Trendspotting: What Happened in 2013, and What I Expect In 2014

CarnacEver since video games became really big business, the market has moved faster than even experienced hands can keep track of. Predicting what the market is going to do for a full year seems a fool’s game under that light.

So naturally, I’m going to do that just now.

Before I begin with what I think is going to happen in 2014, let’s review some of the trends that either popped up or continued in 2013:

“Freemium” was replaced by “Paymium” – We’re all familiar by now with the “free to play” game that coerces its players to keep spending money on it after the initial download and some initial successes. It’s like a drug dealer that gives the first hit free, gets his mark hooked, and then rakes in the money from there. However, 2013 saw the advent of “paymium”: microtransaction-based economies included in games that had to be purchased from the start. To continue the previous analogy, this was similar to a drug dealer beating the shit out of his mark on first introduction, stealing $60, and then telling the poor sucker that if he doesn’t buy drugs from that point forward he can expect more beatings.

It started innocently enough at first. Games from EA Sports have been employing something called Ultimate Team for years, a trading card-based system involving putting random players in the forms of trading cards into real games and putting teams against each other; the pull is a limited “contract” number that serves as an energy meter, and that essentially, to get to the top of the leaderboards, purchasing the grossly overpriced elite decks becomes a necessity. However, this didn’t affect the single-player; Ultimate Team is largely its own ecology. Later games such as Kingdom Rush and Final Fantasy: All The Bravest came for tablets that didn’t outright say you needed different characters that required paid DLC, but instead let spikes in difficulty curve do that for them. The latter in particular was arguably the worst video game of 2013, treating its players like customers of a skanky strip club: charge a cover price, then expect the player to pay more money inside for a far below par product.

With the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, however, the system has become a farce. On the One, almost every game, by design, includes a way to draw microtransactions from the player by way of shifting the game’s balance towards needing hours upon hours to unlock something that used to take less time on the 360, with Forza Motorsport leading the charge. The problem has hit a nadir with the release of NBA 2K14, which requires virtual coins to do everything including basic coaching tasks like hiring coaches and setting a starting lineup. This is a precedent; no game has ever done this on a console, and fans are in open revolt.

It’s very likely, however, that the money coming in on these, and other games, makes the debate moot. Paymium came into fold strong in 2013, and only some serious consumer backlash will make it go away.

Kickstarting began to bear fruit – The first successful Kickstarter-funded games started to hit in 2012, but 2013 was where the funding platform really started to see momentum and show results. Among the games released in 2013 that either drew critical raves or built a dedicated following were Divekick, the full game for Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, Legend of Dungeon and Strike Suit Zero. In addition, FarSight Studios funded the Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Twilight Zone pinball tables via the service, and Flippfly used it for Race the Sun used it in addition to their own crowdsourced model.

These are well and good, but Kickstarter-funded games started to take home some serious hardware this past year. Kentucky Route Zero won Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Game of the Year award, and Shadowgate Returns won it at at my old stomping grounds. Kickstarter-backed games have done well at Gaming Bus as well; Valdis Story: Abyssal City was our #3 game of 2013, and FTL: Faster Than Light was #4 in 2012.

Let’s Watch: Streams of Games Became Huge – Back in the days when I would regularly run Gaming Bus Live Streams, it was just a cool way to satisfy a few regular readers by allowing them to watch me flail at their favourite games. Since that time, however, the industry’s blown up. Twitch has become so huge that Sony incorporated its support into their system at launch; that’s a gutsy gamble, expecting Twitch as a site to be around for years.

Of course, as the practice has grown, other companies have looked to hook their claws into the industry. Nintendo started laying claim to all advertising revenue from videos that use their games, a blatant violation of fair use that no one has the will or resources to properly assert. Other companies have set up bots that spit out DMCA requests to anyone doing something they don’t approve of, which has the dual consequences of chilling use of the name and possibly getting channels shut down by YouTube’s clumsy, unfeeling copyright process which rivals Paypal in the sense of leaving jilted users completely high and dry.

It’s early days for this budding means of enjoying a game, so there’s definitely some growing pains that are in the process of being worked out.

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With all that done, what’s next is to make some bold predictions for 2014. Feel free to come back to this next year and laugh at how wrong I was, but this is where I see things going forward for the next 365 days.

PREDICTION: The indie gaming boom has plateaued – In a sense, this is also a bit of an indictment of 2013 as well, but as the big-time publisher – the Electronics Arts, Ubisofts and Activisions of the world – has become less and less important in the grand scheme of being successful as a developer, the market has matured, creating a whole new set of alpha dogs who are doing better at figuring out the new way of doing things than other companies. For the past few years, indie development has been somewhat scattershot, with a whole bunch of developers getting their skin into the game on PC and mobile platforms. If Steam didn’t take your game, Desura and GamersGate did. iOS was budding. Indies were booming so hard that even the console makers had to adjust, including Microsoft, who historically has required publishing to even get a seat at their table, a problem that severely affected DLC for the Pinball Arcade.

This year, we’re going to see things even off significantly, if they haven’t already. Mobile is now largely dominated by larger names, some of them being big console gaming names like EA and Square-Enix, some of them made due to the burst like Rovio, Zynga and King. More games are coming out, making it harder to stand out, often requiring higher costs for both attractive assets and marketing. Mobile top lists are so packed that it’s hard to penetrate the market. And Steam’s Greenlight service has largely been a failure, as people have had to resort to guerrilla marketing in order just to get seen by people who pay their games ten seconds worth of attention before clicking the “no” button because they didn’t like a colour in the graphics. For games that don’t make it onto Steam, that essentially equals death on the PC; Desura is all but ignored.

This isn’t to say that independent game development is going to “crash”; far from it. People who love video games will still take their best stab at it. But the gold rush feeling of the past few years is going to dissipate.

PREDICTION: Sports gamers will hate 2014 – Gaze upon NBA 2K14 and weep, sports gamers. It’s all going downhill from here, and we mostly have ourselves to blame.

2K was only somewhat ahead of the curve in ruthlessly monetizing literally every part of their only relevant sports franchise, and until recently, the best sports game from a quality standpoint on the market. A new system and a new breed of gamers will allow EA to turn the screws even further, incorporating the tactics that they perfected in Ultimate Team into single player modes, if those modes even exist going forward. Sony will also look to take advantage of gamers desperate for any baseball, period, knowing that with the demise of Major League Baseball 2K, they’re the only game in town. Even Pro Evolution Soccer, typically the best experience for hardcore fans of football, won’t be exempt; does anyone trust Konami to play nice with their customers? Even Football Manager has gotten into the microtransaction game.

Sports gamers are part of the problem, because we demand so much from our games. They have to play just right, making the right changes while leaving the right things alone, with constantly updating rosters, the right tweaks via patches, and other niceties, all with good netcode for online matches. We also demand licenses. Full licenses, every player and every team. This means that for most sports, we have only one option, with the exception being two basketball games. Electronic Arts has this entire section of the industry by the short-and-curlys. If any readers disagree, then tell me again how All-Pro Football 2K8 did. There is simply no economic advantage to releasing a sports game in 2014; it would have to take years of losses to even break even for one year. Anyone in a position to spend that much money would have a hard time explaining that to shareholders.

It’s been proven that consumers, when provided with the choice of either an unpalatable game or no game at all, will choose the unpalatable game so long as it keeps them playing their favourite sports with the newest players and rosters; we talk about how awesome Vince Young was at Texas, but don’t want to go back in time to play as him in the versions of NCAA Football that he features in. Therefore, sports games will go farther into the paymium category: exploit the whales, and tell everyone else to piss off.

PREDICTION: The Wii U will make a minor, but ultimately unsatisfying, comeback. – Sales for the Wii U looked up this holiday, both in hard numbers and the amount of gamers posting stories and pictures of shelves emptied of Nintendo’s console and filled with Microsoft’s largely reviled One. Nintendo’s attractive price point, Mario and Zelda titles, and decided lack of Kinect made it an attractive proposition for families buying for Christmas.

The system should see more success in 2014 than it has prior, but don’t buy too hard into those numbers. This is name recognition and aggressive pricing working in its favour. Intertia will ultimately win out.

The PlayStation 4 has, as of December 28th, sold 4.2 million consoles to gamers; the One has sold “over three million” according to a statement. The Wii U, on the other hand, has sold an estimated1 4.5 to 5 million units worldwide since coming out a year prior to the other two systems, and needed a busy holiday just to get that high. The chief complaints against Nintendo’s console, both real and perceived, still persist: the controller is unnecessary and clunky (for the most part, legitimate), it’s made for kids (utter bullshit), and it’s largely for casuals.

The last part is not only wrong, but that’s actually bad news for Nintendo. The Wii’s sales jumped largely because it was seen as being a system for everyone, with images of granny winning at Wii Sports Bowling dancing across everyone’s heads. In short, it was a fad, and with that in mind, every two-bit publisher on Earth released a crappy game aimed at kids and casual gamers for the system. While that sunk the system in the eyes of the “core” market, Nintendo’s games kept the system flying off of shelves, and occasionally, third parties would release a game that wasn’t totally awful. The problem is that now, those games aren’t on the Wii U, with Nintendo’s cost of doing business; they’re on mobile and tablet, likely as a free download with microtransactions. With third parties keeping Nintendo at arms’ length, and supporting systems that are more inline with core gamer expectations, it leaves the Wii U’s library looking very thin.

Nintendo’s games will be amazing, as they always are. But that’s not enough to move PS4 numbers. Not in 2014.

PREDICTION: There will be an art/exploration game boom – Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in the video game industry, that often takes on an appearance of a man at a convention dressed like his favourite comic book character while sweating, hyperventilating, and causing the actor playing said character in a movie to consider firing his or her agent. The success of games like Gone Home, The Novelist and The Stanley Parable show that gamers have a thirst for games that go beyond simply getting headshots while taking Mountain Dew intravenously. This is wonderful news; we’re always looking for new and exciting ways to enjoy our medium.

This trend combines with the fact that the people who liked these type of games growing up – games short on action but large on mental challenges – tend to be the ones that get into making video games when they hit adulthood. Now that this type of game has become financially viable, we should expect more and more developers to attempt to make – and sell – the game they’ve always wanted. There will be a wide variance in quality; some will be amazing, others will miss the mark completely. But at least for a little while, it will be an exciting time to be a fan of something typically considered avant-garde.

PREDICTION: Xbox One will catch-up to the PS4 in sales by Christmas due to Titanfall and Halo – Right now, the Xbox One is decidedly “losing” the next-generation war from a sales perspective. The reasoning is surprisingly simple: core gamers simply don’t like dealing with Microsoft and don’t have a compelling reason to ignore that. Security concerns, added cost, and the perils of Kinect have turned off core gamers for some time, and Sony is still riding the high from their E3 speech, which amounted to a victory lap over a fallen adversary.

This will all be moot by this point next year. Titanfall is looking great, and is being hyped to match. It’s a legitimate system seller. The only thing that will somewhat blunt the sales surge is the issue that Titanfall is also a PC game, and while a $500 console is much more affordable than the type of rig that allows Titanfall to be played, those with powerful PCs running Windows at least have options.

That won’t be the case for Halo, which has been Microsoft’s ace in the hole for twelve years. Anyone who doesn’t buy in during Titanfall’s release will definitely buy in in 2014, assuming the game comes out in time for the holidays. Nothing moves the needle in Microsoft’s direction faster than Master Chief, which has been the case for two console generations already; we’re predicting it will be that way for the third as well.

Ultimately, I expect Sony and Microsoft to come to a tie in overall system sales, much like they did for the prior generation. I just expect the company that started off behind to get into a draw much faster this time around. For as much as people bitch about games and the systems they play them on, gamers are sure quick to forgive.

1 – This is taking into account the 4.3 million unit number listed by Wii U Daily and adding in a guesstimate on last-minute shoppers. I’d say take my estimated range and cut it in the middle.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.