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a blue and purple wireframe model of a woman wearing a VR headset Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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The most surprising video game predictions from a decade ago

Industry pundits and media were woefully wide of the mark

Ten years ago, game industry insiders were asked by various media outlets to make their predictions for the decade ahead. Some writers made their own predictions. The way they saw the future was not how it unfolded. In fact, some of them turned out to be downright wild.

Many predictions carried a heavy focus on bizarre techno-utopian dreams and rapidly shifting business models. There was almost no anticipation of the social-political changes that have swept gaming these past 10 years, which have been defined by a greater focus on representation, and a rejection of the old “games are for boys” coda. There was no real focus on esports, indie games, virtual reality, or microtransactions.

Despite their inaccuracy, those predictions provide an interesting insight into the gaming world of 2009, and the expectations of the people who made games and wrote about them.

Here follows a few of the more speculative predictions. (Note that we’ve declined to name the people making predictions, because mostly, these folks were voicing widespread ideas. They shouldn’t be mocked or Google-amplified for failing to see the future.)

a mustachioed man in military gear with a helmet cam holding an assault rifle in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Infinity Ward/Activision

Technology and graphics

“What is looking very likely indeed is the fact that by 2020 we should be able to render a convincing reality,” said one developer, going on to ponder the moral question of “an exact replica of yourself” being killed in a video game.

A research and development manager pledged that they would, by 2020, “put you in a historical battle scene from 1000 AD and render all of that completely convincingly.”

“In-game graphics will approach photorealism to a degree we see now in movies like Avatar,” wrote one journalist. “It will be hard to distinguish them from reality.”

Undoubtedly, games look better than they did 10 years ago. Certainly, they’re vastly more interesting from a stylistic point of view. But we’re still a long way from controlling exact replicas of ourselves.

To take the example above, of battle scenes, graphical improvements between Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in 2009 and the new Modern Warfare of 2019 are mostly notable in the areas of shading and light. But they’re arguably less marked than the visual advances of previous decades. Likewise, while the arrival of virtual reality has given us immersive fantasy realms, they are far from offering real-world detail. This began to change at the end of the decade with the advent of real-time ray tracing, a cutting-edge rendering technique that can deliver photorealism and looks poised to bring about the next generation of gaming graphics.

One executive predicted conversing with AI characters. “I expect us having conversations with incredibly realistic NPC voices, while having no requirement for massive amounts of voice acting, and intelligent understanding of what the player is saying.”

AI has improved immensely in games, but voice acting is actually booming, and scripted narratives are still at the core of gaming. Narrative games in which players navigate dialogue trees have come a long way, but they’re still pretty simplistic, rarely ranging far from a scripted experience.

The R&D manager predicted that “mind control devices” would be available, and cheaply produced. And that games would be able to read players’ facial expressions and react accordingly. But while promising research is ongoing in these fields, it’s still at a nascent, pre-market stage of development.

a man sitting on a beige couch wearing a VR headset and holding his hands out
Virtual reality still has a long way to go.
Shutterstock

Control and movement

Ten years ago, the gaming world was still processing Nintendo Wii’s huge success. Microsoft and Sony were on the cusp of delivering their own motion controllers.

“It is something of a no-brainer to assume that hands-free motion gaming, in combination with new 3D technologies and the like, will be leveraged more and more in the coming decade,” said an executive at a large publisher.

One journalist wrote that players will “sit on your couch with a wireless keyboard, using a Kinect-like system to gesture in place of a mouse.”

The notion of consoles as a “media hub” was also popular at the time. One executive said: “Your console will be everything you need and it won’t just be used with a handheld controller, if you need one at all.”

By 2010, Wii’s success was beginning to fade. Its limited motion-control functionality failed to inspire much in the way of subsequent success, despite the best attempts by Sony and, most notably, Microsoft’s doomed and expensive Kinect experiment.

Another busted flush was 3D. The 3DS had recently launched, and 3D TVs were appearing for the first time at CES, all of which doubtless prompted over-enthusiasm for that particular sector. “I think it is safe to say that most games and all AAA games will be authored in 3D by 2020,” said an analyst.

“3D will finally be able to lose the glasses for home console play, and the result will be a far more immersive gameplay experience,” said a developer.

It turned out that 3D TVs were a flop. And the 3DS’ 3D capabilities were a minor factor in its success. Many players switched off this function, and Nintendo did not pursue the technology with subsequent hardware launches.

One game developer came closest, by hedging their bets. “There will be a lot of experimenting with interfaces during the next 10 years but I think the basic general purpose controllers that will be used by the majority of the games will stay pretty similar to what they are now.”

In a long and interesting 2009 piece about the future of game technology on IGN, there’s not one mention of virtual reality, though one developer said that augmented reality would be “a large part of games” and correctly anticipated that the price of AR would come down significantly. It’s now built into all smartphones.

E3 2014 - PlayStation/Xbox hallway
Despite predictions to the contrary, consoles wars are still with us.
Samit Sarkar/Polygon

Console wars

Back in 2009, streaming platforms OnLive and Gaikai were seen by some as the future of gaming. “Streaming technology like OnLive will mean you can stream any game from a massive data centre to a set-top box and pay a monthly subscription,” said a developer. In the following years, both Gaikai and OnLive failed to make an impact on the market, subsequently folded into the ambitions of Sony.

Google’s Stadia just makes it into the decade, launching on Nov. 19. Its battles with Sony, Microsoft and others, for the future of “Netflix-style” game streaming, is the new “console war,” a relic that many predicted would be dead by now.

“The concept of ‘platform’ will have long been forgotten,” said one executive.

A predictions piece on Mashable stated that “Apple will make an entry into the console market,” and that “for Apple, this should be easy.” Another piece, in Forbes, predicted: “Sony and/or Xbox might face declines over the next decade, opening the door for another console manufacturer to get in on the action. My guess would be Apple,”

In fact, Apple has not launched a console, though it offers games through Apple TV and has been enormously successful with the App Store. This year, the company embarked on a subscription-based gaming service, through the launch of Apple Arcade.

One business exec smartly anticipated Nintendo Switch, with a prediction of “the disappearance of a clear distinction between home consoles and handheld consoles.” But in the same breath, they added that “the screen as we know it might be a thing of the past.”

A journalist predicted: “It does increasingly look likely … that we will never see a ‘brand new’ PlayStation [4], Xbox 720 or Wii 2.” To be fair, the article went on to say that console companies would rely heavily on “incremental improvements,” which turned out to be the case with upgraded consoles like the PlayStation Pro and Xbox One X.

a GameStop store on a street corner
Many predicted that GameStop would be long gone by 2020.
Shutterstock

Business and retail

The conventional wisdom had it that packaged games and retail would both be gone by 2019. “I’ll be amazed if we’re still doing boxed product,” said one creative director.

Forbes predicted that “physical media will completely phase out by 2020,” and that “all games will be sold through digital downloads straight to the console, and stores like GameStop will close for good.”

This did not turn out to be strictly true, but it’s not far off. Physical PC and video game sales plunged from 80% of total sales in 2009 to 17% in 2018, according to Statista, GameStop is still with us, but it’s a company with a lot of problems, closing stores and posting poor sales performances.

A leading producer took a pessimistic view of business prospects. “In the next 10 years the G7 games market will be saturated, if not already,” they said. “All developers and creators will have to minimize cost and utilize time wisely in order to survive the industry’s static growth era.” In fact, the U.S. video game industry generated a record $43.4 billion in revenue in 2018, according to the Entertainment Software Association. In 2008, the ESA said the U.S. game industry generated around $12 billion in revenue.

Indie games hardly got a mention, though some predictions centered on smaller teams making commercially viable games that could challenge the hegemony of large companies. “Risky, experimental indie games will be existing with huge blockbuster titles in a virtual and sustainable marketplace,” said one exec.

It’s certainly true that the indie golden age was upon us. 2010 saw the launch of Super Meat Boy and Limbo, which are some of the best games of the decade. More would come to follow.

MMOs were still seen as somehow replacing single-player games, or games for small numbers of players. A leading exec at an MMO house predicted: “I think potentially you’ll look back on the idea of connecting to small numbers of players like we have right now as kind of quaint. I’m a big believer in the ‘everyone playing together’ kind of model and there will be more games that come along that are everyone playing together.”

Connected games have definitely thrived in the last 10 years, so much so that the notion of “MMOs” as a distinctive genre is fading. But single-player games and limited multiplayer games are as popular as ever.

In the last 10 years, esports experienced its greatest-ever growth, but the word does not appear in any of the predictions pieces we found.

One developer looked to quiz games as the future of competitive gaming. “Game shows like 1 vs. 100 on Xbox Live is a real pioneer, and in ten years time expect to see things interactive real time voting on shows like X-Factor or playing for real cash prizes on quiz shows pretty commonplace.”

Gaming has become ubiquitous in our lives, but one exec got a bit carried away with the then-fad of gamification. “Even the most mundane routines [will] become meta-games in a grander scheme. Imagine an RPG where going to work and sitting at your office actually gains you experience points in-game, or going on a date in real life actually accomplishes a quest or a mission. By 2020, players will go from an always-connected lifestyle of today to an always-gaming lifestyle of tomorrow.”

Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

Culture and diversity

One thing that few in the mainstream saw was a violent reactionary wave against progress.

“There will be less of a stigma attached to be a ‘gamer’ than ever before,” argued one journalist. The accuracy of this is up for debate. Most people play games, so in a sense being identified as a gamer is irrelevant.

However, the word has taken on serious baggage in the past decade, mostly associated with the appalling activities around GamerGate. In 2014, industry website Gamasutra declared that “gamers are over.” Today, the word “gamer” is sometimes a term of abuse, used by young people who play games, but aimed at someone who doesn’t have much of a life outside games.

An industry exec wrongly predicted that gaming “will still be a mainly male pursuit.” In fact, almost half of people who play video games are women and girls. Even in 2009, this was the case, though it remained a largely ignored market.

One developer said that they hoped that gaming “will be in a healthy and diverse place” by 2020. But they went on to specify that this would mean more small companies, competing with the large publishers, rather than racial, gender or other forms of diversity

Predicting the future isn’t easy. And especially in something as unpredictable as gaming. These past ten years has yielded so many unexpected twists and turns. The next is likely to be just as unpredictable. That one, you can take to the bank.

Thanks to IGN, Mashable, Forbes, Digital Trends, and TechRadar.