I expect the gaming landscape for console games will be radically reshaped in a few years. The existing $60 AAA game market will mostly collapse. Indies, stifled by saturation across every market, will turn to subscription services as their only viable path forward. Everyone will still chase Fortnite (or its successor) to become the next free-to-play hit.
Gaming trends today portend significant changes on the horizon. For years we’ve seen the same $60 titles — mostly first person shooters (Call of Duty, Destiny) and big sports franchises (FIFA, Madden, NBA2K) — dominate NPD and digital sales charts. But more recently, these perennial best sellers have shifted into effectively “games as a service” platforms. Studios increasingly focus on new functionality at a core fan base that readily laps up micro-transactions. This ensures revenue stays flowing in well past the upfront sticker price. Look at FIFA and how so many improvements lead back to Ultimate Team. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot added a Fortnite-inspired battle pass and a prominent shop rotating in and out costly cosmetic gear. This is rampant speculation, but I could see the anticipated Halo Infinite moving in a similar DLC-heavy direction, reliant on a narrowing core base to push the game’s initial investment into the black.
Stadia looks like a flop out of the gate, and its meager, overpriced game selection is a significant factor why. Google overestimated the console market’s appetite for experimental moonshots. Most gamers aren’t making purchasing decisions based on streaming quality, teraflops, 4K, or fast SSDs. Instead, as I wrote about earlier this year, it’s the games themselves — both selection and quality — that matter most. It was a crucial differentiator in the battle between PS4 and Xbox One, essential to the Nintendo Switch’s breakout success, and it will continue to be important for next generation hardware.
Games matter more for reasons beyond their historically strong track record. It’s also because across other facets — hardware, marketing, third party integrations — Sony and Microsoft will be on similar footing next generation, at least to your average consumer. I don’t foresee the major stumbles that marked previous console generations. Price and power, two factors that solidified PS4 as the clear victor this generation, I expect to be a moot point in 2020. Microsoft learned its lesson launching a console $100 more expensive and less powerful than Sony’s. Sony hopefully still remembers the $600 launch PS3 debacle and how undercutting on price helped secure their win for the PS4. Speculation from Digital Foundry and other sources posit the PS5 and Xbox Series X will rely on similar internal components. The result for consumers should be two boxes with similar specs and no more than a $50 gap in price differential.
Game streaming services depend on three big factors for success: technical prowess, cost, and games. Based on Google’s track record and their recent GDC pitch, Stadia’s tech chops will likely hold up well in real world testing. Consumer cost I’d anticipate won’t be high either. The big unresolved question is what actual games Stadia will have for its release later this year. And it’s on games that give Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo solid footing for blocking Stadia’s advances.
Games carry an outsized significance when considering past PC and console platform battles. For example, the PS4’s “must play” exclusives helped buttress their lead over the Xbox One over the last few years. This is where Google will run into a substantial headwind; game libraries on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC are gigantic, with many critically acclaimed exclusives bound to a single platform. Assuming next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft support backward compatibility, this “lead” from Google’s competition should only grow.
Playing console and PC games through streaming may shift from niche experiment to mainstream reality this year. It’s the biggest gaming news story to watch; if the tech lives up to the hype, streaming will disrupt the gaming industry in a way that many companies will be unprepared for.
Historically streaming’s technical hurdles like high latency and bandwidth requirements have been a barrier to entry, but the latest signs of progress are promising. Google ran a beta of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey streaming through a Chrome browser. I read positive feedback on the experience, even from dedicated gaming sites like GameSpot; we’ll learn more from Google at GDC tomorrow. And while Microsoft’s xCloud streaming infrastructure is under private beta, they are bullish enough on the technology to release multiple splashy video teasers. If there are any two companies with the right expertise in cloud infrastructure to pull this off, it’s Google and Microsoft.
This year I finally swapped out my aging 10-year old Sony Bravia TV for a new Vizio P-series. In the intervening weeks of staring at this new screen, well mastered HDR content has been the most impressive improvement. HDR in conjunction with the full array local dimming (FALD) of the TV provides a brightness and contrast boost that surpasses what I experience in NY movie theaters, even well-calibrated ones at the Alamo Drafthouse and Nitehawk. And critically, almost every piece of media benefits from the tech, from TV crime procedurals to Planet Earth II, from Netflix to a la carte streaming rentals and even select Youtube channels.
But that same wow factor hasn’t translated as well to gaming. Of the five HDR capable games installed on my PS4, only two significantly improve the gaming experience.
E3 was fairly low key this year. In place of big reveals or surprises, we saw a solid suite of games as the current console generation hits its full stride. Two narratives stood out: Microsoft is staying in the game, and we’re getting next generation consoles sooner than I originally expected.
Microsoft’s best presser of the generation
Microsoft’s overall E3 message was one of strength and confidence for both the present and future. Their press keynote reassured Xbox loyalists and anyone else considering a dip into the Xbox ecosystem.
Granted, Microsoft’s keynote on paper shared the same DNA as their last few: trailer after trailer for solid third party games. It’s an obvious move given their competition moved in a different direction at E3 this year: Nintendo stuck to Smash Brothers while Sony focused on first party titles. But this year had especially strong game variety and pacing. The presser got virtually every third party game of interest through next year. Closing with Cyberpunk 2077 — hands down the most buzzed about game at E3 — was a masterstroke.
Microsoft’s E3 presser is a must-see this weekend, and not necessarily for any single game or hardware announcement. It’s because unlike other console manufacturers, they lack any clear long-run trajectory. As the only real wild card for E3 2018, Xbox’s positioning at the show has large implications for its relevancy over the long run.
Conventional wisdom suggests Xbox needs more killer exclusives. Offer the games, and the fans will follow. But at this stage, I don’t see Microsoft capable of making this happen. On paper, they don’t have enough first party studios, and those studios haven’t branched out beyond long-standing IP from the Xbox 360 era.
Nor are Sony and Nintendo standing still. This late in the console cycle, both platforms are hitting their stride. For Sony, the pedigree of The Last of Us II and the hype factor behind Hideo Kojima’s enigmatic Death Stranding sets a high bar. Nintendo is already riding high with a new Zelda and Mario in their back pocket. New Pokemon and Smash Brothers are out later this year with much more to come. Even if Xbox announces four big titles — Halo, Gears, Forza, and a fourth IP surprise — at best Microsoft reaches a draw with Sony and Nintendo.
Stories of harassment in creative industries dominated headlines in 2017. Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds were the spark; ever since there have been countless exposés uncovering deplorable behavior in film, TV, technology, and journalism. Gaming hasn’t gotten as much coverage, but that doesn’t make the industry less culpable. In some ways, it’s even worse. As Xbox head Phil Spencer noted in his recent GDC keynote, if the industry isn’t willing to make changes with regards to diversity, inclusion, and harassment, it risks its survival over the long run.
Representation in-game is a weak spot. Only a handful of the top rated Metacritic titles from last year feature a woman or person of color in any significant role. LGBTQ characters are effectively non-existent. And that trend continues when examining the best selling games over the past five years. Admittedly many games don’t feature a human-like protagonist. You’re playing as an anonymous avatar, a vehicle, or a sports team. But for those that do, diverse representation continues to be a rarity.
Xbox is in a slump. Sales are solid, but hype and critical attention are behind rivals Sony and Nintendo. It has reached the point where Microsoft could pull out of consoles altogether over the long run with the Xbox One X their final release. But the recent announcement of an improved Xbox Game Pass subscription service (what I’m terming here “Game Pass 2.0”) changes my outlook.
Going forward, all Xbox new release first-party games (e.g. Sea of Thieves, Forza, Halo) will join the subscription service. Previously Microsoft limited Game Pass subscribers to mostly older titles from previous Xbox generations. Seen generously, this is like Netflix offering select first-run movies as they open in movie theaters, while still maintaining a flat $10 a month price. It’s a huge change from what came before.
By focusing on its subscription service, Xbox could sidestep the fragmented game landscape that they’ve faltered on for years. Console hardware sellers have always been exclusives, but Microsoft’s fall well short of the competition. Big budget moneymakers like sports and multiplayer shooters were a sure thing for Microsoft in the Xbox 360 era. Today they are a dicey investment. Budgets are out of control. Gamers are increasingly turning against loot boxes and other questionable microtransactions. Indies can grow to be a phenomenon (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Cuphead, Stardew Valley), yet the market is getting oversaturated.