Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show, hardware companies announce many new technologies and products that could have a profound effect on the games industry -- or immediately fall off the face of the Earth due to a lack of consumer or developer interest. Here are the five trends games industry professionals should take away from this year's CES.
1. Everyone wants a piece of mobile games (but no one knows what's going on).
For the games industry, this year's CES was one of the more interesting ones in recent memory; from new consoles to new mobile chipsets to renewed interest in cloud streaming games services, there has been plenty to talk about. Clearly, some of the major hardware players -- chipset manufacturers like Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia, but even high-end peripheral companies like Razer -- have decided that the industry growth from the mobile games sector, combined with the surprisingly long wait for new consoles from Sony and Microsoft, have given them an opportunity to carve out or expand their own fiefdoms in the games hardware industry. But it's not yet quite clear what technologies, applications, and avenues will be the best way to do that, which means that we're seeing a lot of hedged bets and different directions.
For example, each of those three companies will be competing in mobile chipsets (Tegra, Snapdragon, Intel Atom), but Qualcomm and Nvidia both have significant interest in streaming game services as well (Qualcomm for mobile broadband radios to drive down latency, Nvidia for their GRID game streaming server) -- and streaming game services don't necessarily drive demand for more powerful mobile chipsets, since the hardest workload isn't done on the client device.
In addition, Nvidia has decided to release their own Tegra-based Android console (Project Shield), which can also stream games from a local PC, and Razer has decided to throw their hat in the mobile games ring with the rather pricey Razer Edge Windows 8 game tablet that could conceivably replace pretty much every game device you have except your smartphone. (Lenovo, meanwhile, announced a $1699 27-inch table-mounted touchscreen PC called the IdeaCentre Horizon, which is probably the least mobile console short of a six-player X-Men arcade cabinet -- though, jokes aside, it's actually pretty neat to play with other people around a large touchscreen like that.)
Each of these companies has figured out that mobile games (which includes streaming PC/console games to mobile devices) are how they're going to convince consumers to buy new gadgets (or service providers to buy server racks), but no one seems to have a very clear vision of the best way they should be doing it. And that means it's going to be tricky for publishers, game developers, and middleware companies to figure out where they should be making bets, too.
On the other hand, this means that hardware developers will need to attract game developers to their platforms more than ever, which should hopefully mean more opportunities for game devs to make interesting, unique games (and make money on those games in those platforms' less-competitive app stores). Lenovo, for example, worked with Ubisoft studio RedLynx to adapt a few of their games to the IdeaCentre Horizon, and it could be that similar kinds of opportunities become more common over the next year as more hardware developers recognize the need to actively attract game developers for their platforms.
2. (3D, 4K, Smart) TVs are kind of boring.
While it's easy to drool over the 4K resolution TVs that are being paraded around CES this week, the fact is that TVs in general are kind of a lukewarm product category when it comes to potential for game developers. 3D TVs are basically dead this year -- not as a technology, as most new sets from major manufacturers support some form of 3D, but because consumers don't care, which reduces the incentive for game devs to make 3D games.
Meanwhile, internet-connected "Smart TV" technology has made a few incremental improvements over the last two years, but when so many people still have flashing VCR clocks somewhere in their home theater setup, selling a TV with a decidedly user-unfriendly UI is kind of a tricky pitch. While a few TV companies are showing off games in their Smart TV features (either through streaming clients, like OnLive apps in Google TV-enabled sets, or a port or two of games like Where's My Water? running natively on the TV's hardware), it doesn't seem like any TV manufacturer is seriously interested in attracting game developers or publishers to bolster their built-in game library, nor are the devs and publishers falling over themselves to make games for a proprietary Smart TV platform that doesn't have a particularly engaged, game-buying audience in the first place.
Instead, this year's big TV push was the 4K, or "Ultra HD" resolution standard (3840 x 2160 pixels), which have practically zero native content in video, much less games, and likely won't really be in consumer homes in any significant number for at least the next few years. It's probably worth a game dev's time to keep tabs on the 4K standard, but that's about it (unless you're selling games for the rich and famous who plan on buying a 4K TV this year, anyway).
3. Windows 8 is still too early to call.
Windows 8's presence at CES this year was a definite "Maybe." On one hand, there are a lot of really intriguing Windows 8 devices coming out, like Ultrabooks that convert into tablets, or Lenovo's aforementioned 27" tabletop touchscreen PC, or the Razer Edge game tablet. However, that doesn't actually mean that any of these gadgets will sell in large enough volume to make it worth a game dev's time to publish through the Windows Store. Last year, Ultrabooks were all the rage at CES, but they didn't actually sell as well as anticipated -- probably because when a sleek Windows machine costs the same as a MacBook Air, most people will just buy a MacBook Air and install Windows on that if they really want to. (In October of last year, research firm IHS iSuppli notably downgraded their estimate on how many ultrabooks were shipped in 2012 from 22 million to just over 10 million.)
Windows RT devices, meanwhile, were practically absent from the show floor -- but it's hard to tell whether that means it's dead in the water, or whether Windows RT tablet manufacturers are simply saving their announcements for mobile-centric show Mobile World Congress in late February.
4. Pay attention to mobile gamepads.
One way to tell a trend at CES is to walk through the gaming showcase and see how often certain products or technologies appear in the lower-budget booths. This year, it seemed like everyone you've never heard of was trying to sell some kind of gamepad for your smartphone or tablet as a discrete peripheral or occasionally a retractable case. In the past, these booths would usually be hawking unplayable, imprecise motion controls based on accelerometers (in 2010) or wannabe Kinect cameras (in 2011).
It isn't just the no-names, though. This year, hardware manufacturers are going to be selling (or trying to sell) plenty of products aimed at recreating a console-quality experience on your tablet or smartphone, whether it's Nvidia and Razer by building new consoles that basically integrate mobile devices with dual-stick gamepads (the Shield and Edge), or by selling controllers that work with your existing Bluetooth-enabled gadgets (which include established accessory manufacturers Mad Catz and SteelSeries and attention-getting startups like Moga).
The problem is that since there's no established mobile Bluetooth standard for controllers for game devs to work with, the hardware devs have to work with the game devs to make the controllers work for each game, meaning support for these accessories so far is piecemeal at best. Sorting through which games work with which controllers on which platforms is nothing short of a nightmare right now. Mad Catz has announced they're working on building and evangelizing an open standard based on HID; if they (or someone else) is successful, we might never have to play a game with a touchscreen gamepad overlay again.
5. Emerging markets play games too.
Both Intel and Qualcomm were keen to point out that their plans for 2013 include low-cost chipsets meant for inexpensive smartphones in emerging markets (Brazil, Russia, India, and China, for example) -- and that those chipsets were perfectly capable of playing Android games. More smartphones means more potential players, and a proliferation of lower-powered handsets might actually be a boon for smaller mobile dev teams who are finding it hard to keep up with the rapid pace of mobile tech progress.
In fact, smartphone owners in emerging markets could potentially be more voracious game consumers than their established-market counterparts. Qualcomm senior marketing director Michelle Leyden Li explained the role games play in Qualcomm's emerging market strategy thusly: "In mature markets, people are additive -- they have multiple devices they can play on. When you look at emerging markets, though, most people can only afford one device, and that'll be their smartphone, and that's the first device they'll have a gaming experience on that they own. One of the things we do with our Adreno GPU is we take the high-end version and do a waterfall version of it, the 305, so we can bring a really nice game experience for smartphones in emerging markets...We've seen great pickup in the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] markets, and we've seen great pickup working with mobile game developers to bring more games to those markets."
If Intel and Qualcomm are successful in growing the potential audience for smartphone games in emerging markets, game developers might find it worth their while to test the waters and develop for said markets, especially if the smartphone app stores in mature markets continues to grow and make it harder for developers to get noticed.