What games stand the best chance of changing the broader industry in 2009, either by dramatically influencing what consumers play and purchase, or by demonstrating the commercial viability of new revenue models and genres? Below is a list of the 10 most likely candidates, culled from several experts in the field and myself. Keep an eye on these titles to see how well they perform — and whether they really do impact the future business of games. All are scheduled for 2009 release, but of course, dates are always subject to change.
The selection panel: David Cole, founder and president of game industry analyst firm DFC Intelligence; David Edery, Worldwide Games Portfolio Planner for Xbox Live Arcade and co-author of “Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business;” and K. Thor Jensen and Frank Washburn, both game developers and occasional GigaOM contributors.
Allstate’s “Insight” Games
A series of “serious games” sponsored by Allstate that are designed to gauge reaction time and perception, the insurance company is currently testing them on older drivers, and may use them as a resource for offering discounts to successful players (who are assumed to be better insurance risks). As Dave Edery put it to me in email, the Allstate games may “change the way that auto insurance companies market their products and relate to their customers.” It’ll demonstrate ROI in spades — and encourage other major industries to begin incorporating serious games into their own products and services. (And the game industry, to begin expanding what has so far been a niche genre.)
The Beatles Video Game
The upcoming music game from Harmonix is set for a 2009 holiday season release, and will fully integrate music from the Beatles’ massive catalog, with creative input from Sir Paul McCartney himself. The enormous popularity of Harmonix’s Rock Band and Guitar Hero have already had a dramatic impact on both the video game and music industry. Harmonix is tight-lipped about the Beatles’ actual gameplay, beyond saying it’ll include “interactive performance of the music… and stuff you haven’t seen from us before,” but the consensus is that this means gamers will get to perform as John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Rock Band-style. In any case, imagine a video game showcasing pop music’s most famous group, beloved by teens and baby boomers alike, riding the crest of music games’ already huge popularity, and you have a phenomenon likely to impact the entire culture. (And in the process, become a killer app for many late adopters, convincing them to finally buy a game console.) Also look forward to more top pop bands demanding their own standalone video game.
“EyePet uses augmented reality technology to insert a virtual pet into a live camera feed of whatever room the camera is pointed at, and advanced motion and shape detection to make it interact convincingly with its virtual environment,” notes Thor Jensen. It functions with the PlayStation Eye, a PlayStation 3 videocam peripheral that Jensen sees as Sony’s best chance to make their troubled console appeal to a casual game audience. Even if it ultimately doesn’t boost PS3 sales, enthusiasm over EyePet could encourage other developers to experiment with games using augmented reality — a technology futurists have been excited about for years, but consumers have been slow to embrace.
Now in beta, this is an MMORPG aimed at kids from Sony Online Entertainment, and “represents a new area both in terms of demographic and business model for SOE,” Cole said. That’s because Free Realms has a free-to-play, microtransaction revenue model, something major Western game publishers have previously been reluctant to introduce.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the DS
The enormously popular Nintendo DS generally skews to very young gamers or older consumers who enjoy Brain Training and the DS’s many other “eduplay” games. This game, by contrast, aims to expand these demographics to include the 18-34 hardcore gamer dudes who enjoy the GTA series. “It will be interesting to see the potential for this type of franchise on a platform like the DS,” Cole wrote me.
Washburn thinks so: “The console NEEDS a high-profile exclusive, a Halo-killer that will move consoles with its own release,” he told me via email. “And with 3 years of hype and anticipation behind it, Killzone 2 may well be that game.”
Thor Jensen believes the upcoming MMORPG has the best chance to become the world’s most popular one. “The Danish toymakers at LEGO have crafted an online world centered around exploring and assembling the little plastic bricks that have a nostalgic foothold in pretty much every living human in the First World.” Considering the multigenerational appeal and name recognition of the product and the huge sales of Lego-themed computer games, yes, there’s a chance that Lego Universe, if well-executed, could become more popular than World of Warcraft.
Noby Noby Boy
A strange, nay, near indescribable game from the creator of the bizarre cult masterpiece Katamari Damacy, it’s a downloadable title for the PlayStation Network, and if it’s successful, Washburn foresees a renaissance for indie games, which usually earn far less significant profit margins than AAA mainstream games. “But if Noby Noby Boy proves to be both a gaming and a financial success,” he argued, “that could all slowly change.”
Developed for the Nintendo DS, Jensen described it as a traditional side-scrolling platform game that very cleverly incorporates the DS stylus control and word-recognition technology: write “ladder” on the touchscreen, for instance, and a realistic, usable ladder materializes in front of you. As he put it: “With a massive vocabulary (the game recognizes ‘Dialysis machine,’ for God’s sake), Scribblenauts looks set to capture a mix of gaming and creativity that so far has remained untouched.”
Wii Sports Resort
Sequel to the popular but modest Wii Sports, David Cole sees the follow-up as a consumer loyalty test for Wii’s many casual users. The first Wii Sports is generally sold bundled with the console, and a common industry belief is that it’s pretty much the only title many Wii owners buy. (Which partially explains some publishers’ reluctance to enthusiastically develop for Nintendo’s platform.) Sales of the follow-up, therefore, will gauge how accurate that assumption is.