Things appear grim in the console gaming market. Every few weeks we read about another studio closure. Retailers who have become stressed by declining sales figures are closing up shop. Issues like online-pass and day-one DLC seem to be forging a growing rift between companies and the fans that support them. It’s easy to look at the current gaming climate and think that we are standing on the verge of an apocalypse — that console gaming might really be dead.
But are things really as bad as they seem? While the landscape will certainly change over the coming years, it may be a bit hasty to start calling this the end of days. Emerging trends offer the best chance yet for gaming to succeed as a socially accepted form of entertainment. An explosion of social media, streaming entertainment, an increase in accessibility, and a wider-focus on secondary utility are leading to new and unexpected faces in the industry. These may not just be signs of hope, but rather the beginning of the industry’s true golden age.
For decades the industry has dreamed of a more wide-reaching fan base. Now we may have it. Gaming as a hobby has never been more popular thanks to the prevalence of smart-devices and “social games.” Last year, Rovio’s uber-popular Angry Birds surpassed 500 million downloads with estimates now surpassing the 700 million mark. While companies like Zynga have lead the social gaming revolution, many more are jumping on board in search of that next killer app.
It is easy to feel resentment as we watch our favorite developers leave the traditional gaming scene in favor of these “inferior” games, but like most trends, the influx of mobile and social developers should level out over time. While we often fear that social gaming will kill the more “hard core” gaming market, it is illogical to think that this is a one or the other situation. Worse, we often over look the good comes from the success of these smaller games — the growing acceptance of interactive media as a legitimate hobby.
Seven-hundred million people playing Angry Birds are 700 million people who find video games entertaining on one level or another. As these players continue to download and enjoy games, their tastes will grow. Many of us came into the market in a similar way back in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s. Our tastes matured, and we are not unique. In the end, anything that adds millions of new fans is good for a struggling industry.
Gaming is also on the leading edge of another explosive trend — the growth of social networking. Today, the internet is a startlingly different beast than it was when the current generation of gaming consoles launched five and six years ago. Sure, we had MySpace and Facebook had just launched, but social networking was in its infancy. But from the beginning, connectivity and social-networking have been a central focus for Microsoft and Sony’s current systems.
With networks that have now matured, Microsoft and Sony will be in a great position to incorporate social functions within their next-generation systems. Nintendo may be struggling to catch up, but if gaming platforms can expand their networking beyond the narrow scope of gaming and into the realm of everyday utility, it will only add further appeal to potential consumers who have never seen utility in gaming systems in the past.
This expanded connectivity has already proven popular in the realm of streaming entertainment. Netflix is an integral part of both the Xbox Live and Sony Entertainment Networks, and has even found a market with the less-connected Wii crowd. As a company, Netflix has had its share of recent troubles, but this only serves to open the door to other companies who may be able to isolate and target the gaming console market. While fragmentation of movie rights is a very real threat to the streaming movie industry, as long as the demand remains, game consoles provide an ideal platform for streaming media delivery.
Motion based controls have been the bane of many “hard core” gamer types — myself included. The industry seems steadfast in its support for such technology. Their goal is clear — create a system that is more accessible to the non-gaming crowd. We could debate how successful the current iteration of motion technology has been, but the fact that the industry is standing behind it is a clear sign of their devotion to grow their consumer base.
And it’s working. Despite the underwhelming hardware, lackluster games library, and inadequate networking capabilities, Nintendo’s Wii has dominated home-console sales charts over the last half-decade due to it’s appeal to a broader audience. While Nintendo’s future remains uncertain leading up to the release of the WiiU, the lessons the industry has learned from the Wii should only prove to strengthen gaming’s cultural saturation over the next generation of systems.
Given the continued expansion of related technology into the gaming market, it’s not unreasonable to foresee new companies enter the arena even as current platforms falter. While Valve is currently denying rumors of a Steam-based home console system, we’ve already seen the amount of interest those rumors had generated. With Apple’s domination of just about every-other entertainment device, it would be shocking if they weren’t already exploring the possibility of a home gaming console.
Or more likely, a home entertainment system that can function as a platform for cutting-edge games. The distinction is likely the biggest point we need to make — gaming systems as stand-alone hardware probably are on the verge of extinction. On the other hand, the games themselves and the hardware that runs them have the potential to become more popular than ever before.
Change is scary. It’s a thing that most of us resist despite logic or data to the contrary. I am probably one of the biggest resisters to change you can find. I’m comfortable where I’m at; leave me alone. But the game industry isn’t like that — it’s an industry that not only welcomes, but often defines change. Despite the missteps, despite the issues listed in the introduction to this article, and despite resistance from grouchy old codgers like myself, the industry might just be alright after all.Posted in Op Ed by Steve R Gibson on April 3, 2012