Now that we're through the gauntlet of this year's "Best of" lists, let's do something bold and commit that most sophomoric of sins: attempting prophecy.
Let's talk about what awaits us in 2019.
The Pressure of Unionization
It's coming. It's gone from idea to movement and oh boy I hope you're not a company on the wrong side of this fight.
To be clear, it's unlikely that we'll see widespread formal unionization this year, but the pressure will be a firehose blasting and soaking everything we do.
Two types of companies are going to be hit hardest by the pressure of incoming unionization: those that aren't paying well enough, and those that aren't giving enough ownership (creative or corporate). People are in this industry because they love it and they often want to devote themselves to it. But they won't suffer companies that ask too much and give too little for much longer. And let's face it, the companies that are the worst offenders aren't going to handle the idea of unionization gracefully. Inevitably, they'll only fuel the populist movement.
When we talk about unionization, I think we immediately jump in our minds to AAA and the big mobile studios. But don't forget that the littlest studios can be the most wildly inconsistent. Many of them will also feel the pressure as unionization rolls out and their teams get a glimpse of greener pastures.
Which leads me to my next prediction...
The Collapse of Extremes
For the past few years, I've been predicting that we'd see a compression of the industry, and the early warning signs have already come and gone. In 2019, I suspect it'll hit in full force.
So what do I mean by a "compression of the industry"?
We're in the middle-growth phase of our cycle. The old-guard AAA had their shock with the indie boom, then we passed "peak indie", and now the dust has settled. Indie studios that survived are looking at the long-term. And the lucky ones that turned flash-in-the-pan opportunity into stability have gone AA or "triple i".
Those mid-sized studios are on top, and they're going to grow into our vanguard. They're the future of our industry.
Everyone else? Bunker down for a storm.
From Steam declaring a regressive rev-share scale, the October bug, Epic & Discord's focus on the "indie 1%", indie support orgs losing sponsorships, the calls for more and more curation, and a general shrinking of opportunity, the littlest guys are going to be dropping like flies. Winter has come, and it takes a hardier creature than the rest of us to ride out the weather.
But indies aren't the only ones that are having trouble.
The waves of layoffs at larger studios have grown in intensity: Telltale folded and Daybreak laid off people in December (for the second time this past year), to name a couple. Scandals have rocked studios like Riot Games. Blizzard pushed one hundred people — from a single customer service site — into voluntarily leaving via their "buyout" program. The cracks in the armor have become cavernous.
So I'm calling it here. In 2019, we'll see the complete collapse of at least a couple giants.
But if you're in a mid-sized studio, the news is good. Microsoft bought a bunch of mid-sized studios, such as Compulsion Games and Ninja Theory, and that's likely to be the start of a trend. The next wave of consoles is around the corner, and competition will be fierce for a strong lineup of exclusives from both Sony and Microsoft (especially after the indie gold rush that hit the Switch). Plus: indie publishers are growing into Publishers. And curation everywhere is going to favor the combination of high-quality plus middling-creativity that is the hallmark of AA (whether we want it to or not).
The wheel turns, and we're seeing the beginnings of the studios that will grow into the new AAA down the line. For now, though, we await a die off.
The Call for Curation
As the development side of the industry is compressing, we're seeing ripple effects in other quarters.
Somewhere between the indie boom and now, we've cycled through peak indie, peak indie-publisher, and now...
Peak game store.
It's been all the rage to start a store in the last couple of years, with more tiny shops popping up than anyone can reasonably keep track of. Of course, we're all talking about it now because some big players have recently thrown down, namely: Kongregate, Discord, and Epic.
If you haven't cashed in by now, you're almost certainly too late (though that won't stop a flood of stragglers). Over the next few years, there will be some growth among extant players, then cutthroat jockeying, but you have to already be paddling now to catch that wave.
So what's next? What wave will start to swell in the next year or two?
My bet: Journalism.
Just as peak indie (and mobile) required more publishers, and peak publisher required more distro, peak game store is going to require more ways of attracting attention and sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Looking to Youtube, we see a large, but collapsing, industry built around popular personalities. Looking to streaming services, we see a maturing industry that is currently consolidating its weight on its own popular personalities.
Those personalities are going to be the linchpins in the new wave of games curation. Some of them may lean into their LP/ review/ stream model as a way of curating, while others may pivot into founding curation and rating sites. Either way, curation is going to get a lot more serious, and curation is going to decide which publishers and developers will flourish and which will flounder. And by proxy, determine the fates of countless game stores.
If I were IGN right now looking toward the future, I'd be pretty stoked about my purchase of Humble last year. Lots of vertical integration there!
I have one more prediction for you, and its a simple one.
What primary artistic themes can we expect from games in 2019?
You see, games are often years in the making, and because of that the ley lines for this question have already been drawn.
The answer? Absurdism.
We in the English-speaking world (and likely beyond) live in an era of meme-based propagandism, growing social unrest, and rapid-cycling economic bubbles.
Because of this, games of the past few years have reflected growing tension and fear, dividing largely into two closely-related camps. I'll call these: the Depressed — dark, moody, pensive, and occasionally humorous in a fatalistic way — and the Frivolous — colorful, saccharine, and escapist, with undercurrents of disillusionment.
There will be more of the Depressed and the Frivolous, of course, but more and more we'll see games that have intentionally thrown out the pretense of sanity altogether.
It should be interesting.