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Gaming's White-Knuckle Transition

Every part of the games business is transforming. That's both terrifying and exciting, argues Johnny Minkley

The death of specialist retail? The end of optical media in consoles? The last stand for dedicated gaming handhelds? Now more than ever the defining mood of the video games industry is uncertainty.

Take retail. GAME Group, which accounts for a third of the market in the UK, is on the brink of administration. Will GameStop step in, interest piqued by the lure of instant market leadership, to salvage specialist retail?

Or will games lose their presence on the high street, denying casual shoppers the chance to browse and try before they buy, and stripping variety from shelves, as the remaining supermarkets stock the key chart titles and little else?

Entire conferences are devoted to weighing the pros and cons of the business models available to content creators, but no-one is sure which way the wind will blow

The shift to digital is inevitable, but there is no "mp3 moment" for video games given the file sizes involved and current broadband speeds. Intuitively, everyone knows digital is growing rapidly, but by how much? How big is the market?

The official story, based on Chart-Track numbers, is one of decline - yet this analysis is fatally undermined by a lack of data, stubbornly tied as it is to physical sales.

Efforts, coming to fruition, to deliver a digital software chart in the UK are laudable and overdue, but will only ever paint part of the picture without giants like Apple and Valve in the mix - the latter's Steam service now so significant and powerful in PC gaming the man in charge of it is a billionaire.

Take the media. British magazine publishers weep at the might of Game Informer in the US as their circulations collapse and, having wrestled for years with the division of content between dead tree and online, now fret over how to handle the exploding tablet market.

Meanwhile, for professional publishing houses that have scarcely come to terms with the temerity of amateur bloggers to encroach all too successfully onto their hallowed turf, they now have the new broadcasting stars of YouTube to contend with, like Tom Syndicate, a lovely young chap who's amassed tens of millions of hits and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers with his ultra-lo fi, hyper-enthusiastic videos - making a small fortune in the process.

Even reviewing a game is no longer a straightforward task, when it's increasingly hard to determine when a title can be considered "finished"; where games can be transformed with a free content update, and where the day-one patch has flung timings into chaos. And it's probably for the best I don't have the space to go anywhere near the can of worms marked "embargoes".

No longer, too, can the media rely on the old PR blueprint that ensured the press were the gatekeepers of new product information. In the age of the app, with hundreds of games going on sale every day made by studios with zero PR or marketing budget, the roles have reversed, with professional publications now heavily reliant on their readers for word-of-mouth tips.

Those stranded in-between, still peddling resource-intensive console titles without the marketing or franchise clout of the big beasts, are feeling the squeeze. More will inevitably fail

Take hardware. In the limbo of transition from one generation of console hardware to the next (which, most seem to agree, will be the last cycle as we know it) the clamour grows for news on what's next, hence the frenzied reaction to whispers that the next Xbox will not feature a disc drive.

Yet, as David Cage demonstrated so powerfully at GDC with his Quantic Dream's Kara short running in realtime on PS3, and as the release this week of thatgamecompany's phenomenal Journey shows with equal force, there's plenty of life left in these ageing platforms.

As the medium has matured, many games have come to be defined by the limits of technique, not technology. After all, Nintendo only joins the "HD era", ushered in so noisily by Microsoft in 2005, later this year.

And anyway, what on earth is a third-party developer supposed to make of Wii U? What about cloud gaming? A TV made by Apple that could easily do games? A Steambox from Valve?

Speaking of which, take developers and publishers. The old distinction means little to digital micro-studios bursting into life. Gaming's audience has expanded wildly and the market has polarised, with success enjoyed by heavyweight franchise blockbusters at one end and cheap apps/freemium casual titles at the other.

At the same time, those stranded in-between, still peddling resource-intensive console titles without the marketing or franchise clout of the big beasts, are feeling the squeeze. More will inevitably fail.

Entire conferences and acres of analysis are devoted to weighing the pros and cons of the business models available to content creators today, all very thoughtful and worthy, but no-one is sure which way the wind will blow.

Mills, who heads up UK app developer ustwo, offers a fascinating real-time case study via his Twitter feed (@millsustwo) of one studio's journey through this shifting landscape - sharing details with a degree of transparency unthinkable from a traditional games company.

Those of us fortunate to have lived, worked and played our way through four decades are a lucky generation that has borne witness to the birth and development of a new form of entertainment

As his most recent tweet suggests, there's no safe route to success: "Does anyone else out there feel a little completely and utterly disillusioned by the state of the madness that is digital?"

And then there's Double Fine's sensational Kickstarter crowdfunding experiment, which has set tongues wagging across the globe, while even the UK's most acclaimed and decorated game maker, Peter Molyneux, has seized the moment to jump from the Microsoft mothership and rediscover a passion for indie development.

No wonder the industry has cleaved so passionately to the current "coding revolution" narrative. Couched as it is in the soft blanket of nostalgia, the Raspberry Pi story is at once fresh and exciting, but the philosophy behind it is known, familiar, consoling - redolent of an era when Britannia ruled the gaming waves.

The games industry is barely 40 years old. Those of us fortunate to have lived, worked and played our way through those four decades are a lucky generation that has borne witness to the birth and development of a new form of entertainment, with a rate of evolution unlikely to be experienced again.

And yet the games biz today finds itself in an unprecedented state of flux at every level. That's both terrifying for hundreds of business and tens of thousands of employees, with lives and livelihoods in limbo, and terrifically exciting as the nature of the entertainment created and consumed transforms.

As the screenwriter William Goldman said of Hollywood, nobody knows anything. The questions being asked right now are leading us into a future of uncertainties, mysteries and doubts. But also one brimming with possibilities.

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Johnny Minkley avatar

Johnny Minkley

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Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.

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