I’m forgoing a more traditional focused article this week in favor of a highly speculative, disorganized, scattershot look at the year to come. What follows is a brief look at some of the trends and topics that may be of interest in the coming year, as well as a glance at the prospects of each of the three major consoles.
Retro Gaming: Retro games have the potential to become a major force in 2010 and beyond. While it may seem completely contrary to the spirit of the video game industry to opt for old gameplay styles, simple graphics and low tech over the newest technology and the most sophisticated presentation, the retro gaming movement has been gaining increasing support. During an E3 2009 interview, Shigeru Miyamoto indicated that Super Mario Galaxy 2 was nearing completion, but that it would not be released in 2009 to prevent it from competing with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Consider that. Nintendo effectively tabled the newest three dimensional entry in its more important and critically acclaimed franchise in favor of promoting a two dimensional throwback staring the same characters, opting to depend on the latter to carry the all important holiday season rather than the former. That is analogous to Sony delaying God of War III in order to prevent it from competing with a side-scrolling Streets of Rage style beat ‘em up staring Kratos. Two or three years ago, this course of action would have been unthinkable. Today, New Super Mario Bros. Wii has sold over a million copies in the month since its release. Oh, and if you didn’t hear, Mega Man 10 was announced last week. 2010 may be the beginning of a new decade, but some of its biggest hits may owe a greater debt to the past than the future.
Sequel Fatigue?: Bioshock 2. Mass Effect 2. Super Mario Galaxy 2. Halo: Reach. God of War III. Metroid: Other M. Sin & Punishment 2. There are a lot of sequels coming out in 2010. Those are just the ones that occurred to me. Had I not been lazy and opted to spend, say, five minutes on Wikipedia, I could have composed a list three or four times that size. And that’s without mentioning Activision or EA’s obligatory yearly franchise cash-ins. Hell, even rather disappointing titles, like Red Steel and The Force Unleashed, will see sequels in ’10. This makes a certain amount of economic sense. With development costs increasing and consumer spending low, it is reasonable to opt for a known brand rather than an untried title. However, regurgitation, even of quality franchises, is not a sustainable market model. Certainly the dwindling sales of music games, Tony Hawk and other franchises that have begun to decline from overexposure are evidence of this. A glut of sequels will only make the fatigue more extreme, as consumers are forced to choose some over others, making at least a few commercial failures likely. That is not to say all of 2010’s sequels are doomed. Some will be successful. Others will be hugely successful. But, as in all resources, you can only consume so much before the reserves are exhausted.
Motion Controls: If E3 2009 is to be believed, 2010 will be the year of motion controls. Sony’s wands plus Eyetoy scheme should be available during the first half of the year, and Microsoft’s Project Natal will probably materialize in time to be bundled with the system on Black Friday. (Or not. No firm release dates as of yet.) Nintendo, of course, will continue to place heavy emphasis on motion controls in the coming year, given that they have pioneered the field and built much of the Wii’s reputation upon it.
While Wii’s Motion Plus was launched this summer, it has yet to see significant software support. The device’s full potential remains nearly as ambiguous as that of Natal and the wands. We know it can provide one of the most realistic golfing experiences on a console, but that’s about it. Wii Sports Resort did provide some evidence of the M+’s capabilities, but only within the limited, highly structured realm of a minigame collection. We’ve yet to see what it has to offer for fuller, more open games. While Nintendo has announced two upcoming M+ titles for Japan, Span Smasher and Zangeki no REGINLEIV (formerly, Dynamic Slash), neither of these titles have yet been announced elsewhere. Nintendo’s first major M+ title is likely to be the next entry in the Legend of Zelda series, but it won’t be released until the end of ’10, at the earliest. Thus, the first sports-less test of the device is likely to be Ubisoft’s Red Steel 2, coming in January. The original Red Steel pioneered 3rd party ineptitude and unresponsive controls on the Wii. Hopefully its successor will pioneer less desolate territory with the Wii Motion Plus.
Limited information is available about Sony’s motion controller, but much of what we know so far has been positive, including DLC adding motion-centric missions to Resident Evil 5 and a several new titles. Perhaps the best news so far is that Sony plans to retroactively add motion support to existing titles, including the critically acclaimed Flower and Little Big Planet. There has been much begging for Nintendo to add similar compatibility with the M+ to existing Wii titles, and it is wise of Sony to preempt fan demand by promising such support immediately.
Microsoft may have the most to gain or lose in its motion control gambit. Entering its fifth year on the market, the Xbox 360 is beginning to show its age (more on this later), and Project Natal could, potentially, provide the revitalizing force that the console needs. However, it will also likely be the most expensive motion control option. The M+ is $20, or $50 with Sports Resort. Sony hasn’t announced a price for its motion controller, but it seems likely that it will cost about the same as a typical controller ($40-60) and will require the purchase of Sony’s $40 Eyetoy. Meanwhile, Natal also has no set price, but considering the hardware, most estimates seem to place the likely price at between $100 and $200. If Microsoft hopes to use Natal to move systems to new buyers, that would require an investment of $300-$500 for the console plus Natal. This is steep, but if Microsoft can make a compelling case and if Natal has a broad range of applications, it may still offer new life to the venerable system.
Xbox 360: As I mentioned above, the 360 enters 2010 in a difficult position, compared to its peers. It faces difficult competition at both of its price points. At $200, it has to contend with the sales power and iconic status of the Wii, which remains the fastest selling console in history. At $300, it has to contend with the PS3, which double as a bluray player, requires no extra adapter for WiFi, and has a considerable software overlap with the 360. In addition, the PS3 has begun outselling the 360 on a month-by-month basis since its price drop. (The 360 did, however, lead in November, thank to the strength of Modern Warfare 2) This means that Microsoft must offer a fresh, compelling reason to purchase the 360. This could take the form of fresh exclusives, or, perhaps Natal could provide this argument. But the future is uncertain, and, whatever happens, this is sure to be a deciding year for the Xbox 360’s future.
Playstation 3: In a reversal of fortune, the PS3 is actually positioned well for success in 2010. With the release of the Slim and the accompanying price cut fueling considerable increases in sales, the system has begun to overcome the difficulties it faced during its early years, when a high price and tough competition hampered sales. That said, the PS3 remains vulnerable to larger economic forces. Since the system’s fate is so deeply intermingled with that bluray and high definition televisions, it is prone to that same market conditions that increase or decrease sales of those goods. If the economy continues to recover, and this recovery is more tangible and substantial than it has been thus far (read: if new jobs are actually created), then consumer spending will likely increase, likely meaning a boost in sales of the PS3. However, if the global economy stagnates or re-enters decline, well, the outcome will be considerably less positive. Still, Sony has much reason to be hopeful, and that is more than could be said a few short months ago.
Wii: It can’t really be said that the Wii is in trouble. The system continues to sell at an absurd rate. It will probably top 2 million sold for this holiday season. That said, it sold double that amount during November and December of last year, and sales have been in gradual decline throughout 2009, particularly in Japan. The Wii is slowing down, and this may be both inevitable and inescapable. It’s previous numbers may have been unsustainable, period. It will likely continue to sell well in 2010, continuing to pad Nintendo’s significant profits, and it may receive a boost from 2010 titles, like Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Metroid: Other M, as well as continued sales of ’09 hits Sports Resort and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but its unparalleled market dominance may be over. Or not. As with the 360, the Wii could be revitalized if Nintendo can create a new argument for the console. Nintendo has proven masterful at this in the past. In fact, the Wii itself was a new argument, designed as a reason to reconsider a company that, after two console generations of lackluster sales, many saw as aging and increasingly irrelevant. And, yeah, we saw how that worked out.