The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.
Next Big Thing or Next Big Bubble?
Let's talk about the next big thing.
No, not the specific disruptive innovation that will reshape the industry for years to come. I want to instead talk about the idea of "the next big thing," the marketing concept that venture capitalists routinely pour millions of dollars behind in the hopes of turning them into billions of dollars.
The "next big thing" has been a part of the games industry as far back as I can remember, and ten years ago was no exception.
Paradox Interactive CEO Fredrik Wester was talking up digital distribution, saying that 2010 was on pace to see digital revenues surpassing physical sales for the first time in the company's history. The shift would happen quickly, as Wester would later report the company brought in 97% of its revenue through digital sales in 2011. (For regular readers of the column, that last link is a two-fer that also includes one of our favorite recurring and reliably wrong predictions.)
While digital distribution for video games was indeed rounding a corner in 2010 and transforming every aspect of the industry, it wasn't an overnight success by any means. The idea had been around since the early '80s, when the company that would eventually become America Online created an Atari 2600 peripheral called Gameline to let users download games through a phone line.
Pretty much every next big thing has some early setbacks and failures, but there's no guarantee they'll recover from those stumbles
That failure aside, the idea stuck around. The Sega Channel would deliver Genesis games to subscribers through their local cable TV provider. In 2001, game retailer Electronics Boutique would offer downloadable rentals of frontline games through its EB1 service. Those both flopped as well, but they were right in seeing that digital distribution really was the future; they were just mistaken about how far off it was.
Pretty much every next big thing has some early setbacks and failures, but there's no guarantee they'll recover from those stumbles. For example, ten years ago this month, Sony was ratcheting up the hype for 3D TV in the post-Avatar world, announcing that the PlayStation 3 would receive a firmware update to enable 3D gaming for titles like Wipeout HD, Motorstorm: Pacific Rift, PAIN and Super Stardust HD.
If you're wondering how that turned out, Sony's 3D push was largely done with by the time the PS4 launched in 2013. The only game at launch to support stereoscopic 3D was from a third party (Trine 2: Complete Story) and Sony didn't bother adding 3D Blu-ray movie compatibility until eight months after release. By 2017, the last major TV manufacturers dropped support for 3D from their new sets and CNET ran a story with the headline "Shambling corpse of 3D finally falls down dead."
A decade ago we were also seeing Wii-infused takes about motion controls as the future of gaming. Sony in particular called the combination of 3D and motion controls "a no-brainer," which is the sort of quote this column exists for.
In retrospect, I think it's fair to say motion controls were good business for a few years until the Kinect cooled off and remain essential for some mobile games, but their industry-changing potential now depends on how they're integrated into other technologies like augmented reality or virtual reality, and whether or not those fields fulfill their own industry-changing promises.
However, not all "next big things" offer such clear resolution on a 10-year time scale. An industry-changing technology proves itself, but it's difficult to completely write off anything that never caught on because ideas can always be tried again with better technology, a savvier approach, or a different industry context. I mean, Gameline and Sega Channel were laughable flops a decade after their respective deaths, but that clearly said nothing about the long-term viability of digital distribution.
A more current example of that might be on-demand game streaming, which was becoming a big deal a decade ago with the likes of OnLive and Gaikai.
Louis Castle was making the rounds hyping up InstantAction, a gaming service that promised to let people play any game streaming through a browser. This interview with Castle sounds a lot like more recent interviews about Stadia or xCloud, from his points on discoverability to the integrations he foresees with social networks.
InstantAction would shut down seven months later.
"In the near future, we'll have games that don't depend on any platform"
Hideo Kojima in 2010
Metal Gear Solid designer Hideo Kojima was similarly out promoting the series' latest installment, the PSP spin-off Peace Walker, when he weighed in on streaming.
"In the near future, we'll have games that don't depend on any platform," Kojima said, sounding more than a little like a Microsoft executive in 2020. "Gamers should be able to take the experience with them in their living rooms, on the go, when they travel - wherever they are and whenever they want to play. It should be the same software and the same experience."
Granted, Kojima has a bit of a reputation as a "visionary," and last year's Death Stranding was coincidentally prescient for conceiving of a self-isolating world connected by gig economy delivery people risking life and limb and babies carried around in pods for some reason.
Baby pods aside, Kojima's streaming prediction hasn't really come to pass, even if there are still a number of big companies looking to make it a reality. There are still technical hurdles, use case questions, and the concerns of platform holders unsure about how much it benefits them to allow other people to stream on their turf or to make their games playable on rival turf.
At the moment, on-demand streaming seems to belong in a large group of next big thing candidates whose viability is still to be determined. That's a crowded category in my estimation, one that includes esports, augmented reality, virtual reality, and blockchain. Some of these are already further along than others, or have higher ceilings when it comes to disruptive potential, but none have yet realized the promises of their most ardent backers.
That still puts them ahead of fizzled trends like stereoscopic 3D and second-screen gaming, but far short of actually realized "next big things" like online multiplayer, optical media, or digital distribution and the host of business models and games-as-a-service approaches it enabled.
So a bit of skepticism seems justified when people with a vested interest are telling you about the inevitability of the next big thing. The next big thing doesn't always arrive, and it doesn't always turn out as big as originally billed.
The trends in the section above were disruptions of the "thinkable" variety, but as current events have made clear, our world is subject to unthinkable disruptions as well.
We had one of those ten years ago this month, though obviously not on the same scale as what we're currently dealing with. The problem began when a volcano beneath the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland erupted, spewing a volcanic ash cloud over much of Europe. Worried about how the ash could affect aircraft engines, aviation authorities closed airspace in the UK and parts of Europe for six days.
The impact on the games industry was minimal, with GAME warning customers that they might have to wait a little longer for their copies of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. However, news reports that the ash cloud "could cause disruption in the UK for 20 years" had some people conceiving of all the ways big and small their lives might be about to change.
Let's hope our most dire concerns about the current predicament similarly never come to pass.
● While it can't be grouped in with the innovations we talked about above, China was most definitely a "next big thing" for the industry in 2010, and it most definitely panned out. In 2010, Niko Partners was forecasting the Chinese market at $4.52 billion with a ton of upside. These days, Niko expects China to be closer to $40 billion by 2022.
● The iPad launched in the US and sold 300,000 units in a single day. In an unusual choice of stats for a victory lap quote, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said iPad owners had, on average, downloaded "close to one book within hours of unpacking their new iPad."
● Bungie and Activision signed their 10-year deal for the Destiny franchise, which was prematurely dissolved last year with Bungie retaining custody of the kids.
● It was a bad month for job security in the industry, with Sega shutting down its San Francisco studio Secret Level, Codemasters closing its Hamburg office, and Monumental pulling the plug on its Salford Quays studio. Krome had its second round of layoffs in a handful of months, while Denki, Slant Six, and Zoe Mode had their own cuts. Sega closed half of its GameWorks arcade locations, and CDV filed for insolvency, a domino toppled by the financial difficulties of its partner SouthPeak Interactive.
Good Call, Bad Call
GOOD CALL: David Gardner left the corporate hermit crab wearing the shell of Atari and co-founded London Venture Partners. You may know them as investors in companies that were sold for huge amounts of money like Supercell, NaturalMotion, and Playfish.
Meanwhile, Atari has made Denny's themed versions of its classic arcade games, conceived and executed the idea of speaker hats, gotten into the hotel business, and struggled mightily to release a microconsole that has no doubt missed its window of opportunity. Oh, and they also do real-money gambling now.
GOOD CALL: 2K decides it's going to bring back XCOM…
BAD CALL: …as a first-person shooter. The project would be the last for BioShock 2 developer 2K Marin, a studio established in 2007 to develop original intellectual property that was shut down in 2013 having never even announced an original IP.
GOOD CALL: After years of complaints, Microsoft changed its awful Microsoft Points scheme so people could generally buy the exact amount of virtual currency they needed to purchase a game. Previously, Microsoft had aped the tactics of Big Hot Dog Bun, selling the Xbox Live currency in 500 point increments while games were typically sold for 400, 800, or 1,200 points.
GOOD, IF VERY LATE, CALL: Nintendo finally gets Netflix on the Wii, some three-and-a-half-years after launch. If the company is working on the same time frame for getting the service on Switch, we can expect the hybrid console to welcome Netflix this fall.
WORST CALL: Remember that Simpsons episode where Homer markets a bowling alley by standing outside wildly firing a rifle? That might have been preferable to the actual Splinter Cell: Conviction promotional campaign that involved having someone go to a pub and threaten customers with a fake pistol.
"About 20 revellers drinking outside Degree bar dived for cover after the promotions worker threatened them with a black imitation pistol about 8pm on Friday," the New Zealand Herald reported. "Witnesses said they heard someone shout 'he's got a gun' and outdoor drinkers dived behind their tables."
Armed police responded to the scene and somehow let the involved parties off with a warning.