As we bow our heads to duck through the portal of Janus, like the two-faced god of doors himself, it's only right for the dedicated columnist (especially a slightly apologetic one, who didn't file any copy last week), to take some time to consider our passing of 2006 and our coming into 2007.
So with that in mind, let's project some past trends into future predictions.
1: The games market keeps on growing
While the beancounters continue to frantically count their beans, it seems certain that a celebratory Christmas sales period on both sides of the Atlantic will result in 2006 being marked up as record year, both in terms of software and hardware sales.
Twelve months ago such a turn of events would have been a big surprise as growth was expected to be flat at best. The reason was two unexpected events. The first was the revitalising impact of the launch of DS Lite, which up to that point in 2006 was being outsold by PSP. The other factor was the strength of the PlayStation 2 market, which despite the distractions of nextgen launches is declining much more slowly than anyone thought it would - thanks also in part to Final Fantasy XII
and Guitar Hero II
Wider economic stresses apart (such as the falling US housing market and the failing status of the dollar on the currency markets, both of which could start to affect global economic growth), the growth looks certain to continue in 2007. This will mainly be due to Nintendo and Sony finally fulfilling the latent demand for Wii and PlayStation 3, while a pricecut and Halo 3/GTA4 should boost the Xbox 360 install base past the 20 million mark.
2. The debate about the value of games in society gets more subtle
My favourite cartoon is Doonesbury, in which the parents of a teenage kid complain about the thousands of hours he’s spent playing 'video game trash'. "Does he really think that years from now he'll look back on that as a well-spent youth?" Dad questions. Cut to the kids: "These are the good times, dude;" "Yeah, we gotta hold on this..."
Forget the Jack Thompsons and Joe Liebermans. Like any other controversial facet of modern life - guns, booze, cigarettes, angry dogs - there will be people who test the validity of the current legislative framework around games. That's what lawyers, politicians and pressure groups do for a living, so if it bothers you, don't get mad, get even.
Much more interesting however will be the debate about how the experience of playing games affects society. Just this week, there's been some low level cut-and-thrust in the pages of conservative UK newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, with one middle-aged columnist (eccentric MP Boris Johnson) sparking off a debate
about how parents should deal with their offsprings' seemingly insatiable desire to play games. Before too long, the debate should spread up the age range. Are students, workers or OAPs wasting time when they could be doing something more useful? Or how about more sophisticated questions, such as do games allow you to use your imagination?
It's at this point (imho) that the industry's lack of decent arguments becomes deafening.
3. Confusion about trade shows
Without a doubt the worst thing that happened in 2006, even for the European industry, was the collapse of E3. Without a central focus in time and space, dilution will be the name of the trade show game in 2007.
The Game Developers Conference
will no doubt be a success, but the growing ‘publisherisation’ of the event (it’s not called the GPC is it?), will continue apace. It's already too big and unfocused to be manageable and it's only going to get bigger and more unmanageable.
Various consumer-focused events such as the Washington-based Penny Arcade Expo
and the LA-based GamePro Expo will hustle up for extra trade but neither will be big enough to attract enough industry support. Everyone who goes to the E3 Media & Business Summit will say how much they love it, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? In Europe, the huge Leipzig Games Convention
will still sit somewhat uneasily with those companies who don’t focus on PC games or, who, unlike show supporters such as Nintendo and Konami, have their European headquarters outside Germany.
4. More money chasing development talent
With the global games market reckoned to be worth around $35 billion per year and growing steadily, 2006 continued to build on the merger and acquisition activity of 2005, with publishers and venture capital funders piling into any independent developers still available.
In the US, Foundation 9 bulked up even more adding Shiny and Amaze, while MTV bought Harmonix, and Take Two got Irrational. In Europe, things were busier (the developers are cheaper, dontchaknow), with Microsoft gaining Lionhead, THQ picking up Juice Games and Reflections, while 10tacle nabbed Blimey! and Buena Vista got Climax Racing.
Further investment came with New Enterprise Associates injecting $31 million into Scottish developer Realtime Worlds, and Benchmark Capital upping its 40 percent stake in UK publisher Codemasters into an majority shareholding.
The big question for 2007 will be how much real cash publishers and VCs are now prepared to bet. Up to this point, most deals have seen weak developers taking the money to avoid the hassles of building the business and dealing with increasing risk. Those developers who have successfully built up companies with 100-strong headcounts are made of sterner stuff, however. So in lieu of Rare-sized deals, expect more of a bait-and-switch situation where the developers are raising VC cash for specific game projects, rather than being bought out and merged with other outfits.
5. Something we don’t expect won’t change everything
It’s called the future, which means we don’t know what’s going to happen. In 2007, there’s bound to be some big surprises no one expects but they probably won’t really change the industry much anyway. Still, when we first hear about them, everyone will say ‘That will change the industry as we know it’. Here’s some that - because we’ve already predicted them - probably won’t happen. If they do, they certainly won’t change anything.
a. Sony redesigns PSP.
b. EA tries to buy Ubisoft.
c. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony heavily push online services for their consoles and handhelds but, great as playing cheap retro games and collecting game achievements are, only the hardcore actually bother.
d. World of Warcraft
hits ten million players.
e. Someone finally launches an MMOG service for mobile phones.
f. The iPhone is just another phone, but prettier. It doesn’t play games as well as the next-generation N-Gage, but no one notices.
g. Arguments continue about Blu-ray versus HD DVD.
doesn’t outsell Halo 3
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. In 2007, he plans to grow older, not wiser.]