This may be the best quarter ever for core games - but where are the titles that could build bridges to new audiences?
Depending on which end of the industry you work in, there's either something sobering or something uplifting to be taken away from the multitude of pre-Christmas surveys which all tell us essentially the same thing - namely that for yet another year in succession, it's Apple's shiny gadgets and not the games industry's dedicated toys which occupy the top spot on the majority of Christmas lists.
Not so long ago, this would have been reason for game creators to be very worried indeed, but the reality is that this Christmas, more of you than ever before are actually working on iOS platforms and can therefore see this as an expansion of your addressable market rather than a worrying step away from gaming.
That's good; that's the right attitude. If you're a platform holder, of course, it's all a bit more worrying - especially if you're Nintendo, wondering if you've done enough to get the 3DS over the hurdle it needs to surmount this holiday season - but for the industry as a whole, iOS' success is now our success, too. It's not a zero-sum game any more.
Core games great, but their greatness is accessible only to people who already play games and are deeply involved in this world
That said, it's hard not to be a little gloomy about the state of the "traditional" end of the games industry this Christmas. It's not that there's a dearth of high quality product on the shelves - far from it. Modern Warfare 3 just smashed sales records in its first week at retail, earned widespread glowing accolades, and its multiplayer modes presently fill my living room with colourful language several nights a week. Battlefield 3, while overshadowed by Activision's franchise, has outperformed its predecessors by a seriously impressive margin.
Skyrim has done wonderfully for itself and appears to have absorbed the lives of a good half of my social circle, including many people I wouldn't have taken for hardcore fantasy role-players. The minority who are playing Zelda: Skyward Sword instead say nothing but wonderful things about it, but I haven't even had a chance to play it yet. Given the depth of my personal love for The Legend of Zelda, that says extraordinary things about the games on the shelves right now. I don't know when I'm going to find time to get to Zelda, given that I've also got Arkham City waiting for me, and Uncharted 3, both of which inspire little other than superlatives.
It's hardly a bad time to be a core gamer, then, although it might be a bad time to be a core gamer's wallet (or their long-suffering partner, for that matter). Yet there's a common thread which links all of these games and which gives a slightly less positive account of what's going on. None of them, I'd argue, are outward looking games. They're all great, but their greatness is accessible only to people who already play games and are deeply involved in this world. That's fine; that represents plenty of people, and I'm not about to argue that Arkham City or Modern Warfare 3 would benefit from modifications to make them more appealing to a broader demographic, since they clearly wouldn't.
Rather, I'd like to ask where the outward looking games actually are. In spite of the qualify of what's on offer this winter, a cynic might suggest that there's very little new here - very little that innovates and opens up the world of gaming to a wider audience, that strives to open people's eyes and say, "here, this is what games can do - I bet you didn't know that".
Such products have been part of the winter line-up for some years - with the present trend in that direction started, I'd argue, by the appearance of Sony's Eye Toy and Harmonix' Guitar Hero at the tail end of the PlayStation 2 generation of hardware. The DS and the Wii are two absolutely key exemplars of this trend, but karaoke game Singstar and quiz title Buzz also belong in that hall of fame, as do the later expansions upon the Guitar Hero model such as Rock Band. It's easy to dismiss this entire category as "casual", but it's also lazy and unhelpful. These were games and platforms that bridged a gap between gamers and a wider audience that weren't opposed to being engaged in games, but needed to see products that appealed to them. Not everyone wants to slay dragons or shoot burly marines.
Where is the industry's new Wii? Where is the new Guitar Hero? Where, even, is the new Buzz? Nintendo is still plugging away at this sector, of course, but no matter how promising the Wii U may be, it's still a year away and a rather unknown quantity - while the 3DS, as likeable a platform as it may be, is little other than a direct evolution of the DS. The closest thing to a fresh, engaging new effort this Christmas is probably Kinect Disneyland Adventures, but Kinect itself, unfortunately, seems to have made a bigger impact among the enthusiast community using it for interesting things as a PC peripheral than it has among game developers and consumers. I hope Disneyland Adventures can enjoy strong long-tail sales, but feel that Microsoft has work to do in terms of re-positioning Kinect as a desirable peripheral for its console.
I'd like to see the industry focus more on building the kind of bridges that we were so enthusiastic about only a few years ago, when the Wii, the DS and Rock Band ruled the imaginations of executives
Naturally, there are plenty of places that you can point to if you want to indicate innovation taking place in the games business. There's iOS, for one, which brings us back to the start of this column. There's the resurgent PC indie scene, and even the rather more tightly controlled and staid Xbox Live and PSN environments. All manner of interesting stuff is happening with regard to new business models and new game design, and we're finally starting to iron out the idea that a game which incorporates a business model into its design from the outset is intrinsically more "cynical" or "exploitative" than a game which is going to be stuffed into a box and sold for forty quid. (Of course, it can be more cynical or exploitative, but that doesn't have to be the case, and in the best instances, absolutely isn't.)
I worry, however, about the notion that we're entering an era when the traditional games market focuses on making ever more refined and attractive iterations of existing titles for a core market, while all innovation and progress takes place in social, mobile, freemium markets. Those markets are exciting. They're important. They're rapidly changing and evolving, and they're going to be an important part of our business in the future - but they're not everything. The idea that because people have a phone in their pocket which can play freemium games, they just won't go out and buy the next Rock Band, or the next Wii, is predicated on an utterly false assumption that this is a zero-sum game. Different experiences, different social contexts, different motivations.
This is a great time to be a core gamer, and I'm happy about that - but in the interest of next year and the year after also being great, I'd like to see the industry focus more on building the kind of bridges that we were so enthusiastic about only a few years ago, when the Wii, the DS, Rock Band and all the rest of it ruled the imaginations of executives everywhere. Those initiatives didn't turn into immortal, golden egg laying geese, of course, but they did create hundreds of millions of dollars of sales and cracked open a previously untapped market hungry for videogame experiences. iOS and Facebook have gone even further, of course, but the opportunity hasn't gone away. 2011 has been a year of wonderful games, but also a year of intense navel-gazing - an inward turn for the traditional sector of the medium. Let's hope that 2012 sees us looking outwards once more.