How will games (and gamers) be different a decade from now?
The numbers are startling: According to video-game tracking site VG Chartz, Nintendo has sold an astonishing 20.9 million Wii game consoles worldwide, while Microsoft has sold 16.9 million Xbox 360s and Sony has managed to move just 9.8 million PlayStation 3s (PS3).
Yet before the PS3 launched in November 2006, many respectable gaming pundits were convinced Sony would retain its decade-long domination of console gaming. Sure, the PS3 was expensive, but it was loaded with features, like high-definition DVD playback and a hyper-fast 3.2 gigahertz processor.
Nintendo's Wii, on the other hand, was so pathetically underpowered that it couldn't even display high-definition graphics. Sure, it had an innovative, motion-sensitive controller, but to a lot of people, that just sounded gimmicky. Before its worldwide launch in November 2006, lots of smart people thought the Wii would be a niche product, appealing primarily to young children.
Boy, were they wrong.
Predicting the future is never easy, and it's particularly difficult in the fast-paced world of video games. But the runaway success of the Wii highlights some trends that will be very important over the next decade, as the gaming industry matures and becomes more mainstream.
First and foremost, expect the demographics of the average video gamer to change significantly. The Wii's motion-sensitive controller has gotten a lot of credit for being technologically innovative, but its real genius is that it opens up gaming for people who wouldn't normally play video games.
You don't have to read a 30-page manual and memorize 17 button combinations to play "Wii Sports." If you know how to swing a tennis racket or throw a baseball, you're good to go.
Low-time-commitment games are also going to be huge. While it is generally true that middle-aged women won't fire up an Xbox 360 for a hair-raising session of "Bio Shock," older women definitely play puzzle games like "Solitaire" or "Bejeweled."
Shrewd entrepreneurs are already taking this to a new level, offering so-called "casual games" specifically targeted at an older, female audience. Winster.com, for instance, is focused on creating cooperative, social games that particularly appeal to this demographic.
The smartest game makers are also "thinking outside the screen." In 10 years, mashing buttons to control on-screen avatars will no longer be enough. Gamers will insist on being able to "feel" a game, or to "move" realistically within it. We already have force-feedback steering wheels, guitar-shaped controllers and pressure-sensitive dance pads. In the future, expect much more.
Video game graphics will continue to grow richer and more detailed. But don't expect that photo realism alone will be enough to sell a game. Sony's face-flop with the PS3 proves gamers aren't obsessed with hyper-realistic graphics to the extent that game designers are.
Most gamers don't require characters that look exactly like actors in a movie, and don't care how realistically blood splatters; they want to play great games. Chess isn't any more or less fun in high definition; it's the game that counts.
PC games are going to grow in importance, especially for older, more educated gamers. After being widely dismissed as dead (or irrelevant at best) only five years ago, PC role-playing games have made a tremendous comeback.