These Guys Are Paid To See The Slightly Scary Future of Video GamingS

N'Gai Croal and Andre Vrignaud have seen the future of video games. They don't want you to be scared even though things are about to be very different.

The former Newsweek reporter and the former Xbox platform strategist and PC gaming strategy director for Intel are now video game consultants, which means they fly around the world giving video game creators advice. They settle internal debates by providing an outsider's voice. They're generally trying to help people make better video games.

They do their consulting on games you or I haven't played yet. They're doing it for games that won't be out until next year or maybe beyond.

They've therefore seen the future. They're willing to tell us about some of it.

I must admit that I know N'Gai Croal very well. He's a close friend, though one who is stellar at keeping secrets. Since he stopped working as a video game journalist a few years ago, he greatly reduced his willingness to tell me where he's flying off to all the time, who's paying his bills and which games that I'm telling him are awesome or terrible were—yawn—games he played in an undisclosed location a year ago. Or maybe it was two years ago.

"We prefer to operate in the shadows, and our clients like it that way as well," he told me yesterday during the first phone call we've ever had that we'd classify as an "interview." So N'Gai kept his secrets during our call but did tell me that Hit Detection worked with five of the top 10 revenue-generating publishers of console and PC games around the world. The occasion of our chat was the first press-push to explain what Hit Detection is and to signal the hire of Vrignaud, one of the early Microsoft platform strategists who worked heavily on Xbox Live.

Vrignaud knows gaming and hardware, and he knows how to follow-up N'Gai's set-up that the gaming world is about to change big-time.

"On the game side of our business, we're in an environment that is increasingly competitive and undergoing radical transformation," N'Gai said, citing everything from the onset of new consoles to the rise of mobile gaming on console-powerful devices. His Hit Detection team even sees big changes in the relationship between those who play games and those who make them, a relationship made closer by the push from publishers to drip new content out for their biggest games on a regular basis. Our games are becoming our entertainment services. And therefore we're expecting more and more often.

Part of the big change will involve how our gaming hardware works, and that's where Vrignaud, the Microsoft, Intel and Amazon veteran comes in. Hardware and services are his thing and he knows how important it will be for game creators to get this stuff right.

"It's very unclear to the industry what the next generation is," Vrignaud elaborated. "What we've got is a crazy amount of changes."

Gaming hardware, Vrignaud argued, is "becoming irrelevant" as even cell phones run games that a few years ago would only seem graphically possible on consoles or computers. Even more significant is the change in climate coming from gaming's increased connections to "cloud" computing, in which games don't exist on your local gaming device but, like Gmail, are accessed via a machine you are using from some remote location.

"On the one hand, some of the streaming guys [like OnLive and Gaikai] are saying 'We're going to put everything in the cloud.'" Vrignaud explained. "[They're saying,] 'Basically, we can send down a video stream to any device and you can play perfect games. And you don't need to have any CPU power or capabilities on the local side.'

"The problem with that, if you look at OnLive or Gaikai, is that you have visual artifacts, latency that comes to play because you're bouncing it between the server. There are issues with it. It's pretty impressive stuff, but it doesn't work perfectly with everybody.

"The thing you have to remember is that the MIPS—the millions of instructions per second—the CPU, just the raw power that is going to be in your local client device, whether it's a quad-core cellphone or whether it's going to be called what we call a next-generation console, whether it's a TV [with an upgradeable CPU], when you have that much local CPU power, it makes a ton of sense to use it for local rendering on the screen, high-fidelity graphics, low-latency interaction, etc. Those are two extremes.

"I think what you're going to see is—depending on the needs of the experience—you're going to find hybrids, where some games might do some local rendering and farm off some pieces to the cloud because they may not need to have that locally or as low-latency tolerant as others and that's going to be where a lot of experimentation is going to happen. Think of a first-person shooter for a core gamer, that's probably going to be basically rendered locally and you're just going to be sending very little data packets, as we do now, of the game state. On the opposite side, imagine an MMO like World of Warcraft. There's no reason that an MMO like World of Warcraft, which was designed from the ground up to be latency-tolerant couldn't be a completely a streaming game. That would probably work fine for the vast majority of people playing it."

That sounds different, but not so bad. And yet a period of radical transformation sounds scary.

Here's some of the scary stuff about next-gen gaming, from N'Gai: "The feeling is that the production pipelines are not going to change radically," he said, making things not sound too daunting at first. "Last time, [from the PS2 era to this one] there was a real sort of rendering shift going to shaders primarily on the graphical side. Here, it's still going to be shader-based for the most part. The other change last time was going to multi-core CPUs. What you're going to see in this coming generation is just going to be more aggressively multi-core. That means there's going to be some re-thinking of things, but for the most part people have a rough handle on that kind of coding and they'll just be refining that and getting better at it. That said, as people are expecting the cost of asset creation to continue to increase as a result of increased graphical resolution, that's going to increase costs and put more pressure on developers."

There's the fear. The hits will have to be bigger. And that means?

All of this raises the stakes. Hits need to be bigger. And those games that won't be hits, well... they're in trouble. "If the fear that gamers have is that marginal titles ... that they love may go away, evolve or transform in order to survive, yes that's a very real risk," N'Gai said. "That is happening."

We'll see fewer beloved games that aren't ready-made blockbusters? Terrible! And yet there is good news, he says: "If you look at some of the biggest franchises people love. That could be Skyrim. That could be Mass Effect. That could be Call of Duty or whatever, those games are finding ways to provide more content, more stuff, Game of the Year editions that wrap everything up… they still drop price, so people can find a pricepoint to get in at, they can find the pricepoint they want. Consoles are having to evolve to provide that. It wouldn't surprise me if in the next generation the content you'll see in the next generation, the content that you're going to see in the Fallout Creator or the Skyrim Creation Kit is going to be available on console as well so that stuff can grow."

Hit Detection works on this big-picture level. They're also helping developers with more specific things. For example, N'Gai talked vaguely about helping a non-American development studio modify their game's lead character from a freedom-fighter-type to more of an outlaw, as his team decided that would resonate better with an American audience. In big ways and small ways, with the caveat that they're not the ones toiling to make these games and therefore don't want much credit, they're there to help.

The seas may get rough a year or two into video games' future. Their job is to keep people on board.

"If this was just a hardware transition it would be relatively straightforward to navigate," N'Gai concluded. "But because you've got hardware, an increasing emphasis on services and the business model and the audience are changing radically, all of that creates openings for new entrants and makes things challenging for existing ones.

"You've got to keep your eyes on where things are going, but pay as much attention to the speed of the hardware and what specs they're going to have as on what the business models of the various platforms are and on the audience itself.

"All of that is going to have a huge impact on the Game of Thrones for the next generation."

(Top photo: Shutterstock)