Next February will mark 35 years in the games business for Noah Falstein. Google's chief game designer is best known for his early days as one of the first employees of Lucasfilm Games, and he's witnessed the explosion of games as an entertainment industry in the last few decades. Being a veteran of the business has given Falstein perspective on its current state that others don't have. And he's more excited about its future now than ever before, largely thanks to mobile and virtual or augmented reality technologies.
Even in the last decade, there's been tremendous change, he said. "About 10 to 12 years ago I remember going to GDC where Rich Hilleman gave a talk and the substance of it was that the world has moved to AAA console development and that's where 90 percent of the new stuff is happening. But because the cost of those games is so big there's very little room for true creativity and innovation, so we should get used to 300 and 500 person teams doing minor upgrades of the last year's successful game," he reflected.
"It was a very depressing time and certainly if you worked on big team first-person shooters, then you're in hog heaven, but everybody else was kind of out of luck. It's amazing how quickly that started to change. A couple years after that smartphones came along and after years of languishing suddenly mobile phone games were a thing and now mobile - particularly with tablets added into the mix - have become just huge."
"I think games will finally come into their own and absolutely can stand up there with film in terms of storytelling and exploration of new memes - and I mean that in the classic sense and not in the internet sense"
Indeed, mobile appears to be a growth sector for games for some time to come, and it's certainly gotten the attention of Google. "One of the things we look at at Google is within the next few years there's another billion people coming online. Without even having to be too speculative, there are 850 million to 1 billion people in India right now that have feature phones and haven't yet moved on to smartphones. And now with smartphones going below $100 - and we've been working very hard here to make the latest version of Android compatible with low memory phones - there are just all sorts of reasons people around the world are going to be picking up phones that never did before and for many that will be their first connection with the internet," Falstein noted.
While Oculus, Sony and others are putting a big focus on head mounted VR displays, Falstein once again sees mobile as the key to driving more mainstream adoption of VR technology. "At Google we've done Cardboard and showed that for $20 you can take a high resolution phone and turn it into a simple VR headset," he continued.
"I do believe that some forms of virtual reality or augmented reality - or a term I'm pushing, transmogrified reality, that you're actually blending virtual and real worlds in indistinguishable ways - is bound to become an important subset of games. The technology is reaching a point of maturity that I think it's inevitable that it will become important. What really pushed me over the edge was not the big headsets like Oculus Rift, but rather the shock I had the first time I tried Google Cardboard and I'm not saying this as a Google booster - I was a skeptic, I thought 'sure, it's a nice diversion to put your phone in and have it give a 3D image' but it's actually quite startlingly good.
"I'm not saying it's as good as the quality you get in a custom built head mounted display unit but when it's $20 plus the phone you already have, the barrier to entry is going to be so low for people... a lot of people are going to be introduced to the idea of 3D virtual worlds just through that."
Some companies are already beginning to offer custom VR cases for smartphones, and it's not hard to imagine an entire industry springing up, similar to the plethora of protective smartphones cases we see in all the major retailers today.
The rise of augmented reality, especially in how it can blend with VR, is something that Falstein is personally working on as well. "There's a lot of technology that senses the world around you - we've got something called Project Tango which I've been very involved with that is a tablet that has 3D depth sensors built into it as well as ultra high quality accelerometers and gyroscopes so that it can map the environment you're in. And for gaming possibilities it's amazing. We're going to be able to integrate the real world around us into the virtual world and in a few years in fact we may be able to mix those so seamlessly that it will be hard to tell the difference between what's real and what's virtual around you," he enthused.
Falstein didn't dive into specifics on any projects he's working on, and in fact, he acknowledged that he's actually involved in a little bit of everything. Chief game designer is a "deceptive" title, he said.
"It kind of suggests that there's an integrated games vertical here at Google and the reality is that games are spread throughout the company and there's a thriving community of game developers within Google in many different parts of the world and working on many different things," he said. "I get to work on all these cutting edge technologies. Granted, I'm not doing massive games, but it's fun to do simple games and then share them freely with the world, even share the source code, and let developers learn how to make bigger and better games that way."
While Falstein isn't dedicated to making one big game like in the old days, he prefers it this way. "From a creative standpoint, it's frankly very satisfying for me to be able to do a little bit of everything and spread my expertise as widely as possible - I never enjoyed having to work on one game for many years and with the uncertainty of the market, sometimes they get cancelled before they're released and there's two or three years of your life without anything publicly to show for it."
One area that's still near and dear to Falstein's heart is storytelling in games, and he's of the mind that the medium is finally maturing to the point where it can tackle very serious subjects, just as film or novels do.
"Games...have the potential to go beyond what books or movies or plays can do because it's not about watching someone else make choices, it's about you making choices. When it's done well, it's so involving"
"All my career I've been hearing the comparisons to the movie industry, particularly when I joined Lucasfilm Games in 1984 - and at that point, we aspired to be like movies, but sometimes despaired at ever being important enough to even register on the radar screen. At company meetings our group would churn out the games on Commodore 64s and then the next reel was all the special effects that had been done in the last year for 10 different movies. It just was devastating to see the gap between what we were capable of and what they were capable of. But from the business standpoint, and now, from a creative standpoint, I think games will finally come into their own and absolutely can stand up there with film in terms of storytelling and exploration of new memes - and I mean that in the classic sense and not in the internet sense," he stated.
"One of the things that happened just last year is I was a judge for the Games for Change Europe competition and there was a game called Outcasted - a very simple game, essentially playing a homeless person with a first person view of what it was like to be homeless - and when I saw the video, my first thought in the first few seconds was, oh this was not very interesting... but it amazed me how quickly it grabs you. Games, I think, at their core, particularly in storytelling, have the potential to go beyond what books or movies or plays can do because it's not about watching someone else make choices, its about you making choices. When it's done well, it's so involving," Falstein continued.
"I think we've seen many games in recent years start to cross over - certainly games like Journey that give you interesting questions about what it's like to interact with other people and the choices you make. The stories get more sophisticated. When BioShock came out, I remember just marveling at [the inclusion of] Ayn Rand and a whole philosophical underpinning. It was just amazing that people were willing to make a game on that subject and then have it turn into a huge successful franchise on top of that was really gratifying. I felt that was one of the signs that the industry has finally come of age in terms of the sophistication and storytelling that can be done."
Reminiscing about his days at LucasArts, Falstein said he's been thrilled to see games become more and more engrossing and sophisticated, especially in terms of character development. "I've always been involved in trying to expand that, and when I worked on Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis - I helped co-design that game - we really wanted a more sophisticated story and we wanted you to play from both the viewpoint of Indiana Jones and Sophia, his companion and equal in the investigation he was doing, and we saw that as the future of games, of telling interesting stories and getting into characters and relationships. I'm pleased to see that there are games that are continuing to push that and those boundaries and have gone way beyond the stuff I did back then," he said.