The Future of Videogames Part 4 – 2007 Edition

 

Welcome back for yet another edition of “The Future of Videogames” as told by me, Ben Heckendorn, owner of this site www.benheck.com! I almost forgot to write one this year, but a couple helpful folks emailed reminding me that I usually crank one of these out at the end of every odd year so here I am. Let’s begin shall we?

A lot has changed since the last article I wrote in 2005. Rather than comment on all those out of date predictions, let’s review some major changes. I have grown to very much like the Xbox 360, a system I originally didn’t care for. Sony has managed to do just about everything wrong with the PlayStation 3 (marketing, price, games) except for the hardware which is quite nice. Nintendo has surprised everyone and become popular again (remember the DS lite wasn’t out in 2005 yet) while bringing in a whole new generation of “casual” gamers.

Let’s get this party started!

Sooth-saying done right
Overall 2007 was the “Year of Guitar Games”

The media loves a dark horse and Nintendo coming back with the Wii, after a decade of second or third place, is a great candidate for stories and talk of revolution. But I think that’s a bunch of bumpkiss. Maybe I have the wrong set of friends, but for my money the big gaming phenomenon of 2007 was anything involving a guitar. Look at the sales of Guitar Hero II and III for starters, it was off the charts. Rock Band is also very interesting. While expensive, I know several people who after playing it immediately went out and bought the whole she-bang. Barely a month after its release I now have more friends with Rock Band than a Wii (by almost a 3:1 ratio). Pretty impressive for a $170 game. Even more impressive is that even with the wanky guitar people still love it (much like the wanky Xbox 360).

We are too cool 4 skool
Normally normal people driven to insane extremes by the magic of the “Guitar Game”

The ongoing trend with this is that it allows more of a simulation to be run by a videogame console rather than all the action being on the screen. Instead of just making a dude run around with a controller you’re actually (sort of) playing guitar. The drums and singing even more so as you actually need to keep a rhythm or hit notes to succeed. (Though, to paraphrase my infamous G4 comment, I consider Rock Band’s singing to be, ahem, ‘karaoker masturbation’) Regardless, it’s very interesting to see how much people enjoy these rhythm games and how they transcend gamers and non-gamers.

So I’d expect this trend to continue, though I’m not really sure what more we can expect. Xylophone Hero? Mariachi Band? Maybe they’ll throw a keyboard in, though then you might as well play the real thing.

Which brings me to a problem. In the past games simulated doing things you normally couldn’t in real life. Rescue Earth from the Vile Red Falcon? Only in Contra. Drive a Ferarri 200 MPH, hit a rock wall and walk away from it? Thanks Outrun. But now these “casual games” – which is a term I despise by the way – are emulating increasingly mundane tasks. Why go bowling with your friends, just fire up the Wii and have your Fisher-Price characters do it. Tennis? Screw that – it makes you sweat. Hell there’s even games that allow you to cook. I can do that with my stove and eat it afterwards.

As games can more accurately reproduce motions or allow new inputs it seems the things they allow you do are increasingly more mundane. Even interesting applications of this, such as Trama Center on the DS and Wii, quickly become more work-like than game-like. I see this as being a kind of slippery slope – if publishers can sell more copies of shovelware crap like “Catz” or “EA Playground” while quality games, even those using new motion techniques, sit on the shelves we could quickly run into another gaming crisis like we did back in 1984. Which brings me to my next crazy prediction:

If the Wii continues to be a smash hit and bought by non-gamers just for the pack-in Wii Sports and other crap it could very well crash the industry

The reason is fickleness, which I will get to after a few boring paragraphs. You see, though my short-term memory is crap I tend to remember past events, years and dates quite well. Plus my age helps (here at least) as I remember things like the “Great RAM ‘Shortage’ of 88” while some site authors were probably still in diapers then. Point being, people need to see the big picture, not just the 5 year plan. There’s been a lot of stuff that’s come and gone over the years and while a lot of it persists, people usually move on quite quickly to the next load of bullcrap. Let’s review, just from my memory:

  • Pac-Man Fever
  • The Atari 2600 (“This Will Last Forever or 3 years, whichever comes first”)
  • Cabbage Patch Kids (Coleco went out of business 4 years later)
  • The War on Drugs AKA “I wonder how many people we can fit into out prisons?”
  • FMV video games (The “Future”)
  • Oat Bran (The Cure-All Fiber of the 90’s)
  • POGS (Remember those discs you bounced around? Well unfortunately I do…)
  • Pokemon (this was a 1997 thing, it’s dead now, don’t email me)
  • The Atkins Diet (Oat Bran #2)

All of these were big deals in their time but are now nothing but memories, if not jokes. Consumers, like voters, have the luxury of being fickle, but industries do not. They can demand something en masse one year, then completely forget about it the next. No hair off their backs, but whatever industry is supporting that product is in trouble. The first gaming crash of 1984 is a good example of this. Suddenly people didn’t care about games, and everything that had been built to support this obsession fell into ruin. It’s also interesting to note that the people who were into gaming before the crash never really got back into it either, but those of us who “cut our teeth” gaming afterwards with the NES have stuck with it every since.

You could use the Ford Motor Co. as another example (Disclaimer: I love and own 2 Ford Escort station wagons, both stick shift, oh yeah) Anyway, during the 90’s Ford couldn’t churn out SUV’s fast enough, they were what people wanted. Then all of a sudden someone farts in the Middle East and gas becomes more expensive. The fickle customers stop buying SUV’s and move onto “crossover” vehicles – which is just a fancy word for STATION WAGON thank you very much. So there you have Ford, with all these factories primed for squirting out suburban tanks and they’re screwed – the demand is gone. Like Sony I don’t think they’re going anywhere (and like Sony I hope to God they don’t) but still, caught with their pants down. I think Chevy hurt too but there were a lot of Explorers on the road in years past, giant cars really seemed to be Ford’s thing.

Gaming could face a similar dilemma. If the Wii or other simple, overly casual games continue to gain popularity at some point publishers will have to shift the majority of resources to those systems and/or types of games (Thankfully with the Wii’s crappy attach rate they haven’t yet) But let’s say they do, let’s say big companies go “all in” with the Wii or every publisher makes a Guitar Hero ripoff. First you’d probably have massive layoffs as it’s pretty obvious a game like Wii Sports doesn’t require the staff of your typical Triple A title. After that, what happens when all these fickle Tickle-Me-Elmo, Explorer-to-Station Wagon soccer moms grow tired of it, or the people playing it in the rest home die? Simple, the market and all the infrastructure set up to support it will buy the farm.

Those “casual” consumers won’t care because they’re just that – casual. They could give a rat’s ass about brand loyalty or the health of a company, especially with a game system. (It’s kind of sad that even Nintendo is starting to abandon its hardcore fans – who carried them through the lean years – and targeting people who probably don’t even know how to load an 8-bit NES.) So without loyalty comes apathy, and the mass-market casual soccer moms move onto the next big load of bullocks, like a Rachael Ray Talking Turkey Knife or Bejewelled 5: The Revenge of Doctor Phil.

My basic point is even though attracting casuals may have a short-term gain for the industry in the long-term it could be a bad thing. It’s like the difference between regular sports fans and “fairweather fans”. The regular fans are the ones who buy tickets and apparel through thick and thin, the fairweather ones just show up if the teams makes it to the Super Bowl (um, go Packers!) Which would you rather rely on for a long-term business? You can start a business on a fad but you can’t sustain it.

A telling fact is the Wii shortage itself, even though I maintain that it’s complete bullocks (Nintendo is pulling another “Chip Shortage” just like they did in ’88, to boost “buzz”) Nintendo had plenty of time to open new factories, new lines, to get more Wiis pumped out to meet demand. Did they? No, they simply pushed the current infrastructure as best they could. If a company won’t invest in a product to meet demand what does that say about their long-term commitment? (Remember we’re talking about the same people who bring out a new Gameboy every 18 months) They don’t want to be like Ford in a year or two – with lots of factories building product no one wants anymore.

Bottom line – no matter what some ace writer or “market analyst” says we hardcore gamers (translation: real gamers) are the pulse and purse of the industry. We were there after the crash, we’ll be there after the soccer moms put the Wii’s in the attic. Let’s hope the game publishing industry continues to realize this or we could be in trouble… That’s one of my predictions.

 

The Other Side of the Coin – The Future of Actual Next-Gen Gaming

All right let’s move onto what sort of gaming future can be foreseen by the things the Xbox 360 has done. Yes that’s blunt, but we’ve got a Blu-Ray player with some game circuitry on one hand, and a fancy controller for a Gamecube on the other. I think the Xbox is the only one really moving things forward.

Downloadable content
This continues to be a big thing pushed for all games, but thankfully has come a long way since the infamous “Horse Armor”. I quite enjoy the weekly updates for Rock Band, by setting a schedule and sticking to it they keep a revenue stream going along with contast interest in the game. This is something other titles (cough cough GHIII) could do well to do, instead of random, episode spurts devoid of rhyme or reason.

Companies keep experimenting with episodic gaming, in a way it’s a sort of Holy Grail in which smaller bits of game become like television shows. I think it’s interesting but might not catch on as much until the price gets to a more reasonable point. People don’t see as much tangile value in downloaded code as they do with a physical disc.

Again I think Rock Band is doing the right thing in this arena by setting a reasonble price (per song twice that of iTunes, but considering the coding required it’s acceptable) and yet doesn’t force you into bundles like GHIII downloads, or compact discs do. Let’s hope this trend of consumer choice continues in the DLC world.

Online community

Halo 3 did some very interesting things with multiplayer and I hope it encourages other companies to do the same. In a nutshell, they made multiplayer seem like an integral part of the game, rather than just a feature of it. The ability to hop from Forge to Custom Games and even multiplayer campaign at the click of a button was a welcome sight to people used to this sort of functionality on PC’s. I predict Halo 3 will up the ante for future online-heavy games and the new and exciting features it introduced will become standard. (Call of Duty 5, I’m looking at you)

 

Blu-Ray and HD-DVD (Yes We Have to Go There)

Some interesting things happened this year in regards to the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD war, which thus far has left millions dead and billions homeless. Rather than pull out, the HD-DVD camp has decided to “go long and not go home” by getting Paramount/Dreamworks to go exclusively HD-DVD, snaring exclusivity for such mediocre hits as “Transformers”. Films from Steven Spielberg, who like Tom Cruise Paramount seems to think they “do not need”, will be on Blu-Ray regardless of the studio behind the film. Even so, Blu-Ray disc sales seem to be about 2-1 over HD-DVD, probably because there are, apparently, people with PS3’s out there and they sure can’t use it much for gaming

Rampant discanizer Michael Bay in a candid photo
The real reason Transformers wasn’t that good

This whole situation is quite annoying if you ask me. Jason Jones, my fearless podcast co-host, has said many times “Release everything on both formats and let the consumers decide”. Damn right. Currently it’s just a “big dick” contest between tech companies and movie executives. Michael Bay, part-time lover of HD-DVD, seems to think Microsoft is just waiting for both sides to fail so it can swoop in with on-demand video. While I don’t subscribe to Mr. Bay’s conspiracy theory I do think on-demand is the real future, though again portals seem limited to certain studios and offerings. (Every notice about 90% of Xbox Live Video Marketplace is Comedy Central stuff?)

Both formats in action look and sound really good. I recently got an HDTV and while some look good a lot of regular DVD’s show limitations and compression artifacts when blown up. (Pirates 3 was especially VCD-ish) I wouldn’t invest in a library of either format, of course I also only have about 50 DVD’s, so nothing new there.

My advice would be to not jump in, unless you’re getting the fairly cheap add-on for the Xbox or the built-in Blu-Ray on the PS3. Even then, why not just Netflix high-def movies? Then it’s no skin off your thumbs when one format inevitably fails.

 

PS3- The System with the Last Best Games (Is it Legend?)

A few months ago I was talking with a friend about the PS3 and games. (I think it was either Jones or Dave Campbell) Whoever it was brought up a good point – the PS3 has the most “big” titles yet to come. This could cause it to be a late bloomer but when it does, to really take off.

Not to sound like a Microsoft press conference, but let’s look at the top TOP selling games of recent years. I don’t have exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure these are all 10 million+ sellers:

  • Final Fantasy
  • Gran Turismo
  • Grand Theft Auto

Microsoft can gush about Halo 3 day 1 sales all it wants, for all the fanboy spit and vinegar no game on the Wii will sell over 5 million copies except for Super Smash Brothers The Same Game Again Brawl/Melee whatever… Point being, thus far in this generation there hasn’t been a super AAA blockbuster game released yet. And when they do, at least a couple are still PS3 exclusives. Grand Theft Auto is now multi-platform, but there will be loads of people waiting in line for the next Final Fantasy or Gran Turismo. Those are BIG DEALS.

At this point in its life, 1 year old in America, the PS2 already had a Final Fantasy game, a Metal Gear title, and Grand Theft Auto 3. The PS3 has none of this, is it any surprise it’s not a blockbuster? But this could change very quickly, and remember Sony is in for the long haul. Unlike their competitors they’re still very much supporting their legacy console instead of taking a “screw you – upgrade” approach. They could have very easily forced God of War 2 into a Christmas ’07 PS3 title but they didn’t.

So the PS3 has its best and biggest games yet to come – what does the Xbox 360 and Wii have? The Super-Gamecube has blown every wad except Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart, which will both probably sell well despite being the same goddamn game as the last 3 versions (innovation my ass). The 360 is also running dry, having released Halo 3 into the wild. Of course there’s Grand Theft Auto, which will sell by the truckload, and I’m sure a lot of folks – myself included – are looking forward to Fallout 3 AKA “Oblivion with Guns”. But beyond that I’m not sure what else is really coming. Probably just sequels.

 

Console Lifespan Prediction Notices

Since my long-term gaming predictions are pretty much the same as ever (see 2001, 2003 episodes) I’ll wrap this up by predicting the new console’s lifespans:

Xbox 360 – I am pretty sure this will last longer than the 4 years of the Xbox 1. Keep in mind Microsoft didn’t own much of that silicon (in the Xbox 1) and thus the faster they dumped it the faster they could start [not losing] making money.

My bet is a new Xbox in 2010, which will be more of a “home entertainment center” than a gaming console. Going by Microsoft’s usual pattern, revision 3 is where they’ll really nail it. (You may also enjoy looking back to my past articles in which I predicted a lot of on-demand video crap in the Xbox 2. So I’m not completely off my rocker)

The big question is whether or not it will have an optical disc drive (HD-DVD or otherwise) or just download everything. Bill Gates has said “[Blu-Ray/HD-DVD] is the last physical format”, it will be interesting to see when they put this into practice. High-speed internet is starting to seep into the rural areas, but it might not be far enough in 2010 to support this.

A final note on the Xbox 360, I will not be surprised in the least to see an HD-DVD equipped “Elite” by Christmas ’08, unless HD-DVD gets completely pounded by Blu-Ray which it hasn’t yet. Right now it’s just a cost issue to not include it, but if the plummeting prices of HD-DVD standalone players, including the 360’s own add-on, is any indication it should be doable in a $450 console in another year.
Wii – This is a curious one. Since the SNES Nintendo has been on a completely predictable 5 year cycle for new consoles. The Gameboy line is something else, with new models squirted out about every 18 months. (There will be a new DS in 2008 or I will personally eat my hat)

However the Wii is a completely outdated piece of crap. (If you’ve been to my site more than twice you shouldn’t be shocked by that opinion) It already doesn’t support HDTV, and I can’t imagine the install base of HD to go down in the years to come. Because of that, I’m going to predict a new Wii model by Christmas 2008. It’ll probably include DVD playback and some sort of upscaling crap for HD over component cables. Maybe even a – gasp – hard drive. It’ll be a unit geared more towards the gamers than the soccer moms, and likely salivated over by fanboys.

Now here’s an interesting thing to think about. If the Wii somehow had a 5 year life cycle it would basically be 10 year old tech by the end of it, which sounds horrible. But let’s look at the past gaming consoles. It was only recently that consoles contained custom processors, advanced graphics and those sorts of things. Behold:

NES (1983 Japan, 1985 US) – 1975 model CPU, 1983 model graphics.

Sega Master System (1986 US) – 1979 model CPU, 1984 model graphics. Better but still far behind PC’s of the time.

Sega Genesis (1986 Japan, 1989 US) – 1979 model CPU, 1985 model graphics. A ten-year-old CPU at launch – who would stand for that now?

Weird to think about in the age of Cell processors, huh? One of the reasons consoles have to stay on their A-game is because – and this is quite important – the cost of computers have plummeted. A computer that could play a Genesis-like game in 1989 would run you $2000 easily, versus a $200 Sega. (I don’t think many young whippersnappers appreciate just how fricking expensive computers used to be) Now that gap has shrunk – a sub $1000 PC will run most games out there. If the consoles stay too far behind there wouldn’t be much reason to buy one, unless you’re a complete cheapskate.

That said stuff like Crysis is way off the other deep end.

PS3 – OK this one is very difficult, it’s really hard to say. It’s picking up steam in Japan, but who knows? Sony will stick with it out of pride no matter what, but if they don’t have a good holiday season by 2008 the writing could be on the wall, so to speak. (Ever notice “writing on the wall” is one of the most overused cliches in songs?) I guess we’ll see, but as yet I’m shocked they’ve sold as many as they have.

 

Final Statements

So it’ll be interesting to see where this all goes. I enjoy some of these “gimmick” games, like Guitar Hero, and certainly casual gamers deserve a shot too, but let’s hope they don’t dumb down the console industry to the point where you have to use a PC for anything of worth. I know some of you out there are probably thinking “That already happened 10 years ago!” but as a mostly console gamer I’d tend not to agree. Yet.

One bad path for gaming would be to become like the movie industry. Bloated costs lead to increasingly safe and boring movies which try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one. Or in the dumb-and-dumber category, companies stop bothering making “good” games because the bad/cheap ones sell fine. The problem is while a cheap movie can be good a cheap game most often isn’t, unless it’s in a sub-genre like a sidescroller on Xbox Live Arcade.

I guess we’ll see. One thing I don’t buy into is the whole “next-gen is too expensive” argument. I seem to remember the same being said for the PS2 (an exact quote at the time was “only 2 or 3 companies in the world can afford to develop for this thing”) and look how “badly” that turned out.

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