Despite their artistic and commercial successes, Sony and Microsoft don’t have the stranglehold on gamers they once did.
The companies’ respective home video-gaming consoles, the PlayStation and Xbox, are miraculous pieces of user-friendly technology that have nonetheless failed to stop mobile games, virtual reality, resurgent arcades and vintage-gaming emulators from carving out chunks of their markets.
That’s good news for all of us stuck at home in 2020.
More of us play video games now than ever before, according to a report from DFC Intelligence, with more than 3 billion gamers worldwide and roughly 214 million in America.
We’re playing mostly-mobile games like Candy Crush, Minecraft and Fortnite, with “micro-transactions” (small, regular, in-game purchases) whose drip-drip adds up to billions in annual revenue for their developers.
The number has only grown since coronavirus shutdowns created a huge, new market of always-at-home consumers looking for novel entertainments — ones that are ideally untethered from politics and pandemics, but also an alternative outlet for playing sports games when the real thing lacks.
Ducking trends, video game giants have “thrived” in 2020, according to Nielsen research and others, and “video gaming is at an all-time high.” At one point earlier this year, gaming usage was up as much as 75 percent, according to Verizon.
So what else can we play?
Here are five things to look forward to in gaming that aren’t exclusive to the forthcoming Xbox Series X (releasing Nov. 10) or PlayStation 5 (releasing Nov. 12) — the cheapest, most stripped-down versions of which start at $300 to $400.
I’m using the term “emulator” loosely here, as it really only needs to refer to software. But in adding handsome, familiar curves and colors to its miniaturized versions of classic consoles, companies like Nintendo, Sega, Atari and Sony are selling what is essentially a piece of 8- or 16-bit nostalgia in a cheap, plastic heart (that plugs easily into your TV-brain).
These mini consoles, pre-loaded with hits and misses spanning the late 1970s to early ’90s, are aimed primarily at Gen-X middle-agers who lived through the original eras and now can’t survive without a Sega Genesis Mini, PlayStation Classic, NES Classic, Super NES Classic, Atari Flashback or similar product. These days, most are available at big-box stores (in person or online) for $60-$100. (Unsurprisingly, my young kids love my tangled collection of mini-classic consoles and games, too.)
The flip-side of consoles, and the industry they helped kill in the early 1980s, is the arcade genre. And while a consumer-friendly arcade-emulator market has been slower to arrive than the one for vintage consoles, they’re finally getting really, really good. If you can spring for it, Capcom (arguably one of the top three all-time classic developers) has a gorgeous, roughly $300 home-arcade board pre-loaded with titles such as Alien vs. Predator, Captain Commando, Mega Man: The Power Battle and Street Fighter II.
Like the console versions, these arcade emulators — often oversized and designed to sit on a table or in your lap — all have a range of screen settings and aspect ratios to re-create the classic “lines” on the screen, or go full-4K with your pixels. For an overstuffed experience, Legends Gamer Pro offers authentic arcade controls and an astounding 150 games ($249), including recent Disney titles and all-time greats such as Space Invaders, Burger Time and Tetris (there’s also a mini version for $99). There’s even a trackball!
PCs getting friendlier
The intimidating world of PC gaming — where custom-built rigs and up-the-minute processors are a must — can be put aside for all but the most loyal eSports devotees and World of Warcraft hermits this year. We’re talking about games that you can play on a laptop or standard, middle-of-the-road home tower — and not just ubiquitous, free-to-play, “battle royale” games such as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
Thanks to the speed and compression powers of modern processors, we can now enjoy console-oriented experiences (and controls, if you feel like paying for them) on PCs, whether it’s playing forthcoming, AAA releases such as Cyberpunk 2077 and Destiny 2: Beyond Light, or downloading brilliant, experimental indie games from Steam, a digital distribution market that’s lately been aped by console programmers. There are even gaming-specific PCs with entry prices around the $200-$300 range (blank slates, essentially, for user-added graphics cards and such).
But if you feel like upgrading to a professional level, keep an eye out for Black Friday deals on powerful gaming PCs from iBuyPower, AlienWare and other developers and manufacturers. They’ll likely be able to handle even the biggest, highest-frame-rate titles coming out in the next few months with mind-blowing graphics and suitable, if pricey, monitors. (Be sure to set aside a good $800-$1,000 to start.)
The mainstreaming of video games in recent years has much to do with the success of mobile games, which have expanded from Angry Birds-style time-wasters to elaborate RPGs, globally connected teams and tournaments, and ported versions of console favorites (fancy graphics and all).
As a lifelong, avid gamer, I’ve been pleased and surprised by the panoply of titles that I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into — my current, daily obsession is Transformers: Forged to Fight — and with the blurring of boundaries between PC, mobile (meaning tablet, smartphone, etc.) and console games, the future looks bright. If you can’t find a title or gameplay style to suit your tastes for iOS, Android or another operating system, you’re not looking very hard.
Of course, it’s not all smartphones and tablets. Retro handhelds and relaunched, individual mini-arcade titles have proliferated lately, with Nintendo’s classic Game & Watch (pre-loaded with Super Mario Bros.), Sega’s Game Gear Micro, the Game Boy-ish Go Retro! knock-off (pre-loaded with an insane 200-plus titles) and many, many other manufacturers that have the software but not the familiar brand names (sorry, no Game Boy mini-classic — yet). Expect to plunk down anywhere from $30 to $100 for these all-in-one devices.
Games (yes, some on consoles)
Video games’ overall storytelling and character representation still lags behind its technical sophistication. But anyone who’s stepped away from gaming for even a few years will be stunned at their evolution. The big new titles releasing before end-of-year — Cyberpunk 2077, a Destiny 2 expansion, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Watch Dogs: Legion, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit — offer incredible visuals and endless customization, play styles and content that in some cases takes hundreds of hours (per game!) to explore.
In a bid to push over the fence-sitters, some of these games are specific to their consoles, such PlayStation’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Xbox’s Gears: 5, and Nintendo Switch’s host of unique, kid-friendly series (Super Mario Bros., Animal Crossing, Kirby, Legend of Zelda, Splatoon, etc.). Many of the games you’ll be hearing about for the next few months understand that their market spans consoles and formats, so you’ll be able to play titles such as Cyberpunk 2077 (from the creators of The Witcher series, and one my most-anticipated games of 2020) on multiple platforms.
And I haven’t even scratched the surface of consumer-friendly, home virtual reality titles (or gear) or cloud-gaming services such as Stadia. Simply put, the question isn’t what to play before the end of the year. It’s what to focus on.
Full disclosure: I’m a console gamer at heart, and plan on getting a PlayStation 5 to add to my vintage, mobile, mini-classic and arcade-emulator titles and gear. (Look me up on the PlayStation Network or in Destiny 2: @AbstractProtocol.)
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