The year has only just begun, but there are already plenty of exciting hints at what the gaming industry has in store for 2014.
At the intersection of powerful hardware and game developers unafraid of experimentation, the following trends are setting the stage for one of the most interesting years for video games in recent memory.
1. Inventive Hardware
Gaming hardware will follow software into more experimental territory in 2014. The Ouya bucked the three-party system last year, but at this year's CES, Steam’s small fleet of Steam Machines are set to sail and other inventive takes on gaming hardware have bubbled up, too.
The new Oculus Rift prototype, known as “Crystal Cove,” builds out the virtual reality head-trip of its forebear by adding an OLED screen and positional tracking, among other refinements. (In a press event, Sony showcased its own Oculus Rift VR knock-off too.) Meanwhile, PrioVR is taking the idea of wearable gaming to the next level with full and half body motion suits
2. Gaming In The Cloud
In the virtual world woven together by syncing and streaming services, the gesture of placing a disc in a tray feels downright prehistoric. Video games are a booming business, so why should playing them be any less modern than streaming a song on Rdio or syncing a movie across iCloud?
Well, Microsoft considered ditching the Xbox One’s optical drive altogether this generation, but eventually reversed that decision as well as abandoning its other strict DRM policing policies in the face of massive consumer backlash. Sony-side, PlayStation Now—a cloud gaming service that syncs games across devices—will merge video games with the cloud in a decidedly gamer-friendly direction. Expect these tensions to play out over 2014 as companies nudge their platforms toward the cloud without kicking the hornet’s nest.
3. Indies Flourish
Indie games once existed in defiance of the mainstream machine. Now they’re alluring to console makers and major game publishers alike, as both try to buy goodwill with gamers. Nostalgic indie shooter Resogun, published by Sony itself, stood out among the new PS4’s handful of launch titles. By showcasing the buzzy indie exclusive Witness (the latest from Braid’s legend-in-the-making Jonathan Blow) and allowing indie devs to self-publish, Sony is positioning itself to be the indie gamer’s console of choice.
Microsoft played catch-up by announcing “ID@Xbox,” its own program to support smaller developers. Expect to see huge indie hits enjoying support from major publishers across both consoles in the coming year, not to mention more indie gems popping up on mobile, PC and on Steam.
4. The New Consoles Will Become Worth Buying
Laptops and phones get annual updates like clockwork, whereas new consoles only roll around every eight years or so. At launch, both the PS4 and the Xbox One had barren game catalogs, making it hard to find a compelling case to upgrade at launch. Droves of next-generation titles will launch in 2014, making Microsoft and Sony's brand hardware beasts worth considering. Every major console launch year is a truly special occasion—and a lightyear’s worth of hardware evolution.
5. Storytelling Transcends Genre Conventions
With rote refreshes of mindless shooters like Call of Duty growing stale, inventive, narrative-driven games will have even more room to shine in 2014. Last year, completely unconventional games like Papers, Please—a game literally about stamping passports—topped “best of” charts.
The Last of Us, another chart-topper with more than 3.5 million units sold, was lauded not for its survival horror mechanics, but for the intricately emotional relationship between its two protagonists. Even the violent sandbox of Grand Theft Auto V relied heavily on the cycling stories of its three main characters, exploring gritty and at-times mundane hyper-realism—and even following one of them to yoga class.
These aren’t the only gaming trends we’ll be watching into the year—Twitch and casual gaming are two others that spring to mind—but they’re definitely a few areas for gamers to keep a close eye on over the next 12 months and beyond. Gaming is more mainstream—and more lucrative—than ever, so with new consoles added into the mix, 2014 will be an exciting year no matter which way you cut it.