Friday, December 14, 2012

New Gaming Order: The Hardware Site

Even if 2012 is neither the year of the apocalypse foreseen by the Maya civilization nor has brought any big surprises in the video game industry, there has been many smaller news and trends that can lead video gaming into a new direction, possibly even into a “New World Gaming Order”. Looking back to 2012 I’d like to introduce some of these developments to draw a scenario as how I think gaming may change for players worldwide, starting with the physical site of video gaming in this article.

Touchscreens and mobile gaming

Touchscreens are continuing their success story on mobile devices and tablets, and even though the number of feature phones in Japan and the West are still higher, most of them are replaced by smartphones. This has helped Android which is supported by a broader variety of devices to become the No. 1 system for mobile devices worldwide and to enormously boost user numbers and lastly even revenue for their Google Play Store. 

As a gaming system both Android and Apple’s iOS well beat other handheld consoles like Ninendo’s 3DS and Sony’s PS Vita in numbers of sold devices.  That means that sales opportunities are greater on smartphones and tablets, not speaking of the lower development costs than for dedicated handheld consoles. So it’s no wonder that small or indie developers, and even big publishers like Konami and Sega in Japan concentrate much of their development power to those platforms. 

However, playing on “touchscreens only devices” rather appeal to casual gamers, not to hardcore players. And I think the future of gaming will also depend on the question how game developers can leverage the advantage of the current touchscreen device generation to its full potential to also appeal to the more serious player clientele. 

Right now Japan’s portables and the games supported still offer too much of a real and unique gaming experience. And games available in the App Store or Google Play Store are either casual games or ported AAA titles squeezed to into those devices. Publishers have to built games from the ground up and tailor them to the touchscreen to be able to become competition to be reckoned for handhelds. The better they can come up with an original unique gaming experience for this device the more successful it will become among hardcore players. 

One scenario I see to take off in the West is the upcoming of peripherals and controllers for mobile devices. More and more companies develop controllers for hardcore games to be used with tablets. These can be played along with casual games from the same store on the same device, and I think it’s likely that this trend is going to continue. The Wikipad is such a tablet that takes a big step up from touch-based controls and that for example allows Grand Theft Auto 3 for Android to be actually playable.

Cloud Gaming

Cloud gaming or "Gaming on Demand", as an equivalent to Video on Demand services for video games, seem to have several advantages over more traditional forms: 

1. The possibility to play a game that is rendered on a distant server allows to run games on max settings without requiring a powerful configuration, but only a device supporting the video/audio display, and a high-speed internet access.

2. Platform independebility and the possibility to continue playing on several devices. Customers are adopting connected devices and they expect games to be instantly accessible and playable across those devices. Customers can choose where to play, because the game progress will follow customers from devices to device. This allows game designers to develop new forms of gameplay and experiences, as different devices could allow different views on and play modes for the same game.

3. Piracy-prooven technology. Since playing the game does not require any physical copy or or a digital installation on the local device that provides pirates with a target, it may also connect publishers to audiences of traditionally underserved countries such as China and Korea.

4. The adaption of freemium or other new monetization models to hardcore titles. Most services still work with purchase or subscribtion models, but bear the potential to allow other forms of payment such as advertizing and unlockables.[1] Moreover, Cloud Gaming allows to re-monetize older titles, especially since the 2nd hand market in the West and Japan are quite strong, and publishers don’t see any of that money being in circulation here.

Currently there are two dominating Cloud Gaming competing with each other, Gaikai and OnLive.  While it's open to speculation what Sony is going to do with the smaller company Gaikai after its purchase, OnLives services are (theoretically) available for use straight on TV's, PC's or tablet and mobile devices. [2]  [3] 

Besides these other companies try to jump on the Cloud Gaming train such as Big Fish Games  who lunched Big Fish Unlimited, a could gaming service for their 100+ games streaming instantly to PC's, mobile devices and internet connected TVs.
However, I think the future of (Cloud) Gaming will depend on two factors.
a) The distribution of streaming technology such as gaming servers and the speed of (mobile) internet networks
For now probably only a few network infrastructures in the world including Japan and major metropolitan areas abroad would be able to bear a big shift toward cloud gaming.

b) The exclusive availability of major titles for these services.
Right now the selection only includes minor or older titles, and it is essential for service's survival to exclusively offer new titles in the future.

If publishers are able to succesfully place and monetize their hit titles on these services players will follow and Cloud Gaming could become the major form of playing in the future.

The Ouya

I think there is no-one who has not heard about the Ouya yet. It’s a free-to-play based Android 4.2 powered game console which was funded via Kickstarter with $8,596,474 from 63,416 backers in one month. Upon it’s release it will be likely one of the strongest consoles in the market.[4] 

The Ouya’s biggest advantages are:
  • It’s hackable, and hackers are officially invited to improve the console for better performance.
  • It (theoretically) allows to play any game from the Android store which makes it a library of more than 1000 games, most of them free-to-play. It especially offers players who don’t like playing on a mobile device a real gaming experience.
  • It allows to stream games through OnLive, including all advantages mentioned above for the service.
With regards to these points and the ones I mentioned earlier it indeed has a lot potential to determine the future of video gaming. But I also believe there are certain requirements that oversee in the hype which can turn the console into a big flop.

1.    The Ouya needs (real) console games, and/or a user base 

Not only that since they were designed for touch screen devices most games from the Android library will barely be compatible with the Ouya control pad, I also believe people will only jump aboard the system if it offers them a real console gaming experience. There are no AAA titles to be found on Android, and I think the success of the console will depend one of the following points:

a) Will major publishers and developers focus their development on the system? 

b) How close are the Ouya designers going to work with OnLive and how well will the streaming of games work.

This creates a rather problematic cycle. Because big-name developers won’t create any content unless the console has a large enough installment base that justifies high development costs. And players won’t come if they don’t find something interesting.

On top of that it will also depend on how many creative indie developers will start developing games for Android. All app stores rather have the image of being flooded by rather cheap wannabe games. Unless there are games that stick out gamers will rather stick with Sony and Co. And unique indie-games are rather to be found on PC. 

2.    The Ouya has to go portable

Gaming is going portable, there is no doubt. But as mentioned above it must offer a real gaming experience. The Ouya is going into the opposite direction. It takes the mobile Android store designed for portable devices and forces players to play on an immobile TV.

Even the Wii U with its screen-controller is going mobile, not speaking of the thousands of tablets sold every day.

I think the Ouya still can cause an upset in the industry but on the long run it will only be competitive if it’s makers also put out a mobile version of the system.

To summarize my thoughts, I believe the future of gaming will lie somewhere in the middle of all the developments mentioned above. 

In the end I think we will see much more AAA title video games being played on one or various mobile touch devices mixed with casual ones in one store. And very likely we will have more additional peripherals that allow hardcore gamers to really experience their favorite video games streamed as free-to-play via a wireless networks on the go or wherever they are located. Or do you think that is too far fetched?

[1] The advertising payment model is used by Square Enix’ cloud gaming service CoreOnline where users are encouraged to watch advertising in order to earn more playing time for the firm’s back catalogue of free games. But players can also pay a fee to unlock segments of the game.
[2] The service is still fighting problems such as network and account problems.
[3] The first one allows receiving games straight on TV or any screen through a $99.99 “game system” including amongst others 2 USB 2.0 ports, 1 HDMI port and a minijack, and furnished with a wireless universal controller. The other one consists in a free application installable on computer, tablet or smartphone. Both of those offer 3 gaming ways: a free 30 minutes trial, a game renting/purchasing service (for around $6, $9 or $50, the games are respectively available for 3 days, 5 days, or unlimitedly), or an unlimited access to a selection of more than 200 games called Playpack for $9.99 per month.
[4] The open-sourced Ouya will feature a Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB storage, one USB 2.0 port, one HDMI port, one Ethernet port and a Bluetooth LE 4.0, as well as WI-FI 802.11 b/g/n. The maximum output for resolution is 1080p. It’ll be available for $109.99.