[Gamasutra kicks off its year-end retrospectives with this year's top five game industry trends, a look at the biggest topics of concern to the industry. From Facebook changes to new kinds of controls, these are the business evolutions that will best define 2010. Previously: Top 5 Major Industry Events.]
2010 ushered the game industry into territory it's not quite visited before. We're settling in for an unusually long console cycle at the same time physical retail can't seem to shake its slump, new platforms are exploding before anyone's quite figured out the most ideal ways to leverage them, and every participant in the arms race seems to be finding its own niche, rather than continuing to compete at who can be the best at any one thing.
During a year that saw what seems to be an unusual amount of upheaval in the form of major industry events, some things remained constant: The puzzles we struggled to unwrap, the little paths we began to forge into our future, and the issues of most concern to developers and players alike.
These are the five biggest trends that emerged as major threads that will define 2010.
5. Figuring Out Facebook Gaming
It used to be you could design a simple social game that posted to your friends until it encouraged them to get involved. Then, as the platform began to reach saturation, you had to design a more sophisticated social game -- one that not only looked good, but was aggressive at cranking up engagement metrics and user numbers.
Then Facebook quashed its familiar viral channels. Suddenly even the most popular of games, like FarmVille, began to see heavy user attrition. Now, social game developers are forced to seriously consider what it takes to really succeed and delight players on Facebook, amid an environment of angst that sometimes puts veteran designers-gone-social at odds with some of their more traditional colleagues.
Now Facebook developers will have to use the platform to create products with substance; the companies with big, beloved brands, sophisticated gameplay mechanics, or whose games offer useful entryways to other, larger-scale products (as Ubisoft is doing with Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood) will be the most successful. Quality standards get higher, and developers are treating the ethics of metrics-driven design as a real concern.
Gaming on Facebook is settling in and growing up, and one big trend this year saw developers discuss and work out possible ways to keep evolving along with it.
4. 3D Stereoscopic Gaming
Do consumers want 3D gaming? Will they pay upwards of $6000 for capable televisions? Will they want to wear the glasses? Who knows, but these are surely some of the questions that divided the game industry this year.
Some companies heartily endorsed 3D -- Sony, which has Bravia televisions to sell in the coming year, put lots of teams to work on 3D gaming content. Engine-makers like Crytek and Epic were happy to play their familiar part in the graphical arms race, showing off 3D games and intiatives at every opportunity.
Microsoft took a wait-and-see approach, tepid on the unproven space. And Nintendo split the difference with its 3DS, a glasses-free 3D portable that looks to be the among the most anticipated product launches of 2011. The next few years will be 3D's proving ground, but this was the year everyone began to take the discussion seriously.
3. Cloud Gaming Possibilities
Companies like Gaikai and OnLive promised to change everything consumers know about media consumption when they unveiled their radical new streaming services earlier this year. If all of a product's rendering is done in a server cloud, hardware's theoretically rendered irrelevant.
Of course, no one is throwing away their consoles just yet. It remains to be seen what kind of potential for widespread adoption these services have, and how they'll make a splash on the scene when the early-adopter audience -- the most hardcore gamer -- already has everything he or she needs to play favorite games.
And many industry-watchers say that in an industry increasingly reliant on high-quality multiplayer, ongoing issues with latency, even a little bit, could be damning to these solutions. The possibilities are exciting, though. That helps explain why cloud-based streaming game services were one of the most considered and discussed industry arenas during 2010.
2. Getting Smart With Digital
No one believes physical retail is on the way out anytime soon, and digital distribution has loomed on the horizon as a rapidly-evolving, important new way for companies to reach their consumers. But this year showed the plan's about so much more than downloadable games and episodic content.
This was the year publishers took everything they've learned about digital and truly demonstrated how powerful it can be -- Take-Two hammered episodic releases for its major titles down to a science, for example, as a way to diversify its portfolio and to turn single discs into franchises.
Just this month, Electronic Arts revealed it's seen enormous profit margins on download-only Battlefield 1943, with some users spending hundreds of dollars on add-on content for Bad Company 2. The military game battle ahead turns out not to be between Call of Duty: Black Ops and Medal of Honor, but between Black Ops map packs and a Vietnam-themed add-on for Bad Company 2.
Digital revenue models are, importantly, helping companies circumvent used game sales, with the "Online Pass" concept pioneered by EA and being explored by numerous other publishers. From Facebook credits to microtransactions-enabled smartphone games, digital's no longer just an option: It's the only way to succeed in an increasingly platform-agnostic gaming world alongside visibly ailing physical retail.
1. Next-Gen Motion Controls
When Nintendo first unveiled the Wii, nobody could have expected the impact motion controls would have. Years later, the next-gen platform holders finally conceded that they missed the boat; Microsoft launched the controller-less Kinect for its Xbox 360, while Sony released the glowing Move wand for PlayStation 3.
As the year draws to a close, it's safe to say that Kinect had the most impact on the industry. Even if most reviewers seem to feel the technology is not yet where it needs to be, Kinect's hugely-buzzed, heavily marketed launch has changed the way we think about interface and abstraction in game design.
These products and the waves they made in the marketplace, the designer's workplace and the media create the trend that best represents 2010.