Goodbye 2011, you tumultuous, fickle, lovely year — hello 2012, another 365-day stretch full of promises, disappointments, and with a little luck, a few pleasant surprises as well. While we’re recovering from Christmas candy excesses and priming our livers for New Year’s debaucheries, let’s have a look at gaming’s crystal ball and see what bobs up.
Microsoft’s Next Xbox, Sony’s PlayStation 4
Will Microsoft announce its next Xbox? Could Sony actually deploy its PlayStation 4? Look for product leaks and maybe official acknowledgment that they’re in the offing, probably, but actual product launches, absolutely not. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 debuted in late 2005 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 a year later in 2006, but they’re both sitting with less than half the PlayStation 2’s record-breaking worldwide tally of units sold (the PS2 sold over 150 million units worldwide), meaning that — with price drops and bundling — there’s plenty of sales headroom left (though the chances either will eventually catch the PS2 are at this point zero). We’re also in the major moneymaking phase for each, where developers know how to wring every last bit of performance from the system and turn games around quickly — and with games like Skyrim and Modern Warfare 3 shattering sales records, no one wants to rush either system to its grave.
That said, both the Xbox 360 and PS3 look ancient in PC-gaming terms — at least a generation old compared to contemporary PC hardware. Even ultra-slim tablets like Apple’s iPad are packing technology that compares favorably, and I’ve noted that with wireless display and gamepad support, it’d be a snap for Apple to make the hypothetically more powerful iPad 3 a console contender. The question in 2012 (and through 2014, when I’d wager one or both of these next-gen devices will finally appear) is whether Microsoft and Sony will go with expensive, dedicated set-top systems, or offer less-expensive tablet-like gaming devices (or gaming hubs that interface, like Nintendo’s Wii U, with tablet-style hardware).
Nintendo’s Wii U
No question about it, Nintendo’s Wii U will be with us in June 2012 — and it’s a device said to range in processing power anywhere from “on par with” to “several times more powerful than” either the Xbox 360 or PS3. We’re talking about a quad core 3GHz PowerPC-based 45nm CPU, 768MB of memory and an ATI-based GPU (it’s an Xbox 360-plus, in other words). There’s also the tablet-style gamepad, a gamble by Nintendo to put a frankentablet in your hands in hopes of … well, we’re not exactly sure at this point, though it’s obviously not an iPad competitor — you wouldn’t drag one around for day-to-day computing, email, browsing and so forth.
But Nintendo’s real trick is going to be getting third- and first-party development in lockstep. The Wii’s library of shovelware rivals the original PlayStation’s, and Nintendo’s first-party games have been in a creative rut for years. Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda — they’re like that song the radio station won’t stop playing (and we can’t stop listening to). Forget tablets/pads, no-glasses 3D and motion controls (gaming’s gimmicks, in other words) and let’s see some genuinely fresh gameplay ideas that don’t involve plumbers, gorillas or kids in green stocking caps.
Sony’s PlayStation Vita
The Vita looks increasingly like a device that might’ve been groundbreaking four or five years ago, when gamers were snapping up dedicated gaming handhelds (specifically, Nintendo’s DS) in droves. It’s incredibly powerful at a time when “incredibly powerful” doesn’t matter as much. It has a 5-inch screen at a time when mobile gamers are shifting to 10-inch tablets. It’s designed for gaming exclusively, when consumers are snapping up less-bulky smartphones they’re carrying everywhere and that are capable of producing just-as-impressive visuals (Infinity Blade 2, anyone?). And the Vita’s expensive: $250 to $300 for the handheld itself, with (required) memory cards that’ll cost from $30 to $120. You’ll pay considerably more for a souped-up Vita ($420) than a new PS3.
The Vita’s chief innovation? A backside touchpad that sounds cool on paper, but lacks the marketing snap-crackle-pop of stuff like “3D without glasses!” (as per Nintendo’s 3DS). The Vita’s biggest asset may in fact be its most mundane feature: dual thumbsticks, enabling the sort of sophisticated simultaneous movement and camera control that’s impossible on a touchscreen. With Nintendo’s 3DS selling well below Nintendo’s expectations and the Vita off to a lackluster sales start in Japan, 2012 may be the year we remember as heralding the beginning of the end for dedicated handheld game devices.
The Death (and Life?) of PC Gaming
PC gaming isn’t dead dead, but — speaking in terms of its traditional audience — it’s been on life support for years. Forget the nonsense spouted by interest-driven advocacy groups, who willfully conflate business and consumer hardware sales and fail to distinguish between game-type demographics, and listen to luminaries like Peter Molyneux, who got it right years ago when he described the PC-gaming market as being “in tatters.” Warned Molyneux in 2008: “There aren’t that many releases on PC. There are some high points like Crysis and what Blizzard is doing, but other than that you are restricted to the Sims and World of Warcraft.”
What’s different in 2012? Absolutely nothing. Consumer PC sales (not to be confused with business sales) slumped in 2011 for the first time ever, as tablet and smartphone sales surged. The casual PC-gaming market (Facebook, Facebook and Facebook) notwithstanding, we have a new major MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic (just launched), a couple of tedious-sounding sequels that’ll eventually appear on consoles and probably tablets (Diablo III, Doom 4), and the usual console ports (Mass Effect 3, The Darkness II, Syndicate, Borderlands 2). The bright lights: new graphics hardware from AMD and Nvidia (though who wants to cough up over $500 anymore for a video card that nothing’s taking advantage of?), Kinect for Windows, which could crack wide the motion-control paradigm (though it’ll have less to do with gaming) and stuff like Razer’s Blade laptop, with its clever, dynamically mutable LCD keys and touchpad interface.
Farewell, World of Warcraft
After seven years as the pinnacle of gaming (in terms of player base) on any platform, World of Warcraft’s star is finally setting. Say what you will about its virtues — hardcores claim its PvP endgame is brilliant, naysayers call it relentlessly bland — it’s hemorrhaging subscribers by the million (WoW lost 2 million subscribers over the past year alone). Oh, it’ll be a long death, with periods of resuscitation (the Mists of Pandaria expansion, possibly coming in 2012, should arrest the subscriber decline temporarily), but look for the WoW exodus to continue in 2012, and possible successors — Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2 — to benefit, though it’s hard to imagine either of those reaching WoW’s heyday heights.