Computer gaming plays a unique role in the culture and technology of the information age. Playing games is one of the most popular, engaging activities involving computers or other computing devices, such as smartphones or high-end gaming consoles.
But what really sets gaming apart from other computer-related activities is that games don’t just draw people in to play them. They also draw people in to design their own new games — turning game players into software engineers and game developers.
The Ultimate Game
Designing video game software is, in one sense, the ultimate computer game. The blank screen can become whatever you want it to be — the viewport of a starship, a map to hidden treasure, even an abstract representation of a player’s state of mind. Making it happen through video game software design is often the most absorbing, flat-out addictive game you can play.
As in any good first-person-shooter game, the computer game industry and game developer community are moving targets, driven by a variety of trends. Computers and other devices have become more powerful, and as gaming proliferates, it’s drawing in new players and new styles of play.
Some gaming trends, such as the growing diversity of both games and players, are relatively independent of technology. The same tools can be used to improve a familiar experience or produce an entirely new one.
But other key design trends in computer gaming are closely linked to technology and the skills used to master it. Some of the leading technology-related trends now driving the industry are the continued growth of mobile, the evolution of console “generations,” artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality, and the ongoing growth of graphics technology.
1. Gaming Goes Mobile
Much like the video production world shifted focus from bigger TV screens to compact smartphone screens, so too has the world of game developers shifted focus from high-end consoles to games you can play on your phone.
Mobile gaming has had varied social effects, as GameDesigning.org reports. For one, the rise of casual games has drawn in a more diverse population of gamers. But mobile has two main implications. One is to emphasize the programming languages of the Android and iPhone operating systems. The other more subtle effect is to challenge developers to do more with less. Because phones are so compact, the game software that runs on them also needs to be compact. This means an emphasis on elegant simplicity in overall design and maximum awareness of factors that can speed up or slow down processing.
2. Bridging the Console Generation Gap
Even as mobile has been proliferating, high-end console technology has been maturing. As a result, as Axios reports, the latest-generation games are no longer being designed only for the latest-generation consoles.
Instead, they’re designed to bridge the generation gap; they’re playable on both older consoles and the newest ones. As Exploding Topics notes, the ongoing console wars are dovetailing into this trend. For video game software design, this is a challenge.
You want a game that makes full use of the latest and greatest console technology to deliver a maximum experience — but that also degrades gracefully when played on older devices. The graphics may not be as sharp or detailed, but they shouldn’t look muddy either. Gameplay may be simplified but should not be clunky or prone to freezing up. For developers, it basically means designing two games in one.
3. AI Keeps Getting Smarter
AI technology has undergone a revolution in the last decade or so, and this is spilling over into game design. The most familiar use of AI in games is to make opponents smarter and less vulnerable to simple tricks that get boring after a few plays.
But according to Maryville University, a more subtle, growing role for AI is to make the whole game smarter — for example, adapting itself to a player’s style and level of play. If a player focuses on exploring, the game creates new levels to explore; if another player focuses on combat, the game generates new opponents.
4. Reality, Augmented and Virtual
The ultimate dream of many players — and developers — is a totally immersive world experience. That dream remains a long way off. But as GameDesigning.org notes, both augmented reality (AR), in which computer-generated information is overlaid on the player’s view of the real world, and virtual reality (VR), which presents the player with an inside view of an imaginary world, are making steady strides.
Bulky VR headsets remain a major hardware limitation, but the software capability to deliver an immersive experience is growing steadily, and the potential for entirely new game environments is a world — or ever-growing set of worlds — that game developers have only begun to explore.
5. The 64-Bit, 3D Universe
The ongoing progress in video generation and display lurks in the background of several of these trends. As Maryville University reports, a technology that began with limited eight-bit, two-dimensional images has progressed steadily to 64-bit, 3D displays. Formerly flat and cartoonish worlds are now marked by eye-popping vividness and rich colors.
Graphics capability is its own distinct branch of computer technology, now typically combining 3D geometry with 2D surface texturing. It also has its own set of languages and techniques. In today’s gaming applications, graphics designers have the steep challenge of balancing richness of imagery with the need for blinding speed.
Not all games will call on any one of these trends in video game software technology. For example, there remains a popular niche for games that evoke the early technology of the 1970s and 1980s. But video game software remains one of the leading draws for bringing new talent into STEM fields and the broader tech industry.
Are you interested in all things related to VR and AR? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.