Grumpy Gurevitz: 2011, the year hardcore gaming fought back!

This image has threatened traditional gaming since around November 2006.

It’s been a year of worry for the traditional gamer. Whilst gaming might seem to be an ever growing past-time, some of the traditional elements which make up the industry have seemed fragile. Publishers have been busy shutting down traditional developers, especially those famed for 3D racers, but beyond too.

We have seen shops such as Gamestop starting to seriously invest in alternative delivery platforms such as their own tablet and streaming services, fearing a fast-arriving dead end to their current business model. Indeed in the UK, where GAME have been less aggressive in moving into new areas of the business, we are witnessing the start of what will be a contraction of its street presence over the next five years. HMV, too, are struggling and are being quite open about the idea that they might not be around in the next 2-5 years in any shape or form.

Alongside this we have seen traditional hardware providers, such as Microsoft and Sony, in effect pour cold water on the idea of an early start to the ‘next generation’ as it is only really now that they are generating real profit dollars from their investment in current hardware and software. Whilst they might feel the urge to produce something new in the face of the soon to be released Wii U, both companies will resist in the knowledge that they have healthy, steadily improving install bases and technology which still won’t look outdated, even compared to the Wii U. I suspect they have noticed that the current generation of hardware is actually perceived to be cutting edge by many consumers today, despite being very behind suped up PCs. Hence there is little demand to bring a new, expensive console solution to the market in these difficult economic times.

Look, look I got some new plastic! But no games or applications to use with it!

Nintendo’s own year has been a difficult one, until the final quarter came around with the upturn witnessed in the holiday season. The launch of the 3DS was undermined by a range of mistakes. A high price, which did not actually put off day one early adoption but which did kill day two, three and further afield purchases. This drop in sales and consumer relevance was then compounded by the device having no actual new software (quality or otherwise) for months after release! It was almost as if Nintendo itself was surprised by the release of the console. One suspects that this observation might be closer to the truth than some might realise. Could it be that Iwata suddenly panicked when he saw the drop off in DS hardware and software sales in late 2010 and early 2011, and thought a hardware launch, which was due for November 2011, should be brought forward? Could it be that he actioned this change of timeline, forgetting that the software development teams couldn’t speed up, pro-rata?

This would explain the lack of software, both in terms of game titles and the also slightly unfinished operating system, which is still having parts of its online functionality added by firmware to this day; but which the software team have admitted were due to be there from day one.

Indeed Nintendo have taken a bashing on behalf of traditional gamers everywhere. Analysts the world over have decided that Nintendo could be the RIM (the makers of Blackberry products) of the games industry. Everyone likes to be the one who can call the end of the world (just ask the Mayans) and analysts are as human as the next guy (really they are) and Nintendo was their punching bag in 2011. The narrative went like this – people are moving from dedicated gaming devices to iPads and smartphones. Why spend £30 on a game, when you can get freeware or £1 software? The logic was sound, but too simple. People will always buy something they want, you just need to give them something they actually want, and come the end of the year Nintendo seemed to be achieving this. The 3DS sales are now running ahead of all predictions and confidence is not only building in the platform, but in the traditional games market in general. What started as a bad story for Nintendo and the industry as a whole has started to evolve into a success story.

Of course the area of growth which has probably received the most headlines, is the continued march of the social and casual gaming market. This encompasses everything from the Just Dance franchise, to the exponential growth of the Farmville type experience. There is no question that the online ‘Sim’ style of gameplay is not only hugely compelling but ideal for multi-platform, cloud play. Users can switch from the PC to their tablets, and in theory continue on the Sony Vita, as many of these games start being released in the platform agnostic HTML5 coding language. Indeed as televisions become ‘smarter’ with their own implementation of Kinect-like experiences, merged with an appstore, we can expect to see continued growth in the use of such genres. For hardcore gamers, this can be seen as a threat, as it potentially pulls funding from the type of projects they would traditionally welcome. Indeed if one looks, as an example, at Disney Interactive, it is moving evermore into this social and casual space and further away from traditional AAA game titles.

Should we as traditional gamers be worried by this? Probably not. Firstly the world is not black and white (even though according to my dad, when he was a boy it used to be – just look at old films back from when he was a youngster he tells me) and hence some of us also play those social games (maybe less so the dance titles). After all they are really very similar to RPGs, but often the character is the ‘farm’ or ‘restaurant’. However it also means that those AAA titles that are released get an increase in funding, and hence we should see an ongoing rise in production values and overall quality. The end of year titles released in 2011 are probably the best evidence for this. The range of software in your local GAME or Gamestop is reducing, but who can dispute the quality of Batman Arkham City, Skyrim, Uncharted 3 and the top shooters, MW3 and BF3?

Let us not forget the great games that have come out on XBLA, PSN, Android/iOS and recently on the 3DS, which is starting to have some quality digital titles. If you are a dedicated gamer, and not just someone who dives in to kill some time, you have never really had it so good.

What will 2012 bring to the story? For sure, we will see the ongoing decline of brick and mortar shops. Boxed product will still exist, and we will probably continue to see the ongoing investment into ‘limited edition’ versions which will help to prolong the life of this boxed product. However for many they will only order via online, postal only services. Shops will simply start to close or become trading and part exchange locations.

Game of the Year 2012?

The year ahead, when it comes to software, is going to be a very exciting year. Max Payne 3, Grand Theft Auto 5, MW3 map packs and BioShock Infinite (have Take 2 already sewn up 2012?) are already in our consciousness. The 3DS has some superb first and third party exclusives arriving in early 2012 too, and the industry will have the US and European launch of the Vita to look forward to.

The Wii U will release. Nintendo will see this as a slow burner, as the Wii at its new price is still selling strongly. However for those wanting to upgrade it could spoil the party for the current levels of PS3 growth and Xbox steady sale projections. Why? Because for those who already have a Wii (and only a Wii) and are considering what to step up to then if the Wii U ticks a number of boxes, it’ll be the natural platform to choose. What are those boxes?

  • If the Wii U has the same range of ‘adult’ software as the 360 and PS3 in addition to being 100% backwards compatible with all their Wii content.
  • If it allows them to play all the new Mario titles, along with new Nintendo only IP. Expect Nintendo to make a push to position the Wii U as the first console to take MMOs seriously with a controller designed for them.

The ultimate home based tablet and server solution?

If the above happens, then who would not buy the Wii U over one of its HD counterparts? Those of us already with a Wii and 360, or PS3 will probably fail to become early adopters. That’ll be fine by Nintendo though, as once the new inevitable Mario games and Pikmin are released, and once the hardware does eventually drop in price, they know we will still invest.

What Nintendo decides to do with its online provision for the Wii U though is very exciting. Nothing is really known, but all the rumours suggest a very open online service, perhaps with multiple portals such as EA’s Origin and Steam. However, if they could be linked with a single Wii U identity (not a friend code!) it suggests a range of delivery services, offers and perhaps even streaming services being offered through the platform, alongside its own propriety content.

2012 could be Take 2's year, at least when it comes to Metacritic scores. Sales will surely follow.

As the economy continues to stumble, the games industry will clearly find that growth and expansion is stunted by the social and economic factors around them. Yet if any leisure industry will succeed in these tough times, it’ll be ours; and 2012 will be another step forward.

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Written by Steven G

Steven Gurevitz is the CEO of 2002 Studios Media LTD and a founder of gaming accessory company Asiiya. 2002 Studios started off as a music production company, but produces a range of content from videos to videogames. The company specialises in localizing content for global brands. He also owns the Urban Sound Label, a small niche e-label. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor and co-owner CriticalGamer.co.uk. He enjoys FPS, Third person 'free world', narrative driven and portable gaming. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor to CriticalGamer.co.uk.

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