When asked what the difference is between a good hockey player and a great hockey player, one of the greatest thinkers of our generation, Wayne Gretzky replied “A good hockey player plays where the puck is.
A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” Gretzky might have made this look easy, but let’s be honest, it’s not easy to figure out where the puck is going to be.
Predicting the future is hard. Know what makes it easier? Knowing where things have been and where they are now, so you figure out where they’re going.
For the past few years, the Entertainment Software Association has been compiling an annual list of ‘facts’ based on the year’s sales data. This provides us with a decent enough snapshot of what the games industry in that year and, if we extend these across multiple years, trends begin to emerge. Trends which could help us figure out which direction the games industry is heading.
Comparing last year’s facts to ones from, say, five years ago, the first, most obvious change is that the ESA now tracks consumer spending on digital content whereas this figure didn’t even register in its facts for 2006.
What’s more, in the five years between the two reports, and since digital content was introduced, it has already grown to $5.9 billion in revenue. Total game sales in 2005 was $7 billion. The ESA notes that this is a doubling of the figures from 1996. In 2010, total game sales was over $25 billion. In other words, while the figures doubled in the 10 years between 1996 and 2005, they have almost quadrupled in the five years since 2005.
So what does all this tell us? Where does it look like things are going? We’ll take a look at three closely-related trends that we think are going to play a larger part in the future of gaming.
The future is mobile
There’s a saying in the photography world: the best camera is the one that’s with you.
The same maxim also applies to games. The best gaming system is the one you have with you. Like the effect smart phones are having on photography, the explosion in mobile gaming can be attributed to the ubiquity of smart phones. But let’s clear something up: mobile gaming isn’t just done when people are away from their PCs and consoles. In fact, 47% of mobile gaming is done at home.
Mobile gaming is exploding precisely because it’s complementary to ‘traditional’ gaming. It’s as much a supplement as it is a substitute. Even though they’re away from their computer, they’re able to jump right back into the game they were just playing, taking up from exactly the same point as they left it.
Mobile gaming has changed the way we view games now and is no longer just associated with ‘casual’ gaming. Figures released by the NPD group show that ‘digital’ gamers (i.e. non-retail) are just as engaged as traditional ‘core’ gamers. For example, digital gamers spend 16 hours a week playing games, compared to the 18 spent by core gamers. And what’s more, digital gamers buy more games than core gamers.
The future is digital
Hardware doesn’t matter anymore.
Of course, hardware never really mattered, software was the only thing that really mattered. But the importance of software over hardware is set to get even more pronounced. In the future, the hardware you play your games on will be about as important as the clothes you’re wearing while you play.
Part of what’s lead us to this place is the relentless arms race involved with hardware. Buy a new PC and it will be obsolete within a couple of years, no longer able to play the latest games. Likewise, the current generations of consoles are starting to show their age and many are expecting the next console cycle to begin as early as 2013, forcing people who want to play the latest games to upgrade. But at the same time, factors such as the broader changes in the gaming landscape — such as the aforementioned rise of mobile and social gaming — and broadband penetration rates mean that the future could look very different from now.
Cloud gaming is already on its way to becoming a reality, with two companies having already launched thin-client services aimed squarely at the gaming market: Gaikai and OnLive. Although they’re both approaching the problem from different angles, both of these companies enable high-definition gaming on any TV or device capable of receiving a broadband signal. Because the real hard work — all the heavy lifting and computation — is being done on the other end of the cloud, this means high-end games can be played on even low-powered devices.
However, we’re starting to see steps being taken by the current generation of game makers and hardware developers showing that they think this is the way the industry is moving. At this year’s E3, Nintendo announced the successor to the Wii, the Wii U. Where the Wii was focused on motion control, the Wii U has a new selling point — it blurs the line between the TV and the console. In a way, the Wii U is taking a ‘thin client’ approach to gaming except the ‘cloud’ will be your living room. Similarly, with iOS 5, Apple are launching a feature called ‘AirPlay Mirroring’ where the display of the iPad can be wirelessly ‘mirrored’ to an Apple TV.
The future is free-to-play
More and more, games are moving away from a traditional subscription-based model, where you pay a flat fee regardless of how much you play or enjoy the game. Games are now ditching this subscription system and moving towards an a la carte model, where players only pay for the features they want. This benefits the entire spectrum of players. For the casual player, just wanting to dip their toe, they no longer have to feel beholden to the game and they can feel like they’re not paying for features they’re never likely to use. For the hardcore player who plays nothing else, they can pay for the features to expand and enhance their playing experience.
But perhaps the most significant move in this direction is Blizzard’s recent announcement that their MMO juggernaut, World of Warcraft would be moving to a hybrid model. This announcement is important for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it’s a tacit acknowledgment that the free-to-play model works. Whether or not it works to achieve World of Warcraft levels of business remains to be seen, but it’s saying that it works for getting people hooked on a game.
Of course, in the future, there will still be plenty of space for triple-A blockbuster games. They’re not going anywhere. They’ll sit comfortably next to the mobile and social games. What will change is how and where we play them. We’ll be playing our games — all our games, large and small — on a whole range of devices, not just what we traditionally look on as ‘gaming’ devices like PCs and consoles. The way we buy and pay for our games will change as well, almost by necessity. The free-to-play model is growing fast and looking to become a standard. In a short time, it will probably be unusual for a game not to offer a free-to-play version.
And that’s when the fun can really begin.