After the drama of 2013 -- and you can read all about it in my Year in Review piece from last week -- we enter 2014 with two new consoles and healthy optimism. This time of year, when the fields of expectation stretch out before us towards the horizons of possibility, is the perfect time to use what we have learned over the past twelve months to try and determine what might happen over the next. So without further ado, let's gaze into the crystal ball and try to predict some of the happenings we reckon might come to pass in 2014.
The Xbone Strikes Back
Microsoft are at a clear disadvantage in many ways from our position here at the top of 2014. They have a console that lacks the raw power of its direct competitor, they have an image still suffering from the dramatic own goals and devastating gaffes of 2013, their offering is pricey and bulky and the OS is riddled with issues that need fixing.
But they have a slate of already-announced exclusives set for this year that seem enormously impressive. We always say that it's all about the games, and if that tenet proves true this year, Microsoft are well placed to have a bit of a blinder. It's going to be a much closer next-gen race that we all thought back in June.
Titanfall will be huge for the Xbox One. Yes, it's out on PC and Xbox 360, but the speed of it, the traversal systems and pick-up-and-play beauty of it, make it feel like a game designed for a gamepad and for a console audience, particularly when you factor in video sharing for those highlight moments. Halo returns too in 2014, and it's impossible to overstate the importance of that franchise to Microsoft's console efforts. But we're also looking towards Project Spark to deliver something that's always been a facet of Sony's arsenal -- the mentality of Play Create Share -- combined with something Microsoft should have been capitalising upon for years: crossover between PC and console.
That brings us on nicely to the next trend...
User-Generated Content Explodes
We've already been seeing this happen over the last few years sporadically, largely thanks to Media Molecule and Mojang and, last year, Disney. We mentioned Project Spark above, but it'll go further than that. Toolsets will start cropping up in everything as more and more facets of PC gaming begin to find their way into the console space and developers look for a way to ensure longevity in their communities. What better way to encourage engagement than to offer up the keys to your virtual city?
The indie scene has taken it to heart in a big way, and the likes of Starbound (which is already out in beta form) and Mike Bithell's Volume will serve to play around even more with the connection between developers and creative-minded audiences, between taking a game, an idea, and running with it in many different directions.
Release Dates Will Mean Nothing
Another trend that began last year as we all began to bask in the warm glow of the green and happy lights of internet-induced connectivity, we're seeing more and more games "released" in an unfinished state. Gone are the days when developers made a game, finished it, released it, forgot about it, and moved on. We gamers are an impatient lot, and developers are finding ways of catering towards that whilst also improving what it is that they're offering. So we have playable alphas and massive paid betas, wrapped up in the sparkly paper of Early Access.
What will be key here, as we've seen already, is honesty -- and that goes for everybody, from one-man dev outfits to massive triple-A studios. Communication was shown to be more key than ever before last year, and the perils of ignoring that were felt deeply by the largest companies around. But you only have to look at how popular Early Access initiatives have been to see that this is a process that works for everyone.
The things is, as more and more games take advantage of the connectivity offered by new consoles, the more launches are likely to become plagued by netcode difficulties, inaccurate reviews from closed-door sessions, frustrated players. The hope is that perhaps with more open systems will come more open approaches to patching, allowing console developers to emulate their PC counterparts.
The Wii U will become a must-buy console, but no-one will buy it
This is an easy one. Between Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, Smash Bros., MonolithSoft's X, and the plethora of exciting new stuff that Nintendo have pledged to unveil at E3 this year, existing Wii U owners are going to have a barnstorming year. There'll be a price drop of sorts, which means I'll finally pick one up, but it might be too late for the vast majority of everyone else.
Put simply, the Wii U is likely to finally be a cracking console stuffed with enough really top notch exclusives to warrant anyone who loves games this year. But it won't exactly take off for Nintendo. Unlike Microsoft, who identified their major issues ahead of launch and worked on rectifying them almost immediately, Nintendo have proven themselves to be horrendously good at dawdling, twiddling their thumbs, occasionally saying the right thing and then completely failing to do it.
Nintendo used "dither". It's not very effective.
Conversely, the 3DS will almost certainly have another absolute blinder.
The indie tag will start to lose meaning
You think indie games and you think plucky, tiny teams of developers getting by on tiny budgets, and games filled with interesting ideas but low production values. Maybe.
Actually, sod that, I think indie these days and I think risky, unique, affordable, inventive, digital, and growing. 2014 will be the year that sees that "indie" tag no longer prove synonymous with "underdog" as we see that middle ground that was shrinking and disappearing no more than a couple of years back continue to be filled by games of all shapes and sizes from the indie sector.
Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft have all announced strong indie initiatives, and though they'll take time to develop and mature, I reckon we'll see the fruits of those labours before the year is out. But it's not just double-A, there'll be indies going big and reaching for the stars too, and it'll be interesting to see if they make it in the face of even more reckless overspend from the big publishers.
A new console generation means the time is rife for new ideas to go big, and there's no better hotbed of creative concepts than in the indie sector.
Steam Machines invade the living room, but prove a niche item
The Valve revolution is coming!
Except it isn't. Steam Machines will arrive this year, but they won't revolutionise the living room for anyone except PC gamers of a certain disposition because they'll lack mass-market appeal, too many people will be perfectly happy with Steam on Windows and Big Picture Mode, and the vast majority will stick with the super convenient consoles that they know and trust.
Don't get me wrong, the Steam Machines initiative is really exciting, and the number makes for impressive reading with over 65 million Steam users, more than Xbox LIVE. The audience size, the frequent sales, and the vast array of games make Steam a more attractive prospect than ever before, but how much of the audience will follow Steam into the living room with a new machine is anyone's guess. The range of Machines, the pricing, and the power will be key, and the whole thing is still very much a work in progress.
There's a case to be made for cheaper "stream" Machines, but frankly the internet infrastructure is not good enough on a wide enough scale to make that a safe bet. Valve will do well in the short term, but it's unlikely that Steam Machines will trouble the likes of Microsoft or Sony this year.
Virtual Reality is going to change the way we experience games
A big one to finish upon. This one is part-prediction, part-wishing, but I'm of the opinion that only a fool would bet against Oculus this year. They've had all of the positive accounts of mind-blowing excellence in the press, people have been falling over themselves to fund the Rift, and developers are already getting stuck in. I've met Palmer Luckey, I have looked him in the eyes, and I have seen the vision that stirs his soul. And it gave me a headache.
Valve and Sony are already preparing their own hardware ripostes to the Rift, and I reckon that this is the year we see the Rift hit the shelves, pioneering a wave (probably not a flood) of devices from other companies. Most exciting, though, will be the way that this immersion opens the floor up to those games that people don't like to call games: the experiential titles like Gone Home and Dear Esther. Fully immersed in terms of sight and sound, every single aesthetic detail becomes toweringly important. Moody horror developers will have a field day, and I'll have to buy more pants.
But what about you, dear readers? What do you reckon 2014 will hold? What bold predictions would you make for the year to come? Let us know in the comments box below.