2016 saw my fifth visit to Gamescom in as many years. A little later than intended, I bring you an overview of some of the key topics of conversation that occurred during my time spent in the business area. After dozens of meetings and countless discussions across several days – stopping off briefly to give a presentation at Samsung’s press conference – here are three recurring talking points from my time out in Cologne. Below them, you’ll also find my Gamescom 2016 Voxpop (What worries you the most about the future of video games?)
Totally unsurprising, especially for Gamasutra readers out there. I’m preaching to the (un!)converted with this point, but it’s a perennial one that’s worth restating.
There are more game platforms available, in terms of both hardware and distribution channels, than ever before. From a certain perspective, this gives access to an unprecedented audience, but the reality of getting games into the hands of players can be an ever more fragmented, perhaps fractious, task. For every opportunity, it’s easily overlooked that there’s also an opportunity cost in tow, of finding, learning and implementing best practises for any given platform. This kind of diligence can be a moving target, and, for smaller dev teams, easily swallow significant tracts of time.
Even game platforms with minor release volumes, such as consoles, can struggle to provide satisfactory exposure for the full breadth of their catalogues. The platforms themselves keep iterating and refining the manner in which they position and profile their content, and the process won’t ever be ‘perfect’. But some game creators feel that their games have slipped into a black hole, for want of having a traditional high-spend marketing budget in tow.
Everyone agrees that the ground-level accessibility of game creation/publishing/distribution platforms has opened up massively, with the barriers-to-entry having crumpled – that much is obvious. But the subsequent path to success is becoming such an elaborate tangle that some are resigning themselves to thinking of it as a purely random event.
As a heavy user of both the PSN and Xbox Live stores, I can attest that they've gone through lots of tweaks over the past two years, but they're baby steps, at best (image: Author's own)
I’ve been writing about what I think of as ‘social video’ for several years now. It’s the use of video-streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch to deliver user-generated coverage of video games, typically in the form of extended play sessions with commentary. The reach of this activity has grown to such an extent that it’s now an obvious part of the marketing landscape, in terms of how game publishers disseminate their games to potential buyers.
However, it’s only recently that the term ‘influencer’ has really emerged, to encapsulate those people whose broadcasts are consumed by many thousands – even millions – of viewers. In the space of just a year, ‘influencer’ has gone from slight presence in 2015, to what seems like common awareness at Gamescom 2016. This year, the position of the ‘influencer’ is well established, to the point of it appearing on the stalls of a number of marketing companies around the conference, or becoming a focal area for startups.
Influencer, streamer, YouTuber, whatever – does this speedy acceptance mean a plateau for the marketing opportunity? Or some much-needed formalisation for such a burgeoning channel? (image: Video placeholder from Yogascast Lewis & Simon)
When I visited Gamescom in 2015, VR was obviously the talk of the conference, on the back of some pretty major investments and hardware reveals taking place during the prior year. However, the conversation back then tended to be pretty binary: For example, some were dead-against the idea of the format ever gaining much traction, and felt it just another faddish blip for VR.
The hype has cooled somewhat during 2016 – tempered by the reality of several high-profile headsets being released onto the marketplace, among other things – and so the conversation has now matured somewhat. There’s a lot more acceptance around the topic and its role in our futures, even if the interim picture for VR remains swaddled in too many question marks for some. I know that may sound like a banal point to make, but I was surprised at how tangible the shift felt.
I ate a total of 2kg of Milka during my time at Gamescom, surpassing last year’s total of 1.5 kg by a fair old margin. The primary driver of this uptick was my hotel being next to a Really Good Supermarket. Please don’t try to mimic this nonsense at home, as I am a seasoned glutton and a trained sugar-monster.
A little snack for the journey home. Whatever my camber as a professional, make no mistake about it: I am massively biased, in the chocolate stakes. Mmm, chocolate stakes (image: Author's own)
As with all previous years, I took with me a question to ask to pretty much everyone that I met at the show. This year, it was: What worries you the most, about the future of video games? The range of answers was much wider than I would’ve anticipated, and correlated little with job role. The best I can do to consolidate the responses is to offer the following four broad summaries:
While there are myriad risks at play, we've never had things this good. The most difficult period of uncertainty was the wake of 2008, when specialist game platforms were stepping out of their peak sunshine, while smartphones, social network et al threatened to utterly shatter the existing fundament of the industry.
In the past ten years, many strides have been made for more inclusive content aimed at a more open-ended definition of what it means to be a gamer. But if we don’t continue to push in this direction, the risk of gaming homogenising itself into a corner will only increase. Diversity is difficult to account for upfront, but will be what leads gaming to its most healthy flourishes.
The worry here is of marching toward some kind of singularity regarding freemium monetisation. Sure, the fundamental question always remains that people will pay if they feel that the value is compelling enough, but will people become so well-courted with content that they simply stop bothering? A ‘big crunch’, of sorts? Can we innovate freemium content at a rate that matches the escalating expectations of an increasingly experienced audience? I’m not an expert on monetisation, I’m afraid, but you’d be more than welcome to address this concern in the comments, if you like!
There are many excellent games out there that are effectively being sent out to die. While we have a loud, widely-broadcast pictures of the industry’s success, we don’t seem to have an equal representation of how much is being ‘lost’ in conjunction with it all. For every new headline-height of user acquisition or monetisation, what are the by-products of that process? And if such toxicity continues to build, will gaming need to flatten or even shrink, in sheer revenue terms, in order to give itself the chance to revivify into something more robust?
The extra layers of security in effect at Gamescom 2016 didn't seem to impede the conference too much, but then, it was hardly a heavyweight shakedown (image: Author's own)
And finally, atop all that, I have some notes for you, that I was originally planning to include, but didn't have time to expand upon.