Video games are a fast-moving form of art and entertainment, and that makes the games industry a notoriously difficult one to predict. Sure, new Fifa and Call of Duty games will arrive every year and sell predictably well, there’ll probably be a new Assassin’s Creed, and Nintendo will usually deliver a fresh take on Mario, Zelda or Pokémon – but who could have foreseen that 2018 would be obliterated by Fortnite, a colourful cartoon shooter that launched to little fanfare in 2017 but became a global phenomenon over the course of last year? Or that one of 2018’s most critically acclaimed games would be a psychedelic virtual-reality version of 80s obsession, Tetris?
Games are now almost as varied as the people who play them – more than two billion of all ages, across the world, playing on phones or PCs or PlayStations. But apart from Rockstar’s western epic Red Dead Redemption 2, whose £550m opening weekend made the kind of splash seen only every few years, the biggest earners of 2018 were games that have been around for years: Clash Royale and Pokémon Go on mobile, League of Legends and Counter-Strike on PC, and the omnipresent Fortnite. The money that these established, evolving mega-games make is astounding: it’s estimated that Fortnite now earns its creator Epic Games about $100m (£78.5m) a week. In terms of revenue, any new game released in 2019 will struggle to compete.
If anything stands a chance, though, it’s probably Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, a mobile game from the creators of Pokémon Go that will combine JK Rowling’s wizarding world with the real one. As you walk around your neighbourhood, your phone will alert you to traces of magic in random locations. As happened with Pokémon Go, expect to see small crowds of Potter-loving millennials gathering in bizarre locations, exchanging knowing nods in between staring at their phones.
It’s been more than five years since the current home games consoles, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, were released, which means that new ones are likely to be announced soon (and will probably launch in 2020). This year’s most anticipated console games are the final wave of big hitters. Sony is pretty much certain to finally release The Last of Us: Part 2, a cinematic adventure that combines a post-apocalyptic zombie survival scenario with excellent starring characters (think The Walking Dead, except back when it was good), and Ghost of Tsushima, a stunningly beautiful homage to samurai cinema. On Xbox, Microsoft has tongue-in-cheek superhero action game Crackdown 3. EA’s Anthem, a science-fiction game where players step into mech suits and fight aliens together on gorgeous planets, has people tentatively excited. Kingdom Hearts 3, a long-awaited sequel featuring Disney’s iconic characters and worlds, will dominate in its native Japan.
One forthcoming development that could transform how the games industry works is Netflix-style streaming – though it’s unlikely that this will happen in 2019. Almost every major player in the games space has been experimenting with game-streaming technology, from Microsoft to Ubisoft to Google and Amazon, and their executives love to talk about how it will change the world. Right now, games run on the device you’re playing them on, but game streaming could make it possible to play the same game on a phone, at home on a TV, or at the office on a PC, offloading all the technical heavy lifting to the cloud and saving players from having to buy expensive consoles. Microsoft already runs Xbox Game Pass, a subscription service that gives players a steady stream of new games for a monthly fee, rather than asking them to pay £50 a pop for individual titles.
But streaming relies heavily on good internet speeds, and nobody has yet quite solved the problem of lag. Streaming a film uses much less data than streaming a game, and it’s not a huge problem if a streamed film stutters occasionally, but streamed video games need to be totally responsive or they feel horrible to play. And a lot of players simply aren’t ready to abandon their beloved consoles in favour of a new, unproven technology. Many of us have a strong sense of attachment to the physical games and consoles we grew up with, though the younger generation is unlikely to be burdened with such sentimentality. It’s unlikely that 2019 will be the year that streaming technology turns the games industry’s business model upside down, but it will be another step along the way.
Speaking of business models, loot boxes, which thanks to government inquiries and media reports are now seen as adjacent to gambling by many, could start to disappear from games this year. They’ve already been rolled back in titles such as Forza 7 and Star Wars Battlefront, and in Belgium, where regulators have been paying close attention, Blizzard removed them from Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm as well. Loot boxes make money – an awful lot of it, in games such as Fifa Ultimate Team – but if the negative publicity around these randomised in-game rewards continues, publishers will have to consider other ways of chasing the “recurrent revenues” that swell their coffers.
We’re approaching the end of a cycle in video-game world, and it’s coming at a time when the world seems in flux. Brexit threatens to decimate the UK games industry, and worldwide dips in people’s spending are making investors nervous, which is certain to affect video gaming’s behemoth companies and perhaps lead to a couple of years of reduced risk-taking.
But every year we’re also seeing new people start to make and play games, and as younger developers and players do things on their own terms and create their own new video-game cultures, the games that emerge from it are becoming ever more interesting.
This year I’m looking forward to playing Hypnospace Outlaw, a surreal detective game set in the 1990s internet, and NeoCab, a narrative science fiction game with a lot to say about the evils of the gig economy. In years like this, where blockbuster games are thinner on the ground and the giants of the industry are taking stock, indie producers have more space to shine.