From the death of console generations to the domination of 'Overwatch' and the future of streaming, here's what to watch for this year
From the death of console generations to the domination of 'Overwatch' and the future of streaming, here's what to watch for this year
A whole lot happened in 2016. We had our first mid-cycle console refresh in the form of the PlayStation 4 Pro; Nintendo made its first genius steps into mobile and announced the Switch, an intriguing new console; and Blizzard released a blockbuster team-based shooter, in the process making moves in the esports arena that may soon look like tectonic shifts in the way everything from teams to merchandise to television rights are handled. What seemed like significant one-off events in 2016 will this year fuel the trends that define everything from what's in your pocket to which games you stream. Here are seven trends to watch out for in 2017:
The Death of "Console Generations"
It's safe to say that the notion of a big paradigm-shifting "console generation" happening every five years or so is pretty much dead. We saw the beginnings of this in 2016 with the November release of the 4K-enabled $399 PlayStation 4 Pro. In the year ahead, we'll see Microsoft release its beefed-up Xbox One Scorpio at (likely) a similar price. As new, more powerful and expensive hardware arrives, we can expect the older versions to get much cheaper. Sound familiar? Apple's model for iPhone iteration has proved successful for 10 years now – they put out a new, enhanced model every year and then position last year's phone as a cheaper "entry level" device while keeping everything compatible. Now that both the PlayStation and Xbox One are basically just PCs in funky boxes, this is how we'll see each of them evolve. It may not be every year, or even every two, but it's the future of these consoles.
The good news is that we'll surely see the original models get cheaper and cheaper. Although the official price of a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One S starts at $299, you don't have to look too hard to find one for $249 or less. Don't be surprised if these entry-level 500GB boxes slip to $199 in the coming months.
While Sony and Microsoft battle it out on the high end of things, Nintendo – ever aloof in the face of these kinds of power struggles – will release the Swtich, its hybrid console/handheld, in March, and answer the question of whether there's really still room in the market for something else. There's currently no clear indication that gamers really want something that is neither as powerful as their PlayStation nor as convenient and ubiquitous as their phone, but given the fact that it's a brand new Nintendo device, there'll be plenty of buzz. While it's all but guaranteed to sell out at launch – thanks to the promise of Nintendo's roster of big-name games, the passion of its rabid fanbase, and no doubt a constrained supply – it could fizzle by the end of the year if the company doesn't actually deliver on the hype and all the positive noises coming from third-parties like Bethesda come to nothing.
Esports is the New Sports
Esports is already huge, and 2016 was a pivotal year in which we saw Counter-Strike, Overwatch and Street Fighter V matches on network television, the broadcasting rights for League of Legends sold to the company responsible for streaming Major League Baseball games for $300 million, and the prize pool for DOTA 2 grow to over $9 million. Analysts are predicting that the whole esports business will more than double in size in 2017, which means it'll be a $1 billion behemoth with an audience of close to 500 million before the year is out.
As we saw in 2016, it will continue to shape the whole world of video games with publishers and studios putting more energy into courting the esports community with their games (PC, console and mobile) and more investment being made in everything from tournaments to individual teams. This last part is particularly significant, as we'll see existing teams needing to take on much more money in order to stay competitive as part of esports' future.
When Blizzard announced the creation of its Overwatch League last November, it laid the groundwork for some truly next-level stuff. It positioned the new league as something that would have far more in common with those for sports like soccer or basketball with a far more localized approach. Blizzard envisions professional teams for Overwatch based in major cities worldwide, with players scouted and signed through free agency receiving guaranteed salaries and benefits. Feeder leagues will help train players and prepare them for the pro scene. Potential team owners are expected to bid millions of dollars (rumors are circulating that the price could be anything up to $20 million) in the coming months to be one of the league's founding members, and we'll no doubt see traditional sports organizations bidding for franchises alongside familiar gaming teams like Cloud9, Team Liquid or Evil Geniuses. The San Francisco Overwatch team, for example, could end up being an offshoot of, say, the Giants or Warriors, if the appetite exists in those teams' respective boardrooms. Though risky, if this model works for Blizzard, it's only a matter of time before Riot and Valve take heed and change the way League of Legends and DotA 2 leagues are structured too.
Virtual Reality is Going to Have a Very Tough Year
2016 was supposed to be "the year of VR" and we certainly got lots of expensive hardware that was capable of some impressive things, but the experiences fell short of demonstrating the true potential of the medium. After all the buzz and excitement, 2017 is going to be a down year before things eventually bounce back. Significantly, it seems likely that it will be really tough for game studios making VR games. Insiders have told us on the quiet that they think ongoing, single-minded commitment to VR development will be responsible for the closure of more indie game studios than just about anything else in history. The problem is that there just aren't enough people with headsets out there, and that's not going to change any time soon because Oculus, Vive and even PlayStation VR are still way too expensive and complicated to set up for most of us. If anything is going to make VR "mainstream" in the short term, it's going to be mobile headsets like Google's Daydream and Samsung's Galaxy VR, but they're hardly capable of providing the kind of high-fidelity, other-worldly experiences that we're all hoping for. For now, at least. Beyond that, we should start to see more options for untethered headsets in the months ahead. If there's one thing that makes VR unpopular in living rooms right now, it's the giant mess of cables.
We're still at least a couple of years away from virtual reality making a meaningful dent on the way that we all play on a regular basis, but in the meantime, what we may get to enjoy in 2017 is a brief glimpse of something truly inspiring – a taste of the future that shows us how we'll be playing in years to come. Much as it took a few years for mobile game makers to make games that felt native to touchscreens, we need to see games for VR that shed old notions of interaction. We'll continue to see games that take concepts like shooters and walking simulators and make them feel more immersive, but the first killer-app is likely to be something that takes advantage of the unique properties of VR tech to deliver something that hits us in the heart as well as in the trigger finger.
Our bet is that we first see something that exists inside a conventional game – an experience where the story tells you to put on the headset to experience something brief and very specific. If CD Projekt Red actually shows something on Cyberpunk 2077 this year, there's plenty of potential for something truly spectacular... but that's just us wildly speculating at this point.
More Games That Blend Single and Multiplayer Worlds
For years now, big publishers have been trying to extend the lifecycle of their games and position them as "services" rather than singular experiences. Titles like Uncharted used to be the norm, but going forward that kind of tightly-focused and relatively short big-budget narrative experience is going to be pretty unusual. Blockbuster games in 2017 are going to be focused on monopolizing your time and ultimately your dollars by becoming something more expansive and fluid than we've been used to in the past with more and more paid (and free) DLC that keeps playing for much longer. The evolution has been coming for a while and in a variety of different flavors. We've seen more and more multiplayer-only games like Overwatch, Rainbow Six Siege or Star Wars Battlefront and a larger number of huge, open world games filled with hundreds of sidequests like The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, or Assassin's Creed.
The enormous popularity of 'Grand Theft Auto Online' suggests that the future of the studio's releases will be as much about persistent online worlds as they are brilliantly crafted storylines.
The most significant shift is in blending these single and multiplayer experiences together so you can seamlessly shift from one to the other. It's certainly not a new concept – Destiny and The Division have both shown what's possible with varying degrees of success, but this year, we'll see the notion refined further in games like Mass Effect Andromeda, Ghost Recon Wildlands, Destiny 2 (although whether that makes it this year remains to be seen) and – almost certainly – Red Dead Redemption 2. While Rockstar has yet to say anything concrete about its upcoming Western beyond a 2017 release date, the enormous popularity of Grand Theft Auto Online suggests that the future of the studio's releases will be as much about persistent online worlds as they are brilliantly crafted storylines. It seems safe to expect more of a blend in future – Destiny in cowboy hats, anyone?
It remains to be seen if we'll see anything more than a brief teaser trailer for the next Elder Scrolls game this year, but if there's one game that may resist the draw of becoming a shared world game, it's probably this.
The Overwatch Effect
Was 2K's Battleborn the first casualty of the unstoppable rise of Blizzard's brilliant team-based hero shooter? Since the May release of Overwatch, one first-person game after another has underperformed versus expectations – Mirror's Edge Catalyst, Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2 and even the mighty Call of Duty.
You could argue that each of these had its own problems. The wisdom of making a sequel to Mirror's Edge was always questionable, Titanfall 2's release was sandwiched between Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Dishonored 2 had some big performance problems on PC. But given that in that same six month period, Overwatch went from zero to more than 20 million players (and is still growing at an incredible clip), there's a sense that it's simply sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
What this will mean for the greenlight calculations of rival publishers is still TBD, but it's not much of a stretch to imagine the increasing dominance of just one game in the shooter genre will weigh heavily with decision makers at EA, 2K, Bethesda and even Activision itself. Those brave souls who decide to clone Overwatch – and there will no doubt be some this year – will have to hope there's enough room to eek out an existence in its shadow, much as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Rift and Everquest 2 did when surviving the all-powerful onslaught of that other Blizzard phenomenon, World of Warcraft.
More Big Name Games on Mobile (and More Augmented Reality, Too)
Mobile has its unquestionable native blockbusters like Clash Royale, Mobile Strike and Dawn of War, but after Pokémon Go, Super Mario Run, Fallout Shelter and Deus Ex Go made a splash, we can expect to see more big name console and PC games reimagined for our phones. Publishers have struggled for years with how best to go about doing this, but bolstered by the successes of 2016, we'll see a lot more than we have in previous years. Nintendo has already confirmed that new Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem games are coming to mobile this year, and there's no doubt that it will announce more in the coming months. Could we eventually see a Zelda game on phones? After Super Mario Run, anything is possible.
We should also start to see the onslaught of augmented reality mobile games starting to arrive any day soon, too. With Pokémon Go training people to understand that you can play games in which you see cool stuff through your phone's camera, we'll no doubt see dozens of them in the months to come. Expect games packed with zombies, ghosts, monsters, critters, and more zombies for you to capture in some fashion as people race to try and replicate Go's success.
Those community-driven Twitch Plays events that crowdsourced playthroughs of games like Pokémon through the channel's chat room back in 2014 ended up as being far more than a series of interesting social experiments – they fundamentally changed some of the thinking around the future of streaming. While millions of players will continue to broadcast their gameplay on Twitch in 2017, more and more games will make use of the hooks that Twitch has built that allow developers to enable audience participation. The company has already shown what's possible with its upcoming four-on-four multiplayer battler called Breakaway. Broadcasters will be able to customize their streams with real-time stat overlays, invite viewers to join matches, and make use of a new feature called Stream+ that allows their audience to affect gameplay through polls and even wager loyalty points (earned by watching streams) on outcomes. "If you think about it, the Twitch community has already changed the way games are experienced," said Michael Frazzini, vice president of Amazon Games at last year's TwitchCon event in San Diego. "What we think is next for the Twitch community is to change the way that games are made."