Scott Steinberg: 2010 Trends
Happy New Year, and welcome to 2010 - for both casual and hardcore gamers, it ushers in a decade with limitless possibilities to redefine the very way we play. But as important as it is to look forward, it also pays to spare a glance back at the monumental changes the last ten years have brought.
Consider: At this time in 2000, CD-ROM and rudimentary 3D graphics were state of the art, first-person shooters were just coming into their own as a narrative genre, and the greatest threat the industry faced were (theoretically, at least) "fatal" Y2K bugs. Fast forward to the present, and we've got an industry splintering in so many directions, and evolving at such a rapid clip, that new trends appear and die faster than it takes to wirelessly download a copy of Gravity Crash to your 1080p-ready, Blu-ray drive sporting PS3 Slim.
In the spirit of new beginnings, let's take a look at five of the most important trends which helped mould gaming over the last decade, and five more sure to alter the virtual shape of things to come:
Once upon a time, it seemed amazing just to login and slice up a poor, slavering demon over Battle.net. Now we've got trigger-happy console outings that support up to 256 simultaneous players (MAG), role-playing games with complete online suites (BioShock 2) and co-op friendly excursions (Army of Two: The 40th Day) that pass as the everyday norm. While massively multiplayer games were around in 2000, no one could ever have imagined a title like World of Warcraft growing to become an 11.5 million-subscriber juggernaut either. Or, for that matter, that even basic multiplayer functions would become an essential component of virtually every retail outing made - how's that for forward progress? The bottom line: If it weren't for this trend, we'd never have trash talk, dedicated multiplayer networks, professional gaming and dudes who starve themselves to death trying to grind out just one more level.
Smartphone and Mobile Gaming
We all heard the rhetoric: Billions of cell phones exist, they seldom leave everyone's pocket and as such, they're destined to become the next leading portable console, courtesy of cutting-edge titles like Brady Bunch Kung Fu. And while it all seemed just a pipe dream as late as even early 2007, suddenly, that summer, Apple emerged as an unlikely champion for the cause with its iPhone and iPod touch units, helping sell thousands of thumb-waggling titles to millions of unsuspecting punters who never even considered themselves "gamers" to begin with. Now that the concept's finally gaining traction (and making single-function devices like the DS and PSP seem obsolete), we expect to see even more of a gaming explosion in the smartphone space going forward. So the next time someone asks "is that a portable console in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me," you can finally take your pick of options to answer in the affirmative with.
Thirty years ago, during gaming's primeval dawn, an intrepid band of creatures known as "game developers" first heaved their gooey bulk out of the primordial ooze and began to spread their primitive feelers in all directions. But two decades later, a hobby that had initially thrived on creativity and innovation had moved away from bold experiments made in back bedrooms and sold out of Ziploc baggies to cookie cutter sequels made by imagination-bereft, risk-averse corporations keen on boosting only the bottom line. However, with the rise of the internet and online content delivery platforms, by 2008, the pendulum began to swing back, giving amateur coders the chance to directly connect with a fan base, explore new themes, test original concepts and make a healthy living pushing the very boundaries of gaming all the while. As a result, the future now belongs as much to homebrew hackers as soulless companies, a fact we're confident would make gaming's forefathers proud.
Yeah, yeah, sales are down: There's a recession out there, 120 USD a title isn't exactly cheap and there are only so many huge honking plastic instruments one person needs to have collecting dust in their closet. But in case you doubt the category's future potential, let's try a simple test: Raise your hand if you can name a single person who's never heard an instrument play, hummed a simple tune or listened to the radio? Long story short - you've just discovered the same truth game developers did in the past decade: That music is a universal language that unites us all. So while sales of Guitar Hero and Rock Band may temporarily be stalling out, despite the best efforts of The Beatles, Van Halen and Green Day, realize, the fat lady hasn't sung for the entire genre yet.
Courtesy of games for social networks like Facebook and Bebo (hooray, Mafia Wars and FarmVille)'s sudden arrival at the end of the decade, millions didn't just discover the pleasures of gaming with others in quick, easily manageable installments that fit better with modern lifestyles. They also did so courtesy of a variety of games that spoke to more interests and backgrounds than ever - and completely free at that. Small wonder productivity at workplaces worldwide has suddenly dropped by several orders of magnitude, and your great aunt's asking you out of nowhere to "Click here to help me mount a siege against the orcs of Tharz'hut!"
Wisely doing away with complex controllers and their dizzying array of knobs and buttons, motion-sensing (a.k.a. "active") games such as Wii Sports Resort, Tony Hawk: RIDE and Guitar Hero: Van Halen are knocking down needless barriers that have alienated less tech-savvy players for decades. And like serious games, they're also helping shatter stereotypes by proving that playing games can have beneficial, even healthy, connotations. Expect to see them become even more prominent shortly in the coming decade, as Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's upcoming motion-sensing wand soon make appearances.
Downloadable Content (DLC) / Digitally Distributed Games
We love the ability to download smaller, more cost-effective games right to PC or console (pants optional, natch) almost as much as we adore the option to endlessly extend the life of titles like Mass Effect 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 with additional weapons, characters and scenarios. Thankfully, given lower development costs for bite-sized/incremental content, higher profit margins across the board and a more direct way to connect with end-users or add value to existing retail products, developers dig the concept almost as much too. One of the more exciting trends of the past five years, we anticipate that it will transform the entire marketplace shortly by furthering the decline of retail vendors, and turning physical copies of games into gateways to broader online experiences, rather than simple, fixed adventures that begin and end at what's in the box.
UGC - User-Generated Content
Dirty secret: Most game players (and critics) are frustrated artists. Thankfully, a trend that began in the mid-'90s with level building toolkits and world editors for games like DOOM and Quake and evolved over the last decade into massively modifiable games like Spore and LittleBigPlanet will only continue to grow over the next decade. Amateurs, pros... Let's be honest: Right now, it's mostly semantics. At this point, with even basic internet browser games offering the opportunity to personalize and adjust graphics, scenarios and core play elements on the fly, almost anybody can legitimately call themselves a game designer (if not a full-time or decently-paid one, mind you).
Early demonstrations of services like Gaikai and OnLive - which handle intensive computing and graphics processing functions remotely, then stream games back to your PC/TV via high-speed broadband, letting even crappy old systems run tomorrow's hottest titles - are promising. If these platforms, which just squeaked onto the radar in 2009, manage to deliver on their promise, well... Let's just say all that money you spent kitting out your desktop with a slick CPU and badass video card is going to seem like a poor investment shortly. Either way, it points to a concept we suspect game makers will be plowing millions of R&D dollars into soon: Broadening the market by using online server farms and/or content delivery platforms to deliver kick-ass gaming experiences instead of limiting their audience to only players who can afford the latest (and most expensive) gaming hardware.
Free to Play Outings
Meet Flash (a software backbone through which games are designed to run in your Web browser): It's the future game industry's best friend. Currently used to power tens of thousands of simple, free downloadable outings at portals like Shockwave, Kongregate, and NinjaKiwi.com, the technology isn't just inviting thousands more to get in the game given the unbeatable price of admission. It's also a Trojan horse through which developers will soon be delivering high-end, professionally-designed 3D experiences at zero cost to players, save whatever we all pay on the back-end in optional subscription fees or microtransactions. Likewise, free-to-play MMOs such as Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited, Dungeon Fighter Online and Free Realms are also growing the gaming audience by leaps and bounds, proving that just about everyone's willing to play if it doesn't require taking a dent in the pocketbook.
Video game expert and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg is the author of Get Rich Playing Games and the creator of game industry documentary series Players Only. A celebrated gadget guru and technology expert, he frequently appears as a technology and video game analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.scottsteinberg.com.