SAGE 2024: How will video games change in the future?

At SAGE 2024, developers and games industry advocates discussed the future of video games, in light of technology change.
box knight video game developers we made a thing studios

The future of video games is unknowable, yet with years of precedent and insight into emerging technology, we can give the future shape – analyse its potential direction, tease out its changes, and learn about what’s to come.

At SAGE 2024, a panel of games industry experts from across South Australia and New South Wales discussed the future of video games, tackling the many complex incoming challenges and technology changes on the horizon.

On the panel was Ron Curry (IGEA), Arthur Ah Chee (Cerulean Creative Studios), Chantal Ryan (We Have Always Live In The Forest), and Jeremy Kelly-Bakker and Tom Phillips from We Made a Thing Studios, with moderation by Patrick Webb (South Australian Film Corporation).

What was most clear in the discussion was that while change is inevitable, the Australian games industry is prepared to weather the storm – even as technologies like AI and VR/AR/MR transform development practices, and player engagement.

AI in video games

As you might expect from a timely panel, a major focus of the discussion was focussed on artificial intelligence (AI) – which remains a multi-faceted, layered technology dogged by as many concerns as there are positives.

“There are a lot of interesting conflicts and issues in the space right now,” Chantal Ryan said, discussing her work on horror adventure darkwebSTREAMER and its use of AI. “There are a lot of interesting navigations that are currently taking place within the space – creativity meeting AI. Things like language generation, art generation.”

“I know a lot of people are curious – what is the future of games going to look like, with all these incredibly new, incredibly wild, changing technologies? What is the place for artists, for writers, for designers?”

darkwebstreamer gameplay
Image: We Have Always Lived In The Forest

As Ryan explained, AI has a place as a tool to aid creators, and to make video game worlds more immersive. Before it becomes accepted, however, she believes there are many issues to address – notably, the need for ethical AI systems where datasets aren’t stolen wholesale from creators.

“We’re still navigating this space of what is legal, what is fair use – how can we engage with these technologies in a professional environment and with respect to the people working under us, and the creative professions that we’re employing?”

In utilising AI well under these conditions, Ryan sees a future in which there can be “self aware” games that can respond to players, acknowledge them, and “speak agency to both the player and to the NPCs in the world.”

“We can essentially create living worlds,” Ryan said. “I genuinely believe that the future of games is going to be radically different with the advent of responsive AI – with the games’ new ability to sculpt themselves in reaction to what is happening in the game.”

Ryan also believes AI has the potential to create a sense of digital personhood, to connect with players on a stronger emotional level, and therefore encourage immersion and engagement. While Ryan acknowledged there is some way to go before we get there, and issues like technology addiction – as depicted in popular media like Her (2013) – must be fully addressed before meaningful advancement can be delivered.

Read: Valve announces new disclosure rules for AI content in Steam games

Before we get there, many questions also need to be asked about AI itself. Its ethical application, and – perhaps most importantly – its role in a world where gainful employment is a requirement of a healthy, functioning society.

In discussing the topic, Jeremy Kelly-Bakker brought up the importance of agile, intelligent data sets – and the need to get AI “right” before it’s implemented.

“Data sets that are going to respond to input from the player – a big thing is going to be curating those, so they are able to appropriately observe deteriorating mental health or addiction … I feel that there is a real danger for the facsimile of human interaction that it can offer,” Kelly-Bakker said.

“The challenge we face is that this technology is moving so fast,” Ron Curry said. As part of IGEA, he works daily to advocate for the video games industry, and to inform government on its successes and challenges.

“Generally, the people who are making the rules aren’t moving that fast … There’s some real challenges around who’s controlling what the future looks like, and what job we all have of providing the education and the comfort to people, so we don’t get that backlash.”

There is a viable future in AI – but one that requires significant finesse.

Changing reality

Beyond AI, the panel also focussed on the proliferation of other, newer video game creation technologies – virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR). Despite entering maturity with lukewarm enthusiasm overall, the panel shared the belief that the technology still has the potential to be transformative, with the right application.

“The most immersive way to tell a story is video games,” Curry said. “I think when you overlay AR/VR over the top, that way we can have a deeper, immersive experience.”

assassin's creed nexus gameplay vr
Assassin’s Creed Nexus VR transports players into the world of Assassin’s Creed.(Image: Ubisoft)

Ah Chee was particularly enthusiastic about the potential of AR to cross cultural barriers, and allow people to understand language in real time – to connect people through a virtual world. Like AI, however, there are still barriers to ideal implementation: form factor, price, and the awkwardness of virtual reality headsets.

“It’s just the alienation of having a device [strapped to your face] – face-to-face contact is a really big issue that people have. Until we can somehow bridge that gap … it’s going to be a hard time for people to adapt to using the technology,” Ah Chee said.

Once these barriers are addressed, a brighter and more immersive future is possible.

“The idea is that [with these technologies] you are genuinely in the world, in a truly physical, embodied way,” Ryan said. “You move around, it moves in the world. Other people see those movements. You’re in a very real virtual space, in a way that feels real, and feels physical. It’s socially connected.”

Long strides have been made in the space, to create those immersive virtual worlds, but there are many steps until the technology is accessible and approachable for everyone.

Looking beyond

For now, discussions held about the potential for future technologies to change video games and their immersion are pure speculation – but the reality is that change will come, and it will be technology like AI and virtual reality that will most have an impact on the industry.

While both have significant hurdles to ethical and well-designed implementation – barriers to access, legality, and social acceptance, for a start – as these technologies progress, we’re likely to see them become a larger and more influential part of our every day lives, and our game playing habits.

Questions remain, but as the developers and advocates at SAGE 2024 made clear, these technologies are set to have a major impact on our future.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.