The Impact of the CES Gaming Zone

In a few hours the doors will open for the final day of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, and industry insiders, buyers for retail corporations, exhibitors, clever folks who are not really connected to the industry at all but know what to put on the application to score a ticket, and a wide variety of news media from bloggers to traditional journalists and everything in between will walk through the doors to drink deeply of the cup that holds the next 12 months of retail, largely oblivious to the one historical event that took place at the show.

What has been widely termed the 'Geek Mecca' by the popular press is in reality the show that kicks off the new retail season, but this year it is more than that -- much more -- as the 2011 show marks an important watershed moment: the first year that Video Games were recognized as an economic force in the CE industry.

For the first time in the 44-year history of the show, Video Games received its own section: The Gaming Zone.

The significance of this can easily be lost in the excitement of seeing, touching, and feeling what will be the tech and consumer electronic goods that are lusted after in 2011, but as Yoda would say: "Historical it is!"

Why? Because for the first time in the history of CES the folks that understand the economy and the retail markets have recognized that gamers, the games they play, the hardware, and the incredible variety of accessories and gadgets that are a part of that world, represents a significant share of the global economy. Gaming as a CE group has been seeking that recognition for more than ten years, and until now, failed to receive it. Call this a well-deserved victory.

Variety is the Spice

As I moved through the Gamer Zone I saw precisely what I expected to see -- a collection of booths that present a cross-section of the gaming economy, from motherboard and system builder Supermicro to a new company that has created a line of guitar controllers for music rhythm games that goes a step beyond what is on the market right now -- more on that little gem in another article.

It was not the gaming ghetto that some feared it would be, and it was not the only place that gaming and games-related companies exhibited at the show, far from the case in fact! There were games-centric booths scattered throughout the square miles of show, rubbing elbows with every type of CE product you can imagine, not because they did not want to be in the Gamer Zone, but because there wasn't enough room. Perhaps next year that will change?

One element that was conspicuously absent from the show save for the big three -- Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo -- was game companies. We did not see a lot of booths for actual video games, but that is more because this is a hardware-centric show than anything else, and when we cover PAX in a few months, and E3 after that, the floodgates of what is good and what is coming in games will be unleashed. For now though, we should revel in the hardware, and enjoy this warm fuzzy feeling. Gaming has finally arrived!

The Next 12 Months

Moving through the miles of booths at the show was a treasure hunt, and the nugget was the gaming booths that were scattered to the four corners of the compass here. A casual assessment of what was on display reveals a shift in the gaming world, with portable gaming taking a major leap forward even as console gaming asserts itself over PC gaming once again. But fear not, like the inevitable ocean tide, PC gaming will surge back, because it always does.

The big news is still motion-sensing controllers, but less for the controllers themselves than for the many and varied accessories that are being invented for them, from game-specific controllers like bowling ball-shaped controllers, golf clubs, and an inflatable race car with a driving wheel that you actually sit on, to custom-engineered traditional game pads that are designed to offer an edge in competitive gaming. A wide variety of weapon-shaped controllers and controller frames for the FPS market have appeared at the show, and it should come as no surprise that a new crop of health and exercise controllers and accessories have appeared for the three major consoles, right?

Gaming itself is clearly on the minds of much of the rest of the industry, especially the handheld tablet and pad folks, who are scrambling to prove that those platforms are also perfect for gaming. Every single booth we saw that had pads and tablets on display also included gaming as an element for that display, which tells us that they also understand what has long been a whispered truth: we may need this technology for work, but we still want to play.

That gaming is moving towards a communal experience is clearly a trend, as social gaming was the buzz for 2010, and every indication suggests that it will continue to increase in popularity in 2011. The newest MMO on the block, Microsoft's free-to-play Age of Empires Online is designed specifically to be a social gaming platform, and what do you think about that? Social gaming will no longer be restricted to web-based games on sites like Facebook, and while the old adage "as goes Microsoft, so goes the world" may no longer be true, I suspect that in this case a lot of companies are going to be tweaking the social-side of their online games in the coming year.

Regardless of whether you participate in the web-based social gaming world, you have to give it the grudging credit it deserves: platform-based social gaming did more to legitimize gaming as a common recreational pursuit than the Halo, COD, and Medal of Honor franchises combined! Spending the night playing a game online is now widely accepted as an alternative to going out to see a movie and many other group activities, and the word "gamer" no longer means some geek guy sitting at his computer or console, in his bedroom, alone. How does this factor in to CES? Simple really!

One of the sectors within gaming at the show that has literally exploded is personal communications tech. Gamers are staying home and gaming on the weekends socially, and that means they need to be able to talk with the friends that they are gaming with. The increase in variety of traditional wired headset and mic combos is no surprise -- it was to be expected -- but the sudden influx of alternative commo kit was not. Curious about what the future of personal gaming communications tech will be? Think Wireless.

Console customization and cooling has exploded, moving beyond the skins and face-plates of the past to include aesthetic prosthetic shapes that change the appearance of the console, adding character and personality in much the same way that motorheads do with car kits. New and aggressive cooling solutions that recognize the inability of gamers to open their cases in order to install cooling -- an act that would void its warranty -- has created a new approach to the problem, while the traditional skin market has moved towards licensed imagery in its move to stay relevant to you, the gamer.

It's Good to be the King

Nintendo is embracing 3D Gaming in a major way, with its upcoming 3DS being the very tip of the proverbial iceberg, as rumor of a 3DWii circulated at the show. Both Microsoft and Sony are not hooking their caboose to that train right now, but that is par for the course -- considering that they reacted the same way when Nintendo first announced that it was moving to motion-sensing controller technology. You really can teach an old dog new tricks, but only if you slam their market share first it seems, though perhaps the other two have learned their lesson from the whole motion-controller thing and will be quicker to follow Nintendo's innovation this time.

For the first time in the history of computer and console gaming, when a reporter or a public official uses the phrase "Gaming" the collective mind does not instantly assume that they are talking about gambling and casinos, and considering the fact that I am writing this from a hotel room in the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas, that is saying something! And that thought leads me to the closing point for this piece...

Nintendo is on top of 3D gaming; Microsoft has a tiger by the tail as it smashes into the casual gaming market previously dominated by Nintendo; Sony is rapidly solidifying its position with the PS3 as the home for hard core gamers, and the CE industry is scrambling to bring as much love upon the world's gaming community as it can. Audiophiles may still have a lot to look forward to, video junkies will get their really big flat-screen 3D TV's...

I am gamer, and I call King of the Lab this time around.

Posted: 9th Jan 2011 by CMBF
Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3, PC, Nintendo 3DS, Games Industry, CES 2011,