The Future of Videogames Part 5 – 2009 Edition

It’s a tradition around Benheck.com – every Christmastime on a odd-numbered year I write an article about my feeling on where the game industry is going. Man, it’s been almost a decade of this! I should take my original VCSp to the Midwest Gaming Classic 2010 since it will be its 10th birthday. How time flies.

Anyway, before we get started, let’s take a look at the effect of some of my 2007 predictions. In some cases these will lead to new predictions, which I’ll put in bold and centered.

Old Prediction #1 Guitar Games and Plastic Crap Rule the Roost -In 2007 we had Guitar Hero 3 and Rock Band. Since then we’ve had:

  • Guitar Hero 4 World Tour*
  • Guitar Hero Aerosmith
  • Guitar Hero Metallica
  • Guitar Hero Van Halen
  • Guitar Hero 5*
  • Band Hero*
  • DJ Hero
  • Tonk Hawk Ride (sort of counts)
  • Rock Band 2*
  • Rock Band AC/DC
  • Beatles Rock Band*
  • Lego Rock Band
  • Lips (much better than you’d expect actually)
  • Lips 2

*indicates availability as a giant box of stuff.

Not only that, but almost all of these have been released on 3-4 platforms EACH. (Only recently has the PS2 started to get the snub). And I’m not even counting portable versions. All the while sales have been getting slimmer and slimmer, with the production costs / band demands getting higher and higher. The last couple of Christmases you’d go into Best Buy and they’d construct entire ROWS out of guitar game boxes. In fact, I’d wager you could construct an entire Best Buy store out of guitar game boxes.

I call it the “What did you expect?” factor – once you’ve sold a set of plastic instruments to everyone in America, where do you go from there? So having said that, here is my prediction:

The music game genre will crash in the near future, or at best be a shadow of its former self.

Couple reasons for this. First there hasn’t been a lot of innovation lately. Well, DJ Hero,but apparently no one cared. Tony Hawk Ride again was an interesting idea but like the Wii, didn’t work as well as they’d like you to imagine it would. I played the hell out of Rock Band the first winter it was out, now I get bored after a couple songs.

Secondly, I personally believe the American economy is going to get worse before it gets better (unlike our leaders I’m not trying to get re-elected so I don’t have to lie) and this will keep more people from dropping $100-$200 per game.

However there is one thing that could give the music game industry a shot in the arm. It’s something I’ve suggested over and over on this site, on the podcast, even when I met some Harmonix people. It is:

COUNTRY ROCK BAND.

I don’t care about track packs. I don’t care about 3 Taylor Swift songs in Band Hero with some Willy Nelson. Someone needs to make a full-blown balls-out triple-A game about country music.

Why? One word – women. Analysts like to go on and on about how women like the Wii and it opening up a new revenue stream. Fine. But you know what else women like? Country music. Have any of these coastal developers every gone to a karaoke place? I mean, one that’s not in LA or Boston?

It’s all about the country music at these places (well, not all about it, but a larger portion than is represented by the music game industry). Make a game where guys can belt out “Friends in Low Places”, women can kill “Earl” and – sorely lacking from current games aside from Lips – people can do DUETS. There are so many popular duets that are never represented in games. Come on people, this isn’t rocket science!

Old Prediction #2 The Wii’s Success will crash gaming – In my 2007 article I posited that continued success of the Wii would crash the gaming industry. While this obviously has not happened, it is entirely true that unless your company’s name is Nintendo (or possibly Neversoft) you will not make money on the Wii. A large portion of EA’s current losses can be traced back to the Wii. Dead Space Extraction (Wii) got rave reviews but guess what – nobody cared. So instead of using those resources for a current-gen sequel of the excellent first game (which we’re thankfully getting anyway) they waste their time on a Wii version, which sells a pittance compared to the current-gen version.

John Madden on the Wii – should be a sure thing right? Wrong. 20-year old consistently successful franchise on the console with the largest install base? Sells the least number of copies. Really the only consistent exception to this rule are guitar games, which probably make it on the Wii since they’re casual as well.

But I said it in 2007 and I’ll say it again – casual gamers DO NOT CARE. They buy a Wii for Wii Sports, making it basically a Pong machine. All of the Wii top sellers include some sort of plastic add-on POS, be it a steering wheel, extra controller or a $90 device that allows you to use your floor. It’s all just a gimmick.

Say what you will for or against fanboys, but at least they care and will support their brand. Ferociously at times. It’s also important to note that a current-gen version of a game can be on the 360 AND PS3, whose combined base easily outnumbers the Wii. Plus on top of that you get a PC version, so that’s 3 SKU’s for “the price of one” (to some extent)

So here’s my prediction for the Wii in the future:

Good 3rd party titles for the Wii will dry up to non-existence

Non-Nintendo triple-A games on the Wii are like trying to sell pornos at Sunday school – the market isn’t interested.

New Predictions for 2010 and Beyond!

Alright I’m done looking back at my 2007 predictions. What follows are my console-specific predictions for the next few years, aside from the ones I’ve mentioned above. Here we go! (Mario voice)

Wii HD

Ever notice any possible rumor in the gaming world turns out to be true? Well if there’s any slight breeze of a rumor of a thought of Wii HD, then it will happen. Back in 2006 there was some merit to the thought that “not enough people have HD” but that argument gets less valid with each passing month. Bad economy or no, HDTV sets are invading America (I bought one since the last article) and the Wii looks like crap on them. On top of this Wii sales have been down, the lower price has helped, but it’s not what it once was.

Thus I predict Nintendo will release a Wii HD, probably by next Christmas, and of course everyone will want one. It will also give them an excuse to jack up the price even though it will still be cheap as hell to build. Remember this is Nintendo we’re talking about –  whom have released 4 versions of the Nintendo DS in 5 years, 2 of those in the last year alone. A company that once innovated with great hardware now just hot glues extra crap on stuff and people eat it up.

The Wii HD will probably also push Netflix streaming capabilities, since Microsoft’s exclusivity on that seems to be waning. Old games will might “scale up” to look better, and of course they’ll be all new, same-old games to re-buy in HD. (Wii Sports HD, as sure as I’m sitting here).

Natal Will Bomb

Right now you’re thinking “But you said the Wii would bomb and it didn’t!” And yes, I was wrong about that. However the surprise success of the Wii definitely affects my prediction here, although there is some argument for me being wrong again. Some thoughts:

  • Anyone that wanted a Wii-like control already bought a Wii. This is one of those “2 types of people in the world” arguments. Either you want to do Yoga on a piece of plastic or you want to see how many bad guys you can shoot in 3 minutes. Nintendo tries to have hardcore games and the 360 tries to be casual, but let’s be honest here. 2 different systems, 2 different audiences.
  • Many people with a 360 already own a Wii and never play it. “Wow, this will be fun at parties!” “Wow my girlfriend will like this!” “Wow it sort of replicates a golf swing!” We’ve heard it all before, then it just becomes one more thing you have to dust off. Did you know unless you turn the Wii completely OFF (red light) it keeps running? I wonder if Al Gore knows how many dormant Wii’s are pointlessly wasting electricity across America.
  • Living rooms are too small. Ever see that Natal video where each member of the stupid family plays the thing? Wish I had a living room that big! I bet a lot of people do. Using your cell phone or digital camera, trying taking a photo from the perspective of your TV of your living room. Can you fit all of a person standing up in the frame? If so, how much can they move forward or back before they’re off frame? Unless the Natal has a stupidly wide angle lens (which would adversely affect accuracy / convergence) I’m not sure how well it will work in “the real world”. Thus…
  • It won’t work as well as you think / they say. The technology of the Natal is all software, since the unit is simply 2 cameras, an IR light and a microphone. Thus it’s up to the software to interpret the motion. Which the 360 could excel at, since it’s far more advanced than a Wii. So to some extent that would future-proof it – new algorithms could extend the capabilities, instead of having to physically add on a WiiMotion Plus. Still, whatever you think it might be able to do it won’t. Instead of piecing together clues “Minority Report” style we’ll be kicking virtual balls around.
  • It’s a blatant Wii rip off. People are pretty stupid but they’ll figure this one out. Unless it has some killer app like Wii Sports (it won’t) there will be no reason for people to be interested, besides hard core 360 fanboys. But will they even? I love the 360, I think the Wii is a POS, and there’s no way I’d buy this stupid thing unless it was super cheap. But unfortunately…
  • It won’t be super cheap. It’s two (probably low resolution) cameras with a microphone on a single USB bus! Now how much would you pay? Probably more than you’d think. The 360 Vision camera is reasonable priced (even for a 360 device) because people have a general idea what web cams cost. But this is new! It’s amazing! Some have predicted the Natal being $75 or even $50, but if it costs a penny less than $99.99 (includes game) I’ll be shocked.
  • Microsoft’s past winning strategy of “Rip Off then Perfect” isn’t what it used to be. I am a die-hard Microsoft fan, wouldn’t use a Mac if you paid me to, but I will readily admit that Microsoft basically “borrows” ideas from others and perfects them for a mass market. (Although to be fair Apple ripped off the GUI from the Xerox’s Alto Spark computer) The general consensus is MS wins with the 3rd version of a product. (IE is a good example of this). However lately they’ve been less successful at this, the Zune being a prime example. Even with a far superior music store (let’s face it iTunes sucks) better tech, competitive prices and insane battery life on the Zune HD they still lag behind. Zune HD basically can’t win because it will always and forever be behind on the iPod for apps. I have an iPod Touch. iTunes is slow as hell, it syncs very stupidly, the music lists are lame, you have to pay for firmware updates (inexcusable!) but the apps are awesome. Zune can’t beat iPod for the same reason Mac can’t beat Windows – once 90% of the market has invested in something there’s no turning them back.
  • Natal functionality in normal games will be as stupid, limited and tacked on as Sixaxis was. Ever play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune? Great game, but the grenade throwing BLEW CHUNKS. You were basically required to use the Sixaxis to lob grenades – which was never accurate of course – and it was broken to the point where eventually you didn’t even bother with ‘nades. Then of course there’s Lair, look how well that worked! Uncharted 2 dumped Sixaxis altogether and the world cheered. Why should we expect the Natal to be any different?
  • By time the Natal comes out the Wii fad will be even more “over. – ‘Nuff said. I’m sure they didn’t have enough software ready (if any) but why didn’t they release Natal Christmas ’09? Hell, just the ball demo even. People bought the Wii for 1 game, why not this?

Oh but the Natal lets you browse movies by waving your hand around and saying “Play Movie”. Because that’s exactly how I want to browse for movies, thanks. Heaven forbid you just use the controller or perhaps this. Granted the Media Remote requires the aiming accuracy of a Navy Seals sharpshooter but hey – it works.

One thing cool about the Natal is approximately 3 seconds after it is released someone will convert it into a 3D camera for general recording purposes. Nice.

By extension I don’t think anyone’s going to fall for the PlayStation “Wand” thing either. Both it and the Natal are a day late and a dollar short. Stick to what you consoles do best – triple A games, great online and community.

New Xbox 360 “Plus” in 2011, long before PlayStation 4

It has been speculated that this current generation of game systems will be the longest in history, past the usual 5 years per generation. Much of this is again because of the economy, keep in mind this is the worst shape it’s been in since long before gaming was ever a hobby, hell, the pinball industry even, so there’s really no precedent for what to expect. Of course if you look back to the last time we had 10% unemployment the gaming industry crashed, but I think that was more the industry’s fault than the economy.

Of course what people are willing to buy and what a company is willing to make are completely different things, so I’m going to go ahead and predict a new Xbox for Christmas 2011. The scuttlebutt is that “Natal is the new console” but I don’t buy that. Plus Natal could work just as easily with a new machine. Couple reasons / thoughts:

The 360 is already getting long in the tooth. I was testing a controller with the 360 version of World at War. I have that game for PC and I couldn’t get over how cruddy the console graphics looked in comparison. I looked into it and it turns out a LOT of console games don’t even render at 720 lines. There was some controversy in this regard when Halo 3 came out, but other huge titles such as Grand Theft Auto 4 and Modern Warfare 2 also render at sub-HD resolutions. PS3 is no different, since 360 games are ported TO it, it often fares even worse. Also is it just me or did console anti-aliasing go the way of the dinosaur?

This is kind of unfortunate because CPU wise the 360 is still very beefy, if anything it’s the graphics processor that needs a kick in the pants. I know there’s a silent war between PC and console gamers but come on – assuming you already have a desktop PC you can get a new video card for the cost of an Xbox 360 arcade and it will completely blow it away.

Soon the PS3 will make the 360 look like garbage. I know I just spent the last paragraph praising the PC, but I’ll be damned if Uncharted 2 isn’t the best looking game I’ve ever played. One of the tricks they pulled was to have the co-processors on the Cell (the SPE units) do post-processing on the graphics, which extends the video capabilities beyond the original specs. As the PS3 continues to gain market share the trend of “actually trying” to use the hardware will continue and we’ll see more and more impressive work like Uncharted 2.

A new Xbox 360 “Plus” would likely be an extension of the existing hardware like the Wii was. If we go with the assumption that the Xbox CPU is still adequate for gaming and just the graphics need a boost, it is reasonable to assume that the next Xbox will be a fully compatible “beefed up” version of the existing hardware. This would allow all of the existing infrastructure (client side and developer) to remain intact and compatible with both the 360 and 360 “Plus”.

In fact it’s entirely possible that Microsoft might figure out a way to make the “Plus” games still compatible with the original 360. It’s not as insane as it sounds! You can install a brand-new PC game on an older machine – it won’t look as good or run at maximum resolution but it will work. The GPU is far more important in this regard than the CPU. Remember the Gameboy Color? Some of those games would run on the original Gameboy, so it’s no completely unprecedented.

If anything Microsoft is #1 at giving developers the kind of toolsets that would make this sort of thing possible. Dedicated users could buy a new Xbox that would actually run the advanced games at 1080p on their screens, while the original 360 would become the cost-conscious “cheap” version of the system. A firmware update for all 360’s could ensure compatibility. Before you say “but the original Xbox to 360 wasn’t very compatible” keep in mind they switched from Intel x86 to PowerPC based there. 360 to 360 plus would keep the same architecture, just like how your Windows Vista will run old 16-bit Windows 3.1 apps.

The only caveat to this idea is whether or not a new Xbox used Blu-Ray, which obviously would be incompatible on the old hardware. Regardless, this would be a clever idea – a cheap system to compete with the Wii, and a graphically advanced system to compete with the constantly improving PS3. Having them be cross-compatible with scalable graphics could be an industry-defining hat trick that blows away the competition.

No PlayStation 4 for a long time

Sony spent a lot of money getting the PS3 up and going, they started on it shortly after the PS2 was released! While I have no doubt they’ve got plans for a PlayStation 4, here are some reasons why it probably won’t be until 2012 or beyond:

Sony can’t afford it. There’s a reason the PS3 is so well built – it has to be. Had the PS3 suffered the kind of failures the 360 hardware did Sony would probably be out of business by now. They don’t have endless amounts of cash to shore up mistakes like Microsoft does. Thus the PS3 is well built and was originally very expensive. Sony’s still paying down their investment in the Cell processor development and since it hasn’t “taken over the world” like they’d hoped, the best way to sell Cells (eh?) is with PS3’s.

They don’t need to build one. After a few years of being slow the PS3 has really taken off with the $299 PS3 Slim. Exclusives like Killzone 2, inFamous and Uncharted 2 have been very strong this year. Gran Turismo – should it actually come out next year – will be a very big deal. And while Final Fantasy will be on the 360 as well people still see it as a “PlayStation kinda game”. Plus keep in mind a lot of people have both the 360 and PS3 – but they’ll go for the version of FF13 that doesn’t involve disc swaps.

Sony actually IS in it for the long haul. Sony could have pulled a Nintendo / MS and ditched their old PS2 system. They could have forced their Santa Monica studio to make God of War 2 a PS3-exclusive. They could have created artificial PS2 shortages (Nintendo style) to push buyers towards the PS3. They could have done a lot of dickhole things… but they didn’t. Granted a lot of this happened simply because (unlike the PS3) the PS2 actually made them money, but you still have to give them credit for seeing things through. Sure, some systems have “technically” been supported for 10 years before, but the PS2 is the first to do so with active, visible products the entire time. (Seriously, who bought “Wario’s Woods” on the NES?)

Other various predictions / thoughts…

3d Whether we want it or not

Have you heard? 3D is the next big thing! People are clamoring for it! Every movie is being filmed in it! Well, whether we want it or not, 3D is coming into our homes. Sony is expanding the functionality of the PS3 to include this feature next Christmas and Microsoft probably won’t be far behind.

But do people really want or need it? Let’s take a look at 3D systems for a second. In the theaters 3D is accomplished by projecting two sets of images at the screen – one goes through a horizontal polarization light filter, the other through a vertical filter. (there are variations but this is a good example) This is why when you look at a screen with your glasses off the image appears to be there twice, because it is!

The glasses you get (and apparently can sometimes keep and not get a deposit on for bringing back, lame) also have a different filter for each eye. This filters out the left and right view for your eyes accordingly. It’s worked this way for quite a while, many articles say “Modern 3D is much better than the red/blue glasses of the 50’s!” but that’s a falsehood – most movies then also used polarization. Red / blue was for super-cheap films or often comic books.

For a home system it’s a bit different since the TV screen is a singular source. One possible way to accomplish this is to alternate left and right views on the screen at a frame rate more rapid than the human eye could discern. This would be synchronized to a pair of LCD shutter glasses that “turn off” each eye to match which view the screen is showing. Additionally a new type of DLP televisions could, in theory, project 2 separate images through polarization filters much like a film projector does, since, well, it IS a projector.

But to work with any sort of existing TV you’d need at the very minimum a 120Hz TV (to get you 60 FPS) and probably twice that to be completely seamless. And that’s just with existing TV’s, for more advanced methods a whole new set needs to be bought.

And there lies the problem. Most console games average only 30 FPS in 2D, some manage 60 FPS, and very few even reach 720p HD as I’ve mentioned earlier. To render twice the frames (left and right views) you’d either have to halve the frame rate, reduce the resolution, reduce the effects, or a combination of all 3. Point is, if consoles were significantly faster they could pump out enough frames to produce a 3D image and synchronize it to 3D shutter glasses for the viewer. This could work with the fairly decent number of 120Hz TV’s arleady in people’s homes. Problem is, the consoles aren’t faster enough, or the visuals would be so simplified nobody would care.

So unless everyone starts re-buying new 3DTV’s in the near future, or we get a 120 FPS Xbox 720, 3D at home will just be a very niche novelty. The old saying goes “you can only sell one idea at a time”… so asking people to swallow HDTV, then Blu-Ray, then 3D… it’s just too much.

Well that’s about all the predictions I have for this year! Let’s see how they turn out, and we’ll see you in 2011 when we’re lining up for the new Xbox 720.