Looking at the past and future of gaming at NXNE Future Land

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If the purpose of North by Northeast&rsquo;s Future Land was to pose the question &ldquo;what is the future of gaming?&rdquo; to industry experts, the answer would be more immersive experiences. For the first time, the interactive portion of the NXNE festival was entirely dedicated to the future of gaming, and the panelists repeatedly brought up the theme of immersion, obtained through sound, story structure, and virtual technology. The 2016 Future Land conference aimed to attract those who were interested in breaking into the gaming industry from avenues such as music composition or narrative design.</p>

Held at the Ted Rogers School of Business June 15 and headlined by Nolan Bushnell, the cultural figurehead who brought video games to pop culture, the conference consisted of back-to-back speakers and panel discussions. The industry experts discussed topics regarding the intersection of music, art, and storytelling with gaming led by questions from professors of the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University. Panelists were a diverse mix of industry heavyweights such as audio director Richie Nieto of Ubisoft Toronto, lead composer at Uken Games Maggie McLean, Graeme Cornies of Voodhoo Highway, and Sasa Marinkovic, marketing manager at AMD, along with independent game makers and freelancers such as Rich Vreeland, who goes by his moniker Disasterpeace, and Alex Jansen, creator of LOUD on Planet X. It concluded with an opportunity to speak one-on-one with the guest panelists at the end of the event.

The Bushnell Legend

Nolan Bushnell opened the conference as the headliner of Future Land. Growing up in the ‘50s, his brush with entrepreneurship started when he began a TV repair business at age 10. He charged 50 cents per house call and marked up the equipment enough to earn $15-20 per visit. Bushnell worked his way through university and was a manager at an amusement park when he was introduced to Spacewar! — a videogame programmed by Steve Russell at MIT largely regarded as the game that launched the industry. Back then, if you wanted to play Spacewar!, you could only do so on “minicomputers” called PDP-1s with processors the size of wardrobe armoires.

His first engineering job out of the University of Utah was at AMPEX, an influential engineering firm in the '70s that had provided the video equipment to broadcast the first moon landing for NASA. AMPEX was where he met Ted Dabney, his business partner who he had shared an office with. The pair formed a company called Syzygy when Bushnell suggested the idea of bringing Spacewars! into the arcade as a coin-operated game.  (An aside: around the same time he also wanted to create a pizza parlour with dancing and singing bears, which would become the Chuck E. Cheese chain.)

By the time Bushnell approached Nutting Associates, an arcade game manufacturer, Bushnell and Dabney had a working hardware prototype that allowed the user to control the motion of a dot across a TV screen.  Bushnell had wanted to imitate a similar success to Spacewar! so his game involved a player shooting down two flying saucers that would shoot back. The player scored every time it shot down a saucer in a 90-second game. He called it Computer Space.

By 1971, Bushnell worked out an agreement that allowed Syzygy to keep the rights to the game and receive royalties on each game cabinet sold. In 1972, Computer Space was a commercial success but it wasn’t the grand slam Nutting had wanted. It did well with the crowd that had played Spacewars!, but the steep learning curve turned off casual players.

Frustrated with the lack of marketing for Computer Space, Bushnell left the same year with Dabney to incorporate his own company, named Atari, after a term from his favourite game Go. Soon after, Al Alcorn who had also worked at AMPEX was hired as the design engineer. As a warm-up exercise and with some assistance from Dabney, the iconic video arcade game, Pong, was released in 1972.  Pong changed the gaming industry forever as it popularized home gaming consoles.

The story on how exactly credit should be divided amongst each individual is unclear and is now the stuff of he said, she said, since Dabney and Bushnell parted on bad terms. In his presentation, Bushnell called his former business partner “sticky-fingered.” In an interview with Dabney in 2012 for the Computer History Museum, Dabney paints Bushnell as the money-hungry one — someone who threatened to leave Dabney with nothing if he didn’t agree to be bought out.

The story continues on to 1976 when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who had worked on the Atari arcade game Breakout, approached Bushnell with an offer of $50,000 for a third of equity stake in the company that would become Apple. Jobs and Wozniak had borrowed computer parts from Atari to create the first home computer — to which Bushnell had said no and understandably regrets.

Bushnell left Atari himself in ’76 but would go on to found a business incubator that developed Etac, the first company to attempt to digitally map the world. Its technology spurred Mapquest and Google Maps.

Immersion

Near the end of his talk, Bushnell reflected on the direction games are going today. The direction points to more immersive experiences for audiences. At the forefront of creating these immersive experiences for audiences are, of course, the individuals working with virtual reality (VR) technology. According to Henry Faber, a founder of a makers’ space in Toronto called Bento Miso, virtual reality in video gaming is only the beginning. Beyond immersion, virtual reality is really about interactivity. His advice to game makers is to prepare for the long game, to stop rushing to make products because it will only contribute to consumer fatigue. Few people have the technology at home to experience the full capabilities of VR.

 Another major component of creating an immersive experience for the end-user is the soundscape. The chiptune soundtrack of early '90s video games is sufficiently both trance-like and stimulating, which keeps it from tiring players quickly. During a panel about composing videogame music, Nieto advised composers starting out to think about sound in terms of sustained loops instead of a piece with a beginning, middle, and end. In videogames, there has to be an interactive component to the music — it has to give players feedback along with conveying emotion and ambience.

Big Idea

Mayor John Tory echoed the sentiment of not being afraid of technology as he commented on last month’s city council decision to allow Uber and Lyft to operate in Toronto. He said Toronto can either be “the city that tries to chase away the disrupters … or the city that [will] embrace the disrupters.” Should companies of the future face barriers in the form of government policy attempt to slow down the economic shift?  The overwhelming takeaway message from panelists and speakers was a resounding no.

NXNE is a Toronto staple and runs every year around mid-June. 

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