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On Monday, Todd Howard a long-standing director at Bethesda Games Studios, stood in front of a packed out E3 amphitheatre in LA and unveiled a slew of new games, including the latest in the much-loved Fallout franchise, ‘Fallout 76’. Nestled among the titles he unveiled was what appeared at first to be a new mobile game (cue eye rolls from a sceptical console gaming audience) which he introduced as ‘Elderscrolls Blades’. As his presentation went on, however, it quickly became clear that Blades is not, in fact, a mobile game, but rather a game that can be played on mobile, and remarkably, on pretty much anything else. From an iPhone through to high-end consoles, PCs and even (perhaps especially) VR, this game can be played on almost anything. It seems to me that Bethesda has just showed us a vision of a future that goes way beyond games.
On the face of it, this is a savvy move that will allow a games company to appeal across a broader audience and simultaneously address both the console market and the ever-growing mobile gaming market. Neat. But when we examine the thinking and the process that led them there, it becomes clear that this is something of a bright shiny beacon for how everyone, not just the games industry, should be thinking about the digital experiences they create.
The games industry is a paragon of many of the virtues we spend a lot of time talking and thinking about in the context of digital products. We talk about experiences being immersive (often when it doesn’t apply - I’m looking at you Jony Ive) and we talk constantly about the importance of storytelling. Games are an immersive medium where you can lose yourself in great storytelling. (If you’re not convinced, go and play ‘Gone Home’ or ‘Journey’ on the Playstation and come back to me). We even borrow the (made up) word ‘Gamification’ itself from games as a way of bringing the fun and progress-rewarding aspects of gameplay to digital products and services. So it makes sense that we should keep one eye on games as a barometer of where we’re all headed.
To begin with, let’s consider how these games are made. Increasingly large studios are working with increasingly large budgets to create experiences that appeal to an increasingly broad range of players, from kids and teenagers new to games through to grown adults who grew up with Ataris and arcade machines. With this increasing scale and ambition comes the process of creating ever bigger, more complex and more detailed worlds and stories. The machinery of production and development involves a wide range of disciplines from artists and designers to 3d artists, game engine developers, network optimisation engineers and data centre specialists to name just a small few. Throughout the production process, Bethesda have treated the world they have created like a core that can be plugged into many different ways of playing the game.
Standing in stark contrast to the conventional approach of creating a bespoke version of a game for PC and each of the three core dominant games consoles, this game was conceived, optimised and designed to work equally well for a smartphone as it does for an Xbox One X or an HTC Vive Pro, and supported by a workflow that took into account all the considerations this necessitated throughout the process. It has to scale and adapt its engine, textures and visual effects to be rendered on a wide variety of hardware. Lesson number one. Create a product that can be ubiquitous, consumed by many different devices with the experience always tailored and optimised for it. We’ve been creating responsive web pages and apps for tablet and mobile for a decade now, but there are still many examples of features and functionality only available to users on one device but not another, or being hidden behind proprietary technology. Ubiquity - that’s where it’s at. Make it available everywhere and you make it easier for everyone to use it. Incidentally, we saw a glimpse of where this approach might take us at the recent WWDC when Apple’s SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi demoed iOS apps working seamlessly on OSX with minimal effort required to port them across.
Next let’s think about the layer on top of this core, the way they have allowed various control interfaces. The game can be controlled with everything from touch interfaces to VR ‘wands’ (HTCs word, not mine). On mobile, the game even has a portrait mode which allows users to hold it however they would prefer without compromising their experience. You can hold a coffee and still be gaming. Lesson number two, Choice. Bethesda have given users the choice to play on whatever they want, and not forced clunky controls on any one audience to satisfy the needs of the others. You can swipe on a touchscreen to attack an enemy, you can swing your VR sword, to you can mash your console buttons, and all of methods can be used by players in the same instance of the game. For the digital industry, this translates to deferring to the platform convention wherever you can. An Android app should feel like an android app, the same for iOS, web should follow web conventions and they should all allow the same quality experience without forcing one group of customers to compromise for another.
Finally, for me, one of the most exciting aspects of this kind of gameplay that can only exist because of the other two we’ve already covered is Continuity. You can play on your phone on the way home, then pick up where you left off in your Xbox. Once again, in the context of Digital, we still in so many cases seem bound by the notion of saving progress at arbitrary points. Everything – from a loan application to booking a holiday – has so many potential pitfalls through which your time and mental energy can be easily wasted by a timed-out page or a needlessly manual ‘save’ step. Make it fluid and continuous.
So then, Ubiquity, choice and continuity. Whilst these concepts are nothing new, and nothing groundbreaking, what it represent is the minimum standards users should expect from a decent digital product. It’s easy for the constraints of legacy technology, or the brutal prioritisation of the backlog to erode our ambition to deliver on them, but it’s always helpful to see a great example of them writ large to keep them fresh in the mind, and for me, ‘Blades’ does just that.
Enough I think. I’m off to play Skyrim on my Switch.