What we learned at GDC 2013: Consoles and PCs merge, but mobile and free-to-play are king

gdc recap header

Freemium games are sprouting like weeds. That’s what it looked like as I wandered the show floor at GDC 2013. An indicator that the freemium model (where you get a game for free but end up paying for small upgrades within the game) has become mainstream, it’s also a sign of the importance of mobile and social gaming. Many, many mobile games are free, but they generate revenue with ads or by selling in-app virtual goods.

That’s not to say that traditional AAA console and PC titles are dead. Battlefield 4’s shiny new trailer received a lot of oohs and aahs at the show. Mass Effect 4 and Dragon Age 3 are ratcheting up the visual quality for the new console generation, as well. The era of big budget, loud, and glossy games isn’t ending soon, but those types of games are becoming less relevant as gaming moves forward.

The shift to mobile platforms has progressed over the last decade, but this year’s GDC signifies a sea change. The industry is trying to adapt. The number of companies selling online billing services to handle microtransactions is just one metric. The big technology companies are aware, too, and are taking their own steps to address this new market. It’s a measure of the uncertainty and fragmentation of this new market that each of the players seem to be taking in slightly different directions.

Hardware makers get mobile and look to the cloud

Intel's AOIT extension to DirectX 11.1 makes transparency easier for game programmers.
Intel’s AOIT extension to DirectX 11.1 makes transparency easier for game programmers.

Intel is working to make its next-generation integrated graphics built into their upcoming Haswell laptop CPUs work more effectively with current generation games. The company is even creating extensions to DirectX to make the platform behave in a more console-like manner.

AMD, howevver, is supporting cloud gaming in a big way with its release of the Radeon Sky server-based GPUs. However, the company is hedging its bets. With AMD’s design win with the PlayStation 4 and a rumored win with the next-gen Xbox, the company is betting a lot of revenue on the success of the new consoles – the poor sales of the Wii U, which uses AMD’s Radeon graphics, must be worrying. It’s recent release of the budget priced Radeon HD 7790 should help it maintain interest.

Nvidia is also betting on cloud gaming with its GeForce Grid server line, but is still maintaining its release schedule, shipping an updated, better performing budget card with its GTX 650 Boost Edition. Meanwhile, Nvidia is still showing off its Project Shield handheld console, which is meant to attract a gamer who wants it all, but is also on the move, but neither pricing or ship dates have been announced.

Microsoft’s is trying to keep its feet squarely in all trends at once. However, that sometimes comes across as having a lack of focus. Windows 8 has been a less than stellar success for desktop PCs, but, as the new interface takes hold, touch-enabled laptops and tablets may see interesting new games. The Windows side of the company is aggressively pushing tablet gaming with Windows 8.

Meanwhile, initiatives like Xbox SmartGlass means that the console side of Microsoft is at least dimly aware of the importance of tablets, but only as subsidiary devices – god forbid you might actually want to play a game on a tablet.

Big studios try to adapt

Bioware's use of weekend operations kept multiplayer users actively interested.
Bioware’s use of weekend operations kept multiplayer users actively interested.

The big gaming studios are certainly aware of the shifting sands, but with so much capital invested in old-school gaming, they’re still trying to figure out how to make money in the new world of always connected, mobile gamers. Bioware’s attempt at turning Mass Effect 3 into a service, rather than a packaged good, was one of the more interesting, if somewhat flawed, experiments. The new, service-oriented approach kept Mass Effect 3 alive in player’s minds for a year after the launch, but mixed messages and incomplete communication confused both the gaming press and gamers.

The real action is in free-to-play games, but the incremental nature of freemium revenues has been a mixed success for the big players. Star Wars: The Old Republic has seen mixed success as it moves to a free-to-play model, but more nimble companies in the market, like Wargaming.net, have reaped substantial rewards. Free-to-play has become the top business model for mobile gaming. On the MMO side, it’s looking like the subscription model is increasingly moribund, as high profile titles like The Secret World have moved rapidly to free-to-play after initial attempts at more traditional subscriptions failed to garner enough users to keep the game profitable.

What’s going on?

What does this all mean in the long-term? The rich array of different gaming platforms will attract more users to gaming than ever before, but it also means that major publishers are more risk averse. Addicted to current revenue streams from big budget games, their experiments with mobile gaming and user engagement after games ship has been slow to come. However, mobile hardware and software is also exploding with products ranging from tablet-like phones to extremely Ultrabook PCs stealing sales away from traditional consoles and desktop PCs. The big players will have to evolve to serve this new generation of users, or risk ending up on the scrap heap of technology history.

Gaming

Project Stream testers get to keep a free copy of ‘Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’

Those who participated in Google's technical test of Project Stream won't be able to access the service to play Assassin's Creed Odyssey after January 15, but they'll get to keep the game on PC anyway.
Gaming

The DualShock 4 is one of the best controllers ever, and you can use it with a PC

Sony's new DualShock 4 controller has become a fan favorite, and some people want to use it with a PC. Here's how to connect your DualShock 4 and start using it, either with an official adapter, or unofficial software.
Computing

HDR monitors are beginning to have an impact. Here are the best you can buy

HDR isn't the most common of PC monitor features and is often charged at a premium, but the list of available options is growing. These are the best HDR monitors you can buy right now.
Deals

Here are the best laptop deals for December 2018

Whether you need a new laptop for school or work or you're just doing some holiday shopping for a special someone, we've got you covered: These are the best laptop deals going right now, from discounted MacBooks to on-the-go gaming PCs.
Gaming

‘Kingdom Hearts III’ out in the wild, director asks for support to stop spoilers

Kingdom Hearts III has been leaked, with several copies of the game out in the wild. The game's director, Tetsuya Nomura, responded to the situation, calling for help from gamers to stop spoilers from spreading online.
Gaming

Newest ‘Destiny 2’ raid already completed by two-person team

The latest raid in Destiny 2: Forsaken is Scourge of the Past, and a two-person team has already managed to complete it. The task took 15 hours of trial-and-error effort before the duo managed to take down the final boss.
Gaming

The history of Battle Royale: From mod to worldwide phenomenon

Battle royale games like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds’ and Fortnite have become the biggest trend in video games. The genre is also pushing the envelope in streaming and eSports in a way that might hint at the future of the industry.
Gaming

The 25 best SNES games

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System might be the greatest game console ever made, but what are the best titles for the system? Here are our picks for the best SNES games, including A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger.
Deals

Need a discounted Xbox bundle by Christmas? Walmart has you covered

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have both come and gone, but you can still save some cash on a new Xbox One bundle at Walmart. Both the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X are on sale now.
Gaming

With our Steam guide, you can give the gift of gaming this holiday season

The holidays may have passed, but it's always a good time to give the gift of gaming (especially when there's a Steam sale)! Here's our quick guide on how to give a Steam game as a gift.
Gaming

‘Fortnite’ update 7.10 brings a rotating selection of modes big and small

The latest update for Fortnite introduces 14 Days of Fortnite, an event that brings back large and small battle royale modes as well as brand new ones to enjoy during the holiday season.
Gaming

New Xbox consoles are reportedly code-named ‘Anaconda’ and ‘Lockhart’

Microsoft's next-generation Xbox plans reportedly consist of two separate consoles. One, called "Lockhart," is a more affordable machine, while "Anaconda" is designed with more horsepower.
Gaming

Who needs a Switch? These 25 games prove there's fun to be found on 3DS

The 3DS is home to a large library, including some of the greatest games Nintendo has ever published. We've compiled this list of some of the best Nintendo 3DS games currently available.
Gaming

Gifting a PS4? Avoid long updates and start gaming right away with our guide

The PlayStation 4 makes a great Christmas gift, but there are quite a few things you need to do before you can play. Here's how you can prepare a PlayStation 4 for gifting in advance.