by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 18th April, 2018
The video games industry has come a long way from 1983 when a huge market crash struck the industry, putting lots of companies out of business and making the industry into a years-long decline. Many analysts predicted that video games won't become a major player among other forms of entertainment, but they were proven very wrong in the coming decades.
Video games surpassed movie and music industries more than a decade ago and today are the single biggest part of entertainment sector with gross revenue climbing to a whopping $116 billion in 2017. A decade ago, the combined value of the industry was around $45 billion, which tells us that video game market grew over 250 percent in one decade. One major part of this huge growth is the rise of the mobile gaming market, but the other can be contributed to a constant evolution of the revenue streams, with the appearance of new trends among publishers, many of which serve the role of creating long-term revenue that elongates life cycle of most games.
But, there are many other trends that made video game market so huge in the past decade. Aside from those that are appeared purely for boosting profit, we also saw other major movements that helped introducing video games to mainstream market as well as those that made video games more consumer friendly. Some brought us, the gamers, back genres that were considered dead - such as isometric RPGs - and others utilized new technologies in order to make development possible even after a game shipped, such are day one patches.
All those influential video game trends that surfaced during the last decade can roughly be divided into two groups. The first group includes those pushed by game publishers, mostly new revenue sources and ways to simplify publishing process. The other group is tied to developers and the gaming scene in whole, and those trends can be considered as fads and long-term patterns that include changes to video game design, gameplay similarities, the rise of completely new genres, as well as changes to the gaming scene we saw during the last decade.
We tried to collect all those massive quakes that shook the video game industry during the last ten years and to explain why and how they rose to power, how they become common things found in most games and how they influenced both on games and gamers. We also tried to predict which trends will dominate the next decade, so if you are interested in the future jump to the end of each article and find out what we think will dominate gaming during the foreseeable future. The first article deals with trends pushed by publishers, while the second will deal with general trends we saw in video game scene, which have more to do with developers and gamers.
The granddaddy of all other major things that appeared in game publishing business during the last decade and by far the most powerful quake that happened to the industry ever, digital distribution paved the way for most other stuff we cover in this article. Without it, numerous DLC packs wouldn't be possible, episodic content, and day one patches would still be just wishful thinking and early access development would stay in the form of a cool but impossible to achieve idea.
While digital download of games was available back in the 80's - Atari 2600 has one called GameLine - digital distribution had to stay in the background until the internet became a common thing in most of the world. Content that got distributed online mostly included fan-made stuff such as maps, mods, and fan patches. But digital distribution didn't explode until about ten years ago.
It all started on PC (as always), with the release of Steam, the biggest digital video game storefront today. Valve wanted a platform that would allow for a seamless game update delivery but Steam ended as a proper revolution of the way publishers distribute games. In 2005 Valve began to offer third-party titles on the service, but the platform struck in full force during 2007 and 2008 when big-name publishers embraced Steam and when the platform started to offer online matchmaking, respectively.
On consoles, physical distribution was still strong during the PS3 and X360 era, but with the launch of PS4 and Xbox One digital distribution became a major force in the console world. Back in the days of PS3 and Xbox 360, digital marketplaces were used mostly for indie games and DLC packs. On PC, even those games that can be bought physically usually just come with a Steam code inside the package, meaning that users must opt for digital if PC is their platform of choice.
Digital distribution means higher profit for publishers, it allows for indie developers to launch their games without investing money in printing discs and physical packages, it offers a seamless way of distributing patches, DLC packs, expansions, and other stuff that wasn't possible before. Today most big name publishers have their own digital storefronts, just further showing how much digital distribution become omnipresent in the industry.
Of course, aside from countless positive effects it created, the digital distribution also gave us a couple of negative ones, the biggest of them being hyperproduction of garbage bin titles or asset swappers, as they are colloquially called. Steam Direct program will put your game on Steam for a fee of just $100, no matter its quality, meaning there's harder and harder for indie devs and their games to be found on Steam. Luckily, there are a couple of other storefronts such as GOG or Humble store that often promote quality gaming gems made by small teams.
On the other side, consoles and their more complex (and more expensive) publishing process guarantee that most games will keep at least some degree of quality (although there is more and more garbage even on consoles). At the moment, digital publishing only can grow and the upcoming decade will probably make physical releases a thing of the past. We just hope that someone solves the problem of pricing since going digital means no used games to buy and sell. Well, since everything else goes towards subscription model we think that games will ultimately head into that direction too (but more on that later).
DLC (or downloadable content) is one of the biggest trends seen on the publishing side of video game business in the past decade. Back in the day, publishers couldn't sell small chunks of content because the infrastructure simply didn't exist. Games would get one or two expansion packs (that usually cost around one-third of the price of the full game) and that was it. But, with DLC publishers could release a steady stream of new content that, while cost less, giving more profits in the long run.
DLC was available for the cult classic game Space Impact found on most Nokia phones during the turn of the century, once mobile internet became a thing in 2000. On PC, games like Total Annihilation offered new maps that could be downloaded through the official game site. And on Xbox, you could download new levels, costumes, and other small pieces of content for selected titles. The common thing about all these early forms of DLC is that there were all free, but once the industry smelled blood, most DLC packs got released with a price tag.
The major move in the rise of the DLC happened when Microsoft released Xbox 360. The console shipped with the Xbox Live Marketplace that happened to have a special section reserved for DLCs. And publishers gladly embraced the new way of taking money from gamers, and soon after we got stuff like the Horse Armor DLC for Oblivion (which became a huge internet meme), on-disc DLC that shipped alongside main game content and was locked until you paid the price - and it got so much hate that publishers quickly abandoned the practice - and day one DLC packs that shipped alongside main game.
Yes, as with every new way to make profit publishers got greedy and they needed time to test just how much gamers can put up with, and once the experimentation phase ended, we got DLC practices we have today. Most DLC content includes maps, new outfits, soundtracks, small pieces of other content such as new missions or new cars and such. But while all that was mostly free in the early days of DLC and digital distribution, you have to pay for most of that today.
When I think about first paid-for DLC I think about Call of Duty 3 and it's Map Pack DLCs that started the trend of charging lots of money for new multiplayer maps that were free for so many years. But, CoD 4 was even worse, offering a free map pack for PC gamers, while charging $9.99 for the same map pack on consoles. This trend of offering paid-for map packs had a massive negative impact on multiplayer shooters, splitting the audience and making those games unappealing for everyone not ready to pay for new maps.
There are some forms of free DLC content, such as those that are yours (for free!) if you preorder a game or those tied to specific retail stores where you buy a game at. Some games took DLC to the extreme, with Rock Band's cost of all DLC songs being $5,880.10 - yep, that's not a typo, that's an actual price of almost $6,000. And let's not start talking about hundreds of DLC packs for the Sims 4, that earned EA hundreds of millions of $. Now you see why publishers adore DLCs.
Luckily, we still have large DLC forms that would be called expansion packs back in the day, and those kept the usual price of around $20 per one expansion. And almost every game that comes out today has a list of upcoming DLC packs released even before it hits the stores. And those who want to have it all can buy it all day one (or later) by simply opting in for a Season Pass.
With the rise of DLC packs, publishers probably thought about how to maximize their profit and how to make gamers to buy every single DLC for a specific game. And the solution was to offer all that DLC packs at once, even before they get out in the form of a Season Pass. While I firmly believed that Activision started the trend, all they started was charging money for map packs.
The first company to offer Season Pass was in fact, fan-favorite, Rockstar for their detective adventure L.A Noire, released in 2011. Back then you could get the whole Pass for just $10, while DLCs alone cost $20 if you decide to get them individually. And, as with most other trends that introduced new ways to get money from consumers, Season Passes soon started to offer content of questionable quality while prices steadily rose.
Some games offered solid content quality, such as Fallout 4 or the Witcher 3 (a game that offered two huge expansions for a price of $25), but others ended up being pure greed. For instance, CoD Season Passes cost $50 and offer just new maps, while Destiny went a step below and offered a Season Pass and after those two less than mediocre DLC packs (The Dark Below and House of Wolves) got released, Activision offered more paid-for content that wasn't part of the game's Season Pass.
As of recent, Season Passes gradually got diluted, with more and more games opting out for free content drops, such as Overwatch or Rainbow Six: Siege, or Ghost Recon: Wildlands. And while most of you think that's because publishers realized Season Passes are bad for the industry, they did that because they have found a new way to reap profit - loot boxes and microtransaction. But more on those later. One form of Season Pass that isn't so bad and that allowed for a new way of publishing games is based on episodic content.
While games based on episodes, which slowly unveiled the story, were published decades ago, episodic games became more popular only during the last decade. At first, gamers only had one option - to buy episodes as they came out, but with the appearance of Season Passes, episodic games offered a single purchase that would give a buyer access to all episodes, as they come out. This publishing type is strongest among adventure games, such as titles developed by Telltale Games, but in recent years more publishers decided to experiment with it such as Square Enix with the latest Hitman title.
Before the rise of digital video game distribution, patching games was a huge problem. Patches would be distributed online, and since bandwidth was severely limited developers had to limit the size of patches. On top of that, they had problems delivering updates to all owners because a large portion of them didn't have internet access or they wouldn't want to patch their games. When the internet became relatively fast and cheap, updates would be published online, on games' official sites or put on forums or bulletin boards.
Multiplayer games demanded all players to have the same patch, making updating them a slow and painful process often making servers to be disabled for days. This is one of the main reasons Valve built Steam.
But with the rise of digital publishing platforms and new consoles (such as Xbox 360) that included digital storefronts, delivering updates and patches became a breeze. And with this simple way of delivering patches, developers started to release unfinished games, which demanded installation of mandatory day one patch.
One of the first examples of day one patches I know of has to do with the Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, the first game of the Lost Planet series. The game had multiple bugs upon release that could be remedied by applying a maintenance procedure on the Xbox 360's HDD, and while not really day one patch per se, it was a proof that games started to get released in the unfinished state.
Today, day one patches are quite common. Kingdom Come: Deliverance is the latest example - the game came out along with day one patch that weighted more than 20 gigabytes, a massive update that was almost as big as the game itself. Other famous examples include No Man's Sky and Halo: Master Chief collection. Oh, and that 50GB day one patch for Forza 7 was awful for those who bought the physical release. Imagine having to wait for a whole day for it to download even though you bought the disc version of the game. While they are a normal thing in modern gaming, day one patches are troublesome, especially on consoles where not everyone has their console connected online or has to pay high internet rates because they cannot opt in for an unlimited data package.
This also leads to the release of broken games, like the infamous Assassin's Creed Unity fiasco that got mitigated with, wait for it, a huge number of patches. And there's also the PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight that also got released unfinished with gamers had to wait for almost a year and to install dozens of patches before the game finally become stable and optimized enough to offer an uninterrupted and bug-free experience.
In the end, day one patches became a new normal thing in gaming. Video game development is more complex and more expensive than ever, and the time between a game getting certified and hitting shelves is used for squashing bugs and optimizing it so that patching it day one gets you a better experience. While this may hurt reviews and those users who don't have uncapped data internet, it also is perfectly in sync with the rise of digital publishing. When we all start getting digital-only games, day one patches will become a thing of the past.
This is something that appeared in mobile gaming space and isn't something we see (at least for now) on PC and consoles. Free-to-play games were here for decades, and modern titles that utilize this form of pricing, or lack of it, usually offer an experience that can be thoroughly enjoyed without spending a dime. You can usually buy new skins for playing characters, receive resource gathering boosters, or buy card packs in CCG titles. And most popular free-to-play titles such as Warframe, World of Tanks, Fortnite, can be played for free without ever feeling the need to spend real money.
But, most mobile free-to-play titles started utilizing a model that works by showing you a game, its gameplay, it features, and then asking you to continuously spend money in order to progress through it. For instance, there are more and more multiplayer-focused games that combine loot boxes with microtransactions. You buy loot boxes with premium currency you paid for and then hope you'll receive strong heroes that will make your hero team competitive.
Or you buy upgrades with premium currency so that you are able to win multiplayer matches. And so on, and so on. This new type of free-to-play titles, while massively hurting the gaming scene, is a huge success when it comes to making higher and higher profit that it makes for one of the most influential trends in modern gaming. And if you say that mobile gaming market isn't part of the gaming industry, well, let's just say that mobile gaming market accounted for more than forty percent of total sales in 2017.
One of the best new trends in gaming is the rise of Early Access development. And while some of you will, rightfully so, characterize this as just another way to get money from gamers, this time by selling unfinished products, we must say that Early Access development has much more positive than negative sides.
The most famous title that utilized this form of development is Minecraft. The game initially got published for web browsers in 2009, with Markus Persson developing it during his spare time. He offered early access to the game for $15 and this way of development approach proved very popular in the coming years.
Once Steam launched its Early Access program in 2013, early access scene just exploded. This led Sony and Microsoft also to offer their own form of early access programs for PS4 and Xbox One. Even Google introduced Early Access program on its Play store in 2016. Early access is a great way for small development teams to offer their game and to invest money got from sales into development, enabling them to build games that would usually be rejected by game publishers or to simply decide not to offer the game to publishers and to go independent for the start.
While some titles never get finished, the majority of these games gets finished and we have lots of positive examples of early access games that ended up being excellent and quite successful. While it has its problems, this approach has proven to be quite an influential trend in modern video game scene.
Another new trend that just swept the gaming scene appeared along with crowdfunding sites. They offered people with ideas, but without funds, to show these ideas (along with plans on how to make them real) and sell their products even before they become available. And one of the most popular product types on crowdfunding sites is video games.
Some of the most famous examples include Shenmue 3, Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin, and many others. This new way of getting funded gave us, the gamers, many games that wouldn't see the light of day because their developers didn't have the money to make them and publishers refused to fund development because they thought those games wouldn't be popular. Thanks to crowdfunding publishing model, we saw the return of isometric RPGs and well as the release of many interesting and original games that were bound to stay ideas inside minds of creative people all over the world.
These were the trends that shaped up gaming scene (at least from the publishing side of things) for the past decade. Now we will talk shortly about trends that could influence the scene during the upcoming decade.
A relatively new trend that started with Destiny and got refined by Ubisoft. Simply put, games as a service is an evolution of MMO games, but this time a game doesn't have to be a multiplayer title to receive a prolonged sales.
This trend is characterized by lots of DLC packs, new single-player campaigns, loot boxes and microtransactions (that should give you just cosmetic items) and a massive amount of content. By releasing new content on a steady basis, publishers can earn more money because the game's earning cycle is way longer than it is the case with classic games. I reckon that this trend will be dominant during the next four to five years, and will be pushed mostly by big name publishers because development cost of this kind of games is extremely high.
Another trend that is slowly rising, but the lack of fast enough internet access on a worldwide scale means that it will stay a niche offering for at least a half a decade. But, once broadband (50mbps and faster) internet becomes a commodity in the better part of the world, you can count that game streaming will become a major trend in gaming. And while PS5 and the next Xbox will stay classic consoles that offer lots of power, console generation after those will most certainly offer game streaming as its major feature.
Last but not least is the subscription model for playing games. Today only EA and Microsoft offer subscription-based access to video games, but you can count that other big-name publishers (Ubisoft, Bethesda, Square Enix) will most certainly offer similar services in the future.
Since there are literally hundreds of different publishers, it is probable that there will be services offering titles from more than one publishers (like Steam, but with subscription), but the biggest publishers will stick to their own services.
Okay, that was all for this part of the story. Stay tuned for the second part of the story about the biggest trends in video games during the last decade, that will cover developments tied more with video game developing, like the rise of open world games, the zombie craze that is still happening, and the fact that each and every game has to come with unlockable skills.