Thursday, January 1, 2015

Looking Ahead At Five Big Conversations Of 2015

Yesterday, we closed the book on the biggest discussions of 2014. That story bookended one I wrote on the very first day of the year. Now, we’re starting the process all over again.
Much has changed in the past twelve months, and I also suspect that the industry will look very different one year from today. Here are some of the things I expect we’ll be talking about as 2015 evolves.

Consumers will remember the lessons of fall 2014’s failuresI’ve written two large opinion pieces about the problems facing the industry over the past few months. Some publishers have been releasing broken games, pushing annualization to the point of absurdity, and ultimately following a “ship now, fix later” approach. These practices cannot continue. They simply aren't sustainable.
As I mentioned earlier this week, the industry is fueled by enthusiasm for the product and faith in those who sell it. Gaming is an experience, but it is also a business.
Those publishers that remember that customers deserve respect will find themselves with a loyal following in 2015. Those who continue on paths that prioritize fleetness over fidelity in their releases may suffer a backlash.
Whether consumers match their purchasing behavior to their attitudes about broken products is something we’ll be watching carefully in the new year. Talk is one thing. Action is another.

Current generation defined (and likely not by resolution parity issues)Looking back at the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it’s easy to see the trends in retrospect. Among other notable developments, the seventh generation brought console gaming online in the first meaningful way.
Everything we do is connected now (as evidenced by single-player experiences affected by recent online service outages). We may not be living in an “always online” world yet, but we’re getting very close.
The eighth generation still has yet to solidify. Will it be a period of innovative gameplay like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system? Are we headed for years of replaying “definitive versions” of the same games? Will publishers be more cognizant of franchise fatigue, or are we on track for annualization to become semi-annualization?
Are the delays of 2014 going to pay off for publishers and, if so, will we see more willingness to hold games until they are ready? Are platform-holders going to contract for more third-party exclusives to defray costs? As the stories of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are closed for good and more consumers upgrade, 2015 will start to form the legacies of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Who will Nintendo be in 2015?When the Wii U was announced, it was accompanied by a flashy trailer featuring AAA games from third-party publishers. When it launched, it had support of many industry powerhouses. Today, Nintendo is carrying the console by itself.
There is no doubt that the company’s first-party offerings are solid. This year’s Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. wowed gamers, and with the stylistically impressive Yoshi’s Wooly World and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse arriving in 2015, striking visuals will continue to be showcased on the system.
Next year also promises major titles for a different slice of the audience. Xenoblade Chronicles X and the as yet unnamed The Legend of Zelda title are both due in 2015. I’m not convinced that the Wii U will ever thrive as it was once intended (too much of the original plan has changed), but with smart financial management and promotion, its legacy could be still be led with mention of great titles and not disappointing commercial performance. And, yes, the success of Amiibo figures at retail certainly doesn’t hurt.

Publisher business models will adapt to surviveIf the failures of fall 2014 revealed anything, it’s that the AAA model is weakening. For the past few years, the mid-tier has eroded, budgets have exploded, and developers live and die by the success of their most recent title.
Blockbusters aren’t going away, but we’re likely to see growth in other areas. Big publishers are choosing to explore episodic gaming. Square Enix is publishing Dontnod’s Life is Strange in segments and Capcom is releasing Resident Evil Revelations 2 in weekly installments.
Microsoft attempted to use the model for Swery’s latest game, D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die. Reports suggest that the first episode hasn’t performed well, which reveals the business benefit of the system.
If publishers further explore the television “pilot” model, they’ll be able to gauge success and cut losses before investing in an entire game. Had Airtight’s Soul Suspect been released episodically instead of as a full title, perhaps the company would have been nimble enough to recover from poor sales.
The downside is that gamers could be left with more unfinished tales. We tolerate it on television (though usually with a substantial amount of grousing). Will we do so in another medium?
Blizzard’s success with Hearthstone will also likely inspire other developers to take risks. The wildly popular collectible card game was the work of a relatively small team. And while we don’t know exactly how much money was earned and spent on the project, with 20 million registered users, I’m confident that the results are tipped strongly in Blizzard’s favor. Expect more experimental teams in play in 2015 (and that the collectible card game is going to replace MOBAs as the must-have in every publisher’s portfolio).

The true cost of virtual reality will determine successVirtual reality is tricky, because it doesn’t neatly fit in a box as a product. It’s not a full standalone platform, because it requires a PC, console, or phone in order to work. It’s not a peripheral as we typically thing of them either, because comfortable experiences are crafted specifically for the displays.
In order for virtual reality to be commercially successful, consumers will need to both experience it and understand how to talk about it. What comes hand-in-hand with that is knowing the full costs.
As an example, those that want to experience the Samsung Gear VR (a partnership with Oculus VR) need to have a new Samsung Note 4. That cost must be factored in addition to the display unit.
Right now, we don’t know exactly what PC specifications will be necessary to use the first consumer Oculus Rift. We do know, however, that stable frame rate is crucial for the experience, which means that a high end rig is likely necessary.
The question then becomes about cost tolerance. How much are consumers going to be willing to spend to experience virtual reality at home?
It wouldn’t surprise me if when we find out the cost of an Oculus Rift display that the company announces partnerships with PC manufacturers. Licensing an “Oculus Ready” label would be smart word of mouth, drive enthusiasts to those retailers, and help interested parties more easily define the costs.
And if 2015 goes by without retail, living room virtual reality? It’s hard to imagine that our readers who have been hearing us talk about it for years will continue to read stories about a technology that doesn’t seem like it will ever materialize in a meaningful way.

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