Fresh off of CES 2010 and announcements that Microsoft’s Project Natal (a motion-sensing 3D camera system that uses your body as the controller, eliminating the gamepad entirely) will be arriving this holiday season, we couldn’t help but take note. As a bevy of industry insiders so eloquently pointed out in our recent Video Games Are Dead documentary, the PC and video game business is quickly undergoing a striking metamorphosis. Never mind that a new Nintendo DS handheld is reportedly in the works, 3D gaming is reputedly on the rise (buoyed by the impending launch of numerous 3DTV sets), and smartphones (Android-powered or no) are suddenly angling for a piece of the market. “There are major innovations soon to arrive on virtually every gaming front,” says DT’s in-house editor Scott Steinberg, who labels it an industry that’s today in constant flux. From games for social networks to Internet connected TV apps and the rise of cloud computing services such as Gaikai and OnLive, which promise to transform the way we play, we asked him to predict where the future of interactive entertainment is headed:
Software Sales Recover Slightly, Publishing Giants and Indies Flourish
According to Steinberg, despite recent dips in franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero, there’s still money to be made out there selling traditional boxed retail games for set-top consoles. “It’s expected that we’ll see sales of game software, e.g. upcoming titles like StarCraft II, Splinter Cell: Conviction, and Final Fantasy XIII rebound along with the recovering economy,” says Steinberg. “However, I’m also betting that audiences in 2010 will be thinking savvier, and utilizing more options (digitally distributed games, downloadable content (DLC), GameFly rentals, microtransactions, free-to-play titles, etc.) to extend their gaming dollar further than ever.” As such, he says, sales of even several major releases such as BioShock 2 will prove perfectly respectable this year, but not up to the success of their forerunners. You can also expect to see hardware sales take a slight dip, more major studios folding, and a greater number of startups launching to service a variety of platforms from smartphones to the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, WiiWare and PC download services such as Steam, Impulse and GamersGate. Steinberg says that he anticipates seeing games flourish at the extremely high (read: AAA blockbuster) and low (Flash, micro-team, indie/DLC, etc.) ends of the spectrum, which should gain in prominence, while everyone in the middle continues to get crushed in-between.
Online and Social Network Games Rewrite the Playbook
Yes, there have been some challenges with monetizing games for social networks (titles that play on Facebook, Bebo, etc.) and apps for handsets like the iPhone, as well as major issues with piracy in the latter case. But Steinberg says that these types of games will continue to blossom as “a new breed of player that demands instantly gratifying experiences playable anytime, anywhere – preferably alongside friends – flocks to more intuitive, streamlined titles that better fit their more hectic, mobile lifestyle.” Expect to see more traditional publishing houses experimenting with these formats (see: EA’s Dante’s Inferno titles for Facebook or free online Dragon Age Journeys outing), he says, and most likely stumbling, but learning much from the results. “This is the year to experiment, learn and grow,” Steinberg suggests. “As such, by 2011 or 2012, we’ll be seeing much more polished efforts in all online spaces from free-to-play to casual and MMO, including a bevy of premium efforts for smartphones and Web browsers.”
New Hardware Platforms (3D/Internet-Connected TVs, Smartphones, App-Enabled Home Theater Components, etc.) Extend Gaming’s Appeal
“Get ready to see massive developments shortly on the hardware front courtesy of Project Natal; Sony’s new motion-sensing wand; more inventive titles in the active games category; and a bevy of newly game-friendly devices such as Internet-connected HDTVs with app capability, tablet PCs, and Android smartphones,” says Steinberg. However, in his mind, these initial efforts won’t wow for their groundbreaking play so much as serve as early proof of concepts for the eventual viability of these platforms. Translation: “Don’t expect to see these gizmos offering killer apps the likes of Mass Effect 2 or God of War III just yet – rather, they’ll simply serve as conversation pieces to rally excitement for what will ultimately be possible in a few short years on these platforms.”
Old Franchises Get Dusted Off, Resurrected, Possibly Buried Again
Desperate to cut costs, boost brand recognition and regain some semblance of predictable financial results, Steinberg expects many old gaming franchises to return and/or receive a reboot in 2010. From Namco Bandai’s upcoming Splatterhouse 3D revamp to custom-designed Facebook updates of Sid Meier’s Civilization and virtual arcades chock full of Atari coin-op favorites in Xbox Live Game Room, he suggests, release schedules will soon be stocked with familiar names. “Everything old is truly new again,” he muses, finding irony in upcoming releases such as Blood Bowl (Steinberg actually worked as a beta tester on the 1995 MicroLeague version), Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Aliens vs. Predator and Tron: Evolution. While many seem ill-advised, e.g. Electronic Arts’ upcoming modern-day repositioning of Medal of Honor, he admits that “there’s no substitute for name recognition.” Still, he says, “We’ll likely see the best efforts here in the downloadable space, as digitally distributed titles for set-top consoles like the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360, and remakes for PC and iPhone offer value-minded packages that stay truest to their subject matter, pleasing old and new fans alike.”
Video Games Go Mainstream
We’ve heard pundits jabber on for years about game sales eclipsing Hollywood returns and how the Wii is bringing electronic entertainment to cruise ships and nursing homes. But 2010 is “the year mainstream media really begins to take gaming more seriously, affording more titles the same respect as comparable works of film or literature,” says Steinberg. Citing efforts like BioShock 2 and God of War III, which stand to potentially raise the bar for virtual storytelling and digital cinematography, plus an upsurge in serious games, which repurpose real-world scenarios as engaging interactive experiences that teach and inform, he remains optimistic for the medium’s future. “Thus far, we’ve seen relatively few titles that really scratch the surface of games’ capacity to captivate, educate and spark audiences’ imagination.” However, the situation should be remedied soon, he anticipates – even if more traditional outings (i.e. furious shootouts, sci-fi/fantasy sagas and candy-colored platform hoppers) won’t be disappearing anytime soon either.