The real and the fake trends of gaming in 2019
When my Uber driver discovered I was going to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), he exclaimed, “Are you in games? I was the voice actor for Lamar in Grand Theft Auto V!”
My jaw hung open for bit, and he said, “I’m Gerald ‘Slink’ Johnson. I’m making a little extra money on Uber.” This is why, if they ever shut down E3, I’ll be the last one to abandon the show. It never ceases to amaze me the surprises I run into at gaming’s biggest trade event. It is these happy accidents that always tell me something about gaming that I didn’t know. It’s a vast industry where it is very hard to separate the real trends from the fake ones. But the happy accidents make the show valuable for me.
They naysayers for E3 had a good case this year. Sony decided not to come. Activision Blizzard didn’t show anything on the floor. Electronic Arts was long gone with its EA Play event in Hollywood. Filling their floor space were indie games, charities, and energy drink companies. Google didn’t take any space in the show, even though it is launching its Stadia cloud gaming platform, and Amazon even laid off people during the show, rather than invest in this space. The Chinese game companies showed up but not nearly as big as they do when China Joy takes place in August. E3 could have easily been a dud.
Booth babes are not a trend
As I noted last year, gaming has real trends and fake trends. Take the energy drinks. I saw a lot of them, even though gaming is moving far beyond the demographic that enjoys energy drinks. One company in the corner of the South Hall set up a stage where it had old-fashioned booth babes in tight outfits grinding to music and tossing out shirts. One company alone cannot bring back the booth babes. Like last year’s leaves, this is a fake trend. Especially in an age of renewed female empowerment.
The presence of the booth babes and the energy drinks felt like a complete mismatch, a throwback in time to when the game industry was much more insular and narrow.
If last year’s real trend had held up, we should have seen a bunch of battle royale game companies taking up space on the show floor. But the battle royale copycat trend showed signs of fizzling. In the past year, we saw huge investments in battle royale from Activision with Call of Duty, Respawn with Apex Legends, and DICE with Battlefield V. But this year, we only saw Fallout 76’s new Nuclear Winter mode and Fall Guys, a non-violent battle royale with physics-based gameplay.
Much like League of Legends dominates the once-fresh multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) space, Fortnite, PUBG, and Apex Legends are locking up the fans and showing that this won’t be a marketplace with 20 successful companies. I think this will be a very successful category, but one without a ton of companies participating in the riches.
The rise of the five-year game
Last year’s competition between Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War was instructive. Rockstar had 2,000 people working for as many as seven years on Red Dead. God of War had maybe 300 over five years. But God of War won almost all of the Game of the Year awards in 2018. It told a better story, and it was also in tune with the kind of gameplay that players wanted. That outcome surprised me.
Those who invest less money or time in their games than these two should be worried. Just about every year, somebody big shows up with a game that has been cooking for a long time. This year, the most intimidating games were Borderlands 3 and Cyberpunk 2077. These are very impressive games that have been in the works for many years.
But they might not be as big as Respawn’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order title, in my opinion. Fortunately, they are not all coming out at the same time. (Borderlands 3 is out on September 13, Cyberpunk 2077 is out on April 16, 2020, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is coming November 15).
If you show up with a game that hasn’t been in the works for five years, then maybe you aren’t thinking big enough. I would agree with a sentiment that Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive, as expressed to me in an interview. His job is to “not only encourage game developers to pursue what they’re passionate about, but to insist upon it.” In triple-A, somebody has you push you to be ambitious or very clever and original or you’re going to get crushed by somebody else who is better at it.
“Innovation carries the day, always carries the day,” Zelnick said. “All big hits are by their nature unexpected. They’re never derivative.”
The cloud is cloudy
Measurement firm Spiketrap said that cloud gaming didn’t generate much fan interest at the show. Maybe that’s because Google wasn’t on the show floor with Stadia and Microsoft didn’t say much about its plans for Project xCloud. I played Google’s Stadia off the show floor, and Doom Eternal ran fine for the most part for 35 minutes. It had one or two hiccups, but cloud gaming is better than it’s ever been.
Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, believes that cloud gaming is the way to put triple-A games in front of billions more people, but Zelnick didn’t buy that argument.
If cloud gaming is to take off, I think it needs a bigger killer game at the outset. It has to be like Microsoft showing up with Halo with the launch of the original Xbox in 2001. The big game has to be exclusive to somebody’s cloud platform or take advantage of the cloud in a surprising way. Better pricing alone is not going to draw masses of gamers to the cloud. Let’s hope that by Stadia’s launch in November, Google figures out a way to make its cloud platform a lot sexier.
Cycles don’t change
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is also coming on November 5, and Microsoft’s Gears 5 debuts on September 10. But without anything coming from Sony, it feels like it’s going to be a light year. That’s no surprise, considering we are in the final year of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One before those machines get replaced in 2020.
Sales for the last year of a console cycle usually suck. The end of the console cycle is a tremendous force of gravity that could hurt overall sales for the game industry this year. But Nintendo’s Switch isn’t about to get a replacement and that kind of throws off the year in that respect.
The only hope for a growth year is if Switch sales breathe life the industry and if non-console platforms such as the PC and mobile and, gulp, virtual reality hold up well.
I hope we’ll be pleasantly surprised, and that some big games capture the imagination of gamers in 2019, extending the expansion long enough for the game industry to reload and launch a volley of killer applications for the arrival of the new game consoles in 2020.