Thursday, September 23, 2010

Opinion: The Future of Video Games

Up until now, I have used this blog strictly as a venue for movie and music reviews. Two things have made me reconsider using it this way. One, I don't have the time or money to see movies and buy new music often, and I haven't done a review since the middle of the summer. Two, this blog is about entertainment, which includes more forms of art than I've been reviewing. I've avoided book reviews because I read almost exclusively for enjoyment and don't feel confident judging a book's merits fairly. And I've avoided video games because I tend to be biased against many of the titles that are critically acclaimed (I think Grand Theft Auto 4 is rubbish, and not for any ethical reasons). I'm starting to consider evaluating these media anyway. I thought I'd test the waters, or open the door, by sharing an opinion on the direction video games are headed and how it will affect gamers and popular culture.

Motion Control
Whether you like to admit it or not, the Nintendo Wii changed video games, probably forever. Not only did it overturn a method of control more than 20 years old, it introduced the world of gaming to previously untapped audiences: "casual" gamers, senior citizens, even the fucking fitness crowd. And at the same time, it delivered "hardcore" gaming action to returning Nintendo fans. I would not be alone in arguing that Nintendo largely dropped the ball on the latter crowd in favor of expanding the former, but that horse is long dead so I won't go there. In any case, gaming became different. The way it was done and the way it was viewed from the outside changed. And boy, did it make some money.

Nintendo is still rolling in it, and Microsoft and Sony so desperately wanted a piece of the pie that they are finally releasing their own motion controllers for their existing consoles: The Xbox Kinect and Playstation Move, both targeted at Nintendo's crowd, and both outstandingly expensive. To my surprise, both companies have made it no secret that they expect huge sales from these controllers and their games. I'm no economist, and I have no opinion polls or market data, but I think there is reason to believe that both of these ventures will be enormous failures.

The Playstation Move is, essentially, identical to the Wii controller, only better. Oh, right, and more expensive. And it only has about five games to rival the hundreds available for Nintendo's four-year-old console. I ask, who in their right mind would pay more than double the price for a console in order to play five average games? I know what you're thinking: But they're targeting people who already own a PS3, so it won't be that expensive. My response: No they're not! Sure, they would love for PS3 owners to buy their cool new controller, but don't forget their demographics. Current PS3 owners are predominantly "core" gamers and Blu-Ray enthusiasts. Very few of them care how they control their games, and even those that do have no desire to pay $100 in hopes that there just might be a great game for the Move someday. No, Move targets families who were thinking of buying a Wii for their family game nights this Christmas. "But look here first; this one's better!" they'll say. But like I said, the price difference is more than twice the price of the Wii console when you factor in all parts of the PS3 and Move. And no non-gamer is going to take that alternative. The Move will be quietly set aside to the realm of the Virtual Boy, a failed experiment that just wasn't meant to be.

Microsoft's Kinect is a bit more ambitious. Instead of utilizing a controller, per se, it uses an advanced camera to detect your body movements. The potential advantage is that it could provide the most immersive gaming experience to date. The disadvantage? There are no games that show any of this potential on display. It's all talk. The most talked-about game for Kinect is Child of Eden, an ambitious display of colors flying at you in which you use your hands to shoot at these colors. What? Yeah. I think the highest potential for Kinect to be a success is in fighting games, which could potentially match the player's movements very accurately. To my knowledge, none have even been announced for the controller. In the end, the games won't sell it to Xbox owners, and the price tag will again turn non-gamers away. I can't imagine a way that it can succeed.

If I'm proved wrong on this, I will truly be stunned because I just don't see who would actually buy the new motion controllers. But it could happen. If it does, perhaps gaming will take a more drastic turn in the next generation.

The Next Generation
With motion control being the new big selling point, what will the next generation be like? And since two of the hardware giants only just released their new controllers, when will we actually see the next generation arrive?

I'll start with Nintendo, because I think they're the easiest to predict. In the last two generations, they saw two other companies get a big advantage in sales by releasing their product a year before the competition. The Playstation 2 is still the best selling home console to date. Nintendo is now in a perfect position to seize this edge, and I think they will take it. I expect to see a new Nintendo console just in time for Christmas 2012, and I don't think it will even be announced or hinted at until around spring of 2012. By maintaining secrecy, they hold the ace over Sony and Microsoft, both of which have explicitly said that they expect the current generation to last at least five more years. With the late announcement and quick release, Nintendo will release a new high definition, motion-controlled console. Its power will only slightly exceed that of the PS3. I expect the controller will be very similar to the Wii, except it will be able to detect motion much faster and more accurately. Oh yeah, and you can bet it will be 3-D capable. They will still make a good batch of "casual" games to continue its winning streak, but they will take advantage of their edge in timing and grab as many "core" gamers as they can. I think we can safely expect either a Mario, Zelda, or Metroid title at launch; my guess goes to the latter, because it will steal the "core" gamers better than Mario, and Zelda games tend to take the longest to make. In addition, Nintendo will make a big deal out of third party support, especially from Sega, which is already a strong ally, and perhaps some new support. SquareEnix? I'm not calling it now, but I could see it. To maintain the same competitive advantage they have now, the new console will cost $300 or less at launch and will include Wii Sports 3.

Sony and Microsoft will not be expecting this, but they can certainly see it happening, so I'm sure they are already tossing around ideas and prototypes for the next generation. A lot depends on the success of Move and Kinect, but here's what I think will happen. Not to be outdone by Nintendo's announcement, Microsoft will announce a new, more powerful HD console, with no motion controls whatsoever, and a new Halo title to go with it. It will release in time for Christmas 2013. Microsoft has very stupidly shunned the Blu-Ray format, and they will fight it to the death. And this is where they will live or die. The DVD-only console will flout its advanced digital distribution formats with a user-friendly online store with prices comparable to physical disks. Xbox Live will get an overhaul of some kind, which will likely involve new features and more detailed social networking of its own. In short, the new console will be touted as THE console for hardcore gamers, frat boys, and manly men who like action movies and naked women. But its success or failure will not be determined by its demographics like it was in this generation. It will be determined by gamers' acceptance or rejection of improved motion control and by the success or failure of digital distribution over physical media. As a result, it has the potential to be the biggest success of the new generation by far, but it also has the potential to be a truly epic failure.

Even in the face of Move's failure, Sony will not abandon motion control so easily. In essence, it will be a re-release of Move, but this time, it will be the new console's only controller and it will be packaged and priced appropriately. The processing power will rival Microsoft's new console and will launch at around the same time in 2013. It will be marketed on the use of motion control in "hardcore" games, which will be seen as an edge over both consoles, and also on the Blu-Ray compatability, which neither of its competitors will feature. It will feature extensive online and multimedia functionality, but it will not have digital game distribution like Microsoft. The Playstation 4 (I think it's safe to call a name on this one) will be the "happy medium" of the generation, the everyman console, just as the Playstation 2 was last time and the PS3 hoped to be this time. In order to compete, I'm guessing it will launch with either Final Fantasy 15 (good luck) or Metal Gear Solid 5.

But there will be a fourth competitor this time around. A presence I can so strongly foresee that I would honestly be more surprised if it didn't enter the video game field. I think Apple will release a new console nothing like the others. It's difficult to guess what it would be like, but here's how I could imagine it working. For starters, the price will be made to match Nintendo's. It will have no physical game disks at all. It will have an extensive online game store through which all of its games will be sold. And you better believe there will be apps. Lots of them. And downloadable HD movies, and full compatibility with iTunes, Netflix, and any other digital media you can imagine. It will be marketed as one multimedia box to rule them all, the console to end all consoles. The controller could very well be a touch pad, or some simplified emulation of a mouse and keyboard. I doubt that it will come in first in the next generation, but it will still likely bring in big bucks from some gamers and many Apple enthusiasts. Apple's console will come out of nowhere and be a force to be reckoned with.

Digital Media
I've already talked some about the war over digital media. But I think it will be much more than just a battle between digital downloads and Blu-Ray Disks. Downloadable content for games will explode (and yes, I realize this is largely a bad thing for gamers, but it's a good thing for corporations, so I think it will happen). Expansion packs will be download-only, but their importance will increase. Games will more frequently end in cliffhangers, in order to entice gamers to continue the story with a downloadable expansion. Gameplay mechanics will be withheld for purchasable updates. And other content like weapons will be downloadable a la carte, just like a lot of the content for games like The Sims.

In addition, games will be made into movies, but instead of adaptations, they will be made from the games themselves. You heard right. Some developers have already hinted that they'd like to capitalize on this someday. Think about it. Cinematic cutscenes in games are at a high point in quality and, in some cases, provide some really impressive and interesting storytelling. Now imagine if you could take all of those and put them together. It sounds so simple, it's hard to imagine it not being done. But, it would still be incomplete. Developers will plan for this and create additional scenes to fill in the gaps, so that when it's all put together, it will make one coherent movie, usually 1-3 hours long depending on the game, that you can watch anytime--for a price. Will people buy it? Let me ask this. How many of you loved Final Fantasy X? How many of you would watch it again if it were in the form of a 2-hour movie, instead of a 40-hour game? I would. In fact, I'd share it with my family, who I imagine could get into the story and the action, but wouldn't appreciate the gameplay. Storytelling has and will continue to improve, and this idea will start to sound better and better to developers, and I think gamers will bite.

This is minor, but I have no doubt we'll see a surge in video game soundtrack sales once they're available for download right beside the game (and movie).

The Far Future

Beyond the next generation, I think innovation in gaming will come less in distribution and more in immersion. For example, I think OnLive will not be the enormous success that people once thought it could be. And in concept, it was extraordinary. Many years ahead, I expect that augmented reality will be a big deal in video games. For those not familiar with it, imagine that you have a toy castle with a camera pointed at it, and you watch what the camera sees on the screen. But on the screen, there are also little soldiers that appear to wander around your castle, and they will react to walls, turn corners, and step over obstacles. In other words, virtual objects interact with real objects. This sort of thing can already be done, but it has no application in video games. Yet.

I could also see virtual reality working out well. Imagine wearing a helmet that gives you a view just like in a video game, but it fills your vision completely. And it's in 3-D, of course. With a console like that, you would really feel like you're there.

This is more of a stretch perhaps, but mass multiplayer games could take off in a big way down the road. The level of virtual interaction would become increasingly real in ways that I can't begin to predict. Real money would buy all sorts of virtual gear, new areas to explore, and added functionality to enormous, constantly evolving virtual worlds filled with user-created content and people from around the world. It will become less of a solitary experience and more of a legitimate social interaction--but in the form of a game.

Your Opinions

My opinions are only based on my own view of the market and pure speculation about the future. Gaming will undoubtedly see some big changes, but it could go any number of directions. Could you see my predictions happening? Do you have some other ideas? Talk to me in the comments below.

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