"2018 is going to be the year where gamers take the power back"
At the Slush conference, Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester predicted that next year will be great for gamers, and another disappointing one for VR
In a discussion at the Slush conference recently, a panel of games industry leaders were asked to pick one loser and one winner for 2018.
For Paradox Interactive CEO Fred Wester, the response was clear and concise: VR will once again fail to make its long awaited commercial breakthrough, but the big winners will be gamers, who will continue to "take the power back" from the aggressive data collection and monetisation tactics implemented by publishers and developers.
Speaking on a panel that also included Bossa Studios CEO Henrique Olifiers, Wester responded to the request for the best and worst of what's coming next year by referring to one of the most divisive issues in the industry right now: the proliferation of loot boxes in premium-priced games.
"All of a sudden we can't just collect data. We can't just treat people the way that we want to do in business"Fredrik Wester
"2018 is going to be the year where gamers take the power back," Wester said, clearly marking this trend as the most positive that will define 2018. "We're seeing that with the loot box debacle that EA had with Star Wars Battlefront II. I think we're seeing that in numerous different places."
Wester singled out Battlefront II, but EA's much hyped sequel certainly isn't the only game to have frustrated an audience with unwanted monetisation mechanics: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Destiny 2 and Forza 7 all attracted a similar reaction. However, Battlefront II has arguably attracted the most vehement criticism, allegedly prompting Disney to intervene and placing the game at the centre of discussions at a political level.
Wester expects this intolerance on the consumer level to continue in 2018, and he pointed to the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation as another example of the same broad trend. While GDPR may be causing some companies to have sleepless nights, there was no doubt that Wester regards it as positive for the industry.
"We see that in the GDPR legislation that is happening in the EU," Wester continued. "All of a sudden we can't just collect data. We can't just treat people the way that we want to do in business. We have to actually care about the gamers.
"We need full transparency. We need to agree with the gamer on the business model, and not just shove it in their face. I think that's going to be very apparent in the coming year."
"We need to agree with the gamer on the business model, and not just shove it in their face"Fredrik Wester
For Wester, the counterpoint to the positivity of gamers "[taking] the power back" will be counterbalanced by 2018's key negative trend: another poor year for the virtual reality business. "Deepest down in the fridge you will find virtual reality," Wester said. "Stone cold."
While Wester predicted that the version of augmented reality gaming made popular by Pokémon Go - which Wester acknowledged was more "location-based" gaming than true AR - will have a strong year, the companies in the VR sector will be "struggling" to make any significant progress on the last two years.
"When you meet VR companies these days, and say, 'so you're a VR company?' They say, 'Yeah, but we do other things as well'... VR is the best solution that you will ever see that is still looking for a problem."
Bossa Studios' Henrique Olifiers offered to expand on Wester's refreshingly blunt criticism, arguing that the dream of VR - to be fully immersed in a game or world - is still too far away from the contemporary reality for any commercial breakthrough to be imminent.
"The reality is a subset of that," Olifiers said. "If you have a HTC Vive or whatever, you have a super [high-end] setup, it's super expensive, it's heavy, you're not free [to move]. That's a subset of the vision for VR, and that's why adoption by the mass market is slow.
"I have no question whatsoever that AR is the future; when AR is done well, and it's scaleable"Henrique Olifiers
"People talk about strapping a mobile phone to your face. That's even a step down [from the Vive]; that's more difficult to accept. It's further away from the dream."
AR is at a similar stage, Olifiers added. The "vision" for the technology is a pair of lightweight glasses that overlays visuals, information and metadata onto the real world, making your life better in the process. The most accessible form of AR right now is on mobile - Apple's ARKit, for example - Olifiers argued that this version is again "a subset" of the ideal.
"I'm always careful when the first step of a technology is so far away from the science fiction vision of it," he said. "I have no question whatsoever that AR is the future; when AR is done well, and it's scaleable, that is the interface that we're going to use. But this iteration of AR? Be careful with that."
While Olifiers suggestion that both AR and VR are currently subsets of what they will eventually become rings true, there is a false equivalence. Pokémon Go may not deliver on the full promise of AR, but it was a huge commercial success, and Niantic's forthcoming Harry Potter title is backed by a far more popular IP. When Wester predicted a strong year for AR gaming, he may well have been thinking of that exact product.
Right now, though, a VR hit on the same scale is difficult to imagine, and Wester was quick to reassert the commercial gulf that exists between the two emerging technologies.
"Give VR five years and it might hit," he said. "But in 2018 it's going to be stone cold. Like waking up after a massive party, with the biggest hangover ever."