Whether the world ends or not, 2012 is already set to be an unusual year for games. In the coming months, we’ll see free-to-play models and digital distribution continue to change the way games are made, re-learn the value of $250 as dedicated handhelds battle for relevance against smartphones and tablets, and marvel at PC gaming’s inevitable resurgence as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 continue to move gracefully into old age. And don’t forget: for the first time since 2006, we have two major platforms launching in one year.
But as sweeping as those changes seem, they’re only table-setters for the drama to come–the memorable bits are always in those unforeseeable details, after all. Will the Vita crash and burn? Will Nintendo conquer the soccer-mom market once again? Will Halo 4 be pushed back to Microsoft’s next console?…Will Shigeru Miyamoto wear a dog costume at E3?
Nobody really knows how things will shake out, and certainly not me. If you’ll indulge me, though, here’s a little taste of how I see things playing out.
The HD twins are here to stay
Let’s get the big one out of the way: even with Wii U on the horizon, Microsoft and Sony won’t be detailing their new consoles this year, much less releasing them. The Xbox 360 continues to dominate the American market and just shot past 66 million units sold worldwide. Why steal your own thunder by announcing something new? For Microsoft, a company willing to suffer losses on initial hardware sales, waiting longer means more net profit out of the gate. It also means they can take advantage of the 360’s huge install base a bit longer. I admit that the 360 is remarkably old by console standards and can’t match the PS3 under the hood, so it’s only a matter of time before Microsoft blinks–but that’s a reaction driven by future competition, not current sales. Expect a peep about new hardware by the end of the year, but nothing concrete. Sony, meanwhile, seems awfully committed to its “10-year plan,” and executive deputy president Kaz Hirai already confirmed we won’t be seeing PS4 at E3. With strong PS3 software and a new handheld launching this year, Sony won’t cut short the long-awaited success of its flagship console by announcing something better.
Nintendo takes a marketing mulligan
Nintendo is already ankles-deep in the next generation, but it’s been tripping over its own feet along the way. The Wii U reveal at E3 2011 was banal at best and confusing at worst, as The Big N carted out hackneyed Mii-based mini-games and focused too much attention on its new tablet controller. Core gamers were left wondering about the specs in the console itself, while soccer moms assumed the new controller was just an add-on for their existing Wii. Nintendo won’t axe the Wii U’s awful name, but you can bet its E3 presentation will feature a lot more talk of specs, features, the term “HD” and glamour shots of the console itself. Oh, and new games. I could write an entire piece on the likelihood of each of Nintendo’s properties showing up at E3, but I’ll skip that for now and get to something more interesting: for the first time since 2001, Nintendo will announce a new, first-party, console-based intellectual property. And no, those Mii-games don’t count.
Capcom wins back the core gamer
If Japanese gaming is going downhill, Capcom had the longest distance to fall. After years of balancing high-budget thrillers (Resident Evil 4) with creative experiments (Okami) and old-school throwbacks (Mega Man 9), Capcom started to slide. It underwhelmed us with Resident Evil 5 in 2009, Keiji Inafune left in a huff as Mega Man faded to obscurity, Devil May Cry moved to another studio and since then, Capcom has nickel-and-dimed its way to financial stability with Monster Hunter, recycled fighting games, lousy sequels, Monster Hunter, Dead Rising rehashes and Monster Hunter. That sounds bad, I know. But look at Capcom’s schedule this year. Not many 2’s or 3’s to be seen–Capcom may finally be going back to its quirky, creative roots. The fact that I can’t easily explain some of these games, like Dragon’s Dogma and Asura’s Wrath, is probably the most positive evidence I can give to that possibility. Dragon’s Dogma is in a genre decidedly outside of Capcom’s wheelhouse, but looks to be a refreshing blend of Demon’s Souls and Dragon Age. Its unique, asynchronous multiplayer could make it a cult hit. Asura’s Wrath, meanwhile, needs to be seen to be believed. Think Ninja Gaiden’s solemn storytelling, Bayonetta’s whimsical irreverence and Dragon Ball Z’s…well, epicness. Seriously. In the demo that came out this week, a god crushes Earth with his finger and a demon almost cuts the moon in half. On the whole, Capcom in 2012 reminds me of EA in 2008–a big, coldhearted publisher that suddenly took risks with games like Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge.
Oh, and I’ll put money down that Mega Man is finally coming back. I don’t think it’s possible to please everyone with the Blue Bomber in a post-Inafune era, but Capcom would be foolish to let its most treasured IP sit dormant for too long.