As promised a while back, below is a pull together of what seem to me to be some of the most significant trends in gaming at the moment. Let me know what I've missed.
1. New input devices / interfaces
The last few years have seen an explosion in the number of innovative new gaming input devices; dance mats, the EyeToy, the DS touchscreen and stylus, Buzz!, the Wiimote and Balance Board, Guitar Hero/Rock Band and the iPhone. Next up: the Neural Impulse Actuator (no really). See earlier post: A visual history of the evolution of video game controllers.
2. Digital distribution
It's been talked about for years but the digital distribution of video games is finally becoming mainstream thanks to the online stores of the 7th generation consoles (PlayStation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, Wii Shop Channel), the growth of Steam (not being bought by Google after all) and, perhaps most unexpectedly of all, the launch of the iTunes Apps Store (100 million downloads and counting, many of them games). Digitial distribution is also enabling the little guys to get their games out there (check out the wonderful Ben There, Dan That! from the two-man Zombie Cow Studios).
3. Social networking
Gaming and social networking are coming together in a variety of different ways; via casual games / social objects in existing social networks (e.g. Facebook applications such as Scrabulous, Texas HoldEm Poker and the supremely annoying Vampires/Zombies); via games which work across networks (e.g. Mytopia, Come2Play); via social networks dedicated to gaming (e.g. Raptr, Character Planet); via casual gaming sites with integrated social networking functionality (e.g. Cafe.com, MuZui, doof, i'm in like with you) and via browser based games with a social dimension (e.g. PMOG, WebWars: EVE).
4. User-created games
Once the province of the bedroom-coder, it's getting easier and easier for non-technical users to create their own games thanks to sites such as The Sims Carnival and PlayCrafter. The visual richness and complexity of what it's possible to produce is also increasing with the advent of more sophisticated 3D engines like Atmosphir. Sites such as Kongregate and YoYo Games enable amateur developers to get their games out to a wide audience. Creating elements within games is also becoming increasingly commonplace with games such as Spore and LittleBigPlanet taking the creativity offered by The Sims to the next level.
5. Free-to-play games
It looks like Chris Anderson might be right (again) - the shift towards free is gradually starting to permeate the games industry. Whilst freeware has been around for years it's only relatively recently that it's started looking like a viable option for bigger games companies as ad supported gaming and alternative revenue streams (e.g. clothing for avatars) become increasingly commonplace.
6. Personalised avatars
The days of choosing between Pac-Man and Ms Pac-Man are long gone. Fully customised 3D avatars are increasingly becoming the norm in gaming environments. Online virtual worlds and MMOGs such as Second Life, MTV's virtual worlds, EVE Online and City of Heroes set a new benchmark of avatar personalisation which is now starting to percolate through to console titles. WeeWorld and Nintendo also helped shift expectations with their respective WeeMees / Wii Miis.
7. Real-world gaming
The number of gaming experiences tempting joystick junkies beyond their front doors has been on the increase over the last couple of years; from ARG's like I Love Bees and Perplex City to geo-location games like PacManhatten, Crossroads, Conqwest and Plundr. Whether these games transition from the geek-elite to the mainstream remains to be seen, although Akoha (which bills itself as "the world’s first social reality game") looks interesting, as does Zyked (think Nike + on steroids).
8. Episodic gaming
A logistical nightmare when shipping physical product, episodic games becomes achievable when delivered over IP. Telltale Games is at the forefront of episodic gaming having published three separate series: Bone, Sam & Max and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People (with Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures coming soon). Other high profile episodic games include GameTap's American McGee's Grimm, SCE's Siren: Blood Curse and Kuma's controversial Kuma\War. BioWare provided additional downloadable episodes for Mass Effect and Warner Bros. Interactive are reportedly planning to release the Watchmen video game episodically. A somewhat lower profile example is Channel 4/LittleLoud's Bow Street Runner (see earlier post).
9. Casual games
The casual games market has gone through the roof in the last few years. Uber portals such as Pogo, Miniclip and AddictingGames attract millions of visitors a month whilst series such as Virtual Villagers and Mystery Case Files have been downloaded many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of times. There's also the occasional David amongst the casual gaming Goliaths, with individual titles like Line Rider and TypeRacer capturing the public's imagination and spreading virally.
10. Into the mainstream
Extensively documented elsewhere, there's little doubt that the Wii, Wii Fit, Guitar Hero, Brain Training and Nicole Kidman have all done their bit in helping move gaming beyond the hardcore to members of the family whom previous gaming eras couldn't reach. Will be interesting to see how much further gaming can diversify in order to reach new audiences or whether that particular market strategy has now been exhausted.
Photo: Matt Watts. Used under license.