LOS ANGELES – Don't hit that pause button just yet.
Despite the tanking economy and an increasing number of video game-industry layoffs, many believe 2009 will be a year of evolution for games. The combination of innovative new titles, long-awaited franchise follow-ups and desire for escapism could spawn a gaming renaissance.
"While game makers providing traditional retail product will continue to concentrate on high-profile sequels and licensed properties in an effort to mitigate risk, many of the field's most exciting developments will actually be happening outside of your local GameStop," said DigitalTrends.com publisher Scott Steinberg.
By focusing on surefire $60 sequels that are appearing on next-generation consoles for the first time — like "Resident Evil 5," "Street Fighter IV" and "God of War III" — gaming publishers are expected to avoid economic pitfalls while independent developers are poised to provide cheaper, quicker and quirkier alternatives, such as $20-or-less downloadable games like "Flower" for the PlayStation 3 or "Darwinia Plus" for the Xbox 360.
"Why pay $60 for a game you don't have time to play anyway when dozens of bite-sized, instantly intuitive and schedule friendly alternatives are available for $5 to $15 right from your couch?" muses Steinberg.
Steinberg also anticipates even more developers will extend their games' out-of-the-box life with downloadable content.
Rockstar Games is set to release "The Lost and Damned" exclusively on Xbox Live on Feb. 17. The "Grand Theft Auto IV" expansion will add new content and hours of gameplay to last year's top-selling action game.
Several grander gaming innovations were teased at this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Sony showcased 3-D editions of such games as "MotorStorm: Pacific Rift" and "Wipeout HD" while Microsoft introduced "Kodu," a downloadable Windows PC and Xbox 360 program that allows amateurs — from children to adults — to create their own games.
"Video games are poised to eclipse all other forms of entertainment in the decade ahead," Activision president and CEO Mike Griffith proclaimed during his CES keynote speech.
He cited market statistics which stated that between 2003 and 2007, the cumulative number of movie ticket sales and hours of television watched fell by 6 percent, music sales slumped 12 percent and DVD purchases remained flat.
Over the same four-year period, Griffith said the gaming business grew by 40 percent.
With long-awaited exclusive PC sequels like "Diablo III," "The Sims 3" and "StarCraft II" also expected in 2009, this could be the year when gamers pay attention to something other than "World of Warcraft" on their computers. According to Nielsen Media Research, gamers spent 24 fewer hours a week playing PC games in 2008 than they did the previous year.
Rob Talbert, gaming manager and host of Arcade on ManiaTV.com, longs for PC gaming to prosper in 2009.
"I think I speak for a good portion of the gaming community when I say that it's very possible that 2009 will be the year that PC gaming makes a comeback in a big way," said Talbert. "I can't remember the last time I have seen this much excitement over PC titles, and I hope these games can live up to the hype and the gaming community's expectations."
Wedbush Morgan video game analyst Michael Pachter describes his outlook for the gaming industry in 2009 with one word: discovery.
He believes the increasing number of diverse console owners, especially those with Nintendo Wiis, will demand new software — and publishers will figure out how to directly market their wares to such folks in exciting new ways.
"They must discover how to reach those audiences," said Pachter. "It's not like they won't want new games."