2013 was a landmark year for gaming and the start of a brand new console cycle, with both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One making a huge splash during the holiday season. While this year may not be a banner year for big-name consoles, there are a lot of exciting trends coming down the pike — including ones that could change the landscape of gaming in major ways.
Here are the four big game trends to watch in 2014, and how they’ll emerge throughout the year.
Cutting-edge game peripherals
For the past few years, game hardware developers have been chasing the ultimate gaming peripheral, hoping to blend function with novelty to create new experiences. For Microsoft, that pursuit resulted in the implementation of motion-sensor device Kinect, while Nintendo has the Wii U Gamepad. But 2014 will not only see fuller expressions of those technologies, but also inspiring new products from third parties.
It’s hard to go any further without shining the spotlight on Oculus VR and its earnest attempts at bringing virtual reality to the mainstream market. The company’s yet-to-launch product, the Oculus Rift, generated buzz back in 2012 when it blew up on Kickstarter, and has received many tweaks as in its journey to hitting shelves in 2014. The company recently got a boost when iD Software founder and gaming icon John Carmack joined the team, bringing a hefty pedigree and decades of experience to the startup. Throughout its years of development, the product has only gained steam as a fun and accessible way to bring VR to everyone — and it will be the one to watch this year.
But VR isn’t the only peripheral trend that’s picking up. Microsoft’s latest version of the Kinect, which shipped with the Xbox One, has the potential to make serious waves in motion-sense technology — as soon as a game worthy of its power finally hits shelves. Also, this is the first year that all major consoles are pursuing second-screen technology, with Xbox Smartglass, remote play with PS Vita, and the aforementioned Wii U Gamepad featuring prominently in ad campaigns. In 2014, console gaming can finally make the most out of the years of development on peripherals. The technology is ready — now it’s just about showing it off.
Indie games will take center stage
At E3 in 2013, something completely new happened: for the first time ever, independent games received major screen-time at both Microsoft and Sony’s big console keynotes. Both companies have taken big measures to cut red tape and give indie developers better access to major consoles, and have created console exclusives with indie darlings to counter-program big name titles released in stores. Add to that the success of indie game distribution platform Steam and the mere existence of open platform console Ouya, and it looks like everything is coming up roses for indie games.
While small-scale developers have seen a massive shift in the distribution landscape within the last 10 years, largely propelled by the success of Steam in the mid-2000s, 2014 will make these games a big deal. The aforementioned big-console exclusives is right at the forefront of this trend — independent games like Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Nuclear Throne and Cobalt have been claimed by either Microsoft or Sony, a key strategy that has the potential to bust through the early-console doldrums that easily set in when there are no new major titles for gamers. Both companies are relying on these exclusives to keep users engaged while their big-name developers product the high-budget content that flexes each console’s muscles.
But exclusives aren’t the only important key to indies hitting the mainstream — virtual platforms are becoming more popular than ever. Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network and Nintendo’s eShop are increasingly featuring indie games, and lowering barriers to access for developers. In addition, independent, Android-based console Ouya has a dead-simple way for developers to get their games to players. More people have an easier time than ever getting their games seen and (more importantly) played.
As for the final reason that 2014 will be major for indies….
The lines between PCs and consoles will blur
Throughout gaming history, PC and console gaming have operated on different tracks. PCs, with their higher graphics output and better brains, were the leaders in producing games that needed more juice. Consoles, on the other hand, offered gaming at a lower cost, especially compared to high-end gaming rigs, and they were simpler for families and in-person groups to play. This year, the lines that divide the PC and the console will blur significantly, thanks in large part to the Steam Machine.
Developed by Valve, the Steam Machine takes the qualities of PC gaming — particularly customizable rigs and compatibility with Windows and Linux — and shoves them into a living room-ready console system. Compatible with the aforementioned Steam platform, Steam Machines can seamlessly play games from a large catalog of both big-name and independent games. It gives console players a taste of what PC gaming is really like, and gives seasoned computer veterans a chance to play their favorite titles in the living room.
At this point, the Steam Machine is still mostly just potential, although 300 beta testers have their hands on the console. But the emergence of this kind of cross-platform gaming is a sign that as console gaming gets more sophisticated with its memory and graphics, gamers will be able to play whatever they like, however they like.
Mobile will get even bigger
Tablets and smartphones arrived suddenly into the gaming world, and have taken it by storm. One need only look at the absurd revenue numbers from Candy Crush Saga to know that there is a healthy appetite and plenty of money for the right game. But this year, mobile will have an even bigger role in gaming.
One of the biggest criticisms of mobile gaming over the last few years has been that it’s just too casual. Pick-up-and-play games, ones that can be flicked on for a few minutes while waiting in line or traveling, have ruled the landscape — meaning that the gaming world has largely dismissed mobile’s success as beneath ”true” gaming. However, 2014 will see a convergence of many mobile gaming trends that have the distinct possibility of making mobile devices even more attractive — and a real apples-to-apples competitor against consoles.
Now more than ever, mobile games are exuding cross-platform appeal. Whether it’s playing Candy Crush on the computer or downloading DoubleFine Adventures’ The Cave to a mobile device, users can choose to experience different kinds of content at a significantly lower entry price than traditional consoles. More independent developers are looking to ports of their games on mobile, and even bigger companies like Square Enix (makers of the Final Fantasy franchise) and Sega have put their back catalog on sale for mobile users. This is creating an environment that deviates from the simple “casual” game style that has been seen before, and opened up mobile devices for longer play sessions.
But it is the embrace of free-to-play games that will allow mobile devices to keep the pressure on traditional consoles. Although its long-term effectiveness is debatable, free-to-play games have done a significant thing for mobile devices: they have converted people who don’t consider themselves gamers to paying users of a game. This has allowed mobile to transcend the “serious gamers only” reputation and get into the hands of more people faster. According to mobile research company Flurry, both kids and adults are turning to mobile gaming as an easy, accessible way to have fun, and that will only grow significantly within the coming year.
There’s so much to look forward to in gaming this year — and it may ultimately decide how we choose to play in the future.