The changing shape of video games

The thing about game development is that it’s new. Every other art form has had centuries to assemble best practices, approaches, and techniques that are agreed upon. Even film, our youngest sister, has had a hundred years to define whatever the hell a ‘best boy’ is.

That newness means that we can all see change of monumental scale happening rapidly around us. As I write this, I think back to my first job in the games industry twelve years ago. I was a junior designer whose main job was making navmeshes – the low-poly maps which define where AIs can move, and how they navigate that space. It was not glamorous work. I remember I could do about one encounter space a morning if I put some good music on. I wasn’t very fast.

Level designers reading this may know the punchline. A few years after I moved on from that job, processes improved for the production of navmeshes: parts of the job could be automated, making the task that took me a morning now take an hour for a skilled designer. The best, most expensive engines began to allow for full scale experimental automation of the task, with a human only required to come in at the end and do a touch of clean-up. The task went down to minutes.

Today, in Unity, there is a button that says ‘generate navmesh’. If I click it, a few milliseconds later, the little junior Mike Bithell that lives in my laptop has done the job that used to take me a morning, and better than I could. My first job in games is now a button. And not even that pretty or exciting a button.

The development of games is an exciting process that is forever changing. Experts of course exist, but to remain experts, they must constantly innovate and build on the shoulders of their peers. There is no right answer, or more accurately, today’s right answer will be foolish tomorrow.

An unprecedented sharing of lessons learned and battles won takes place, as companies throw open the doors to their techniques, and NDA-stretching Twitter threads reveal the inner workings of our industry’s greatest magic tricks.

If you’re an old hand at game development, I’m sure you have your own stories like that of my navmesh obsolescence. It can be scary to know that our medium is subject to such change – that the skills we know now will be outdated by tomorrow.

Alternatively, it can be profoundly exciting.

To know that the job I do in another decade will be fundamentally different from the job I do now. I hope to still be working for many more beyond it, and I couldn’t be more excited to see the innovations that lie ahead.
Maybe you’ll come up with one.

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