Personal space invaders
The phrase 'game changer' is an overused one even for the hyperbolic world of technology, but ironically, it can justifiably be applied to the world of gaming. We're still in an era dominated by stand-alone consoles from the likes of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo - but only just. Games on smartphones and tablets have ballooned in popularity in just a few years, while Microsoft Kinect is threatening to make gaming a completely voice-activated and hands-free experience.
It's changing so quickly that the future of gaming is up for grabs, and it's no longer about who's got the latest and greatest hardware. Thanks to a firmware update at the end of last year, the Xbox 360 now boasts myriad apps alongside gesture control for both gaming and general navigation, and it can search for content purely based on speech. It's all rather limited for now, but it's a big step towards blurring the line between the real and virtual worlds.
HiveMind seeks to do just that. Dreamed up by Will Wright, the designer behind Sim City and The Sims, it will be the first video game to swap fictional computer-generated worlds for the real thing. When it will become available is not yet confirmed, but we can expect a series of games, rather than just one, in which players sign over personal data for a personal experience.
We're talking situational awareness, in which the game you're playing reflects and uses specific information about where you are, what time it is and what you just tweeted. It could use your Facebook photos to populate any given scene, or perhaps it will merely use data on your favourite band or singer to determine the background music. Put simply, HiveMind will be connected to get you more emotionally entangled in a game, most probably one that can be shared within a social (media) circle. As its name suggests, Wright has also talked about designing games using crowd-sourcing techniques, whereby the community playing a particular game will contribute ideas, information and solutions that shape the game itself.
HiveMind might be difficult to fathom, but it's simply taking advantage of the huge global network of connected people, devices and data that is fast making the 'virtual' in virtual reality almost meaningless. Expect other games to be dynamic, not only in their structure, but also in their content; experiences will be totally personal and will depend entirely upon who is playing, their preferences and their online activity. For the gaming industry, it's all part of growing up. It's often said that the major games releases are like Hollywood films in terms of both budget and risk, but demographics are at work that could reverse that relationship.
The average age of gamers is constantly rising, so it makes sense for games to become more adult, perhaps taking on a voyeuristic edge. Facebook is more popular with middle-aged people, so it makes sense to feed one into the other. There are a few things we do know for sure about future gaming. First, everything will be online. The process has already begun, with online gaming becoming the dominant way that most experience the most popular titles, like Call of Duty, Battlefield 3 and Halo: Reach, and it's hardly going out on a limb to say the days of the optical disc are numbered. With the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360's increasingly sophisticated platforms and regular 'game changing' firmware updates, it's now possible to store games in, and stream movies from, the cloud.
Online gaming will not only spread, but also grow exponentially. Instead of inviting a friend to participate in a certain game, imagine a scenario where every player in the world currently playing, say, Gears of War 3, all took a small part in the same virtual world. Such a game doesn't exist for now, but with everyone online everywhere - be it via a home broadband internet connection or a smartphone - that situation can't be far away.
It's possible game consoles will disappear, too, with the spread of powerful, connected and smart televisions and other gadgets rendering them pointless. With a screen full of downloaded apps and a motion sensor in the remote control, it might be time to wave goodbye to the dedicated console.
Having established themselves on a variety of gadgets, games will become more mainstream. Commuters and children certainly weren't a major part of the gaming community until gadgets like the small and affordable Nintendo DS arrived. The more advanced 3-D-capable Nintendo 3DS has been less successful, with Sony's attempt to undercut it with its own handheld PlayStation Vita now under way - the Wi-fi and 3G-capable PS Vita went on sale in Hong Kong at the end of December for HK$2,280. Only 14 titles were available at launch, but Sony is promising to 'transform every aspect of a user's daily life into an entertainment experience'.
Apple's App Store has quickly become a gaming sensation, but platforms come and go, and for most of us, it's irrelevant where our entertainment comes from. The game changer in this industry is going to be the game itself.