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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

PC Gaming 2011 Predictions

Continuing my series of 2001 predictions, I'll look at PC gaming. I define this as a wider field than some might; in this area I include MMOs, boxed retail PC games, downloadable games, Flash games, and F2P games like League of Legends. While the boxed retail PC game has certainly had a difficult few years, people still spend a lot of time playing games on their PCs. The PC game market's biggest threat may be the emergence of the tablet market, as it eats into PC and laptop market share. A tablet may be a better way to game for many people at home; it starts up right away and games are easy to install and acquire. Of course, tablets lack the control possibilities of a PC, so certainly hard-core gamers will still be attached to their cutting-edge hardware. Still, many game makers will want to look closely at the tablet market, if they aren't already.

Anyway, here's some of my predictions for PC Gaming in 2011.

  • The Star Wars MMO has a disappointing reception. Oh, they'll sell a bunch right away, but there will be a chorus of complaints about game balance, play style, and the Star Wars universe fidelity. I can predict this without having seen the game because that's the way MMORPGs launch: Game balance is wonky and they prefer to get that right while people are paying for the privilege of testing. Early adopters will complain about it, and complain about what they get to do or can't do, and Star Wars fans will no doubt find things to complain about. The real key is whether the game is compelling enough to attract people despite the flaws, and stick around long enough for the flaws to get fixed. I think it will be, but I don't think this is going to replace WoW. 
  • WoW remains subscription priced, but adds more items to be purchased in-game. Speculation will continue about a shift to F2P, but it won't happen this soon. Meanwhile, though, Blizzard will rake in more dough by ramping up the things you can purchase in-game. Plus they'll be making a renewed push to add more gamers and get their subs growing again, which won't have much effect. There are too many other gaming choices competing for players, and that sub price will get to be a heavier burden over time.
  • Most new MMOs launch as F2P; the ones that don't struggle. We'll see a number of high-profile entries into the MMO space this year, many of them with subscription pricing.  If these games don't grab and maintain a big audience, as I predict, the subscription model will be pretty much left for dead as far as new games are concerned. Certainly D&D Online's success has inspired other MMO's to follow suit. Game design is an issue, of course, but I think this will be the norm going forward.
  • Steam continues to grow and gain market share. This is an easy prediction to make; nothing succeeds like success. They're doing a lot right, and continue to refine what they do. As retail stores contract their shelf space for PC games, Steam will expand to fill the void.
  • PC games at retail continue to fade away. The flip side of the last prediction. Have you looked at the retail space devoted to PC games lately? Ugh. Aside form the occasional high-profile title like Call of Duty: The Sequel, there's a wealth of cheesy game shows and assorted low-priced stuff. Not very lucrative for the retailers, I'm sure. The smaller package size has meant less selling goes on in the store; the shelf isn't pulling in customers. GameStop better hope console games stay healthy at retail.
  • F2P games become even more popular. A major RPG is announced as F2P. Free-to-play is kicking ass and taking names. I have no inside info on Riot Games and how League of Legends is doing, but I infer from the fact that they're looking to hire dozens of people that it must be doing pretty well. I'm expecting somebody to realize that a Diablo-style RPG based around a F2P business model would make a pile of money. It's what Diablo III should be if they really want to make a bundle.
  • Call of Duty does not add a subscription plan. Some analysts have called for this, but it's not gonna happen. At least not right away; it may be part of a future release. But I don't think will see a move to try and migrate a user base over to a pay model when they purchased a game under a different expectation. If Activision really wants to do this, I'd say do it with a new release that you charge less for upfront... maybe even a free release.
  • DLC rules. Downloadable content expands even faster and generates a lot of money for companies. On the other hand, users may feel burned if they think they have to pay for DLC in order to compete at a game. Or that someone can pay to get some nifty ability that totally destroys you if you haven't paid. Game design issues will certainly impact marketing and business results here.
It'll be a good year for PC gaming overall, as long as you're not a retail store.

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