An industry on the move needs landmarks to steer itself by. PlayStation Vita and Star Wars: The Old Republic are two such landmarks.
With less than a fortnight to go before the games industry shuts down for Christmas and the New Year, the biggest questions of 2011 are yet to be resolved. We know that our business is in transition - it would take a truly remarkable act of head-burying in an astonishingly deep sandpit to avoid that conclusion - but as yet, nobody quite knows whether 2011 is going to be seen as a turning point in that process. It has the hallmarks of a watershed, the hype of a pivotal year - but the facts simply aren't in place yet.
I say this primarily because two of the most important test cases for the future direction of the market and the speed of the transition are only now rolling out, after a year of nervous anticipation. Sony's PlayStation Vita won't raise its head outside Japan until next year; Electronic Arts' Star Wars: The Old Republic won't start to produce useful data for a few months yet. How each one fares is absolutely crucial to our understanding of the business.
The cases of these two products - so dissimilar on the surface - correspond to a remarkable degree. Each one is an expensive, high quality product that's had major investment and carries a premium price tag as a consequence. Each one is competing in a market that's still dominated by an aging rival (Nintendo DS, World of Warcraft) but whose future is commonly seen as being cheaper, more nimble products with new business models, rather than another monolithic, dominant product.
Opinion is strongly polarised over how well PlayStation Vita will do in the market, but few people are willing to argue the case that Sony will ever release another dedicated handheld platform after it.
Both of them, significantly, have been called out in public, by senior commentators and industry figures, as being the last of their kind. Opinion is strongly polarised over how well PlayStation Vita will do in the market, but few people are willing to argue the case that Sony will ever release another dedicated handheld platform after it. Equally, there's a cautious optimism around Star Wars: The Old Republic that's tempered by the sense that it's probably the last of the high-budget, expensive, pay-to-play MMORPGs.
The obvious question, then, is whether these products are swansongs or death knells for their respective categories. Will dedicated handhelds and pay-to-play MMOs go out with a whimper, or with a bang?
There's another question, though, which the stats we eventually get from these two launches will help to answer - are we actually right about the direction of the industry? In discussing the rise of free-to-play, or the increasing importance of social network gaming, or the ubiquity of multi-function mobile devices, it's easy to get comfortable with the prevailing wisdom. We shouldn't forget that the conventional wisdom regarding where the market is moving is nothing more than a theory, and while it may seem perfectly logical, it's subject to human error and bias.
That's why we need to see the performance of landmark products clearly - in order to gather data to shape our views of where the industry is going, and how fast it's going there. The success or failure of Vita and The Old Republic will tell us incredibly important things that could either confirm or overturn our assumptions about industry trends. Most likely, this data will do neither thing, but will refine our perspectives. Some things we presently believe are probably right. Others are probably wrong. We just don't know which, yet.