THE past few years have brought huge growth in the casual gaming space, with smartphone and tablet owners joining the greater gaming collective. But hard-core gaming has gradually plateaued, as it does every time the current versions of home consoles near the end of their life cycles. The consoles typically reach a price point where every prospective buyer can afford one, and sales eventually drop off.
This current, seventh generation of consoles has enjoyed the longest period between major updates in technology, as the manufacturers introduce features and add-ons that extend the hardware's lifespan.
Fortunately, 2013 is shaping as a cracker for gamers, with a strong line-up of titles poised for release, a new adult classification for games, and high expectations of new home consoles launching later in the year.
A handful of successful video game franchises have fresh instalments scheduled for release in the coming months, including God of War, Crysis, Army of Two, Dead Space, Metal Gear and Resident Evil, with the highlights being the return of a new-look Lara Croft in the revival of the Tomb Raider series, plus the deadly Big Daddy returning in BioShock Infinite, and possibly one of this year's most eagerly awaited games, Grand Theft Auto V, from the gaming series that has sparked controversy in the past for its sexually explicit and violent gameplay.
The content of previous Grand Theft Auto games was so risque, a specially edited version was produced for the game to be released in Australia under the MA15+ rating, which at the time was the most restrictive of game classifications.
The next instalment in the series is unlikely to need the same editing because of the recent introduction of an R18+ classification for video games. This came into effect at the start of 2013, following lobbying by Australian video game industry bodies, adult gamers and action groups.
The legislation, which had to be passed by each state's attorney-general, brings video game ratings more in line with the classification system used for feature films, and also means Australia joins most other developed nations, which have had an R18+ classification for video games for many years.
Australia now has five classifications for video games: G, PG, M, MA15+ and R18+. And, as with films rated R18+, video games given this classification may be bought or rented only by consumers aged 18 and older.
Where the MA15+ was previously the highest rating for video games, and allowed content to have a strong impact, the R18+ classification now permits games to have high-impact content.
Ron Curry, from the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association, which has supported the push for the classification for more than a decade, says the change is a key step in harmonising Australia's classification scheme and gives consumers better tools to manage and understand content in a rapidly changing environment.
''The classification guidelines for video games are now more closely aligned with the guidelines for film and TV, which makes it easier for parents to make informed decisions about the interactive content they choose to buy and play,'' Curry says.
According to a national survey last year, which has been conducted twice yearly since 2005 by Bond University, the average age of gamers in Australia is 32, up from 30 in 2008. The survey found that 75 per cent of gamers in Australia are aged 18 or over.
Following the introduction of the new classification on January 1, it took just 11 days for Australia's first R18+ video game to be announced by the Classification Board. The game, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge, is an action adventure for Nintendo's Wii U game console.
The director of the Classification Board, Lesley O'Brien, cited the Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games in assigning the first R18+ classification.
''Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge contains violence that is high in impact because of its frequency, high-definition graphics, and emphasis on blood effects,'' O'Brien says.
Regardless of age, most gamers will be keeping their eyes open for the next generation of home games consoles from Sony and Microsoft this year.
Nintendo has a head start on its console competitors: the company launched its latest home console, the Wii U, in time for Christmas 2012.
This innovative hybrid tablet/console bundle has sold moderately well, although the Kyoto-based firm has recently lowered its forecast for sales of both the console and
software titles, because of lower-than-expected trade over the Christmas period.
Sony and Microsoft have remained tight-lipped about their new consoles; both have codenames. Sony's successor to the current PlayStation 3 is referred to as Orbis, and Microsoft's successor to the Xbox 360 is codenamed Durango. Apart from titbits of leaked information, nothing has been officially announced by either company about their coming consoles.
The world's biggest video game trade show, E3, held in Los Angeles each June, is usually the centre stage for console makers to unveil their next big things. But Sony held a PlayStation-focused press event in New York on February 20. The invitations teased that attendees would ''see the future'', fuelling speculation the company would unveil its next console.
This news, along with similar information from Microsoft about its next console, is sure to stir excitement in coming months as gamers start saving for the new games on the way and the consoles later this year.