The future of gaming is as opaque as ever

Colin Campbell, Monday, March 6th, 2023 4:38 am

For those of us who care about gaming, an enduring difficulty presents itself. How do we frame the future? How do we describe the next few decades without resorting to glib generalizations, or making the error of casting the future on the basis of the present?

A giant, heaving blob of jargon and corporate-speak has arisen around gaming’s future that confuses more than it enlightens. Technologies and “solutions” abound, like blockchain, AI, crypto, NFT trading, virtual and augmented reality, play-to-earn, Web3 and cloud computing. Individually and collectively, these terms complicate our view of the future, because they are manifestations of the fleeting present. 

Unhelpfully, they are often put to work by fake gurus and scammers. They attract rampant financial speculation, leading to esports-like bubbles that must inevitably deflate. Still, they exist in the world, and they are worthy of our curiosity and investigation. 

The one term that most everyone understands (at least in part) and that embraces a majority of predictions for gaming’s future – is metaverse. Unfortunately,  as a concept, it covers a vastness that defies exact understanding, nor even broad definitional consensus. Like esports, it is the focus of unwise speculation and hype. 

Science fiction provided us with the original word, and hit movies like The Matrix and Ready Player One allow us to easily visualize extreme versions of the metaverse. And although the metaverse now inhabits the realms of business and entertainment, it is still mainly a thing of imagination, of science fiction, of undiscovered mystery. That is what makes it so very slippery. The metaverse has its boosters and its critics, yet few of them are much good at articulating specifics.

Metaverse is often used as a synonym for gaming’s future, which is understandable. The likely future of gaming – at least a significant part of that future – ticks a lot of boxes that describe the metaverse – large, multiplayer worlds that encourage socialization, creativity, spending, and competition, as well as the potential for interoperability. 

One can hardly utter the word, without clanging into today’s most successful games, like Roblox, which are indisputably metaverse-like. The fact that this game, and those most like it, are played by young people, whose motivations and desires are different from earlier generations, makes gaming an especially challenging sector to predict. 

While we can safely predict that more advanced versions of Roblox-esque games are going to be a part of the future, this should not blind us to additional alternatives, like single-player games, or gaming experiences that do not currently exist, and are yet to be imagined. Meanwhile, technologies that are often assumed to factor into gaming’s future, like VR and AR, have yielded far, far less (so far) than boosters and investors hoped, while lower technology platforms, like game-streaming, exert far greater pressure on the world.

Downright wild

Back in 2020, I wrote a piece for Polygon that looked back at the “downright wild” predictions game industry insiders had made ten years earlier. The woeful 2010 predictions focused on techno-utopian, science fiction fantasies that are still, today, a long way from realization. The predictions uniformly failed to spot some of the most significant shifts in gaming culture and business that subsequently came to pass.

It’s worth noting that, as much as gaming is a business that relies on predictability, iteration and sequel-ization, the most successful games in the world right now did not exist ten years ago, nor did some of the  business models that now dominate the game industry. 

It is doubtful that those 2010 prognosticators were any worse at predicting the future than we are, here in 2023. It’s also true that an industry that peddles sci-fi fantasies is bound to be easily seduced by technological utopias that promise to make everyone richer and happier. 

As much as the terms I mentioned earlier attract derision, they all hold a kernel of promise, and a solution to real problems that affect real lives. Individual terms might well be declared dead, but many of the concepts they cover are still with us. 

One vision of the future holds that, together, we can and must create entire digital civilizations that will become our playthings. The making of them will be fun and creatively satisfying, as will our consumption of their completeness. 

I personally buy into the dream of creating and inhabiting alternative digital societies but I understand that its realization might turn out to be impossible. Metaverse experiences thus far have mainly been pretty dull. They are often shoddy attempts at conferring value on things that have no value. Their ability to entertain is a delusion born of corporate wishful thinking. Even for those of us who hope and believe, it’s hard to see where successful implementation might be realized.

Equally, the idea that playing a game for profit is somehow desirable is far from proven, and is arguably already as tarnished as its close relative, the NFT. 

In opposition, is the burgeoning reality that people like to create and share their own artistry within game worlds, and that they can and should be rewarded financially. There are some who, deriding genuine in-game economies with cash-out options, are unable to distinguish between a game that rewards talented modders and artists, and one that is merely a cynical trading site for gullible card collectors. 

We hear a lot about the failure of blockchain to live up to its early hype. And yet, it remains a leading solution to a genuine problem, which is that people who buy commercial games, and who perhaps are able to improve upon them (or even not), ought to be able to sell them on. This is a central construct of the Web3 argument that power should be in the hands of consumers and creators, instead of corporations, which continue to behave disgracefully, as they foil attempts at reforming a system that is patently unjust. 

Earl of futurism

What we can say about the future of gaming, with reasonable confidence, is that it will deliver more of everything. Bigger games. More choice and greater fidelity, More emotional resonance across a vast array of genres. More international penetration as well as more representation and accessibility. 

We can safely say that some, even many, of the names that dominate gaming will continue to be major brands in years to come. Call of Duty, for example, is at the center of a legal tug of war between Microsoft and Sony, that prompted the former to sign ten year deals with Nintendo and Nvidia, to demonstrate a long-term commitment to platform-sharing a franchise that is currently two decades old. 

Still, surely we hope that games of the future will be more interesting than multiplayer shooters.  

It seems desirable that they become more capable of creative player input, more able to enhance the lives of players, and more able to connect people than ever before. Already, they are more agile at hopping between – and colonizing – other media like television and music, and most especially social media. 

As games head towards almost universal societal usage, they become more powerful (and divisive) culturally. They cost more to make, soak up ever ever greater R&D investment. Yet the industry’s overall revenues continue to rise. 

Even as the industry goes through a post Covid mini-contraction, no-one is panicking. Everyone expects a rapid correction. Everyone anticipates radical technological and usage advances in the next decade, and beyond.

We can also be confident that so-called visionaries are as likely to muddle their way through as the rest of us. It’s worth remembering that Fortnite – so often cited as an early exemplar of the metaverse – was originally a vaguely unpromising co-op craft-and-build game. That was, until battle royale smash PUBG hoved into view and, hey presto, Fortnite was transformed … into a battle royale smash, but also into a cultural phenomenon and a locus of incredible wealth. 

Epic boss Tim Sweeney is often lauded as an earl of futurism. And while he is undoubtedly an intelligent person, he has no more powers of divination than you or I. When I first played Fortnite at an E3 event many years ago, I could not have guessed that it would turn out to be one of the leading retailers of fashion items in the world, and a major focus for dance moves.  I doubt these thoughts occurred to Sweeney either. 

Meanwhile, famous leaders at tech giants – who are constantly lauded for their power to perceive and shape the future – continue to “invest” unfathomable sums of money on self-serving AR / VR / metaverse etc. initiatives that, so far, have failed to deliver. 

While we hanker for genius to light the way, we might just as well accept that the path forward will, as ever, turn out to be a dusky, confusing trail, trod by all manner of chancers and accidental heroes. Even the smartest people in gaming find themselves surprised by unexpected trends and events, and are in a constant state of self-correction. 

Special organizations with an uncanny ability to predict and shape the future, like Nintendo, can and do make major missteps as they struggle to match their own aspirations with emerging technologies, shifting consumer demands, and the realities of the gaming business. If these people are in a constant state of confusion and error, what chance for the rest of us?

The future of gaming has never been more infested with sooty sayers and speculators. As always, it will prove almost all of us to be fools. 

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.