Words of Wisdom: Chris Swain

Chris Swain lectures on life, the universe, and everything. Oh, and video games too.

Last night Chris Swain, assistant Professor at USC and the co-founder of the EA game innovation lab, visited MIT to give an interesting talk on all things games. Touching on myriad subjects, Chris hopped from how we came to our current state of game development, what areas/genres of game development are still ripe for exploration, and what trends he has been observing in the games industry. He ended with a quick piece on how he believes development will change over the next few years to remain sustainable.

Chris also made some controversial claims about how games will be the dominant form of media in this century, which while I happen to agree with him I don’t think I’d make the statement so strongly, and I wouldn’t count out less interactive media like film. Overall the talk was really enjoyable; Chris really knows his stuff, and has the development chops to back it up (full disclosure: I worked with Chris on Immune Attack).

Follow this fantastic link for more details on the talk –

Chris opened by discussing how we got to the current state of gaming where we have defined genres with tons of titles, but lots of unexplored areas ripe for development. Chris defined his own interest as a mix of strategy and simulation, and his preference for games with a message of some sort. To that end he discussed The Redisctricting Game (a future fun + free entry), a great title which teaches users about congressional gerrymandering through gameplay, and which in my opinion does an exquisite job of getting users angry about our need for district line drawing reform.

Chris then jumped into the meat of his talk, the trends of gaming. He discussed the need to innovate and the high cost of growing development teams and game sizes – GTA4, for instance, cost $100 million to make, and many AAA titles cost $50 million nowadays. He suggested that one way out of this might be through procedural content generation and user generated content as was done in Spore, though the game cost $80 million to create so perhaps it wasn’t the best example? I believe the point he was getting at is that most of that money went to design though, and as these algorithms become more widespead costs will decrease.

Finally Chris discussed indie developers (sweet!) and their contributions to the industry. He talked about the talented students who make great games and then go on to become indie developers and release their game commercially. I think he gave the two groups a bit too much distinction as one sure as hell feels like the other to me, though I suppose there is a major difference between creating a title for a thesis and for commercial release. Of course, Chris is a huge fan of indies, and thinks that over the next few years we’ll see more and more small studios cranking out interesting new games.

All in all the talk was a lot of fun. If you e-mail Chris he’ll be happy to share his slides with you.