2011 was yet another good year for video games, but on its face it was a little predictable.
Even a casual fan could have called the year's top 10 in June and been mostly correct. The year was in a climate of highly-anticipated launches and loads of 2s and 3s in titles. That's the product of a long console cycle: The pace of hardware advancement has slowed, letting gamers and developers alike spend more time with their home consoles and get to know them better.
Still, on the big picture level, it's an extremely exciting time to be a gamer–-and it's also a time for us to start rethinking what ‘gamer' means.
Outside of the core culture we know and love, the industry is flourishing, and pioneering. Companies are exploring new ideas that will make their way back into the space we're so familiar with. Brand-new things are happening that will change the way we relate to our hobby.
In fact, new trends in gaming will become a bigger and bigger part of the way everyone relates to the world.
First up: Labels about who is ‘hardcore' versus ‘casual' have meant less and less in recent years, and now they mean nothing. The idea of "casual" gaming no longer means a flimsy little sector full of gem and bead puzzles for moms, some world miles away from ours we can just ignore-–unless we wanted to point to it for some kind of defense of gaming ("hey, Fox News, not all games are dark and violent!")
A cocktail of factors have emerged to make "casual gamers" of us all: first and second-wave core gamers are growing up, entering school and starting families and careers. Time budget changes, priorities shift and all that.
Game design has changed, too. We all play games that auto-save, that give us quick sessions, and instanced play online. Even in massive games like Skyrim that people pour hours and hours into, the pleasure is in the freedom to shape one's own behavior of gameplay, a commitment you can control.
And the culture of digital entertainment is new-made again over what we're used to. All entertainment and all communication has shifted from long-form, isolated experiences and into quick-hit, interconnected ones—just look at what's happened to the way we read information. Online journalism ceded to blogging, which in turn lost ground to 140-character Tweets and shareable social media updates. Instead of consuming complex experiences alone, we now consume simple things online, in an environment where we're always aware of and have access to other users.
Most of your favorite games are now much more like a live operation than a closed world with a beginning and end. They are places that exist whether you've stopped by or not. This is the new shape of "casual" gaming-–inherently social and inherently accessible. And you're part of it.
Don't freak out. What this means is game companies now have more ways to reach its most passionate fans even more often.
The biggest and most exciting trend for the year to come is true cross-platform play: That is, you can start a game with your friend on Facebook or in your browser, and then continue it when you leave the house with your mobile phone.
Companies like PopCap are already visualizing it: The company recently relaunched its mobile version of Bejeweled in order to encourage players to play Bejeweled Blitz across both Facebook and iPhone.
Even Microsoft is exploring opportunities for games that live on multiple platforms at once without being disparate experiences; Microsoft Games Studios, traditionally known for aiming to innovate in the core space for the kind of crowd that likes shooters or racing games, just partnered with New York-based Arkadium, a developer of casual games, to explore the cross-platform hardware spectrum. It makes for exciting imaginings on what the next home consoles will look like, and what devices they'll be able to communicate with.
The mobile market has changed everything (just look at how the PlayStation Vita specs look like a catch-all for iPhone features). Smartphones have become part of our everyday lives in pervasive ways, and given how quick-session and persistent gaming is also becoming, we can expect exciting and innovative game forms to emerge enabled by new tech like GPS maps, voice and face recognition and unique approaches to sound transmission.
We now interact with maps, location data, friends and acquaintances through hardware devices on a regular and persistent basis-–and tons of developers are making a game out of the digitally-augmented realities in which we already live.
I recently played an iPhone game I like a lot, called Dimensions, that does this. By enhancing and playing with the natural sound of the environment as you're hanging out at home or walking around, the game creates separate worlds, each one its own sonic landscape, and gives the player challenges based on the real-world map around you. You should totally try it.
Augmented reality games aren't exactly new, but it's this new era of cross-platform technology that truly legitimizes their cultural opportunities. At least, that's what Will Wright thinks—gaming's great visionary recently began discussing HiveMind, an augmented reality game that might even include synergies with television.
The shape of games is rapidly changing all around us. Our labels and designations don't at all mean what they used to, and a world where we're just waiting for [something] 3 to come out on a disc starts to feel a little dated now, doesn't it? Almost like the kind of thing that wouldn't be enough for serious gamers.