This article was written on March 26, 2019.

If you’ve been following my ramblings here on Critical Coins, you’ve noticed that I’ve made the post-physical future in gaming my little corner to turn around in and pat down repeatedly—mayhaps with a smirk in the direction of the erstwhile creator/owner of Critical Coins, who has waged a bitter and tenacious losing battle against the disappearance of physical cartridges, consoles, the used-game market, and anything else that is slowly going extinct in gaming.

Basically, it’s all circling the drain into the gullet of the future, bleak and monetized though it may be.  And, because I have a healthy sadistic streak in me, I enjoy watching Mitch rant and rave as this comes to pass.

But if you’re ready to lay down your arms and accept the grim darkness of things to come, then I’m willing to scry that hellscape once more for you and reveal glimmers of things that may come to pass.  Come then, and let us drink deeply of this abhorrent vision together…

Paying for every single (patched) piece

Since games no longer have to come packaged in some kind of “whole” product, it follows that they increasingly no longer will; instead, they will be released in bits and pieces, as they are developed, but with a key difference: you, as the customer, will be paying the whole way.

The paradigm has shifted from product to process with publishers always looking for the next way to profit.  What we might have considered “unfinished” in the days of yore has now become the de facto standard release—and not without the gamer-customers’ help!  I personally have to commend these greedy publishers for developing an incredibly insightful understanding of the human mind, against all conscionable concerns and protests, to take what psychologists have discovered and turn it to their profit-making advantage.  They’ve done this in several ways, such as in the phenomenon we know as “loot boxes” and other mechanics that encourage you to pay-to-win.

Perhaps most importantly for this particular article, is the latest cycle of game development that has, dare I say, reached an “acceptable” standard.  That is: 1) releasing an unfinished game, which will get reviews full of ranting from most, and tolerable acceptance from the most devoted; 2) Continuing development for that game post release and fixing and completing what was wrong with it; 3) Re-releasing it with enough upgrades to justify such a release, often just barely, and winning the praise of those who predictably commend the developers for “sticking with it” and making what was wrong, right; 4) Profit all the way (of course), and winning back the goodwill of gamers who have now been mentally and emotionally conditioned to accept a broken, underdeveloped product with the hopeful promise that it will be worked on by this developer and publisher who has worked on such products before!  It’s pure genius, and it is only possible in a post-physical future.

Subscriptions based on brand

Let us look to Netflix, CBS, Amazon, Disney, and an increasing number of other creator-vendors of particular brands as a model for this next part.  The trend with all of these corporations is that they will get you, the customer, to pay for subscription access to their library because of what’s in that library.

Mind you, anyone with a decent modern TV and even a 25 Mbps internet connection will be able to view whatever TV show or movie is in these libraries without a problem at the highest quality (though in some cases a dongle of sorts is required).  So hardware is out of the question—it’s all about the media, or software, in the case of gaming.  

What’s the parallel?  Well, already we see the shuffle happening in gaming.  Microsoft is on a path to abandon its physical games, along with its physical console after the next generation, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sony follow suit, leaving Nintendo inevitably to be the final dog across that line, since Nintendo has always been a champion of its physical products.  Microsoft is very oddly ahead of the curve on this one, in its quest to make everyone an “Xbox customer,” as it were.  Even Google sees the writing on the wall: physical games are over, and soon, a physical console that you save anything on will be as passé as having a cable box the size of your current consoles, and as pointless.

Google Stadia

But with that comes the breaking down of all those barriers that separated an Xbox from a Playstation from a PC, as cross-platform games like Dauntless take over, allowing people from all of these ecosystems and more to suddenly play together.  So where’s the value in this post-platform world?

The libraries, of course.  Observe what those corporations I’ve mentioned above are doing for music, TV, and film, and translate it over to gaming, and you have what I anticipate to be a very predictable future in gaming where you, as the paying game consumer, will subscribe to Microsoft’s or Google’s or Amazon’s or Sony’s or Nintendo’s library (notice how I stuck Amazon in there?  Because why not?  They started making movies, and I figure Bezos won’t let the opportunity pass him by to develop his own gaming studio as well) for the titles they can get only in those libraries.  The implication here is that you, as a consumer, will not be allowed to own your own games.  If you think this a dystopian pronouncement, then I offer you Amazon as an example: in 2018, Amazon made what we might call a “soft” move to remove uploaded music from its libraries.  I call it “soft” because they provided a way to keep that music, but how many people actually paid attention to that, or got the message, I wonder?  Netflix has survived—and thrived!—on a library no one can truly own.  A prelude of things to come, then, in gaming: in the future, the possibility of owning games will gradually disappear, replaced by subscriptions to content you can never truly “own” in the traditional sense without that service.

Where does Steam fit in all this?  Well… that’s a great question, because up until now, Steam has been the Amazon of gaming in a way, selling titles for download and ownership by gamers, provided they play through Steam.  Yet, we already saw the seeds of publishers breaking away from Steam’s grip years ago with launchers and game storefronts of their own, such as Origin, which received much criticism thanks to its lack of features and reliability and library when compared to Steam.  Yet, Epic is trying the same thing with their storefront and… well, they too are receiving criticism, but they’re making a go of it.

Customers will be loathe to transfer from Steam, but I would not be surprised in the least to see publishers begin to restrict more and more of their titles to their own storefronts, leaving Gabe to reconsider his own storefront’s position possibly a decade from now, if not sooner.  Where the titles are, so will go the customers, as it were.  Given that Steam is currently free, they may maintain the grip on their customers’ loyalty, but for how long, I wonder… as more titles are available elsewhere, Steam may begin a long descent into a kind of GoG for older games.  That is, unless Valve can develop new ways to remain relevant, such as with peripherals (which we’ve already seen them working on).

Gaming without the box and screen

Which leads me right into my next prediction: that gaming, freed from hardware constraints, will be able to fully branch out into newly developed forms of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).  For newcomers to the developer front, this may offer the possibility for competition that traditional games do not.  As higher speed internet connections increasingly spread across the country and the world and become available at higher speeds in a growing number of places, the need to remain in one location to play your game will gradually disappear.

With gamers able to play wherever they go with light peripherals, indeed, I predict we’ll see more games interface with the “real” world in a growing number of ways through AR and VR.  Already Pokemon Go experienced a successful experimental run of this type of game, and as developers come up with new ways to design games for an AR-centered experience, entire sub-genres, all falling under the AR umbrella, will likely emerge, each with their own achievements, goals, and competitions.  Indeed, playing the game may be something you do while going about your day, no matter what you’re doing.

And for those who want an even more immersive, total experience, VR will be there to welcome them, if developed properly and made available to the mass market.  The “Matrix” may in fact one day be the way we work and game and live.  Already we have people paying for “4D” movie experiences with Avengers: Endgame, and an increasing number of games are being developed for VR headsets and peripherals.  Both markets have shown incredible promise for stability, and both can succeed where traditional games cannot: without the box and screen.

PlayStation VR

Indeed, much as Google Drive and other cloud services have already made having your own hard drive and media irrelevant and unnecessary, with a high enough internet connection, the very box with hardware that runs our games will become obsolete, across the board.  Instead, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, you’ll have subscription services that offer you tiers of performance in the same way that Google charges for drive space.

And monitors?  With AR and VR, monitors are quickly becoming a hassle that ties us down to a screen hardbound to defined parameters measured in inches and locked to a single location.  Among the greater trends of our society in America is that people are moving more frequently, and engaging in those activities that they can multitask on the go.  With driver-less cars, gig jobs, and traveling for work becoming increasingly prevalent, the hassle of dragging along actual bulky hardware will be seen as much of a nuisance as carrying around coins in your pocket.  Eventually, most of us would and will trade it all in—keys, wallet, change—for a chip in our hands that opens our doors, unlocks our house, and recognizes us as an authorized user whenever we log into… anything.  Since logging in will be required to access everything, why not?

Game is life

When gaming is something we do while we’re doing other things, and is connected and linked to our various other accounts (see: the growing trend of connecting services together), it’s not hard to imagine a future like that painted by Ready Player One, where gaming is simply part of how we live and work, and is connected to and informed by all of the various other aspects of our lives: our friends, our family, our workplace, our hobbies, our social groups, our location, our salary, or just about any other vector you can imagine.

Without the constraints of physical monitors, consoles, PC towers, even keyboards and mice, all replaced by peripherals the likes of which we have not even conceived of yet, sitting down and playing a game on any kind of hardware will be a thing of the past.  You will live your games, as they are connected to all the other parts of your live inasmuch as anything else is.  That’s where we’re headed in our techno-surveillance state society; always connected, always subscribed, always a consumer, never an owner.

Of course, the future we experience may end up being entirely different, and I may just be indulging in a little dystopian science fiction here; I’m willing to admit that.  But, let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree and why, or if there are additional changes and transformations and pathways to the future that you see personally in the future of gaming that I didn’t mention.  I’d be happy to read them.