2012 was a chaotic year for the gaming industry. Two major new consoles, the Nintendo Wii U and Sony\’s PlayStation Vita, hit the market with uncertain fates and varying degrees of success. Longtime developer THQ concluded a troubling descent to bankruptcy, while Kingdoms of Amalur maker 38 Studios shuttered in a very public, months-long debacle that may largely come at the expense of Rhode Island taxpayers. Mass Effect 3\’s much-anticipated conclusion angered some series fans enough to start a petition to change the game\’s ending, which developer BioWare — a company that saw its co-founders retire from gaming entirely in September — eventually did with later DLC. And all of a sudden, independent and downloadable games like The Walking Dead, Journey, and Fez seemed to become more critically acclaimed and widely beloved than their big-budget, AAA counterparts.
As all of this enters 2013, there is a deserved air of uncertainty surrounding games and game makers alike. Gamers can\’t be sure where the next great adventure or disappointing dud will come from. Big name developers are too often falling victim to the skyrocketing costs of game creation, leaving their very livelihoods at risk. Publishers find themselves tinkering with price points, marketing ploys, and distribution methods with what feels like every release. Of course, the shadows of Microsoft\’s and Sony\’s next-gen consoles are lingering over everyone and everything in the industry, and nobody\’s quite sure what those machines will bring either.
But in the midst of this chaos, there are a handful of trends that appear to be taking shape for the new year. While they can\’t be guaranteed, here are five widespread happenings to expect for the gaming industry in 2013.
Free-to-Play Will Become Even More Prevalent
Free-to-play is here to stay. Once thought to be just for mobile games and low-rent browser titles, the free-to-play (F2P) pricing strategy has made its way into more and more so-called \”core\” titles over the last few years. Popular, high-quality games like Team Fortress 2, League of Legends, PlanetSide 2, and Star Wars: The Old Republic have all jumped on the F2P bandwagon in some form or another recently, almost always seeing success because of it. And with promising titles like Dota 2, Hawken, and Warface getting full free releases next year, the trend doesn\’t appear to be dying down anytime soon.
But while the majority of these titles still reside on PCs and mobile devices now, the F2P model will not be so confined going forward. Since traditional game development has turned into a bloated, costly behemoth, it seems inevitable that F2P will eventually become the standard for all games on all platforms soon enough. While the usual $50-60 price point for new games — a price which isn\’t cutting it for many players and developers alike nowadays – will not be dead by the end of 2013, expect more notable steps towards a F2P future to be taken. Titles like Happy Wars and DC Universe Online have already toyed with F2P on consoles, but the model\’s recent surge could mean even more free games for players on all kinds of devices.
The truth is, when done correctly, F2P games can rake in much more money than the traditional, static payment model. Take Team Fortress 2, for instance, which has brought in 12 times more revenue as a F2P game with optional micro transactions than it did as a regular retail title. Breaking down the barrier of entry to players taps into an expanded potential user base, which in turn increases the chances that those users will get hooked on the game in question, which in turn coaxes them into willingly paying for optional content to use and enjoy while playing. It\’s a definite high-risk, high-reward situation whenever a developer gives away a high-quality product for next to nothing, but it\’s worked in many cases thus far, especially when the actual F2P titles are, well, good.
Major developers like Crytek and Epic Games have voiced their support for the free-to-play model in the past, which further hints at the idea that video games will become more like \”services\” that are used over time than the usual \”products\” that users pay for, play, and then forget. So long as these hopeful companies avoid the dreaded \”pay-to-win\” situation — when players who pay for in-game products receive substantial advantages over those playing for free — their wishes just may become reality before they know it. This industry is desperate to find a happy medium between \”do or die\” AAA game development and wholly free, yet popular \”casual\” games. Free-to-play just might be it.
More Sequels, More Reboots, and More Familiar Faces Are On the Way
Many of gaming\’s top figureheads and analysts have come to agree that today\’s market is growing increasingly \”hit-driven,\” meaning that game sales are becoming more and more concentrated around the industry\’s various blockbuster franchises. Series like Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War, God of War, Battlefield, Uncharted and the like have that enviable mass appeal, and thus receive annual or biannual sequels like clockwork, selling well each and every time. Since these games are usually good, many gamers are just fine with this process, and the world keeps spinning.
But there\’s a problem: there\’s not nearly enough room for anything new. New IPs like last year\’s Dishonored will make it through the cracks every now and again, but even that title\’s success was in part tied to its serious marketing blitz and star-studded voice acting cast.
It is worth mentioning again that high-quality games often cost absurd amounts of money these days, which leads most publishers to take a risk-averse approach. From a business standpoint, that makes a great deal of sense. But one unfortunate side effect of this is that innovation becomes stagnated. When innovation becomes stagnated for too long, people get bored of the products they know, which means they stop buying them, which means that companies lose money. And nobody wants that.
So, logic would suggest that there is bound to be a new round of fresh IPs coming sometime down the road. Call of Duty and Halo did not exist for the Super Nintendo after all. But as far as AAA titles are concerned, 2013 will not be the year that happens.
Yes, The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, Fuse, Remember Me, and Watch Dogs all look superb, but new titles like that are still in the minority. A look at the biggest titles scheduled for this year reveals that, once again, most of the major releases are sequels, spin-offs, or reboots of already-popular franchises. Grand Theft Auto V, Gears of War: Judgment, God of War: Ascension, Dead Space 3, Dark Souls II, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Bioshock: Infinite, Crysis 3, Tomb Raider, DmC, Pikmin 3, and Dragon Age III: Inquisition are just some of the major games set for release this year that are rooted in existing products.
This is not to say that any of these titles will necessarily be bad. Actually, most of those games look fantastic. But there is only so much originality studios can have when they are working with a vision that is practically filled in halfway before the project is even started.
The Indies Will Inspire
Tangential to that last point, the lack of risks being taken by typical AAA titles these days has created a fantastic opportunity for the little guys of the game development world to do big things.
In 2012, various independent and small-scale devs took the gaming community proved up to the task, filling in the gaps of imagination and wonder too often left blank by their big-budget brothers. Telltale\’s The Walking Dead and thatgamecompany\’s Journey swept many a Game of the Year list, while Dennaton\’s Hotline Miami, Klei\’s Mark of the Ninja, Polytron\’s Fez, Derek Yu\’s Spelunky, and Subset\’s FTL were just a handful of the underground games that captured the hearts and minds of those who played them, catching many players off guard. Hell, even small-scale failures like Datura were at least attempting more interesting things than most gritty brown war shooters.
In 2013, expect to see something like this again. While the drought of original big-money titles should not be nearly as barren as it was last year, independent game development still seems to be the space where creators can subvert and experiment with long-held conventions of game design. This is not just to satisfy a creative itch either; without massive ad campaigns and budgets backing them up, indie games practically have to posit themselves as different in order to get the attention and positive word of mouth they often need to thrive.
So exactly which indie games will stand out this year? Well, part of what makes this scene so much fun is the fact that one can never know which title will take people by surprise, but games like Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Antichamber, Super T.I.M.E. Force, and Mew-Genics are all worth keeping an eye on for now.
Companies Will Take Definitive Steps to Kill Used Games
The notion of \”used games\” has been a fundamental part of gaming for decades. From the crowd surrounding a local Street Fighter arcade cabinet to the two buddies who swapped copies of their latest RPG conquests to the group of coworkers jumping on Xbox Live at the end of the day, gaming has long been a communal experience. In business terms, this notion of \”sharing the wealth\” has partly manifested itself in used game sales, a market that makes millions for companies like GameStop and GameFly, and gives players more games at lower prices.
To most developers and publishers, though, used games are not all fun and good times – they are a significant source of missed revenue. See, game companies do not make a cent — at least, directly — whenever their products are bought and sold used. Since a substantial amount of gamers purchase their titles second-hand, this means that there is a whole user base that is legally playing a given company\’s game, but is not directly paying the company to do so. With development costs only getting heftier, those potential customers could really come in handy. Thus, used games now find themselves in many game companies\’ crosshairs, despite the fact that they are still very much popular with most consumers.
This is more a matter of \”when,\” not \”if.\” Measures have already been taken through things like online passes, but sooner or later, this is all going to come to a boiling point.
With multiple new consoles expected this year, 2013 will be the time that happens. There has already been a litany of rumors, which suggest that the next PlayStation and Xbox will both implement some sort of anti-used tech when they launch, likely for good reason. These have included whispers of Steam-like locks that will tie copies of games to the user ID that bought them, tech that will lock games to one console, and new classifications of \”registered\” and \”un-registered\” games, where the former will be akin to the \”complete version\” of a game bought new while the latter will be like a pre-owned copy with missing features that have to be paid for to be played. Exactly what steps publishers will take is not clear (the smart money is probably on an ID-lock system), but either way, steps will be taken.
Considering the Internet collectively loses its mind at the very mention of these rumors, the publishers involved here will have to put their best PR people to work to lessen consumers\’ fears of a world without used games. But this is a business, and the reality is that the money being lost to stores like GameStop — which would be forced to do some quick thinking if it wanted to survive these measures — is just too much for companies to stomach. Things will change, even if it means forcing some consumers to alter their spending habits.
Consoles Won\’t Die, They\’ll Just Change
\”Consoles are dead.\”
Anyone who has been reading the gaming and tech press over the past couple of years should know this headline by now. The rise of mobile apps combined with a rejuvenated PC gaming scene has left the dedicated video game console in a weird middle ground — too expensive and bloated for less frequent gamers, too closed off and unnecessary for the PC faithful. Add to this an economy that struggling to get back on its feet and launching a new console in this day and age becomes even riskier. Or so they say.
The fact of the matter is that the \”dedicated video game console\” died years ago. The Super Nintendo, Atari 2600, and ColecoVision were dedicated video game consoles. The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U are not. They are media centers and entertainment hubs that are best at playing games. They have things like Netflix or YouTube support, web browsers and TV subscriptions. They started doing this because of the smartphone revolution of the modern era. They\’re still doing this now, and they\’ll continue to do this in the future.
The point here is that consoles — like the cell phone, the television, or the car — will change with the times. They may still be in their learning stages when it comes to being malleable, but they react to the market and respond accordingly. There is a reason gamers are not still playing on cartridges without online access, after all.
Depending on who is asked, there could be up to five consoles released in 2013 alone. Microsoft\’s next console is rumored to offer powerhouse specs for \”core\” gamers alongside revamped Kinect hardware that has already proven popular with the more \”casual\” crowd. Sony\’s next PlayStation is said to still have an enviable lineup of exclusives while initially selling at a more affordable price point. Kickstarted consoles like the Ouya and Gamestick are taking mobile apps to a console interface, and Valve\’s infinitely anticipated \”Steam Box\” will do the same with PC gaming. No two of these consoles are completely alike, and yet all are still aiming for control of the living room.
Why? Because there is still a market for consoles, and millions upon millions of people will still buy them. Yes, these machines may have peaked with the PlayStation 2. Yes, the current \”$60 and go\” pricing model is failing. Yes, mobile devices have cut a chunk out of consoles\’ user base. And yes, development costs have gotten absurdly high. But none of this has killed consoles yet. And the various approaches these companies are taking with their consoles — not to mention Nintendo and its just-released Wii U — seem to indicate that they are listening, which is important.
It is still very true that the modern consoles are in danger. Various problems will have to be addressed in various ways. But the people behind these machines are not stupid (only sometimes), and nobody can really be sure of what innovations they will come up with next. If the past is any indication, though, something will be done — whether it is more free-to-play games, a mass cloud system, another revolutionary controller, whatever. The fun part is seeing just what that something will be.