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What lies ahead for video games in 2019?

Guardian Technology 08 Jan 2019 07:00
Post-apocalypse zombie survival … Last of Us: Part 2 is likely to be released this year. Photograph: Sony

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.

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.

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.

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