Cast your mind back to 2010. It was a time when games – by and large – weren’t a service. Nor were many of them free-to-play. Back then loot boxes were on the fringe and micro-transactions were really only just getting going. In 2010, we were still playing on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the Wii. League of Legends was a new thing, as was Minecraft
. World of Warcraft, meanwhile, was ancient – five years old! Ten years ago people weren’t spending their free time absorbed in Let’s Plays or watching players broadcasting their games. At this point, Twitch didn’t exist. Remember Justin.tv? And thanks to the Wii, motion control seemed an inevitable part of the future, with PlayStation and Microsoft both about to jump in, with Move and Kinect (then known as Natal) respectively.
A lot has changed, then. Would it have been possible to predict where we’d be by now, in 2020? Let’s find out, because ten years ago IGN polled a panel of industry veterans about what they thought gaming would be like in 2020. Let’s see how their predictions worked out.
Games Will Be Everywhere and Played by Everyone
A common thread amongst our panel back in 2010 was the belief that games would continue to become more mainstream; that the audience would expand to encompass wider demographics. “Nintendo have recently hit a gold mine with the Wii and the DS and the brand new market of non-gamers it’s attracted,” Paul Denning, Senior Gameplay Programmer at Rocksteady Studios (the Batman: Arkham games) told us back then. “Microsoft and Sony are eyeing the market and licking their lips. Both are bringing out their own tech to entice people to their platform and that can only be a good thing.”
The traditional platform holders didn’t really deliver when it came to their own tech. Move was underwhelming and never became core to PlayStation’s offering, while Kinect proved to be a costly distraction for Microsoft, seeing the company chasing a broad audience while under-serving its existing player base.
Denning was, nevertheless, absolutely correct about games becoming more mainstream. It’s just that Microsoft and Sony weren’t the prime drivers of that change. “In 2010… I said many things will be the same, and on the surface they are,” says Gareth Wilson, who worked on Project Gotham Racing 3 and 4 as Lead Designer at Bizarre Creations ten years ago, and now oversees new IP development as Creative Director at Traveller’s Tales, the studio famous for its LEGO video games. “The big three are still battling it out in the console wars. But scratch the surface and things have changed massively. Very few people predicted the rise of free-to-play in 2010, first on mobile and then on PC and console. If you’d told me ten years ago the biggest game in 2019 was a free-to-play multiplatform shooter I would have been very surprised!”
Free-to-play games were just one part of the broadening of the market. Other key changes were the explosion of mobile gaming, the growth of digital marketplaces, the influence of key regions outside the West, and the rise of Let’s Plays and streaming. All these factors helped contribute to growth that has seen global sales of game hardware and software go from $67 billion in 2010 according to a report from research firm Gartner, to more than $160 billion in 2020 according to research firm Newzoo.
Our panel foresaw many knock-on effects from games becoming more mainstream too. “I believe video games will become an important extension of all visual entertainment,” said Chris Pickford, who was an associate producer working on Project Gotham Racing and other titles at Bizarre Creations at the time, and is now working on an unannounced multiplayer action game at Improbable Game Studios. “There will be lots more crossover between different media formats – films, games, websites, even theme parks! As companies get smarter with their IPs and learn to manage their ideas, they’ll be able to use different aspects of them in different ways, and create full encompassing experiences for the end user.”
Nintendo’s present strategy is a great example of this, allowing it to use the strength of its own IP to expand its reach and awareness through mobile games, theme parks, movies, and more. Strong IP and cross-platform support also allowed Nintendo’s Amiibos to ride the rise and fall of the toys-to-life category, whereas the likes of Skylanders and Disney Infinity are now just footnotes.
We’ll See An Interface Revolution
One of the bigger topics in 2010 was the idea that the next decade would see significant interface innovations. “We’re going to see some fundamental changes to both the input and the output of games devices,” said Hermen Hulst, former Managing Director of Guerrilla Games (Killzone, Horizon: Zero Dawn), now head of Worldwide Studios. “Gestural interfaces are already happening, of course, and the screen as we know it might be a thing of the past too. I’m not sure if there will be a complete virtualization by 2020, but I like the idea of a wearable device – one that we control and interact with through natural hand gestures, and that we use to augment our physical world.”
Hulst’s prediction is very much the end goal for devices like HoloLens, but the path to the maturation of that technology – and AR in general – is proving to be a long one. Back in 2010, it was the success of the Wii that was the impetus for a lot of the conversations around gesture controls, but despite the fact that both Microsoft and Sony were prepping their own solutions, many members of the panel weren’t entirely convinced.
“There will be a lot of experimenting with interfaces during the next ten years but I think the basic general purpose controllers that will be used by the majority of the games will stay pretty similar to what they are now,” said Avalanche Studios Lead Game Designer Peter Johansson, who has worked on the Just Cause series and Mad Max. “Pressing a button is still often the easiest way to do an action. Motion controls will play a part but have matured into being used where it really enhances the experience.”
That’s certainly proven to be true for console gaming, where we use motion controls in combination with buttons to do things like throw Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey, or guide petals around a meadow in Flower. While motion controls were ultimately a sideshow, we have nonetheless been part of an actual interface revolution over the last ten years that has fundamentally changed how we lead our digital lives and play games on the go.
In the last ten years touch screen devices have become our ever-present technology portals, and a whole generation of kids are now growing up as touch screen natives. The new era ushered in by smartphones represented a paradigm shift, and games in turn adapted to play a large role in the new ecosystem.
There have been other advances in interfaces too – geolocation games like Pokemon GO make the entire globe a playspace, toys came to life in our living rooms, and the re-emergence of VR, and in particular room-scale VR, changed how we interact with virtual spaces… and spurred some controller evolution too.
Digital Distribution Will Be Transformative
The rise of the smartphone came hand in hand with the growing importance of digital storefronts. Ten years ago, Steam was well-established, the App Store was beginning its meteoric growth after launching with a selection of 500 apps in 2008, and Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Store had been around since late 2004 and late 2006 respectively. Digital distribution was here to stay, but exactly how much it would change the games industry was still up for debate.
“Digital distribution will be huge,” declared Jeremiah Slaczka, Co-Founder and Creative Director of 5th Cell, which is best known for the Scribblenauts games. “It changed the way music is sold and I think it will have a huge impact on games as well. In 2000 we were just being introduced to 300kbps DSL. In 2010 10mbps is normal in a lot of places. Where will we be in 2020? Cloud computing is a possible avenue. I don’t think physical media will be wiped out, but think it’s possible for the majority of games, like music, to be downloaded from online-enabled platforms. It’s happening already now.”
“I’ll be amazed if we’re still doing boxed product in 2020,” commented Jamie Jackson, who was Creative Director at DJ Hero developer FreeStyleGames and is now Chief Creative Officer at Mythical Games, a technology studio with a blockchain-based platform. “Digital distribution may be the only way to access your entertainment, be it games, TV, or films.”
Other panelists were more conservative. “Although online distribution will become even more important (expect full game downloads to be commonplace),” said Traveller’s Tales’ Gareth Wilson, “people will still be buying games from shops in ten years time. There will be people who simply prefer to physically own a title, and a download doesn’t make a good birthday present.”
It was Dan Greenawalt, Game Director at Forza Motorsport developer Turn 10 Studios, however, who really honed in on how digital distribution will fundamentally change game publishing itself, as well as how we’ll interact with games. Gaming, he said, “will continue to trend along the same lines as recent developments: ubiquity of games and devices catering to a bigger and even more diverse audience who are hungry for interactive entertainment; digital distribution having effectively leveled the publishing field so you have risky, experimental indie games coexisting with huge blockbuster titles in a virtual and sustainable marketplace; and of course, the uber-connectedness of it all – with social media and user-generated content playing central roles in how players define themselves and the experiences they have with the games they play.”
The Definition of a “Game” Will Continue to Evolve
But what, exactly, would those games be like? “Of course a few new genres will come into existence, probably enabled by the fact that our games consoles are increasingly networked, mobile, and equipped with innovative interfaces,” PlayStation’s Worldwide Studios head Hermen Hulst told us. “But most of today’s basic genres will still exist in 2020, just like most of today’s genres were already there in 2000. I guess playing a game like Cowboys and Indians is always appealing, regardless of the state of technology.”
Hulst was certainly spot on in terms of new genres being enabled by networking and mobility. The battle royale genre is absolutely the product of a thoroughly networked age, for instance, and the genre has a large audience playing on mobile too. Auto Battlers also, are very much at the nexus of networking and mobile gaming. Other new genres from the last decade include incremental games (initially popularised by Cookie Clicker) and walking simulators (spearheaded by Dear Esther, which technically was available as a free-to-play mod in 2008, but only commercially released in 2012).
A number of other notable genres found the spotlight in the last ten years. Modern survival games kicked off with Minecraft, but evolved when DayZ came on the scene. Digital CCGs blew up, thanks to Hearthstone. You could also argue that this was the decade of loot shooters (Borderlands was released in 2009), hero shooters (Team Fortress 2 led the way in 2007) and Souls-likes (Demon’s Souls came out in 2009).
Avalanche Studios’ Peter Johansson had a broader response to what the games of 2020 would be like. “The definition of what constitutes a game will be less clear since all games will be so integrated with other forms of entertainment,” he said.
This is certainly becoming true. Think about the distinction between a game like Her Story and a TV show like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. The lines can be very blurred indeed. Telltale’s Minecraft: Story Mode is another interesting example; it now exists as both a game and an interactive show on Netflix, in which the game’s action sequences are automated, but you can still make all the dialogue decisions.
In a general sense the definition of what a “game” is continues to evolve. Ten years ago it had already changed drastically, with game devices capable of encompassing a broad suite of experiences, from Brain Training and Nintendogs to Wii Fit. Since then we’ve seen walking simulators put storytelling front and centre, we’ve seen incremental games create never-ending, ever-escalating gameplay loops, and we’ve seen a whole lot of experimentation – think 80 Days, Heavy Rain, The Stanley Parable, P.T., Return of the Obra Dinn, and many more.
Online Connectivity Will Be Taken for Granted
“All games will be online but by that I don’t mean massive multiplayer,” said Avalanche Studios’ Peter Johansson in 2010. “‘Online’ will be firmly integrated into our way of life and games will naturally tap into that connectivity. I’m talking about social networks, digital distribution, downloadable content, mobile connectivity, community, etc. There’s so much untapped potential there of which we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.”
Being online – or at least having the ability to be online at any time – is very much a given in many parts of the world now, with games wrapped up in that expectation in countless ways. Blizzard Entertainment’s President J. Allen Brack, who was working on World of Warcraft at the time, also touched on what that might mean. “You’ll have everything online,” he said. “There’ll still be single player games, but there’ll be a lot more connectedness in games than we have now. I think potentially you’ll look back on the idea of connecting to small numbers of players like we have right now as kind of quaint. I’m a big believer in the ‘everyone playing together’ kind of model and there will be more games that come along that are everyone playing together.”
Connecting a hundred players in games like PUBG and Fortnite is no big deal in 2020, nor is queueing into just about any mode of popular online titles like Call of Duty or League of Legends. All of that works so smoothly – the matchmaking, the low queue times – because behind the scenes there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of active players.
Of course, there are issues with everyone playing together – toxicity in chat can be a major problem, and so voice chat is often restricted to players that are grouped up, which is a disappointing – but not unexpected – limitation of our always-connected age. It has the byproduct, however, of reducing humanisation in many of our online interactions.
That humanisation can be absent in other places too. The ubiquitous nature of social media and online life has introduced direct lines of communication between members of the games industry and consumers, for both better and worse. At its worst, this has resulted in campaigns of harassment, and the formation of an us versus them mentality. At its best, it has led to tight knit communities in which gamers are actively involved in the development process.
Also, for better and worse, gamers have shown over the last decade that they can wield real power. Recent examples include the overwhelming response to Blizzard’s heavy-handed handling of pro Hearthstone player Blitzchung, who made a pro Hong Kong statement at the end of an official tournament stream, and was stripped of prize money and banned for a year, effectively ending his career. (The company later walked the punishment back.) EA’s implementation of loot boxes and pay-to-win elements in Star Wars Battlefront 2 also became a cause to rally round, eventually seeing the game’s microtransactions disabled shortly before the game’s wide release, so large was the furor.
Other aspects of the games industry have also come under the spotlight in the last decade. We’ve seen revelations of sexism and toxicity at companies like Riot Games and we’ve read about the persistence of crunch culture in studios including Epic Games, in which developers work long hours for weeks or months on end to hit a deadline. Consumers and lawmakers have also targeted game companies over loot boxes, accusing the industry of employing exploitative business models that are tantamount to gambling.
Rising Development Costs Will Impact Design
Micro-transactions were already part of the conversation in 2010. Street Fighter Series Executive Producer Yoshinori Ono saw how things would develop, commenting that micro-transactions were now “in almost every game released. This has also created a new marketplace (literally) and this trend will continue. Games will have to be designed with this in mind.”
The changes to the mobile games market over the last decade really highlight what Ono foresaw. Where initially developers could price their games somewhat fairly, they quickly had to drop to a dollar at most, and before long the expectation for consumers became that mobile games are free… which meant that revenue had to come from in-app purchases.
On PC and consoles, development costs continued their long rise, so the increasing importance of loot boxes and other micro-transactions, not to mention the introduction of concepts like season passes, were part of a broader shift towards business models that could help generate ongoing revenue.
These factors, alongside others – such as the emergence of free-to-play on PC and the rise of early access/playable alphas – culminated in one of the defining trends of the last ten years, that many games became a service.
This was accompanied by a move towards smaller release slates from many of the big publishers. In late 2009, for instance, after laying off 1500 staff and cancelling a number of projects, then-Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello said the company would be cutting its releases from more than 50 titles in 2009 to around 40 in the 2010 fiscal year. Fast forward to the fiscal year ending March 2021 and EA will be releasing 14 games, and that includes two remasters and several annual sports titles.
Another way publishers have combated rising development costs and team sizes is through “external development”, or outsourcing, which is a large part of modern game development. They also continued the well-established trend of taking advantage of tax breaks or lower labour costs by opening studios in financially favourable locations.
Major publishers may have released less games in the last decade than in the decade before, but overall we now have more games to choose from each year, and that’s due to the rise of independent developers. To put it in perspective, in 2010, there were 276 new games released on Steam. By 2016 this had jumped to 4,207, and by 2018 it hit 9,050. Gaming is now a saturated market for lower profile titles, where quality is no guarantee of success and discoverability is one of the biggest hurdles.
China Could Play a Major Role
The landscape has changed dramatically, but there’s a large aspect we haven’t even mentioned yet – the ascendancy of China. China came to be the largest gaming market in the world in 2015 and held that position until 2019. (2019 revenues were predicted to be USD $36.5 billion, just shy of the U.S. market prediction of USD $36.9 billion.)
Rocksteady’s Paul Denning singled out China in our original roundtable. “There’s a huge untapped potential in places like China that if used correctly could help the industry grow,” he said. “Already there’s been some companies that have started development there… Ubisoft have already started this process with their EndWar team for instance.” Denning was talking about making games in China, and essentially anticipating that big games would increasingly be made by studios all around the world. 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was created by ten studios, for instance.
China has proven to be an important emerging market too. In the last decade a number of publishers from other parts of the world have established large player bases there, such as Bluehole Studio with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and Blizzard Entertainment with Overwatch. Both partnered with Chinese companies to make it happen. During PUBG’s early access success Tencent Games inked a deal to publish the Windows version of PUBG in China, then developed what would come to be known as PUBG: Mobile. NetEase has published Blizzard’s games in China since 2008, and is a development partner on Diablo Immortal.
Even so, there is a strict approvals process around what can be released, so many non-Chinese games must be modified before they’re greenlit. This was the case for the Windows version of PUBG, while PUBG: Mobile wasn’t approved for monetisation in China at all, forcing Tencent to release the similar, but state-friendly, Peacekeeper Elite. All publishers are subject to the whims of the Chinese government too. It instituted a nine-month approval freeze on new games in 2018, for instance, and has also introduced measures to curb hours played by minors.
Over the last decade, as publishers like Activision-Blizzard have looked to grow their mainland Chinese audience, so too have Chinese companies grown their foothold outside the country. Tencent – now the largest games publisher in the world – has full ownership of Riot Games, a 40% stake in Epic Games, a 5% stake in Ubisoft, and to come full circle, a 5% stake in Activision-Blizzard, and more than 10% in Bluehole Studio. And that’s just some of its investments.
Gaming Will Be a Pillar of the Entertainment Industry
The games industry in 2020 is both familiar yet radically different to its 2010 self. In terms of reach and revenue it has expanded significantly, yet many of the drivers of those changes have only come into their own in the last ten years: mobile, free-to-play, digital distribution, the importance of China.
Nonetheless, our panel made some astute observations about where we might be by now. And while many saw significant challenges ahead, due to factors like escalating budgets and team sizes, there was also a sense that gaming would be more important than ever by 2020.
“My take is that the industry will strengthen its place as one of the main pillars of the entertainment industry,” said Yannis Mallat, former CEO of Ubisoft Montreal (Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry), now CEO of Ubisoft’s Canadian Studios, “becoming even more mass market, widening its reach and cementing its place as a cultural product.”
How might things look in another ten years? Keep an eye on IGN in the coming days, as we’re going to find out.