INSIDE TRADER: The future of gaming

This month ToyNews? Inside Trader Steve Reece looks at the motivations that get consumers gaming and how these and new technologies will influence the industry going forward?
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In today’s whirlwind world, where new gaming formats launch before most consumers have got to grips with the last, we can lose sight of the fact humans have played games for millennia. As far back as Ancient Greece and China, people played games like Mah-jong, Go, Knucklebones and more. Before you yawn at the history lecture, there’s a critical point here: People have played games for so long for a multitude of powerful reasons. 

Some key motivators make people play games, regardless of technological innovations. Unsurprisingly, gaming formats and game titles, which take account of these motivators, are often the most successful in sales and longevity terms.

Roughly in order of prominence the major gameplay motivators are: competitiveness – the need to compete with others and win, or to have the satisfaction of beating friends, families or anyone else. Those who thrive on competition are much less likely to lose gracefully... I know this as both myself and my wife are of this particular ilk, and so game playing makes for interesting times in our house.

Many gaming occasions are driven by desire for social experience. Games are a fantastic facilitator for people who struggle to make polite conversation or don’t know each other well. For many, the pleasure of gameplay is in bringing the group together, and providing the medium via which they bond.

Next is sheer functionality i.e. being bored and needing something to do. 

Those of us with wild children will know this well – hordes of rampaging kids can be quickly controlled and pacified by deploying gaming – many a piece of furniture has been saved by shunting the little darlings in front of the Wii.

Aligned with the functional motivation is the desire for immersion – to lose yourself in an experience to pass the time, de-stress, have fun, or to escape a bad day. Immersion tends to be split in two: those immersing themselves in simulations of reality, and those losing themselves in make-believe fantasy.

Traditionally, and ever increasingly, gaming is a tool to make education entertaining. Both children and adults engage more fully, with greater levels of concentration, commitment and content recall when the experience is fun.

Other gaming motivators include desire for entertaining physical activity, fitness and fat loss; the desire to perform; desire to nurture life (particularly powerful with younger girls and pre-tweens); the constructive/destructive impulses and the expression of violence (without the resulting criminal charges and social issues) are often expressed via gaming; as are the drives to test dexterity and skill, and to seek intellectual challenge. 

Now to be clear, not every gamer exhibits all of these motivators, but it’s not uncommon for multiple drivers to be present. It’s also not uncommon for people playing a game together to have different motivation for playing, hence game playing often leads to friction, arguments and falling out, if one gamer is playing to win at all costs, and another is trying to deliver quality social time for all players – the fur may fly.

So having looked at why people play games, we can also explore how they will play in the future with more insight, and recognise that technology itself is only ever a platform or medium via which the above needs and desires are met. 

The reality is that despite the vast technological advances of the past decade, the primary reasons why people are gaming haven’t changed. The precursor in looking at innovation is which of the above motivators will the new direction meet better?

I’ve described in previous articles the trends in gadgets and technology, but to briefly recap – the short-term will see increased momentum behind mobile everything, social media is still in its infancy, online virtual worlds continue to proliferate and looking a couple of years further into the future, television will evolve into the interactive gateway. Vast fortunes will be created in the next three to five years based on embracing these trends, but only if the experience delivered meets the proven gameplay motivators above.

And what of the more traditional gaming formats? How will they fare in the next few years? Board games, consoles, specialist handheld gaming devices and other 20th century innovations face seemingly unavoidable shrinkage, surely? 

To look at board games first – an area close to my heart having spent a fair proportion of my bumbling career nurturing classic (and not so classic) board games – the format is frankly clunky and old fashioned, however, still serves a purpose as a social facilitation tool. And while the category has been under severe pressure in most major markets in the last few years, strong brands with heritage, innovative new titles and a more ‘gift’ oriented purchase dynamic should see a bottoming out, and a sustainable base level.

For consoles, the longer-term future seems somewhat bleaker. It looks like we’re heading for the last console cycle as we know it. The Wii U, and next iterations of PS and Xbox may be the final passage in a journey that started decades ago. Originally the purpose of the console was to provide the best gaming experiences in terms of playability, graphics and gameplay depth, which could only be delivered by specialist hardware.

The challenge is that while broadband penetration and speed was not strong enough at the start of the last console cycle to compete, it is now. And when our TV sets become the key fixed interactive device in homes, with processing power to match, what is the point and where is the value for consumers shelling out hundreds of pounds for bespoke hardware with costly software?
Developers and publishers have to question the sustainability of investing the majority of development costs in advance of launch with ever expanding scope, versus launching with partial content, then adding new content in proportion to the actual commercial reality of the product – a la social media gaming.

The same argument applies in effect to specialist handheld devices – is the current generation the last? Sure kids can be seen all over the land today, nose-deep and fully immersed in handheld devices, but as mobile device penetration gets ever younger, we appear to be heading towards the last throes of the bespoke handheld gaming business.

And as for the damp squib that is 3D technology so far – in the end what counts is extra immersion, but it’s difficult to be immersed if you’re squinting to process the confusing shapes and movements the 3D screen is representing. Having said that, 3D will get more realistic and robust over time, and that should aid immersion. Along that trend is virtual reality, I remember using a VR helmet back in 1995 at a student union, and it was good in some regards, but too clunky to be effective (although my state of inebriation affects my clarity of recall), have we really not got the technology for true mass market VR yet? Watch this space – it’s out there already, just too expensive to mass produce for now.

The final trend is consumer expectations of gaming technology – they are sky high – technology works more and more like people want it to, as opposed to however companies deliver it. With the juggernaut of social expression that the internet facilitates, there is no hiding place – products and platforms that don’t meet expectations just will not survive. 

And so, the last decade saw increasing technical capacity, power, speed and broader gaming proliferation, while the next will be about intuitive interfaces, ease of engagement and zero tolerance for any gaming not hitting key motivations with minimal hassle factor.

Steve Reece runs a leading brand management company, working in the toy & games industry (he is also a games geek on the quiet, but don’t tell anyone). Check out his blog at www.stevenreece.com.

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