Looking Ahead

Despite getting off to a slow start (even with the January release of early Game of the Year frontrunner Resident Evil 4), 2005 turned out to be an eventful period for gaming.

Think about it. The last 12 months brought us the release of Sony’s PlayStation Portable. Audiences worldwide further bore witness to the embarrassing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Hot Coffee sex mini-game scandal and its politically-charged aftermath. Electronic Arts’ kicked off the trend of exclusive sports league licensing by signing a 15-year agreement with the NFL. And who could forget, naturally, the excitement surrounding the Xbox 360’s debut.

All of which, naturally, begs the question: What’s next for the industry in 2006? The short answer: Plenty.

We’re at the start of a transition period, as developers, publishers, consumers, retailers and analysts alike prepare themselves for the launch of the next-generation of interactive entertainment. Only this time, everyone isn’t just waiting to see which console comes out ahead; they’re also wondering what shape the entire sector will take in its latest incarnation. Between viewers abandoning TV in droves to the rise of in-game advertising, a growing market for casual diversions and online-ready systems capable of connecting the world, big things are happening for the business.

The bottom line being, of course, that it’s an exciting time to be a gamer. Nobody knows for sure who’ll dominate the market in the coming season, let alone by next fall. Nor do they have an idea whether ? given recent sales slumps ? certain manufacturers will even be around, let alone in what form. Or, while we’re at it, with huge strides being made towards broadband penetration and delivery of on-demand content, just what’s going to happen in terms of packaging, pricing and distribution for even premium franchises.

Unlike most critics though, I’m not going to sermonize or attempt to make predictions concerning where the sector’s headed. (Truthfully, at the moment, it would simply be base conjecture, and anyone who tells you different is pushing an agenda.) Instead, I’m just going to point out a few of the major trends to keep an eye out for in the following weeks. As for where things go from here, well? happily for enthusiasts, who enjoy being surprised and delighted (except when we’re referring to another one of Rockstar’s hidden Easter eggs, natch), it’s anyone’s guess:

CONNECTIVITY EXPANDS

Dig how the Xbox 360 offers seamless online integration and lets you link up with digital cameras, laptops and thumb drives via USB port? Good news: Streaming MP3s, pictures and live TV feeds (with a Media Center PC) to any room of the home is just the beginning.

Once hi-def cameras are introduced for next-gen consoles, you’ll also be able to videoconference straight from your living room. More handheld titles ? not just the odd PSP offering ? will additionally feature options for connecting and competing with friends via a WiFi hotspot. Come the launch of the PlayStation 3, you’ll be able to broadcast your own home videos in real-time over the Internet and let viewers enjoy these amateur showings from virtually anywhere as well.

Plus, once online bazaar Xbox Live Marketplace really gets going, users will have the option of creating, sharing and selling content at whim, or purchasing independently-published games that would normally sail under the radar. Not to mention grabbing add-ons, expansion packs and new vehicles/weapons on a dime.

THE CONSOLE WARS IGNITE

Screw what you’ve heard thus far: The battle for your living room hasn’t even begun.

While I’m dubious that Sony’s PlayStation 3 will make its stated Spring 2006 debut (a launch in Japan at the time is more likely), you’ll all but certainly see the console before the holidays. Nintendo’s Revolution also plans to make an appearance prior to year-end. Predictably, both offer completely different answers to what precisely it is that makes a next-generation console so compelling.

The PS3 emphasizes technical performance (thank its custom Cell processor and RSX, or “Reality Synthesizer” graphics chip) plus a huge catalogue of exclusive blockbusters, i.e. Metal Gear Solid 4 and the next Gran Turismo. Given a built-in Blu-Ray drive, it’ll have the capability to eventually play titles light years beyond anything seen to date. The machine’s aim: To offer more immersive action than ever before, with games which raise the bar in terms of compelling content and overall audiovisual fidelity.

The Revolution ? whose TV remote-style controller includes motion sensing capabilities ? takes the opposite approach, focusing instead on creativity. It’s Nintendo’s hope that a broad demographic of people will enjoy the machine’s user-friendly interface, childlike charm and whimsical potential. (By waving the device, you could actually physically wield a fishing pole or wave a wand around in various games.)

Whichever strikes the public’s fancy, both are on a direct collision course for one another, where they’ll also be met head-on by the Xbox 360. Here’s hoping you’ve kept that bomb shelter well-stocked: Whoever triumphs in the end, the fallout from this conflict will linger around for years to come.

THE DAWN OF DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION

Retail distribution has served the gaming industry well for decades? nobody’s questioning that. The trouble is, in recent years, it’s become a huge hindrance.

Development costs are immense. Ditto for marketing and promotional budgets. But at the same time, shelf space is shrinking, meaning it’s harder and harder for publishers to get their products in front of folks’ faces. Independents are even more screwed, as they can’t muster up the resources or renown to move chain buyers into taking a chance on their wares. Proven performers, e.g. high-profile sequels like Tomb Raider: Legend,therefore hog the lion’s share of the spotlight while lesser-hyped, but oftentimes better, titles are left to languish in obscurity.

Thanks to services like Xbox Live Arcade and Half-Life 2 creator Valve’s Steam platform, digital distribution is increasingly looking like the answer to this dilemma. As many users as are packing a high-speed Internet connection these days, people are ready, willing and able to acquire software instantly and download it right onto their hard drive. Electronic Arts and Sega have already begun flirting with the medium’s potential, and I fully expect more major players will follow in their footsteps. Software purchased direct from the manufacturer, after all, affords its creators higher profit margins and allows greater savings to be passed onto the consumer.

It’s a good deal for all parties involved ? especially garage developers, who stand a chance of doing quite well for themselves marketing to smaller audiences than would traditionally be financially feasible.

MOBILE MADNESS REIGNS

Just in case you missed it, Electronic Arts’ eye-opening purchase of JAMDAT should be a wake-up call to the world: Mobile gaming is on the rise. Titles for cell phones ? offered at a fraction of the price of boxed retail product for set-top systems (e.g. $3 and up) ? are only going to become more popular as time passes. Likewise for those simplistic amusements offered for travel-ready devices like PDAs and PMPs.

Marketed towards everyday people, these offerings are fast, fun and easy to play, featuring control schemes that a monkey could master in no time flat. They also take seconds to download and install, and oftentimes prove accessible from almost anywhere on the planet. Many even offer subscription plans, so you only pay for them as long as the title’s still in use. And quite a few can be bought with a minimum of fuss, given that the cost is simply tacked onto your monthly cell phone bill.

What’s not to love from this new breed of games, which assume the average user is a normal grade school student, teen or working professional with a passing interest in the hobby? The secret to their current and impending success: Treating audiences like average citizens, not Dungeons & Dragons-loving uber-geeks who can rattle every song by Final Fantasy musical composer Nobuo Uematsu off on command. No wonder the market’s supposed to generate $11 billion in annual revenues by 2010, says Informa Telecoms & Media?

EVERYONE PLAYS

She might not look the part of the joystick-obsessed dweeb, but Mom’s about to sock it to the fanboys something furious shortly. Women in their 30s and 40s ? as well as senior citizens ? are increasingly becoming an important part of the interactive entertainment business thanks to online casual games.

Scoff it you must at simple diversions like chess, checkers and gin rummy, but these are the titles analysts expect to account for $2 billion in sales by 2008. Online gaming portals such as MSN’s Zone.com and Electronic Arts’ Pogo.com are already posting up big numbers by catering to this growing audience. The ultimate in mass-market entertainment, products delivered through these services ? which generally include board, card puzzle and word games ? are rapidly catching on with stay-at-home parents, young kids and retirees. Predictably, subscription fees are going through the roof, with interest from advertisers currently at an all-time high as well.

Bearing this in mind, don’t be surprised if you’re forced to fight Grandma for control of the keyboard soon, not just the wife and kids anymore?

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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