Also -- fair warning: As is my habit I make some sweeping generalizations here. If you feel attacked by this post then quite simply it doesn't apply to you. ;)
I wonder how many of the 'woes' of today's game development industry are caused by the following simple trend: the longer one works in the game industry (more experienced, more influential, etc) the less time one has to actually play games (married, kids, demanding workload, etc).
On average, I would bet that if you took a representative sample of developers working on a game and measured their 'casual play time' (that is, time they spend playing a game other then the one they are developing) that number would be less then one might think. Perhaps even less then the average playtime of a random sampling of 13-25 year old males (in North America, Europe, Japan, etc).
So my theory? Game developers don't game -- they game by proxy.
Gaming by Proxy means we read the reviews, we see the screenshots and movies and we speak with friends or colleagues who might have tried it out. In short we do everything possible to learn about the game in question other then to actually play it ourselves. On the surface we seem well versed on the game in question. I've lost count the number of times I had interesting discussions about games I only played by proxy. People rarely question whether or not I've actually played the game in question, but if the conversation gets deep regarding mechanics or a specific encounter, my ignorance becomes evident. I know I am not alone.
Now this isn't really a fact that I can critisize. No one has time to play all the games that come out, and the gaming industry is certainly not the only one that sees the consumption of media by proxy. Instead this is meant simply to point out this unfortunate reality of life: we loves games, so we decide to get closer to them by getting involved in their creation. In doing so, we run the risk of becoming distanced from the very things that led us to this industry in the first place.
I don't know a single game developer who would say they have the time to play all the games they'd like.
Some areas I'd like to explore further in the future:
- Does this trend apply to the 'casual' space as well? Depending on your definition of casual games it could be argued that a casual game can be played digested and appreciated through much shorter play times. Does this mean that developers of casual games are able to stay much more in tune with the state of their niche of the market as a whole? Debatable given the sheer quantity of games that could be called 'casual', but worth thinking about.
- Does this have anything to do with the often-cited lack of innovation in the 'AAA' space? Are there people leaning towards the familiar (or iterative improvements) because some inspiring innovations in competitors' games aren't making it past their filters?