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If next-gen games are now, then what’s next?

Video games are big business — and have increasing mass-market appeal. But what do industry visionaries think it ahead for the smoking-hot industry?

In 2029, video games will look a lot like real life.

Ray Kurzweil, renowned inventor and futurist, with 15 honorary degrees to his name, believes that games are driving much of the innovation happening in the world today.

“Games are becoming the harbinger of everything we do,” he said during his keynote at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco on Thursday. “Play is how we principally learn, and how we create.”

Indeed, video games seem to be infiltrating the mass market at a rate never before seen. The next-generation consoles — Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 — inspired a bumper crop of innovative new games in 2007. And games were the bright spot in an otherwise dreary holiday retail season, with revenues of $4.82 billion in December alone.

Looking ahead just five to 10 years, what can gamers expect from games? If virtual reality will be real reality in 20 years, what trends of technology will inch us toward that goal in the near term?

Clint Hocking, creative director of the forthcoming “Far Cry 2” from Ubisoft, says it’s important to keep broadening the audience for video games. He says that games today rely on a “gamer shorthand,” where players have been trained for years and years how to move around, how to shoot, how to change weapons. “I give that to someone who’s never played a video game before, and they don’t know what they’re looking at.”

Focus on the mass market
Until the Wii — and the success of online games ranging from “Diner Dash” to “World of Warcraft” — game developers largely ignored the mass market. The assumption was that gamers would want to figure out complicated button combinations on their PlayStation controller. They would want to spend hours button-mashing on “Diablo 2.” They were, after all, only 18 years old. They had time for all that stuff. But that’s no longer a safe assumption.

Image: Sid Meier
Sid Meier, creator of the \"Civilization\" strategy games.Kristin Kalning / Firaxis Games

“The reality is, I’m 35 years old, and I have less and less time for a 40-hour game experience, and it has to be something that I care about,” says Hocking. “It has to be something that’s meaningful to me, otherwise you’re going to lose me as part of your audience.”

Like most other forms of media, video games are becoming more and more specific. Like shooters? There’s about 500 of them. Love online role-playing games? There’s bound to be one for you. Like strategy games — on the Nintendo DS? No problem.

And that’s the sort of thing that excites Sid Meier, an industry veteran who received a lifetime achievement award at this week’s GDC.

“As a gamer, you’re seeing incredible games with great graphics and sound. It’s a great time to be a gamer — and maybe a tougher time to be a designer.”

He says that back when he was first developing his iconic “Civilization” strategy games, there were much tighter constraints on what you could and couldn’t do. In those days, developers relied on the player to supply in their imagination a lot of the things they couldn’t do graphically or with sound, he says.

“Today we can do all that, but we also have to do all that,” he says.

Creating community
Gamers have definitely evolved since the early days, says Tim Willits, creative director at id Software, the company that brought you the landmark “Doom” and “Quake” franchises.

“They expect more than they have in the past, and they’re looking for the whole experience,” says Willits. “They want more of a community-based experience along with their single-player experience. With the high-speed Internet connections that are so cheap now, everybody is online, and they want the online community aspects to their games. “

For its new game, “Rage,” Willits says the team plans to tie in some type of community experience, to allow the players not to feel so alone in their world.

“Lots of times people have called video gamers these guys that sit alone in their basement. That’s not true. They’re very social, they’re very interactive and as developers we need to exploit that aspect of it.”

Chris Butcher, engineering lead at Bungie Software, which created the “Halo” series, agrees that games — and gamers — are definitely becoming more social.

Image: Ken Levine
Ken Levine, creative director of 2K Boston, formerly known as Irrational Games.Kristin Kalning / 2K Boston

“Look at the success of ‘Rock Band,’” he says. “People love using that game, not just as a game … but also as a means of social communication and providing a social fabric that brings together the people that they care about in their offline lives.”

Downloadable content
“Rock Band,” a huge retail hit, has also made waves in terms of downloadable content. Since its launch nearly three months ago, the game has prompted the download of 2.5 million songs for players to add to the ones that ship with the game disc.

“For me, the downloadable content is the most important thing for the industry in a very broad sense,” says Ken Levine, creative director of 2K Boston. “It allows for a relatively small portion of a fan base to support a product in a way that it could never have been supported before.”

As a result, says Levine, creator of last year’s hit game, “Bioshock,” people can take more risks with products that are more niche-based — because the gamers excited about that niche can support it financially.

“Games desperately need a second stream of revenues to support a broader range of games,” he says.

But Meier says that although we’re seeing a vast range of types and styles for gamers, the question the industry needs to ask is: Where is this all going?

“The people who are just new to games and are just trying it because it’s a new and fun thing — will we be able to really reach them and make them permanent gamers? Or is this just something that they’ll do until the next cool thing comes around?”