The forces that make the business of videogames so exciting have always been chaotic. We're not only in the middle of a platform and business, but also an upheaval of audience expectations, and game distribution. The entire space has seen a huge power shift, with the audience more empowered than ever to affect the future of its entertainment. Making accurate predictions for 2013 is probably harder to do than in any prior year, so here are some conversation starters for you.
Steam Box To Make Life Difficult for Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo
The battle for living room dominance is going to get freaky in 2013, and while Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are certainly in the fight, they're no longer assured victory. While rumors persist of some kind of Apple TV box that will spit increasingly impressive iOS titles like Real Racing 3 or Arc Squadron onto your TV, and a variety of Android derivatives like the $99 indie darling Ouya, and the recently Kickstarted GameStick will make gaming cheaper and potentially more accessible, the 800-pound-gorilla that stands to disrupt everything is the long-rumored and recently confirmed Steam Box. Previewed as Steam's "Big Picture" TV interface mode, and described by Valve boss Gabe Newell as "a very controlled environment," the platform could bring the kind of discipline and structure to the PC games space that Microsoft has so frequently failed to bring with its numerous half-assed attempts at supporting Games for Windows.
While cynics may dismiss the concept as little more than a 21st century variant of Trip Hawkins' ill-conceived 3DO dream, the difference with the Steam Box concept is that it's fundamentally an open platform. Any PC manufacturer can get in on the act, but the infrastructure that Steam provides will bind everything together. It has the potential to change the whole games market, and most importantly, studios will be able to put games onto your TV without having to jump through the typical platform-holder hoops imposed by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. To many, "Steam" and "PC gaming" are already interchangeable terms, and with the launch of this next initiative, Valve will further seize control of the platform.
Skipping The Middleman and the Rise of the Super Indie
2012 saw a marked shift toward game creators having a much more direct relationship with their audience, and that trend will continue in 2013. As the fruits of last year's Kickstarter binge start to see the light of day, we'll finally have proof that serving audience desires directly is the way ahead. For years, studios have sat on ideas that they believe in but which big publishers weren't prepared to take a risk on. Conversely, gamers have been decrying the shift away from some of the genres that they love dearly. By connecting directly and moving away from the model that relies on the conservatism of traditional publishers, marketers, and retailers, we'll see more and more creative risks being taken.
Kickstarter isn't the be-all, end-all solution, though. Emboldened by successes like Riot Games' League of Legends, Adhesive Games' Hawken, and Mojang's Minecraft,a new development space will emerge. As the "B-level" (for want of a better term) goes away, it will be fully replaced by a far healthier and more audience-focused alternative; the "super indie." Rather than being driven by the need to bang out more and more $60 packaged products to achieve their business needs, this new type of studio is more directly tied to audience appetites, and is able to build strong fan cultures and strong business cases around fewer, deeply appreciated experiences. Digitally distributed, tightly focused, driven by in-game transaction economies, and iterated on regularly, the new games created by these studios will complement the continued resurgence of the PC platform, the Steam Box, and tablet gaming.
Source 2 and Half-Life 3, Maybe
After so long, it almost seems ridiculous to even mention Half-Life 3 in a predictions piece, but what the hell--let's think this one all the way through. We know that Steam Box is coming, and Valve needs a symbolic game to lead the charge for its new world order. We also know that a next-generation variant of the Source engine has been in development for a while, and is nearing a point where its ready to be unleashed on the world. What better combination than Half-Life 3 as a showcase for both the Steam hardware initiative and Valve's new engine tech? Yes, it's idealistic wishful thinking, and yes, you're probably right if your immediate reaction is "that would be very nice, but it seems unlikely," but if 2013 is really going to be Valve's big year as it would appear, the timing is better than it ever has been. Valve marches to the beat of its own drum, so file this one under "it's nice to want things."
Next Xbox is Called…Xbox
Remember when "Xbox 720" was just a silly joke that we all used as a way to refer to the next-generation platform? Over the past few years it has become the most popular search term associated with Microsoft's next console, yet it's also the last thing that the company is likely to call it. The term "360" was a way to represent the holistic nature of the platform and its ability to surround the player with entertainment, so using "720" would just be dumb. It surrounds you, what…twice? Microsoft has been keen to establish "Xbox" as the umbrella brand for its overall gaming service of late (letting "Live" take a back seat), integrating the brand into both the Windows 8 and Windows Mobile ecosystems. For the next-generation, expect Microsoft to continue with this behavior and see "Xbox" as a similar brand to "Surface" - a tag that represents a purpose more than a single product.
In the past, Microsoft's Xbox group has used its E3 press conferences as its primary global announcement platform. This year expect it to behave differently. Surface got its own Apple-style show-and-tell event last October, and it's safe to assume that the new Xbox get a similar treatment in the first half of this year. Expect a reveal ahead of E3, with hints at games that will later be shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June.
Xbox Surface By The Summer
Last year's predictions proclaimed that the next Xbox would be tablet-based. "The core of the new platform will be akin to a tablet PC that wirelessly connects to a base station, which in turn plugs into your TV. If this is the case, a premium Xbox Next setup could feasibly include a base station, a tablet, a conventional controller of some kind, and the recently discussed high-def evolution of the Kinect," we said. That very well may still be the case for the next-generation Xbox (above), but it seems highly likely that Microsoft will also push the existing Xbox 360 technology into tablet territory. An "Xbox Tablet" was rumored back in November, and sources seem fairly convinced of its viability. With "Xbox" as the name for the overall games strategy at Microsoft rather than the name of a specific box, an "Xbox" variant of Surface makes a lot of sense as a gaming-focused device. Given the age of the 360 technology, something capable of replicating the capabilities of a 3.2GHz tri-core Xenon processor, along with its 500MHz ATI Xenos graphics chip, is well within the realms of possibility for a mobile device.
There are already chipsets that could be squeezed into a tablet that are more than up to the task. A $400 Xbox Surface would prolong the life of the existing 360 base, and provide an interesting and unique approach to a mobile strategy for Microsoft. If would necessitate providing sufficient on-board storage for games that clock in at multiple gigabytes, and a willingness to push digital distribution of 360 games much more aggressively. To fully establish such a device as the ultimate gaming tablet, this would need to be much more than a casual game box with an Xbox sticker on it. If Microsoft really wants to shake up the market, it needs to replicate full 360 functionality in a 10-inch tablet, and support wireless controllers so that we can play Halo 4 with sticks and triggers just as effectively as we can play Bejeweled Blitz by touching the screen.
Tablets Come of Age
On the same subject, this will be the year that we see the capabilities of both Android and iOS tablets match current generation consoles in a far more obvious way, too. We'll also see prices continue to drop for both 7" and 10" devices. Consequently, we'll see more games developed that offer experiences that compare favorably to PC and console games across a wide variety of genres. With easy ways to connect industry standard controllers, plus the bonus capability of plugging into an HDTV either wirelessly or through HDMI, we'll no doubt look back on 2013 as the year we were able to take console-caliber games anywhere we want.
Next PlayStation is Called…PlayStation 4
There was a time where we were led to believe that it would be called PlayStation Orbis, and there was a rumor circulating at the tail end of last year that this might be changed to the thoroughly bland Omni, dropping the PlayStation prefix all together. While sources have been increasingly insistent that the company is intent on dropping the numbered nomenclature for the next iteration, let's stick our necks out right now and predict that the PlayStation 4 will actually be called PlayStation 4. As it should be.
Current (believable) speculation suggests that the next PlayStation's capabilities are comparable to the hardware powering the tech demos we've seen of Unreal Engine 4 and Frostbite 2 over the past year, but there are also zanier rumors of Google Glass-like head-mounted displays designed to bring 3D visuals to any screen, and augmented-reality experiences that are supplemented by a Dual Shock/Move hybrid controller. Regardless, expect Sony to go big on the new box at E3, with a spectacular unveil on the morning of June 11.
Vita Repackaged, Price Reduced. Sanity Prevails
The interesting thing about the Vita is that it inspires such passion from the few that have chosen to buy one. Forums are full of comments that start "I know it's fashionable to bash the Vita, but…" followed by effusive defense of its purity and excellence. There's no denying that on paper it's exactly what gamers should be clamoring for. Unfortunately, in reality it's overpriced, and ably demonstrates many of the ways in which Sony has lost touch with its audience. As a result, very few studios are choosing to take the expensive risk of developing for it, and it's suffering as a result.
Here's what should happen: At some point in the first half of 2013 Sony should repackage the device, and bundle the WiFi version with a game voucher and a 16GB stick for $199. This will put it on more of an equal footing in terms of value with the likes of a Nexus 7 tablet. At the same time, it should double down on its digital distribution strategy and renew its commitment to fill the PSN store with back-catalog titles that will run on Vita.
Here's what probably will happen: Sony will keep banging out bundles with different games and a 4GB stick for prices between $249 and $299, claiming that each represents "huge savings." Sales numbers will slow to even more of a crawl, and by the end of 2013, the only studios still considering developing new titles are those owned by Sony, and even they will openly complain about it.
The Return of Good Stories
Narrative is hot again, and the episodic format has finally proven itself thanks to Telltale's The Walking Dead. In 2013 we'll see renewed confidence in placing much-needed investment in good writing and engaging with talent that understands how to move the audience. Gone are the days of just hiring someone who once wrote the 27th draft of the dialog for some crappy C-level action movie, and instead we'll see more writers that fully appreciate the medium and understand what gamers crave. A year from now we'll be talking about truly great narrative moments and have trouble picking which one we loved the most.
The MOBA Influence Goes Nuts
The huge power and influence of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre is now well past the point where any sane individual can deny it. League of Legends continues to blow our minds with its crazy gameplay stats, and Dota 2 just keeps on getting better and better. People love this stuff, and throughout 2013 we're going to see more and more studios "borrow" ideas from MOBA games and mash them into other genres. We've already seen the idea blended nicely with a 2D platformer in Awesomenauts, and in March we'll see how it can reshape the shooter with the new multi-lane OverRun mode in Gears of War Judgment. Like it or not, multiplayer games are changing, and this is what will be at the heart of it.
League of Legends on More Platforms
On the subject of MOBAs, 2013 will be the year that League of Legends breaks out of being a PC-only title and finds its way to other platforms. A Mac version has been teased forever (to the point that it's pretty much a joke in the game's community), but should finally arrive in the first half of the year. It's if and when the game moves to consoles and tablets, however, that things will get really interesting. Gameloft has already proven the genre can work well on a tablet with the great LoL-wannabe Heroes of Order & Chaos, but fans want the real thing, and if they can have it with them at all times, that certainly wouldn't be bad. Expect some big moves this year, and for the already huge audience for the game to get even…hugerer.
eSports, eSports, eSports
First of all, someone will come up with an all-encompassing term for eSports that everyone concerned will actually accept and not complain about. The term "eSports" is sniggered at by many, and "Competitive Gaming" is too dry… there needs to be something that adequately describes the space to everyone's satisfaction. Before that, though, we can expect the whole space to blow up in popularity even more than we saw in 2012. Not only will viewership numbers continue to increase, but we'll see more games created with the eSports space in mind. Structured tournament modes and integrated league rankings profiles will make organization of competitive play easier, but we'll also see a big push around broadcast systems, smarter in-game camera systems, and easier livestreaming that will allow players to push footage right from the game. We'll also see more collaboration between leagues, and greater celebrity status for the big name players.
Square-Enix Finally Will Do Something With Final Fantasy VII
Let's get really wild and crazy to bring this thing home. Here we go… 2013 will be the year that Square-Enix finally stops messing around with Final Fantasy VII teases, and actually does something significant with it. At the very least, we'll see a mobile and tablet port of the game this year, no doubt exorbitantly priced compared to other similar titles. Don't hold your breath for the reboot, but the time has come for the original to be re-released.'