Happy New Year! Yes, it's a somewhat arbitrary line in the sand - none of the things that went right or wrong about 2016 will be broken or fixed by the planet sailing past a particular point in its orbit. It's a useful one all the same, giving us an opportunity to take stock of the path that led us here (as a series of features on this site did in the run-up to Christmas) and to think about what comes next.
It's this latter act of soothsaying that normally gets commentators in trouble; all but the most obvious of predictions are quite likely to leave egg on your face by the end of the year. Still, in the spirit of the new year, it's worth running through some of the developing sectors and ongoing stories which will define the year in games. We'll return to all of these in far more detail over the course of the year. For now, this is a quick introduction and forecast for three sectors in which there will be a lot of progress in 2017 - and one in which, I suspect, there won't be much at all.
If 2016 was the Year of VR, it was something of a jobsworth year - sticking to the letter of its promises (multiple headsets launched for consumers to buy, from high-end PC models to low-end clip-in smartphone holsters via the popular middle ground of Sony's PlayStation VR) while not quite living up to the spirit of the revolution we'd been promised. 2017 will bring a continued gradual expansion of the installed base and, perhaps more importantly, the launch of the first real tentpole titles for VR. January's Resident Evil 7 promises to be one of the first major "event" titles for the burgeoning medium; there will need to be quite a few more in the pipeline if consumer VR is going to achieve escape velocity in 2017.
"It feels like 2017 is an inflection point where MagicLeap needs to show off something concrete in order to continue to be taken seriously"
The main thing to watch for in 2017, however, is an industry refocusing away from consumer VR. After a few years of what can charitably be described as a bubble of VR hype, a certain degree of disillusionment set in among developers in 2016; we've heard the first rumblings already of studios moving away from VR after finding it impossible to make money in the space without platform holder backing. That is likely to continue in 2017, but the skills and experience of studios working in VR will not go to waste; instead, many will find more commercially promising avenues for VR development outside videogames (creating simulations for fields like training, real estate, medicine, engineering and many other fields) or in non-consumer spaces like out-of-home entertainment. First-mover advantage in VR will turn out to be valuable to studios, just not quite in the way they had anticipated, as the medium itself largely refocuses away from the initial dream of VR in the gamer's living room.
There are two other developments to keep an eye on in 2017. The first is MagicLeap, the US "mixed reality" start-up which has been funded to an almost eye-watering level and whose backers believe it's a genuine game-changer. Some high-profile departures and accusations of faked promotional videos in 2016 have started to make an undercurrent of scepticism more prominent, though - as yet, the technology has never taken a bow in public and remains in the realm of ill-defined vapourware. It feels like 2017 is an inflection point where MagicLeap needs to show off something concrete in order to continue to be taken seriously; however revolutionary its technology may be, the fact that Microsoft continues to develop, promote and make available its rival Hololens technology could consign MagicLeap to the industry's long list of technologies that were "better, but not timely" and ultimately rendered irrelevant.
The second thing to watch out for also involves Microsoft; it's the company's previously announced, but as yet undefined, standard for PC VR headsets, which it will make available to other firms to manufacture. This is an attempt to create a mid-range, solidly performing and reliable family of headsets that compete with Sony's PSVR; thus far, PC headsets are in a high-end and not terribly accessible class of their own, demanding a high cost of entry and rather uncommon PC specs. Those high-end PC headsets have an important role to play too - they're by far the most attractive hardware for the simulation and out-of-home applications many developers will likely switch towards in 2017 - but the future of the consumer VR space will be determined by the tug of war between Microsoft and Sony's competing visions.
Saying that mobile gaming will be a big deal in 2017 is a bit like saying "mark my words, the Internet is going to be a big deal in 2007", but mobile gaming is actually at an interesting point in its development. It reaches more consumers (and generates more revenue) than any other gaming platform ever has, but the pace of change and evolution has slowed dramatically. Most of the top games in 2016 were the same games that topped the charts in 2015 and 2014; the lack of new high-profile titles runs a clear risk of creating consumer burnout and subjecting the sector to its first decline, or perhaps even crash. That's compounded by the degree to which F2P game mechanisms have solidified, or even ossified, as the dominant paradigm; they're not bad in themselves, but many of them rely upon consumers reacting to certain triggers and prompts whose effectiveness may be eroded by familiarity.
"Nintendo is doing new things; even if it doesn't entirely succeed (as is quite likely), it provides a helpful shake-up to a market that, after many years of steady innovation and growth, has hit its first major plateau"
The bright spot on the landscape, perhaps surprisingly, is Nintendo; Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run proved, in 2016, that the company's world-famous franchises have something new and interesting to offer to the mobile gaming space. It's not just about the franchises, though; it's about what Nintendo is attempting to do with them. Not content to simply follow the prevailing best practices in F2P design and reap the (likely significant) financial rewards, Nintendo has focused first and foremost on safeguarding the long-term value of its intellectual property, and is trying to shake up the mobile gaming market in two key ways - firstly by diversifying the range of business models available to mobile games, and secondly by treating mobile games as a symbiotic and complementary channel to the firm's consoles and console titles. Pokemon Go, successful in its own right, was used to great effect to boost sales of winter's new Pokemon titles on 3DS; Super Mario Run, though being written off by some analysts as a missed opportunity, may offer similar value as a promotional tool for the upcoming Nintendo Switch console.
This is not to say that Nintendo is going to walk into the mobile space and "sort it out"; the mobile space is full of experienced, successful companies and it is Nintendo that will struggle to come up to speed. However, the firm's clout in terms of world-famous IP (soon to be boosted further by its collaboration with Universal Studios on building theme parks) does introduce something new to the mobile mix, and its determination to treat mobile games as part of a broad spectrum of games is an approach that could help to rebuild bridges between traditional console titles and mobile gaming. Most importantly of all, though, Nintendo is doing new things; even if it doesn't entirely succeed (as is quite likely), it provides a helpful shake-up to a market that, after many years of steady innovation and growth, has hit its first major plateau.
Every broad prediction about console hardware in the past couple of decades has been wrong. The PS4 and Xbox One, once seen as the dying breath of a sector rendered irrelevant by smart devices, have outperformed their predecessors quite dramatically. Now, far from consoles being gone from the world, we're looking at two major hardware launches in 2017 - Nintendo's Switch this spring, and Microsoft's Scorpio at the end of the year.
The two launches are couched in different terms; Switch replaces the underperforming Wii U and is intended as a new kind of hardware that merges Nintendo's world-beating handheld console prowess with its ailing home console line. Scorpio is presented, somewhat ambiguously, as both a major new hardware launch and a straight continuation of the Xbox One line. There's a temptation to think of Scorpio as being more like Sony's PS4 Pro, which launched at the tail end of 2016 and boosted the PS4's performance while maintaining perfect compatibility with existing consoles. However, the performance boost promised for Scorpio over Xbox One is in an entirely different range; while backwards compatibility isn't in question, it's far more like a new console launch than the PS4 Pro's incremental update was.
"The stage is set for an interesting natural experiment in how companies can best move forward from console products that don't match expectations"
In a sense, then, Microsoft and Nintendo are doing similar things in different ways. They're both replacing underperforming consoles (Xbox One has done far better than Wii U, but that's hardly relevant given the long shadow of the PS4 under which it lingers) after a few years on the market, but Microsoft is emphasising continuity while Nintendo emphasises disconnect.
That's in line with the culture of both companies; Microsoft sees its hardware and software as a coherent, wide-ranging platform, while Nintendo maintains the toy company mentality. The late Satoru Iwata told me in an interview many years ago, before the launch of the Wii, that thinking like a toy company means being willing to try new things, and if they fail, to simply move on and try something else. A toy company that fails with one new toy doesn't just keep boosting that toy; it invents a new toy and tries again. That's what Nintendo is doing with Switch, and with Scorpio set to appear later in the year, the stage is set for an interesting natural experiment in how companies can best move forward from console products that don't match expectations.
Finally, a sector in which, sadly, I don't really see much progress happening in 2017. Harassment within videogames - both among gamers in online and in-game communities, and harassment aimed at game developers themselves - is an issue that the industry is taking far more seriously than it ever did before. It comes up in conversation with industry leaders, is raised as a major challenge at conferences and events, and mechanisms for dealing with it are found more and more often in the design documents and project plans for new games. That's all good progress, but the problem is that despite taking harassment seriously, the industry doesn't really have any good answers to it yet - and the answers we do have are undermined by a fear of backlash from the small but vocal minority of consumers who consider harassment to be part of "gaming culture".
A broader issue, of course, is that game communities overlap significantly with social networks and communication platforms over which developers and publishers simply have no control - and those networks have failed miserably at handling harassment in recent years. Twitter has been singled out as the worst offender in this regard, not without cause, but other platforms including Facebook, Reddit and Tumblr also have mechanisms that almost seem to actively encourage mass harassment of individuals.
"Any hope of legislative support for combatting online harassment has been dealt a serious blow by the rise of fascist and nationalist politics across wide swathes of the western world"
Game companies can do more to control what happens within their own ecosystems, but their capacity to control what happens outside that on the broader internet is almost non-existent, and the appetite for tough measures like banning or suspending players for behaviour on external social networks simply doesn't exist yet. At the other end of the spectrum, any hope of legislative support for combatting online harassment has been dealt a serious blow by the rise of fascist and nationalist politics across wide swathes of the western world.
The prognosis for 2017 is not good, and that's ultimately going to hurt all of us - even those who rejoice in a narrow-minded definition of free speech and consider it their god-given right to engage in mass abuse of whomever they please. Already this year, we've seen Blizzard developers pull back from engaging with fans from fear of harassment, and that's something that's likely to become more and more common, as creators shield themselves behind the anonymity of corporate labels rather than engaging directly with the public. Not everyone has the benefit of that protection, of course; smaller studios and indie developers will remain vulnerable and will be targeted, and the mob will always find a target somewhere. This, sadly, is one problem that's going to get worse before it gets any better.