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Three Gaming Trends to Watch After Last Week's GDC

A theme from GDC 2014: There's still a lot of uncertainty about gaming's future.

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If there was one big takeaway from last week’s Game Developers Conference, it was this: Everything we learned over the course of the event may be irrelevant this time next year. In an industry evolving as quickly as gaming, uncertainty is the rule, and there’s no guarantee that the platforms and business models that resonate with consumers today will do so tomorrow.

That said, three clear themes did emerge during the event: Mobile’s role in gaming is becoming increasingly more significant even as it continues to evolve, free-to-play is headed to more platforms and virtual reality appears poised for a strong comeback.

Mobile change we can believe in

At a breakfast roundtable of gaming companies from Sequoia Capital’s portfolio on Tuesday morning, Unity CEO David Helgason said the gaming world is “pretty damn close” to seeing a game that looks as professional and polished as Bioshock Infinite, but made by just three people.

Similarly, Pocket Gems CEO Ben Liu argued that “mobile gaming as we know it is going to be dead in a couple years” thanks to improvements in both devices’ power and network quality.

“The very first incarnation was about bringing things to mobile for the first time from other platforms in a way that worked for mobile,” Liu said. “Now, we’re seeing mobile-first products, not necessarily inspired from other platforms.”

Much has been made of how the potential audience for games has grown since the introduction of smartphones and tablets, but the companies that make games continue to evolve as well. In a presentation on Monday geared to small indie game teams, Keith Katz of mobile incubator/accelerator Execution Labs noted that development and marketing tools change faster than many would expect.

“If you haven’t launched a mobile game in a year, you can pretty much assume that your [marketing] info is out of date,” Katz said. “This market changes more quickly than anything else I’ve been a part of.”

Nascent business models

In a sign that the free-to-play gaming model pioneered in east Asia is gaining increased traction stateside, both Microsoft and Sony indicated last week that the popular-on-mobile model may also work on consoles. (Free-to-play, for the uninitiated, lets all users get at least a little bit of the game for free while paying for things like new levels or virtual goods; the model works for both casual games like Candy Crush Saga and hardcore games like League of Legends.)

Phil Spencer, Microsoft Game Studios corporate vice president, alluded to the success of free-to-play while discussing how Xbox One could better serve independent developers. Sony, meanwhile, sponsored an entire GDC session on the topic, “F2P on PS4 — Can it Work?”

In the session, PlayStation Mobile exec Sarah Thomson said console free-to-play is still in its infancy, but that PlayStation 4 owners are beginning to develop a digital content habit: More than 80 percent of PS4 owners have downloaded some digital content, and the few F2P games Sony currently hosts are converting between three percent and 15 percent of players into paying users.

“We expect to see a free-to-play title that will legitimately compete with big titles,” Thomson said.

However, panelist Jared Gerritzen of independent developer Zombie Studios said that even though his PS4 game Blacklight: Retribution has found some free-to-play success, he’s uneasy about what might happen if it becomes the norm for big titles to borrow the concept of microtransactions and layer them on top of premium prices. Such an outcome, he said, would worsen the experience for gamers.

“Free-to-play actually scares me,” Gerritzen said. “I think we should just keep it a secret that we’re doing well. … Unfortunately, it’s something we’re going to have to deal with quite a bit.”

Step into the game

The last and biggest open question of the show: Can virtual reality actually work this time around? At previous conferences, discussions about Oculus VR’s virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift, mostly focused on the technical aspects of Rift prototypes. But Sony’s entry into VR, known as Project Morpheus, has changed the conversation, suggesting the Rift and the immersive gaming experience it promises may find a massive consumer audience.

Virtual reality has bombed before, most notoriously with Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console in the ’90s. Simply put, both the hardware and the software were not ready for primetime, and the big question is what will it take to scrub the stigma of early VR from the average gamer’s memory. As one gaming exec said to me at a party, “Will Joe Gamer really play with this?”

Maybe by next year’s GDC, we’ll know.

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