Every year the videogame industry passes through a strange kind of neurotic dance. The fall sees an explosion of games to provide parents, gamers, and cash-heavy spenders with videogames for the winter holiday (Christmas, Hanukah, etc.). Once the giant orgasm of game publishing is over, game companies like to quiet down, have a cigarette, and prepare for the New Year. Most companies don't really quiet down at all; as of December 2005 many were already planning E3 and their fall schedules.
The first quarter of any year is quiet, however. Some would call it dull. It's also foreboding, like a toy boat wading from shallow waters beyond the lifeguard line, just waiting for the winds to pick it and hurl it into the stormy waters of spring. The Game Developers Conference hits North America in March, and it's a hint at things to come. Late April and early May are like the Hoover Dam breaking in slow motion: The build-up to E3 (North America's massive Game event, the Electronic Entertainment Exposition, E3) is a giant mess of broken embargoes, leaks, and news stories about developers and the games they're making. When E3 finally hits, everyone tries to stay afloat amid the massive flood waves of information. The summer is a bit of a recovery period, slow in June and July but picks up in August, and the whole thing starts over again in September with tons of games trying hit shelves before the holidays.
We're in January, so it's the slow period. But that doesn't mean we don't know what's going on. It just means the publishers are hiding their plans a little better. The year 2006 brings enormous potential: The second wave of Xbox 360 games, the possibility of Sony's PS3 Nintendo's Revolution, and an enormous winter holiday bonanza. This could be the biggest year in video history if everyone plays their cards right. Will Microsoft's first-year strategy pay off? Will Xbox Live explode with greatness? Will the potentially new IPs take off, will we see Halo 3? And can Microsoft really take Sony's two-gen crown?
In this two-part prediction piece, we'll look deep into our crystal ball and make some speculations about what this year will bring. If you don't believe how good we are at it, check last year's predictions (IGNXbox Predicts the Future, Pt. 1 and IGNXbox Predicts the Future, Pt. 2), we did well.
Xbox's Last Gasp
At E3 2005 Microsoft stated it wouldn't make any new Xbox games. The big American console manufacturer published Conker: Live and Reloaded, Fantagram's Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes, and snuck out Fable: The Lost Adventures for a bargain price in fall 2005. Microsoft Game Studios made the full transition to Xbox 360 and it's not looking back. Third parties, however, will follow a different plan. The Xbox has a healthy installed base of more than 21 million units, and companies such as Electronic Arts, Activision, THQ, Eidos, and Take-Two and others will continue to develop well-established brands on these systems. But don't expect to see brand new IPs (i.e. original game content) on Xbox in 2006. Expect a flurry of games such as Tony Hawk, Madden, the 2K series, and more annual games to hit the good old Xbox in its final year of real support. All AAA games will come to next generation games.
Grand Theft Auto 4
The biggest selling franchise in the current generation of consoles is Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series. Normally, we would say that Sony has already crossed its T's and dotted its I's and secured an enormous deal with Rockstar to keep the venerable series exclusive to PS3 much the way it was on PS2. Normally, we would predict that the series will come out first on PS2, then PC and Xbox 360 after. But we're thinking differently this year; we're feeling optimistic. We believe Microsoft is in negotiations with Rockstar right now to negotiate a much better deal for 360. Microsoft has earned respect in the industry as a business partner and as a successful console manufacturer and companies that were conservative in the current generation are will be more generous with their games and their big franchises on multiple systems. This year, we'll see a new Rockstar IP coming (as revealed in the company's financial statements), and no new GTA game (other than a possible port of GTA Liberty City Stories) on Xbox. The next big GTA (say, GTA4) will come down the pipe in 2007 on both Xbox 360 and PS3 simultaneously.
LucasArts: KOTOR 3, Mercenaries 2
LucasArts' recent silence by no means equals inactivity. On the contrary, Knights of the Old Republic 3, in development with Obsidian Development, is in the early stages of creation for a late 2006 -- most likely a 2007 -- release. The game should feature more seamless interaction between NPCs and the lead character, as well as better, more economic interactions between party members. We predict the combat system will go entirely realtime, as opposed to partially realtime (the way it was in KOTOR 1 and 2), and RPG fans will be able to enjoy more distinct shades of gray recognized by characters instead of the black and white distinctions made in the first two iterations of the series.
While that's in development, Pandemic and LucasArts will deliver a knockout sequel to the surprise action game, Mercenaries in late 2006. Pandemic is working on it for both Xbox 360 and PS3 right now, IGN has learned, and it will include a more developed storyline, bigger, more realistic environments, more weapons and weapon packages, and though we're not sure, a significant online component.
Prey Steals Gears' Glory
We've all seen the Gears of War coverage so far. It's almost impossible not to have, considering it has been shown at almost every major Microsoft event in the last year. In it, you guide Marcus Fenix across the planet Sera as he battles ferocious Locust swarms. While the game has proven to be visually stunning so far, we're not really sure about its gameplay mechanics. It's been frequently described as "stop and pop" gameplay, but what that precisely means or how it will prove unique is unclear. Basically each level seems to proceed with players advancing to a hostile area and taking cover behind cars and ruined structure while occasionally popping out and unleashing a few bullets. Does that really sound revolutionary?
While you're thinking about that, consider Human Head Studios and 3D Realm's Prey, a first person shooter with a few very interesting features. Prey lets you control Tommy, a Cherokee who's had his girlfriend stolen by a mysterious alien force. From what we've seen so far, the game takes place aboard the alien craft with a distinct biomechanical flavor. Much like in Gears of War, you'll face off against freakish alien creatures. Unlike Gears of War, you'll have a variety of unique ways to dispatch them. In many of the game's environments you'll have to grapple with changes in gravity, as well as an entire Spirit dimension you can enter to perform stealth kills and access otherwise blocked areas. Though it's a first-person shooter, Prey is far from mindless, and may in fact prove to be more entertaining and more innovative than Gears of War hopes to be.
The HD-DVD Drive Goes the Way of Sega's 32X
Though it was just announced, the stand-alone HD-DVD drive from Microsoft will not prove successful. Why? First, let's go over exactly what the external drive is used for. As far as we understand it right now, the drive will be for movie playback. No official word yet on whether the HD-DVD drive will somehow be involved with games. With that in mind, take a look at what Microsoft big boss Bill Gates had to say out HD-DVD in an interview with engadget.com:
"In terms of movies, I often say that this is the last format battle there will ever be [hd-dvd and blu-ray], because everything is going to go online -- you're going to download it. In fact, one of my favorite features on Xbox Live is where you can go and get the HD demos of the games or get HD videos like the making of the Xbox, the making of Titanic, they've got this Mission Impossible 3 thing."
Though he doesn't say it outright, he indicates that the future of the Xbox 360's movie capabilities are with Xbox Live and downloadable HD content, not with an HD-DVD drive. Second, this announcement is merely a bullet point on somebody's spec sheet created to square up with Sony on paper and say, "See? We're next gen, we're supporting HD-DVD." Third, given how Microsoft was so quick to drop first party support for the Xbox, how dedicated do you think it'll be to support the relatively extraneous external drive? Of course, the external drive doesn't really require any sort of product releases to function. You can buy and use it to watch movies regardless of whether Microsoft is still paying attention to it. But as for any plans of Microsoft further integrating the HD-DVD drive into the 360 or with gaming, this statement makes that seem highly unlikely. In other words, the external HD-DVD drive will remain a totally extraneous Xbox 360 accessory, even further removed from gaming than Sega's 32X.
Hope you enjoyed part one of our prediction series. We'll deliver more lethal blows and intelligent speculation in tomorrow's second and final chapter. Stick around!