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TOKYO – I’m third-generation Japanese-American. My grandparents came from Japan as farmers about 100 years ago. I considered it an honor to be able to speak at three events in Japan about my 20 years of experience covering games.
The best part of my job is traveling and talking to people from the game industry and listening to their wisdom, what inspires them, why they do what they do. These journeys have taken me across the globe, and so on my first trip to Japan in 24 years, I spoke on the topic of how I believe “the gaming world is flat, but you can tilt it in your direction.”
I borrowed the title from Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, who wrote The World is Flat. The idea is basically that nobody has an advantage over anybody else anymore. The playing field is level. It’s flat. It’s based on things like merit and ability, and the access to information through the internet.
Competition has become global. Or you can think of it as competitive between countries or game companies, but as long as the game industry is growing it’s not a zero-sum game. If you’re not sure what a “non-zero-sum game” is, you should see the movie Arrival, an excellent movie I just saw. They explain that concept of the “win win” very well. Here are the slides from my talk to go with the words below.
What Siberia tells us
As I said, you can make a game anywhere now. The proof is these two brothers here, from Siberia. They grew up in the cold in Yakutsk. It was too cold for them to go outside and play, so they had to play indoors. They played video games. Soon enough they started teaching themselves how to make games, the technology behind games. They were self-taught. By the time they made their 15th game, they had a hit hidden-object game that a Swedish company published. It was downloaded 30 million. They employ 100 people in Siberia.
This is proof, I think, that the world is flat when it comes to making games. Mobile, when it exploded with the rise of the iPhone and other smartphones, helped spread out the game industry throughout the world. It globalized the game industry in a way that nothing had before. The audience is now in excess of a billion people. You can make a game with 10 people. It’s sort of the fable of the mobile game industry, that we’ve all learned over the last few years.
Tilting the playing board in your favor
But you can tilt the odds in your region’s favor. Some regions are known for having a strong foundation in the game industry. They have their advantages, like a very deep history, going back to the very beginning of games over the decades. I recently interviewed a woman named Theresa Duringer. She’s a second-generation game developer in San Francisco. Her mother was one of the original developers for Electronic Arts. She grew up playing games. Theresa has a board-game night every week at her home. She’s someone who is born and bred to make games. You don’t have that kind of person growing up in every part of the world yet. It’s only possible in some regions that have a deep history with a culture of playing and then developing games.
It helps to have related industries. Los Angeles game companies have the advantage of being close to Hollywood movie studios. A lot of those Hollywood giants own their own game studios, like Warner Bros. and Lion’s Gate. They’re thriving because of the close association between games and movies.
The relationship between tech, games, and entertainment
I’ve been writing a lot lately about what I call an accelerating inspiration cycle between science fiction and technology and games. I think that’s only going to get faster. The disconnect between these three usually different fields is disappearing. Science fiction used to give us things like ray guns and flying cars. Now it’s giving us artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. These things are actually being worked on in Silicon Valley by many of the tech companies. The wall between science fiction and technology has disappeared in some ways.
I can bring up two examples of that. I recently did an interview with the CEO of Nvidia. He’s shifted his company’s focus from graphics chips to A.I., to making the technology for self-driving cars and other things like that. I said, “It sounds like you guys are really going science fiction.” He said, “I don’t watch so much science fiction anymore because I am science fiction. The things we’re doing in our R&D labs are on the cutting edge of the imagination.”
Another example was with Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Softbank here in Japan. He recently came to Silicon Valley to talk about the acquisition of ARM. His firm bought ARM, a chip designer, for $32 billion. ARM chips are in most of the cell phones in the world, for example. Masayoshi had a breakfast with the press where he talked about why he did this. He actually sold off Supercell, for a $10 billion valuation, to Tencent, and he sold his interest in Gung Ho as well. He said he didn’t want to get rid of those companies, but he needed the money to buy ARM. The reason he bought ARM, he said, was because of the Singularity.
The Singularity is a concept that different people like Ray Kurzweil and the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge came up with a long time ago, predicting that artificial intelligence would one day surpass the collective intelligence of humans. Masayoshi Son believes that this is going to happen in the next 30 years. He bought ARM in order to prepare himself for that. He’s also raising a $100 billion investment fund with the Saudis because he wants to invest for the singularity.
That may sound absolutely crazy on a lot of levels. But he’s thinking about it already. He was saying that yes, in some ways it could be dangerous. A.I. could be a threat to humans. But he also said that fire was a threat to humans. It also gave a lot of good things. He thinks that we’re going to have benefits like self-driving cars and whatever else if the singularity happens.
Again, the walls are coming down between tech and sci-fi. As far as games go, we can see it in games like Watch Dogs 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The themes in those games are closely connected to what’s actually possible in the real world. In Watch Dogs 2, the theme is about hacking a smart city. Deus Ex is about human augmentation. They’re set in the near future, and they’re basically taking inspiration from the headlines of today — about hacking, about artificial limbs — things that are real. In fact, you can take an arm from the main character in Deus Ex and, through a company called Open Bionics, 3D print that arm and use it as your own real prosthetic. It’s decorated in the same way as the character’s arm in the game. The walls are coming down between these industries. That’s going to be important for the inspiration behind video games for a long time to come.
Your region, of course, gets a lot stronger if you have a gaming hub, with many companies that give birth to startups or spinoffs and keep everything going. Japan has such a rich culture in video games compared to someplace like India. You can easily understand why India hasn’t been a hub for games yet because people there aren’t growing up playing video games.