For many of us, 2014 is the year we've been waiting for. It's guaranteed to be a year of change.
That, actually, is one of the most predictable parts of the video game industry: change. Titans rise and fall, and the sands shift in new, unexpected directions that challenge our expectations. Being part of the video game industry is a really dumb idea. The competition is cutthroat, and for as much chest-thumping as the industry does about how much money it makes, you read more stories about people losing their jobs than getting them. It's not a safe industry. It's dangerous, volatile, and it's part of what keeps us coming back.
We just spent a week remembering the year that was, and making predictions is not usually Giant Bomb's business. There's a reason you almost never see rumors or speculation on the front page of the site. That's by design. Unless I can verify a piece of information myself, I'm very hesitant to share it with you. You can go somewhere else to read and consider it. But it doesn't mean we can't look ahead, and consider what's to come. I'm not interested in specifics. This isn't about "oh, hey, Nintendo's going to announce a new Metroid." Really, who cares? (OK, I would. Another Metroid Prime would be lovely.)
So here we go, 2014. Here are three thoughts on the year ahead.
Virtual Reality Won't Truly Land Yet
I purchased an Oculus Rift development kit because I find the potential of modern day virtual reality to be incredibly exciting, especially for horror games. Finally, technology has started catching up to what we've always imagined virtual reality to be like. But we're not there yet, and it's still unclear when a consumer version of the Oculus Rift will even ship. Even if it arrives later in 2014, the hurdles for virtual reality have less to do with the technology and more to do with finding out how to get people to buy it.
Strapping a screen to your head looks stupid, and it looks much stupider than waving around a Wii remote. Virtual reality falls into the "wearables" category, and that means it actually has to look sexy to have a larger appeal. The same conversation is happening around Internet-connected watches and glasses. Your average person is going to laugh at the prospect of wearing a Google Glass product in its current form because it looks so goofy and obviously tech-y. Virtual reality has the same issue.
Every single person I've shown the Oculus Rift to has come away with the same reaction: "Incredible! Can I use yours again?" When I've asked whether they would pick up one of their own, I was met with a shrug. It's not due to lack of enthusiasm over their experience inside the rift, but a question of platform. Steam may have 65 million users, but that's a very specific slice of people. I've got my Oculus Rift connected to a beefy PC because it needs to output two displays at once for the technology to even work. Your average MacBook Air isn't going to power the types of experiences that make virtual reality so interesting. Virtual reality could have success in the high-end range, but it will remain that: high-end.
But Oculus has talked about supporting mobile. Valve might release a piece of hardware. Sony might release a piece of hardware. The latter is, perhaps, vitally important to virtual reality gaining the kind of foothold we're hoping for, encouraging more developers to give it a close look. Steam Machines may help move the PC into the living room, but consoles are already there, and whatever Sony produces for the PlayStation 4, it's hard to imagine it would be so radically different from an Oculus Rift that we wouldn't soon be looking at forming standards. Virtual reality games for the console could be released on the PC and vice versa. The two would compliment each other beautifully, and it's already proven that Sony, a consumer electronics company, knows how to market and sell these devices. Right now, Oculus Rift is all insider buzz, and it's not hard to imagine the wrong marketing message bringing the house crumbling.
All of this suggests virtual reality will take its first steps in 2014, but its real impact will not be felt this year.
The Risks of AAA Continue to Restrain Creativity
Depending on your taste, 2013 was either a pretty bummer year for video games, one in which the next-gen transition took its most costly toll, or 2013 was full of delicious variety, and you only had to look beyond A, A, and A in order to find solid gold. You can probably tell which side of the fence I found myself on, given that Papers, Please was my choice for game of the year.
I don't mean to disparage players who prefer the bombast and production values the most expensive games our industry have to offer, but remember how I said gaming was a stupid industry to compete in? That's not changing. It's still going to be a stupid industry to compete in, and that means it makes more sense to be conservative than experimental, at least when the games we're talking about cost tens of millions to make. You can only make so many of those before there are no more mistakes to make, or you end up with games like BioShock Infinite, games seemingly constrained by the need to be a shooter to sell.
There's plenty of personal risk for independent developers, but the risk is personal--their livelihood. Players of independent games are regularly rewarded with games willing to drive a stake into our gameplay and narrative expectations. For some, the question of "is this a game?" is considered because it means these games might take away from the games they enjoy. I get it. For me, that's the most exciting question in games right now. From Gone Home to Twine, the only thing these have in common is interactivity, and measuring that becomes more abstract year after year. 2014, for example, will bring Robin Arnott's SoundSelf, a psychedelic visual experience that's more about the player getting to know themselves. If that sounds like hippie bullshit, you're right. I want more hippie bullshit in my games.
Streaming Video Will Change Everything
This one will be slightly self-indulgent, but stick with me.
Writing isn't dead, but it has a new ally in video. Sure, high-end game websites have been able to capture video from games for a while now, but it's only becoming accessible to consumers recently. With the new consoles, there's zero barrier to entry, and anyone can instantly become a gaming celebrity. For most, this will be a fleeting moment, but some will capitalize. It's going to light a fire under the collective asses of traditional game writers, one that's been a long time coming. This change is already happening with ahead-of-the-curve users on YouTube, but it's going to absolutely explode in the next year. Any gaming writer worth his salt that isn't looking into how video works, how it might become part of their own work, is not going to last very long in this world. Video is the future. You might not like PewDiePie, but he's individually captured an enormous audience that most major gaming websites would kill for.
(It's unfortunate Microsoft wasn't able to integrate Twitch streaming into Xbox One at launch, but it'll show up. That it's coming to Xbox One at all is what's important.)
That doesn't mean writing isn't still vitally important, nor that I'm going to stop writing anytime soon. Far from it! But video has its own place, its own voice, its own uses. Would explaining my daily adventures in Spelunky be nearly as interesting without video? Absolutely not. Video is the only reason that feature works. A new form of expression does not stamp the last one out, but the smartest learn how it can augment what's come before it.
Twitch is a company that's in the right place at the right time, important to the moment but unlikely to be streaming's future king. But what Twitch has helped usher in holds incredible value. With the click of a few buttons and a few Google searches about audio/video sync, it's possible to share your gaming experience with all of your friends--and more. The moments we talked about on playgrounds as kids are no longer tall tales: they are recorded moments in your gaming history. They can be saved, shared, and celebrated.
Those are my predictions, but I'm not alone in wondering aloud. I asked Giant Bomb users to chime in, and I compiled a bunch of these predictions into a podcast. If you missed out on a chance to participate, make sure to drop into the comments and share your predictions! We're all going to be wrong together.