What’s next in gaming?

We gaze into our crystal ball and look at the trends and tech set to define gaming in the coming year

Valve’s Steam has brought an iTunes-style experience to PC (and Mac) gaming, saving it from becoming a minor niche platform compared to consoles – and this year the company is set to take on Microsoft and Sony even more directly, by putting Steam in your living room. Valve is working on its first piece of hardware, the Steam Box: a small, quiet Linux-based PC designed for gamepads and big screen HDTVs.

Not only that, but the company is encouraging third-party PC makers to put Steam on their own living room-centric gaming-focussed computers. So far only the prototype Xi3 Piston has been shown off, but Valve boss Gabe Newell has suggested many other such machines are on the way in 2013. Provided these things are cheaper or as affordable as consoles, we can see them really taking off with serious gamer types.

Steam hardware

Gaming on smartphones and tablets is already a huge deal (with over a billion downloads, Angry Birds is the most successful smartphone app of all time) and that trend is only going to continue in 2013 as devices get faster and screen resolutions rise. Take the insanely powerful Windows 8-based Razer Edge (essentially a gaming PC squeezed into a 10-inch tablet), for instance, or consider that there’s certain to be new iPad and iPad Mini models introduced.

The only thing stopping tablets and phones from becoming true hardcore gaming devices is the paucity of good physical controllers (touchscreens, marvellous as they are, aren’t really suited to games which require a high degree of accurate control), so we’re hoping phone-compatible gamepads like the PhoneJoy continue to improve, and that rumours of Apple working on a controller are on the money.

Android isn’t just for phones and tablets: you can whack Google’s operating system on almost any kind of device – including a games console. And 2013 is the year when we’ll be able to shove one under our telly. The most famous is Kickstarter phenomenon OUYA, which looks set for a March launch and a piffling US$100 price tag, but it’s not the only one: Nvidia’s Project Shield handheld (which can also be plugged into a TV for a bigger picture) has just been unveiled at CES; then there’s the Game Stick, a current Kickstarter project which has squeezed an entire console into a USB thumb drive.

Mobile and tablet gaming

We shouldn’t forget that the traditional console model still exists… at least for one more generation. Microsoft and Sony are expected to take the wrappers off their respective successors to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this year (probably at the E3 conference in June).

What can we expect? Well, the PS4 is strongly tipped to do away with physical media to concentrate on providing a cloud gaming experience, not just in the form of downloadable games but perhaps even games streamed OnLive-style: Sony’s acquisition of OnLive competitor Gaikai suggests something along these lines is definitely on the cards.

The Xbox 720 (or whatever it winds up being called) is likely to build on the success of Kinect with “Kinect 2.0”, a more advanced, more accurate form of motion control. We’ve just seen Microsoft Research’s Illumiroom at CES and it blew our socks off – hopefully something similar will be on board the console. There are also rumours of augmented reality glasses.

Speaking of motion control, 2013 will see the long-awaited launch of Leap Motion, a USB controller able to track two hands (and all your fingers) with unerring accuracy. Having seen first-person shooters demoed using Leap, we’re confident that it could be one of the few motion controllers that could appeal to hardcore gamers as well as the casual crowd. Look out for it early this year, alongside an accompanying app store.

Android consoles

Apple has never seemed much interested in games, with the Mac’s selection of titles (even after the arrival of Steam) looking decidedly second rate in comparison to the PC. However, the massive success of iOS as a gaming platform may finally spur the company into exploring new avenues – perhaps not on its existing devices but on the forthcoming “iTV” television set, which is almost certain to come with App Store integration and therefore some kind of gaming capability. Apple CEO Tim Cook has been spotted visiting Valve’s offices, suggesting that we could even see Steam coming on board. Which brings this article nicely back full circle.

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