CES is a place where video games are literally tossed in the back. In the early 90s, the games industry collectively told CES to go screw itself after being relegated to a tent at the arse-end of the show. You had to walk past the porn vendors to get to the games area.
Fast forward to 2019 and not much has changed. You’re highly unlikely to see Sony or Microsoft showcase a game, let alone announce a new console or product. But if you look closely, you might get a peak into the future of interactive entertainment.
It’s terrifying, it’s expensive, and, in the case of VR, it makes absolutely zero sense.
Here are some of the trends we spotted.
Graphics card wars are back
AMD announced Radeon 7, its 7-nanometer GPU. It’s already making waves.
Mainly, it has inspired the CEOs of Nvidia and AMD to sling shit at each other in public spaces.
“It was kind of a weird launch,” said CEO Jensen Huang, in an absolutely scintillating burn. “Maybe they thought of it this morning.”
Man, take it easy.
While it’s weird to watch Mum and Dad argue in public, it’s also a sign of the times. The tech behind the hardware is heating up, and competition is a good thing. In the end it isn’t just the desktop PCs and the niche subset of players who spend thousands on souped-up rigs who will benefit. The tech being worked on today will help plebs like myself when it filters down to the chipsets being built into the next generation of consoles.
And that next generation is coming.
People are already talking about next-gen consoles
Phil Spencer was on-stage at CES 2019, bringing his signature brand of laid-back banter to a show that tends to ignore consoles. He was there to talk up the Xbox One X and the partnership with AMD that made the console possible. The subtext: next-generation consoles are coming and streaming tech will almost certainly be at the heart of it.
AMD showed off Assassin’s Creed Odyssey running seamlessly on Google’s “Project Stream”. The game was running at 1080p resolution and was extremely smooth. Video game streaming is absolutely a matter of “when”, not “if”.
And, of course, there are reports of Amazon working on their own video game streaming tech. So you can bet your bottom dollar that the Amazon-versus-Google narrative is about to spill into the video game realm over the next decade.
Laptops are big (but convenient)
I mean this headline says it all: Boutique PC gaming companies think big at CES 2019. Laptops were back in a big way, with a lot being announced over the course of the show.
Two laptops jumped out at me as being part of a broader trend.
First, Alienware announced the m17, which is a 17-inch gaming laptop that’s designed to be incredibly thin and light.
Second, Asus announced the ROG Mothership.
Both seem tied to the idea that laptops can be big, powerful machines that are viable as desktops for PC gaming while acknowledging convenience is increasingly becoming a factor.
The ROG Mothership is modular, taking its cues from devices like the Microsoft Surface. Its keyboard is detachable and the display can sit at different angles. It’s designed to save space and — above all — be convenient.
It got me thinking a lot about the Nintendo Switch and the ways in which that device has transformed our ideas of what types of games can be played where. Previously, I considered gaming on the move to be the domain of short burst play, but I’m increasingly playing big, meaty video games on the move thanks to the Switch. Devices like the ROG Mothership and the m17 could potentially do the same thing in the laptop space
Nostalgia is slowing, for now
Prior to the show I expected to see CES 2019’s gaming space dominated by retro products, NES Classic imitators and the like. That didn’t play out as I expected.
In fact, compared to last year there was a marked decrease in retro gaming. Are consumers tired of the nostalgia kick? I don’t think so, but there is a sense that execution is key. Nintendo has done a great job pushing their older back catalogue in authentic ways, but Sony dropped the ball with the PlayStation Classic. Maybe it’s all in the execution.
Games are fighting for the public space
A low-key trend playing out at CES 2019 was the number of companies trying to create video game experiences that live in public spaces. Many are trying to figure out what the arcade or tabletop game of the future looks like.
In one corner was the Polycade, a high-end console of sorts that lives inside a futuristic arcade cabinet. This is a beautiful, modern-looking, if expensive, piece of tech. It allows people in bars and public spaces to play a multitude of old and new games. I spent some time playing Dead Cells, my favourite game of 2018, on the Polycade. But there was much to choose from.
On the tabletop side, this modern Pong table, which started life as a Kickstarter project, was way, way cooler than it had any right to be. It was tactile, rewarding and just super pretty to look at. It was legitimately one of my favourite things at CES this year.
VR is confusing and splintered.
On the plus side, HTC announced the Vive Pro Eye with eye-tracking, an innovation that truly pushes VR forward in meaningful ways. The ability to navigate menus and play video games using your eyes will no doubt make VR more accessible to a broader audience.
Anyone with a VR headset knows the drill. When you get someone to try VR for the first time there’s that awkward period where people have no idea how to move in and out of menus and select games. Eye-tracking helps a lot with that and I’m excited to see these minor steps forward.
Still, VR feels like a dream gathering dust. Its presence at CES 2019 was small and what was at the show felt confusing and splintered. There were massive arcade experiences, which are good and we’re going to see a lot of theme parks integrate VR and AR into their attractions. But on the home side, it was a garbled mess of peripherals that are clunky at best and nausea-inducing at worst.
There were Cyber Shoes, which strap onto your feet like snowboard bindings and have you roller skating on the spot to move forward. There’s the 3dRudder, which is already available on PC, but now coming to PSVR. That’s like a board that allows your feet to dictate movement in 3D space. I wanted to throw up within a minute.
I’m hopeful for VR, but I definitely feel like it’s a tech in need of a hibernation period. Let’s come back in five years or so and see what’s possible.
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