By ANDREW HAYWARD
By ANDREW HAYWARD
The video game industry grows larger and more varied by the year, with new devices and innovative experiences bringing more and more people into gaming. Interactive entertainment is enjoying an exciting period in its continuous evolution, with console, computer and mobile games all thriving and virtual reality starting to catch on with a wider audience.
Many of the year’s biggest game releases won’t be announced until the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in June, but the first half of the year has some enormous games queued up – and trends that started bubbling up in 2017 are expected to be even more significant in the coming months. Here’s a look at what to expect from the games industry early his year, along with insight from veteran studio executives.
Nintendo had a huge hit with 2006’s Wii console, but then a massive misfire with 2012’s Wii U. Given that, expectations around 2017’s Switch console seemed tempered, but the convertible console – which can be played as a handheld or docked to run on your TV – caught fire.
As of the end of 2017, the Switch had sold more than 4.8 million units in the U.S. alone, making it the fastest-selling game console of all time in the country (beating the original Wii). The worldwide tally has passed 10 million units, and critically acclaimed games like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sold millions of copies apiece.
Nintendo has not yet revealed much of its 2018 slate, but the company will surely try to match up to the successes of Mario and Zelda. Meanwhile, external third-party publishers jumped ship from the Wii U early on, but now they’re scrambling to get their games on the Switch. Indie developers and smaller publishers have been rapidly porting their games to the console, and we should see an outpouring of support from larger publishers as the year continues.
“I think a lot of Switch titles will get announced at E3 this year from publishers who don’t traditionally work with Nintendo,” says Dave Lang, Founder and Chief Product Officer of Iron Galaxy Studios. His team worked with publisher Bethesda Softworks to bring role-playing smash The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to Switch late last year.
Rockstar Games’ last big title, 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V, has shipped more than 85 million copies to date – and there’s a huge amount of anticipation for the publisher’s next game, this spring’s Red Dead Redemption 2. The studio’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sequel to the 2010 original will provide a large, open world to explore as players control a Wild West outlaw. “Red Dead Redemption is probably my favorite game from last generation, so I can’t wait for the new one,” affirms Lang.
Other anticipated sequels due out in the first half of the year include Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5 (March 27; PC, PS4, XB1), another open-world action experience, and Sony’s rebooted God of War (spring; PS4). This new entry embraces Norse mythology as iconic warrior Kratos – the titular God himself – shepherds his son through a world of monsters. It has a revamped look and vibe, along with refreshed gameplay, and the shift should give the top-selling franchise new life.
Shadow of the Colossus (February 6; PS4) is another major release for the first half of the year, but it’s not a sequel – it’s a reimagining of the beloved 2005 epic adventure, outfitting the familiar quest with a dazzling new art style and other modern enhancements. “The original is my favorite game of all time, right up there with Civilization,” says Allen Murray, Executive Producer and VP of Production at 2K Games’ new Private Division label. “It’s one of the few games that I replay and go back to every year. So I am excited to see how Bluepoint has recreated this world I know so well from the PS2 era.”
The biggest gaming phenomenon of 2017 was arguably PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a scrappy PC shooter that released in an unfinished beta version in March and went on to sell 24 million copies by the end of the year. PUBG, as fans know it, drops 100 online players onto an island and tasks them with trying to survive for as long as they can by outsmarting their foes. Inspired by the classic Battle Royale media franchise, it has become an unexpected sensation.
PUBG launched on Xbox One at the end of 2017 and will make its way to other platforms (including mobile) in 2018, but competitors are already taking a bite out of developer Bluehole’s hit. In September 2017, Epic Games launched Fortnite: Battle Royale, a free-to-play spinoff of its own recent shooter, and notched more than 30 million players by the end of the year. Another shooter, Paladins, recently announced an upcoming PUBG-like mode, and there are other variations on the theme on mobile devices, as well.
According to Adam Orth, Creative Strategist at First Contact Entertainment and former Microsoft Creative Director, we should see a lot more of that in 2018.
“We will see a massive influx of games trying to cash in on the zeitgeist,” he explains. “PUBG is the new Minecraft, and several high-profile developers and publishers have either already released their competitive product – Epic Games’ Fortnite, for example – or are preparing to release their own variation on the theme.”
Big sequels and trend-chasing knockoffs might sound a bit tired, but thankfully, the first half of 2018 also promises some exciting new game properties as well.
Sony’s Detroit: Become Human (spring) depicts a futuristic world in which androids serve society, but are treated like second-class citizens – until they show human emotions. The PlayStation 4 game looks like a lavish choose-your-own-adventure experience, where you’ll pick your path through tense cinematics and affect the outcome of each scenario.
Sea of Thieves (March 20) is a raucous new experience from Microsoft and developer Rare, letting online players team up as pirates to command ships, battle against other squads, and create their own shenanigans along the way. Murray pegs the Xbox One and PC game as an example of “games as a service” experiences that keep players coming back for more over time.
One of the spring’s most unique experiences is A Way Out (March 23), Electronic Arts’ prison-break game for PS4, Xbox One and PC. The cinematic adventure can only be played with a partner, whether it’s on your couch or over the internet, and you’ll have to work together to bust out of captivity and evade capture back out in the real world. Orth says that all three games “look like really innovative new titles.”
Modern virtual reality has seen a slow burn of adoption over the last two years. The high-end Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets have mostly reached early-adopter enthusiasts to date, while smartphone-powered experiences like the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream are fun but typically have simpler apps and games. But it’s the PlayStation VR, a headset that falls between those devices, that’s starting to make waves.
Launched in late 2016, the PlayStation 4-powered PlayStation VR headset has now sold more than two million units to date. It’s cheaper than PC headsets, more powerful than what a smartphone can handle, and has huge games that you won’t find on other VR devices. Sony’s Gran Turismo Sport and The Last Guardian, Capcom’s Resident Evil 7, and Bethesda’s Doom VFR and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR have driven recent excitement around the headset.
Orth, who is working on the PlayStation VR-exclusive shooter Firewall: Zero Hour, believes that the headset’s sales show “no sign of slowing down,” and that those aforementioned franchise hits are “giving credibility to the tech in the form of bankable hits that will sell headsets.” The Facebook-owned Oculus will also make a big new VR play in the first half of 2018 with the Oculus Go, a self-contained VR headset that starts at $200 and doesn’t require a smartphone, console or PC to use. Oculus also has a cordless version of its Rift expected out later in the year. “With hardware, video and computing processing all lowering in cost, VR will finally be an option for the masses as well as the early adopters of the technology,” explains Orth.
Microsoft’s new Xbox One X is the most powerful console on the market today, driving native and upscaled 4K and HDR experiences, with Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro doing much the same even with less horsepower in tow. With 4K televisions dropping rapidly in price, industry executives expect wider support for 4K resolution in games in 2018 – on both consoles and high-end PCs.
“I think with PS4 Pro and Xbox One X both out now, games will end up supporting 4K and/or HDR that wouldn’t have before, and PC gamers will probably benefit the most from this for sure,” says Lang. “I think near-universal adoption of non- trivial implementations of 4K/HDR/etc. will be common by year’s end.”
Murray affirms that 4K resolution support will become more widespread. “The fidelity arms race never really goes away,” he says, “and we’ll see that move to VR and augmented reality where resolution is currently behind but quickly catching up. Indies will also find it necessary to increase resolution to stay competitive, even as they move away from high-fidelity photorealism towards more stylized art direction.” Furthermore, Murray suggests that more affordable motion- capture technology will open the floodgates for smaller studios to improve their games’ presentation and keep up with the industry’s giants. “The cost of motion-capture technology is decreasing, making it achievable for smaller studios – so we will see more and more use and innovation in mocap outside of the large AAA games,” he suggests.