2009 and 2010’s Top Gaming Trends

The Beatles Rock Band Screenshot

Got game? No surprise there – millions of players the world over already do, with interactive entertainment more popular than ever thanks to the success of blockbuster titles like Guitar Hero 5 and The Beatles: Rock Band, and systems such as the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360. But what can we learn from the current state of the market in 2009… and what does the future hold for gamers in 2010? We asked Digital Trends’ own resident video game editor Scott Steinberg to peer into his crystal ball and reveal which virtual phenomena are poised to make waves shortly. As our favorite gaming analyst recaps below, there’s no shortage of new ways to play:

Active Games – Motion-sensing “active” games, which translate physical gestures into on-screen movement, first gained in popularity with the launch of Nintendo’s Wii project-natalvideo game system. However, Steinberg says that titles like Guitar Hero: Van Halen, The Beatles: Rock Band and Tony Hawk: Ride are merely the tip of the iceberg. “Sony’s new motion-sensing wand and, more importantly, Microsoft’s Project Natal, a 3D camera which eliminates controllers and gamepads entirely, point to a new, joystick-free future to come.” While there will always be a place for buttons and direction pads though, he says, “these systems are more organic and intuitive, eliminating many of the traditional barriers to entry that keep most players from being able to just jump in and enjoy themselves.” As a result, players of all ages and genders may soon be keener to get in the game than ever before.

Digital Distribution and Downloadable Content (DLC) – “The ability to wirelessly retrieve high-quality games on-demand for your PC and set-top or portable gaming console delivers incredible convenience and value,” says Steinberg. “Because there’s less overhead to worry about, these types of games can also be developed much faster and cheaper than top-tier retail outings like Modern Warfare 2 or Dragon Age: Origins.” As a result, he says, it’s easier for developers to sell directly to fans, enjoy higher profit margins, and be able to take more risks, leading to greater variety, better pricing options and games that push the boundaries instead of following proven chart-topping formulas. “However, bite-sized outings like Trials HD and Shadow Complex are just the beginning,” he also asserts, pointing to epic games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3, which extend overall value through ongoing downloadable expansions. “Courtesy of downloadable content, tomorrow’s AAA games won’t simply begin and end at what’s in the box – and, thanks to developers’ newfound ability to keep them constantly feeling fresh and new by adding previously unencountered characters, missions and settings, needn’t ever collect dust on the shelf.”

Games for Social Networks – With hundreds of millions of plays monthly and dedicated followings that dwarf those enjoyed by traditional console and MMO products, Steinberg says that games for social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and Hi5 are amongst gaming’s fastest-growing outings. “It’s not surprising that titles such as Mafia Wars, Restaurant City and Who Has the Biggest Brain are skyrocketing in popularity at an amazing clip,” he explains. “Most are simple and intuitive to grasp, emphasize socialization and multiplayer elements, and – most importantly – are free to play, instantly gratifying and crafted to be enjoyed in short sessions, which better suit today’s players’ increasingly hectic lifestyles.”

Mobile Gaming and iPhone Games – Of the over 85,000 apps, or applications, available for immediate purchase from Apple’s iPhone 3G S and iPod touch App Store, which have led to more than 2 billion downloads, it’s no surprise, Steinberg asserts, that roughly a quarter are electronic amusements. “Today’s increasingly powerful smartphones don’t just travel wherever users go, and offer enough power to deliver a high-quality gaming experience,” he says. “They also make it possible to purchase games virtually anywhere, and do so at a variety of price points, offering greater convenience. Because virtually anyone can develop for these platforms too, and the cost of doing so is relatively low, users also enjoy much more innovative titles and broader selection.”

iphone-gamesUser-Generated Content – Game players have always wanted to be game designers, Steinberg confesses, dating back to the days of classics like DOOM, with PC gamers long having enjoyed the power to create their own levels or “mods” (modifications which change in-game settings, graphics and topics) for popular titles. Only now, he explains, “amateurs have more power than ever to shape the titles they play thanks to custom level-building toolkits becoming an increasingly popular feature” in games like Spore, LittleBigPlanet and City of Heroes. According to Steinberg, “with games like Rock Band rapidly expanding to become their own DIY publishing platforms as well, we’re increasingly seeing the lines between amateurs and pros blurring.”

Free to Play and Online Games – Millions of users already flock to leading massively multiplayer online (MMO) games and virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, Aion and Second Life. But it’s free-to-play ones like Free Realms and Dungeon Fighter Online that Steinberg expects to continue to most grow by leaps and bounds. “You can’t beat the price,” he admits, saying that “when coupled with low system requirements and what are generally themes with broader appeal and more immediately understandable play mechanics, it’s no wonder users are flocking to these titles in droves.” Likewise, the rise of Flash (Web browser-based outings) is inevitable in his mind, despite the stigma of low quality that the field has been traditionally branded with, with portals like Shockwave, Kongregate and Newgrounds already enjoying a massive upsurge in popularity. “The next evolution will be slicker and more polished 3D outings, the same as you’re beginning to see on Facebook,” he claims. “Give it a few years, and you’ll even see titles that, while not as epic as anything you’d play on home consoles, will give most professional products a run for their money.” At the very least, with so much choice available (most titles are developed by single individuals or small teams in a matter of days or weeks, he says), the selection will remain impossible to beat.

Cloud Computing – Tons of buzz currently surrounds promising cloud computing services like Gaikai and OnLive, which promise to handle heavy number-crunching on remote servers that stream games back to your PC or TV via high-speed Internet connection, letting even older systems play cutting-edge titles without expensive upgrades. While still an unproven quantity, Steinberg says that these services will inevitably grow in popularity and influence, with the big questions in his mind at the moment simply being cost and practicality. “It beats having to regularly shell out hundreds on a new CPU or video card,” he laughs.

Indie Games – Innovative titles like Braid, Passage and World of Goo, which push the very definition of gaming (and are often produced by lone rangers or amateur teams fueled by passion and Ramen noodles) are also expected to continue to grow in influence in the near future, Steinberg says. “Without the pressures of corporate politics, stringent budges, demanding release dates or finicky shareholders to appease, homebrew coders have unrivaled room to experiment and innovate,” he confesses. “Though it’s much harder for these games to make headlines and gain mainstream attention, they’re often times much more wildly engaging and original than anything you’ll find on store shelves today.”