now shift elsewhere.

"All the heavy lifting has been done," he said. "Now comes the fun part of figuring out how to use it well."

Like Farrell, he cited motion-control as a possible way forward, and suggested that, as long as they were given new experiences, consumers wouldn't be upset by the end of the console hardware race.

"I've spent half my career building games that don't require technology and the other half designing game platforms that require multiple billions of dollars to develop... At the end of the day, the brain doesn't care about the format."

Weisman's opinion chimed with that of Digital Chocolate founder Trip Hawkins , who gave arguably the most pessimistic appraisal of the current state of the games industry.

"I think we actually had our golden age when game development was using floppy disks and it was an open free platform when we could all make games like we wanted to make," he said. "Nintendo came along and software licensing came in and we've been in a dark age since then."

Nintendo came along and software licensing came in and we've been in a dark age since then

Trip Hawkins, Digital Chocolate

For Hawkins, the growth of the internet has created a development environment similar to that enjoyed by developers in the floppy disk-era, and he singled out Zynga as an example of what a company can achieve when free of the shackles of software licensing.

"How many great companies have been built on the world-wide web, which is an open platform," he asked. "The list just goes on and on, and Nintendo's been doing things this way for 25 years and there are no great companies that have been built on the back of Nintendo."

According to Google Ventures' Joe Krauss, the meteroic rise of Zynga - and social and mobile in general - is an example of the inability of private investors to choose the right companies to back. A funding round in July 2008 brought Zynga just $29 million in new investment; three years later, the company's value would be an estimated $10 billion.

"At the time, Zynga's round of $29 million seemed like a lot of money," added Kabam CEO Kevin Chou, who was speaking on the same panel as Krauss. "It was actually the right amount of money."

The key was improved analytics and more detailed information on player behaviour. For Shervin Pishevar, managing director of Menlo Ventures, Zynga's success marks a paradigm shift for the entire games industry.

"We've moved from the gaming space from the age of artists to the age of mathematicians," he said. "I don't think Zynga is a gaming company, it's a business intelligence company."

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