GDC State of the Game Industry 2020: Key trends for the year ahead

GDC State of the Game Industry 2020: Key trends for the year ahead
Editor at TechForge Media. Often sighted at global tech conferences with a coffee in one hand and laptop in the other. If it's geeky, I'm probably into it.

The latest GDC State of the Game Industry survey has been released highlighting several interesting trends for the year ahead.

2020 is set to be an important year for the gaming industry. The next-generation PlayStation and Xbox consoles are due to arrive in time for Christmas wishlists, there are murmurs of a Nintendo Switch Pro, VR is maturing, and cloud gaming will accelerate.

Console wars: The last generation?

11 percent of survey respondents said their current project is being developed for the PlayStation 5 while 9 percent said they’re currently targeting the Xbox Series X. This slight lead for PlayStation is mirrored in the current-gen results with 25 percent saying they’re currently building games for PS4 compared to 23 percent for Xbox One.

As for their next project, an equal 20 percent of developers said they intend to build games for the current Xbox and PlayStation consoles. There is, however, another discrepancy when it comes to next-gen with 23 percent planning to release their game for PS5 compared to 17 percent for the upcoming Xbox. Over a third (34%) of developers expect their games to launch on both current and next-gen consoles.

PS4 was the best-selling console of this generation so it’s understandable game developers are prioritising Sony’s platform. PC is still the platform which interests game developers the most (50%), PS5 takes second place (38%), Nintendo Switch in third (37%), and the upcoming Xbox falls behind at fourth place (25%).

However, a new generation offers new opportunities and Xbox hasn’t looked more competitive under Phil Spencer’s stewardship from a commercial standpoint since the Xbox 360.

The Xbox One X well and truly put an end to the many comparisons showing how poorly Xbox titles ran up to their PS4 counterparts. “Netflix for games” service Game Pass is helping to fund new games while giving them greater reach because gamers can try them at no extra cost. Project xCloud finally taps into Microsoft’s cloud expertise and infrastructure through Azure to stream games wherever a gamer has their mobile device and a reliable internet connection. A spree of legendary game studio acquisitions has ensured the likes of Rare, Obsidian, and Ninja Theory can continue doing what they do best. While PlayStation is slowly getting on board, Xbox is leading in breaking down barriers to playing with friends through promoting cross-platform play between Xbox and PC.

Xbox still has some way to go to fully rekindle its relationship with some fans who jumped ship to PlayStation. Many won’t forget “DRM-gate” in a hurry, but Microsoft is making the right moves to make up for its missteps. It’s not a stretch to imagine Xbox could retake its place in Western markets but the company has acknowledged it needs to do a lot more to capture the love of Eastern audiences.

"I think it would be nice if we found an Asian studio, in particular, a Japanese studio, to add [to our studios],” Spencer said in an interview with gamesindustry.biz last year. “I liked it when we had some first-party capability in Japan. We have a small team there, but I think we can do more.”

Of course, some analysts believe this will be the last console generation…

Cloud streaming fight begins

While there’s long been a rivalry between Xbox and PlayStation in the console space, the latest battle is happening in the cloud with all new competitors.

Xbox has long talked about the cloud’s potential, both in terms of streaming and even for processing to help deliver experiences beyond what local hardware alone can do. Cloud services are Microsoft’s biggest revenue source so it has invested in vast data centres around the world on a scale that’s difficult for Sony to match (PlayStation Now’s problems are well-documented and it’s somewhat pivoted to a download service rather than streaming.)

Project xCloud, Xbox’s streaming service, is still in beta but is already very promising. With 5G rolling out around the world, on-the-move gaming is only going to become more appealing. So, has Xbox won simply through lack of competition? Far from it.

Microsoft’s cloud rivals, Amazon and Google, are throwing their rather sizeable hats into the ring. Google has already launched its Stadia game streaming service while Amazon’s rival is rumoured to launch later this year.

According to GDC’s survey, more game developers (6%) are currently building their games for Stadia than xCloud (3%). The gap is closed somewhat when it comes to developer’s next projects with eight percent planning to support Stadia compared to six percent for xCloud.

Of course, it’s early days for both services and game developers have to specifically build for Stadia as a platform whereas if you’re creating games for Xbox then you’re also making them available on xCloud (with an API available to detect if your game is being streamed if you wish to customise the experience.)

Virtual reality matures

Virtual reality has been touted as the next big thing for many years without it really coming to any fruition. The main reason is the lack of adoption due to VR’s high requirements.

Not everyone has a high-end PC capable of VR, nor the budget to buy such a rig and purchase an expensive headset on top. Even those who did often felt limited due to wires breaking the immersion and limiting movement.

Mass adoption of new gaming technologies typically happens in the console space. While it was still wired, PlayStation VR helped to introduce virtual reality to mainstream gamers. We know Sony has plans to improve VR with the PlayStation 5 and this could be when we begin to see real traction in the space.

Game developers appear to be having increased confidence in VR. Part of this increased bullishness appears to be a result of the release of Oculus Quest, a wireless VR headset with relative mainstream success. The headset most VR developers expect to release their next game on is the Oculus Quest (24%), followed by the Oculus Rift (20%), and finally the HTC Vive (16%).

VR developers are also most interested in the Oculus Quest (39%), compared to 22 percent for the Valve Index, 21 percent for the Oculus Rift, 18 percent for PlayStation VR, and 16 percent for the HTC Vive.

The result is devastating for the HTC Vive. “In prior years, we’ve seen the HTC Vive win out as AR/VR devs’ most targeted platform,” noted GDC in their report. “In 2019, it appears more devs turned their attention to Oculus’ flagship Rift headset even as the company’s new wireless Quest headset has quickly attracted a lot of interest from VR devs.”

Of course, people won’t adopt VR for gaming without good titles. However, without adoption, developers are reluctant to build good games without a potential audience to recoup the costs. Valve looks like it will take the gamble to break that cycle with Half-Life: Alyx, arguably the first highly-anticipated AAA VR game and one which could be the trigger for increased investment from both gamers and developers in virtual reality.

According to GDC’s survey, 14 percent of developers are currently building titles for VR headsets. There’s currently less development going on for AR with just five percent creating experiences for such headsets. 15 percent of developers expect their next project to be released on VR headsets compared to 7 percent for AR.

This is in contrast with developers’ sentiments regarding which immersive technology will be the most dominant in five years. 32 percent believe it will be AR compared to 25 percent for VR. Given the accessibility of AR through smartphones, and the push by Apple and Google to adopt the technology on their respective platforms, it’s likely the majority of developers are right to believe AR will be more dominant than VR in that timeframe.

You can register for a full copy of GDC’s 2020 survey here.

Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this and sharing their use-cases? Attend the co-located 5G ExpoIoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo, AI & Big Data Expo, and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London, and Amsterdam.

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