Color me a fan, but when I received an invitation to write a guest editorial for The Escapist, I was both fanboyishly excited and wracked with anxiety. “The future of gaming”? Crap! Don’t you need to be an analyst to have enough balls to write about the future of the medium? Either way, I gathered myself and wrote back that I’d do it, knowing full well that ingrained into my DNA is the easily called – upon, opinionated, stubborn Irish ego that would enable me to make bold predictions about a subject dear to my heart. Without further ado, I give you the death pool.
“Digital distribution will soon kill packaged goods.”
A bold-faced lie perpetuated in the halls of GDC and by stakeholders hoping and praying that saying it will make it so. Sure, this is virtually guaranteed to happen in the next one to two cycles, but not in the short term. I’ve been sitting on panel discussions for many years now, often next to “web 2.0” executives who pontificate long and hard about how their service will supplant Wal-Mart, GameStop and every other brick-and-mortar retailer; and I’ve never seen any of their predictions come to fruition. In fact, the more mass-market our medium becomes, the less pervasive digital distribution will be as a percentage of the business.
That’s not to say that I don’t believe in it, mind you. In fact, it was the first business I launched: a short-lived product called Video Games On-Line (VGOL), which we built to be a hub between AOL (back in the 14.4 days, for you old-timers) and the SNES. But my experience on the back end of the business has given me perspective for how the consumer buys and how retailers sell. That’s not a process easily undone by digital distribution. Music, yes. Movies … getting there. Games, not for a while. But since this is a “put it all on the table” column, I’ll say that the next versions of the PlayStation, Xbox and Wii will still sell more packaged titles than downloads; the generation following will be the one where physical media is replaced entirely. Five years minimum. Ten years likely.
“Games will be respected soon because gamers will grow up and become politicians.”
I get this one all the time. And sure, it makes perfect sense in theory, but the reality is that politicians – young and old – make political hay out of what they can. Just because the average age of gamers is in the early 30s and there are plenty of brilliant 40-somethings that are eager to get into public life doesn’t mean that they won’t exploit games when the opportunity arises. To believe that they would not is nothing short of wishful thinking.
Again, I’m willing to concede that 20 years from now we likely won’t be dealing with First Amendment arguments about interactive entertainment, but that fact has little to do with the age of politicians. The quote is a bastardization of a sound bite that a former mentor and colleague of mine, Doug Lowenstein – the former head of the ESA – would provide during interviews. It wasn’t meant to be a stand-alone statement, or even a position to give us comfort, but rather one of many facts that, in totality, make up an eventuality. That’s all. In the mean time, we’re stuck in the trenches fighting misperceptions, negative stereotypes and ill-conceived legislation. To my mind, you can do one of two things: Get involved (IGDA and ECA come to mind) or shut up. Both organizations are quite easy to join. To put it another way, “You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.”
“The anonymity of the web and online gaming in general empowers hate-mongers, bigots and delinquents.”
In my experience, web and online gaming are nothing more than a reflection of people’s personalities, just out of context. As video becomes more pervasive in these environments, folks will be less likely to hide behind a username and avatar. One way to combat bad behavior in the short term is social isolation. No one likes being ostracized.
The other effective tactic, which is notably more lofty and worthy, would be to set the example yourself: Use your (gasp) real name. Many of the readers of this publication are, without stroking the audience too much, the people that the gamer masses look up to. You’re the hardcore gamers, the rock star developers, the prestigious publishers, the people that make it all … well, cool. If you exemplify the behavior you wish to see, they’ll emulate you. It’s human nature. Timeline for more maturity in online gaming: five years.
“Gamers in the future will be even more hardcore and willing to wear the label.”
I’m calling B.S. on this one. Few players today are willing to label themselves as “gamers.” As we ingrain gaming – as a respectable third of the broader entertainment sector – into the cultural consciousness, we’ll continue to see an erosion in the percentage of folks who even see playing games as any more unusual or noteworthy than listening to music or watching movies. How many people do you know who would label themselves “audiophiles” because they enjoy music? I’d argue that the more successful we are, broadly, the more the term “gamer” will disappear from the lexicon. Perhaps as soon as the next one to two cycles, consumers will be buying, renting and downloading games no differently than they consume any other media. Some folks will absolutely remain ardent fans in much the same way that fans of music pay for whole albums, attend concerts and wear their favorite bands’ T-shirts. Gamer culture isn’t going anywhere. It’s just becoming a part of the collective unconscious – and that’s a good thing.
“The future of console gaming will be on one platform.”
Nope, totally disagree. I subscribe to “the future of gaming will be in the cloud” philosophy. I have two friends in the trade who I’ll call out for this position: One is an executive at a major telco, the other at a major tech/networking company. Both are Fortune 500 executives, have been around for a while and are among the brighter lights in the business. Their company’s future as it relates to the medium is built entirely around my belief being true. It’s stakeholders like that, and few – if any – in the “one platform per child” camp, that make it good business, personal preferences aside. Cloud computing and network gaming – on ubiquitous devices – will be how we play games in the future. Hell, you couldn’t predict what a cable box would look like or serve, in terms of functionality, seven years ago. How could you, with any certainty, assume that there’ll be only one box? My bet is, again, that publishers and developers will continue to create and sell games on any device that they can – as evidenced by the sustained popularity of mobile gaming. The cooler that mobile devices get, the more faith I have in their ability to truly be on par with the consoles and desktop PCs.
“The publishing landscape won’t change. Developers will be stuck as second-class citizens in forced deference to publishers.”
Not to be a contrarian throughout the column, but I respectfully disagree. I think that we’re heading for far more consolidation, in both the publishing and development communities. I’d go so far as to say that we’ll be three major publishers less by this time next year. And as for developers, they’ll likely continue to coalesce into more formidable entities with more business savvy than ever. So, two things that will get me into a lot of trouble: Most publishers play too fast and loose with their business, betting on a hit-to-miss ratio that’s unsustainable in the long term. Many of them treat developers like cogs in the wheel, rather than the amazing talent that they are.
That said, developers too often aspire to be CEOs and convince themselves that they have the acumen to handle it. They rarely do. Great developers are great artists, not suits. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but by and large rising developers would do far better to hire an experienced executive team and check their egos at the door. That, or merge with equally talented, like-minded firms where they should still hire the aforementioned suits. I foresee the consolidation in our business similar to that of the film industry. Several publishers will percolate up to be “the majors,” a few will be “mini majors” and specialize in niche markets and genres, and there’ll be a whole culture of indie developers – far more robust than today’s landscape – many of whom will be inspired to their careers by user-created content. Timeline for paradigm shift: three to five years.
“Magazines are dead, long live magazines!”
This isn’t really something that I – or anyone else – could dispute; print is dying a slow and painful death, especially the enthusiast publications serving our business. That said, they’re not going anywhere for quite some time. At the ECA, we’re looking into a model that may be of interest for our members, and we’ve also noticed that other formerly print-only products are now thriving online in the digital form. The bigger concern is really one of the value proposition challenge, which we don’t discuss nearly enough. Gamers are finicky about what they’ll pay for, and if they can get the same (or at least similar) content online for free, why would they pay? That’s a much larger, more important question than the confines of this article will permit, but it’s at the root of the problem for magazine publishers. The good news is that publishing companies are an intrepid bunch, and they recognize that the true value they have to consumers is in the knowledge base and expertise of their editorial staffs. As long as they can transition the model and port it to a different medium, there’s no reason to predict gloom and doom.
“Content is king!”
Long live the king! Here’s where the first-party publishers really need to be concerned. I first noted that my son, now 10, became a LEGO Star Wars fan not when he was playing it on the Xbox, but when he had that privilege taken away and booted up a copy for the Mac. He went on, as I noticed, to play it in every iteration – using friend’s consoles, handhelds, you name it. He ingested the media because he loved the content and execution. He could care less who manufactured the device that played it, the input device he used or even the quality of the graphics. He liked the content. The same will likely be true of the LEGO Indiana Jones games. He reads the books, watches the educational “Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” on the History Channel, the movies … see the theme here? The more attention I paid, the more I realized that Generations X and Y have grown up brand loyal. The reason, as best I can determine, is our parents couldn’t afford to buy every gaming device, so we got the one that we begged/saved for and that was the brand. With this generation, it’s not so. They’re agnostic because they can afford to be. It’s all about the content.
“Game prices will eventually begin to fall.”
Totally agree, and in the face of everything logical. Here’s why: Consumers are willing to pay in that previously discussed value proposition challenge, but not if they can get a similar experience elsewhere. So if Battlefield Heroes is a raving success and EA can figure out how to do it for free, profitably, it will lead to new business models. Skeptical? I give you the amazing success of web email as an example. Why pay AOL every month when Google gives it to you free? There are ways to make phenomenal games, with amazingly compelling gameplay at a low price point. In-game advertising, sponsorships, micro-transactions, tie-ins, giveaways … all of these are revenue-displacing venues. Why stop at the success of the Burger King games for Xbox? Why can’t there be a whole product line that mitigates the cost associated with development via alternate revenue streams? Doing so would open gaming up to the masses in a far more profound way.
Hal Halpin is the president and founder of the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA), the membership organization which represents gamers.