Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Media Continuum

(this is from an article i wrote for 2009 GDC (Games Developers Conference) in the journal, I will be updating it further when I get round to it)

I have always been fascinated by games, not just because they can be engaging, exciting and even beautiful, but also because they are simply the deepest form of computer-human interaction.

I spent the last 25 years building technology to support games. Along the way my contributions have included RenderMorphics' Reality Lab and the first few versions of Direct3D. I continue to find the space fascinating, and I believe our understanding and mastery of games will continue to give them an ever-larger role in media as a whole.

In this article I intend to show how all media types sit on a single continuum. This will let us view the media scene as one complete whole, and consider the game industry in relation to it. By providing some definitions and covering some of the key issues we can do a quick survey of where the wider media is today as well as considering some of the interesting changes that we will be dealing with in the near future.

A number of issues I touch on warrant articles in their own right but my aim here is to give an overview and so I have to touch on many things briefly and leave it to you to extrapolate some of the ideas. But the following few lines are the central concepts that I hope the rest of the article helps uncover

As more media distribution moves to the internet our 'concepts of different media' forms - and 'how we access them' - will continue to converge.

This ongoing merger of distribution, leaving us with one dominant network, will drive more integrated forms of content. This, along with the accessibility of further content is when the network then becomes the media itself.

(Content and Access become linked: This is traditionally very much the realm of games.)

Games, Content and Access are Linked

In a game, the control system (how you navigate the content) defines a large part of how the content in that game is crafted. Remember we are talking about content that is interactive, we are not just talking about a video, we are considering functionality and behaviour as content too (a control system that is part of an object that you 'intuitively' understand how to operate, a puzzle that needs solving to enter, someone to talk to who will allow access, a plane that you fly you somewhere, are all examples of interactive content that have specific control paradigms). So when you are talking about content with interactivity, the access to the content and the content itself are linked. It is this link between interaction and content that traditional media people struggle to understand, but it is what makes the experience of a game deep and engaging when done well.

The Media Continuum

A channel is understood as a content library delivered to a defined demographic over the internet. A channel can be a website, a casual game portal, an online movie library or an MMO. The more exclusive content that addresses the channel demographic well, the more users will stay with a channel. The media continuum is then simply the complete set of channels delivered to consumers over the Internet.

It's All a Game

In terms of technology, games for many years have required a combination of all media types: 2D and 3D animation, movies, music and real-time interaction. So technologically-speaking, games have already unified all content forms. Only the game development community really understands the complexities of how to design for and use technology to build quality interactive content.

Because games are superset of all media, you can view all traditional media as games with the some of the features cut out. Hence to really view all channels as part of a continuum we have to think about all channels as games, at least in technology and design terms, even if they don't look like typical games to most people.

A Standard Player

What breaks up the continuum today is the client-side software, tuner or box that receives the content. This 'continuum breaking' is not in the interest of consumers or content creators; hence my personal view that it is a matter of time, and standard-setting, before the receiver is unified, just as HTML unifies the web.

TV and film have both a standard linear form and linear playback; this makes it very easy for content to be developed. The form is now over 100 years old and it has become so well understood that all innovations are pushed into the nuances of the content itself. The game industry conversely is still evolving; the big drag factors on the industry are the lack of a standard for game content creation, and the lack of a standard playback format for creators to deliver to.

These challenges are due to the complex interactive nature of games and the rapid advances in 3D and CPU technology; but they are not insurmountable, especially as the hardware changes are now beginning to settle and are much better understood by developers. Over time more standardisation both in game development and in playback format will remove many of those drag factors that the game industry currently struggles against, freeing up more cash and creativity for the content itself.

Open and Closed Channels

Today many channels are 'closed', meaning that consumers can't add content. Open channels are where third parties can add or augment content on the channel. LittleBigPlanet, Second Life and YouTube are examples of open channels. Further support for business models for content creators in open channels will be another key step in the evolution of interactive content. The way open channels can work and are managed both in editorial and design terms is a critical space for further innovation and one that I can only touch on in this article. Sony's PlayStation Home is perhaps the first major foray into a managed open channel.

Game Consoles are Controllers

I anticipate that the game consoles will simply become content channels on the continuum; you will have Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft game channels just as you have the BBC, CNN and National Geographic. Console-exclusive content is like channel-exclusive TV. Each console defines a channel and within each 'console channel' we will see further channels. Channels within channels will be something we will see a lot more of, too. (eg lovefilm on PS3)

As innovation in chip hardware continues we are arriving at a standardised high-end 3D-capable CPU. We see this trend with the present generation of consoles, where the chip parts are bought from PC chip vendors. We are not far off a single multi-core, multi-GPU chip that lives in all boxes and delivers all the power we need.

(AMD Fusion is a great example but and all major CPU vendors are following, its going to get bloody for the chip vendors as prices for these chips drops fast due to competition. You wont be able to buy a screen that does not have this 3D and CPU power built into it in a few years.)

The box from each console vendor will simply be the 'key' or the 'tuner' for the online content directory.

The control system a console offers has become the only way to differentiate one box from its rivals, as the Wii controller does today. In the end the controller will be the only physical device required, as the processing power will already be embedded in devices such as TVs.

As we are talking 'game' and as 'the interaction and content are linked', the long view for any console channel is to become a bespoke controller connected with its respective bespoke online content library.

Consoles and Linear Video

The console channels will go on to support more video, demonstrated by Microsoft and Sony already supporting film distribution. So apart from exclusive interactive content, there is every likelihood games consoles will supplant other set-top boxes, provided they have access to the content catalogue. Game boxes can run the very highest quality games and they can run video but set-top boxes can only run video and very limited games. The console will consume the set-top box.

2D and 3D biz models

In the 2d presentation space, such as the web, money is made from advertising. 3D presentation adds one more level of 'immersion' to an experience, an advert has no place in that experience (This has been proven through experiences in the game industry where advertising in 3space has been tried and died)

In 3space the monetisation model is functionality, you have to deliver something of 'function' to get paid for it, like the real world. Basic examples of this working are items you pay to upgrade in games or the trading economy for items say in second life. But this is just the beginning of what is possible, the growth of app stores is an example of this direction. The full step I am talking about is apps that deliver concrete and abstract function in 3space worlds.

Casual Game Channels

Competing with the 'console channels' we have casual game channels. It is going to be interesting to watch how the battle between these develops, especially as console channels can easily support casual game channels within them.

The difference may well come down to the revenue model as, like TV, casual channels are mostly driven by revenue from advertising. Once you apply my above rule re 3space monetisation you realise the innovation here for the future of these would be a 3D casual MMO as an apps ecosystem. (second life skimmed past this absent a game model) (so if anyone wants to build one, get in touch)

Traditional Linear TV

If you accept for a moment that the channel changer is TV's interactive device, then you can think of the TV experience in game terms; ie you watch until you get bored, then you switch between a fixed set of linear channels. The game element here is the channel surfing itself.

With digital distribution you get TV on-demand; again the interaction model is the thing to watch. The interaction is all about navigating content: with access to near infinite content, how do you find what you really want and how engaging is the process? You can't effectively Google an image or a video unless you know a name upfront. YouTube is the current leader when it comes to presenting a menu for a massive open channel archive, but there is plenty of space to innovate.

What the games industry is uniquely well placed to do is to use its command of interactivity to transform the interface with content - bringing the best of gameplay technology to content surfing.

Online Worlds are Social Networks

Each online world is a channel in the continuum. Facebook and other social networks are online worlds with most game elements stripped away to leave the game solely about social interaction; social networks can 'score' you by social kudos and presentation alone eg how many 'friends' you collect or how well you present yourself to them.

Fantasy Online Worlds (FOWs) like World of Warcraft and Eve offer contexts for social experience by providing themes and story goals for the interaction.

Facebook's innovation is in referencing the real person rather than using a name handle. In this sense Facebook is more the real Second Life than Second Life is itself, which is arguably more a highly configurable chat and conferencing system rather than a game experience.

There is massive space for innovation in the 2d worlds such as facebook, infact facebook is open to being virally taken out by the first competitor that matches its present functional and adds a key innovation, of which there are many options, from privacy to configurable social hubs (managed by sub social groups) to financial incentives for users to join.

An exciting development will be the arrival of open channel 3space FOWs that allow third party developers to build components and add-ons. Facebook is doing this now with its apps but imagine these in 3space worlds, the critical issue is how these are regulated or commissioned by the channel owner (but its all really part of the game design in the world).

A tax on trading items within a world, or an equivalent economic engine, would enable a revenue stream for building new content so that a studio could pitch fully-featured items to an FOW owner. I believe this direction to be one of the most important avenues to the future of on line worlds and social networks.

Fantasy Online Worlds with embedded Linear TV

As a FOW creates a context for social interaction, traditional TV series, news programmes and even reality TV are ready to emerge from within the bigger FOWs. One could imagine a drama series covering the real story of a guild clan from the history of the game world. There is a guaranteed audience within that FOW community for that content while licensing that content more widely would offer the chance to win over both viewers and new users.

Serious games

Serious games don't sound like much fun. To me the term feels like an oxymoron. What we are talking about is games that have a serious purpose such as training and learning, but if they stop being fun they stop being games, and if they stop being fun users simply stop learning as fast.

I have an axiom when I think about games and that is: the more fun you are having in any game, the more information you are absorbing.

So I believe games can and will have a much bigger role as a learning tool in mainstream society provided we get over the mental barrier of thinking that having fun can't be about learning. Even games for training, like simulators, fit in this category. If they were more fun they would help the trainee learn more quickly.

Our education systems are struggling to engage kids today. Building fun games around what we want our kids to learn will not only be the education system of the future, but also form a key part of adult training and learning systems in all disciplines. Whenever it is purely about absorbing information or developing specific operational skills, game experiences are an ideal way to load up the information. As there is plenty of space to innovate in this space I set up Earthsim to create an online learning world and experiment with some of these ideas.


Film will always have a place both in the cinema and because of the cinema. Cinema is both a social experience and an immersive experience that's almost impossible to recreate in your home. But as consoles and set-top boxes access their content online more, the video rental store is likely to disappear.

Clearly its a multi user closed game channel, but people think its TV

TV game shows like X-Factor are more game than traditional TV: their interaction is all about voting and managing community expectations over time. It's effectively a massively concurrent game experience. They can be seen as worlds with minimal interaction, just the vote. Combining this managed expectation voting experience with FOWs is also an open space for the future and one that has very interesting implications for the way that other aspects of life, such as democracy, work etc just connect a social network to this and off you go... but that again is another whole article.

To sum it all up -

As distribution moves to the internet we can be increasingly sure where everyone will be accessing their content.

For games to realise their full potential as a major or even a defining part of this continuum we must address the issues of how to reduce the hidden costs or drag factors in their development and how to get this content playing in a more standardised format. Only then can the interaction deployed as content into the future worlds complete on equal terms with linear TV and Film content.

With this in mind, having delivered the first few versions of Direct3D at Microsoft I left to set up Qube Software with the purpose of investigating these drag factors and look into a possible solution. We believe we have come up with an answer in the form of our Q Technology platform. Ultimately it will be for the industry to judge whether Q does indeed address these challenges.

As a content consumer I would certainly like the have a single receiver that allows me to channel hop between all online worlds, social nets and libraries of games just like a viewer going through TV channels. I believe that this is not only possible but it is where we are heading with the media continuum.

Finally, looking at all media forms as games can inform us about what can be added and what can be merged. Distribution over the internet makes access to all media an interactive experience. And over the longest term this means the content and the accessibility of further content actually become the media itself.

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