Gaming lessons learned in 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look back and reflect. What did we learn from this year in gaming? What major events will shape the gaming landscape for years to come? Gaming might not seem all that different at a casual glance, but after a deeper look, it’s clear that the gaming world now is quite different than it was at the end of 2016.

Lesson #1 – VR Hardware Succeeds While Software Struggles to Keep Up

There are several VR platforms available for purchase, yet VR doesn’t seem to be surging ahead the way you might expect.

All signs point toward software being an issue, rather than hardware. The year’s biggest VR titles, like Resident Evil 7, were all VR conversions, and we are quickly discovering that VR conversions don’t work. Meanwhile critically acclaimed VR games like Raw Data, Job Simulator, and Lone Echo were all specifically designed for VR.

Some of the best VR games were a happy medium between the conversion and the new IP. Superhot, for example, completely revamped its control scheme in VR. It’s essentially a different game, even though it still uses the same conceit of “time only moves when you move.” Its games like this that will carry VR into the future

Lesson #2 – Following the Traditional Sports Model is Hard

Several e-sports have decided to switch over to a franchising model with mixed success. Preparations for the Overwatch League have been underway, and while it appears as if everything is coming together, it wasn’t without many casualties along the way. Several big name teams have dropped from competitive Overwatch, which has made some fans wonder if this new league format will make the professional scene less competitive and compelling to watch.

League of Legends encountered similar problems as they headed toward a traditional franchising model, selling slots in its league for a whopping ten million dollar price tag. This has brought up concerns about creating a barrier of entry to new pro gamers. One of the draws to e-sports was the narrative surrounding the new player and the ability to prove yourself through skill alone. A more traditional franchising model changes that narrative.

Despite the skeptics, this new model should prove to be healthy for any e-sport that adopts it. We are talking minimum salaries, benefits for players, less of a worry about being traded after one bad game. Models like this allow e-sports to be a viable career. It turns out that a world of stable careers isn’t as exciting as a world of young athletes fighting tooth and nail to prove themselves, but it’s a world we need to create if e-sports are going to survive.

Lesson #3 – Fighting Game Popularity Exhibits Simple Harmonic Motion

Fighting games are dead! Fighting games are back! Fighting games are dead! Fighting games are back! It turns out that fighting games are never dead and are never back, but rather that interest in the genre occurs in peaks and valleys.

It’s hard to play multiple fighting games at once, especially on a professional level. When the market becomes flooded with fighting games, this usually means fewer people are playing (and buying) each individual title. This causes market interest to wane, creating a fighting game drought, until one developer releases one new fighting game and everyone starts playing it. The amazing success of this one fighting game re-ignites market interest and the cycle begins again.

We have seen this cycle happen twice throughout video game history, with the rise of the arcade fighting game in the 90s, and the revival of fighting games with Street Fighter IV in the modern day. Now we are about to enter into the cycle for a third time, as market interest has picked up after the release of games such as Injustice 2, Street Fighter V and Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite. In 2018 we'll see the release of major titles like Soul Calibur VI, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and BlazBlue Cross-Tag Battle, along with indie releases like Fantasy Strike. Once again, we appear to be heading toward a point of market saturation and in the next few years, we will probably see fighting game releases dry up once again.

But this time, fighting game developers have planned for it. Instead of releasing new editions of their games, big name fighting titles are now releases as “legacy games.” Developers continue to churn out new content including new characters, new modes, new mechanics, etc. in “seasons” that dedicated players can purchase year after year. These DLC seasons have an incredible attach rate, and have proven to be a decent business model for what is already a niche genre. In the future, it’s likely that we will only ever see one fighting game release per franchise per console generation.

Lesson #4 – Even EA Can Go Too Far

2017 was the year that gamers said they have had enough of exploitative DLC and microtransactions, and for once publishers listened. The Star Wars Battlefront II scandal made waves in the gaming community, as an otherwise decent game was marred by the outright necessity to pay for power. This pricing model negatively affected game sales and eventually led EA to disable microtransactions all together, at least temporarily.

This scandal has caused gamers and game developers everywhere to start asking important questions. Are loot boxes moral? Are microtransactions acceptable as long as they only get you aesthetic upgrades? How much is too much to pay for something that has an in-game effect? We may not have answers to these questions yet, but one thing is clear: there is a line that can be crossed and once you cross that line, gamers will not buy your game.

Lesson #5 – Never Count Out Nintendo

In one of the biggest comeback stories of the year, Nintendo went from behind the pack to the once and future king with the release of their new console: the Switch.

There was a lot working against the Switch. The Wii U was a disappointing flop, selling barely more units that the PS Vita and Sega Game Gear. This caused a drop in consumer faith in the big N. The Switch was also coming out at an awkward time, between console generations. Before the Switch’s release, some wondered if gamers would the money stashed away to buy another new console.

It turns out they did. Nintendo released the Switch alongside one of the best games of the year: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the boost it got from this killer app was immense. In fact, the Switch was in such high demand that it nearly met the Wii U’s lifetime sales in just its first six months on the market. It is currently the fastest selling console of all time, and if that momentum keeps up, it just might be the best selling console of all time after a few years.

It cannot be understated how much the Switch’s software lineup helped it become the next big thing in gaming. Aside from the powerhouse that was Zelda, we saw the release of Super Mario Odyssey, another contender for game of the year, surprise successes like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, ports like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, new IPs like Arms, and interesting indie games like Snipperclips. More importantly, the Switch’s lineup was made up primarily of exclusives, and as we will see in a bit, exclusives drive console sales.

Lesson #6 – More Gamers Are Gaming On PC than Ever Before

According to a 2016 ESA survey, more gamers play on PC than they do on console. Fifty six percent of gamers surveyed said they play video games on their PC while fifty three percent said they play on consoles (obviously there is some overlap.) According to a followup 2017 survey, 97% of households have access to PC while only 48% have access to a dedicated game console, and 74% of all games are bought on digital distribution platforms.

The gaming industry has taken notice. Almost every big-name third-party title has been released on the PC this year. Games are getting released on the PC at the same time as their console counterparts, as opposed to the common practice of just a few years ago when PC users would have to wait years for their ports. The PC has become an incredible place to game if you don’t want to choose sides in the console wars. The term “console exclusive” has been used quite a bit in our current market, to describe games that will only be release on one console and the PC as well. Nearly every Xbox One game is also getting a Windows 10 release, making a gaming PC a perfect companion to anyone who already has a PS4.

Does this mean that PCs are going to take over consoles as the main platform of gaming? Well… no. That small margin of three percent can easily shift from year to year. However, it does mean that the PC gaming market is comparable in popularity to the console market, which means developers can’t treat them like two completely separate fanbases anymore.

Lesson #7 – But Exclusives Still Drive Console Sales

Old habits die hard, and one of the oldest habits in the gaming industry is selling your console based on exclusive titles. 2017 saw the release of several “killer app” exclusives, from the Switch’s Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, to the PS4’s Horizon: Zero Dawn and the Xbox One’s console exclusivity deal with Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s arguable that the PS4 is “winning” the console wars this year because it has more exclusive titles than any other console, over a hundred as compared to the Xbox One and Switch which both have around seventy.

Lesson #8 – You Can Be Excited about a Game without Knowing What It’s About

Some of the most anticipated games of 2018 are games that we literally know nothing about. Kingdom Hearts 3 has been eagerly awaited by fans for over ten years, and they still don’t know what worlds will be featured, much less the core plot. We know Detroit: Become Human has robots, and Detroit… and domestic violence… but all we know about the core plot is that a robot uprising will probably happen at some point. Shin Megami Tensei V is a must have RPG for the Switch, except all we know about it is that the world is going to end… again… and teenagers are going to have to remake it after making pacts with demons… again.

But by far the biggest mystery of the gaming world is Death Stranding. What even is this game? Yes, it’s a Hideo Kojima production. Yes, it will star Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen. Yes, it’s probably going to be a blockbuster release, but can anyone tell me what the game is about? There are flying invisible angels, and skeleton zombies attached to people with umbilical cords, and everyone’s trying to protect a fetus which may or may not be inside Norman Reedus’s stomach…. What? Why are the whales dead? What’s this black goo everyone is walking around it? Why are you telling people to be silent when that weird blinking light on your shoulder keeps making jingly sounds?

How can we be so excited for a game we know absolutely nothing about!? It’s hard to say, but we are, and we’re not alone in that.

Lesson #9 – Single-Player Is Not Dead

A few years ago, we were all saying that “multiplayer is the future.” It was ludicrous to think of releasing a new title without some sort of multiplayer component.

In 2017, things have really turned around. Most of the biggest titles had no multiplayer component whatsoever. Titles like Persona 5 and Zelda: Breath of the Wild sold themselves on narrative and gameplay alone. Heading into 2018, many of the most anticipated games from God of War to Mega Man 11, Red Dead Redemption 2 to Yoshi, Fire Emblem to Fe, single-player experiences are going to have a big year.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that multiplayer games are dead. There are still many successful multiplayer titles like Overwatch drawing in millions of players. What this does mean, however, is that multiplayer communities aren’t necessarily looking for new multiplayer titles to replace their games of choice. Instead, they are perfectly fine playing the games they already love, so long as they are supported with new content. Meanwhile, gamers who are looking for deep single-player experiences are not content with playing the same title over and over again. They want new experiences, which requires multiple high quality single-player titles to be released each year.

Lesson #10 – We Are Rapidly Heading Toward a Games as Service Model

When you combine all these lessons together, you get a clear picture of where video games are going. In short, we are abandoning our old model of video games as a product and adopting a model of video games as a service. Games are no longer complete when released; they are a platform for new content to be delivered over the course of several months or even years.

This is the way that ultra-expensive AAA titles will survive in the competitive market. Single-player games will get regular updates of new story content, like Final Fantasy XV. Multiplayer games will constantly expand. Games won’t just be sold on what they are, but on future promise, as noted by our ability to get excited for games we know nothing about. The slow migration to the PC makes sense, as the PC was always home to robust digital distribution platforms. Even some of our tangential lessons point toward the games as a service model. Our most popular e-sports have been using this model for ages, and VR is yet another platform that is sold on future promise.

Is this good for the gaming industry? It’s hard to say. On one hand it means that games will have much more content than they’ve ever had before. On the other hand, it means that gamers will be paying for games far after their initial sixty dollar investment. Either way, the very way we think of games is changing, from how we play them to how we purchase them.

What are some gaming lessons you learned from 2017? Let us know in the comments.