Next Gen Jam
So here’s the problem: the next generation of graphics is quite literally already upon us, the next generation of video game consoles is mostly unknown and the next generation of gaming is still developing.
Is anyone ready for some long-winded analytics and opinion? E3 was a just a huge pile of conflicting themes and emotions and “next generation” was like the term that couldn’t be actually uttered, for fear of being backhanded by a Microsoft lanky. I’ll try my best to keep the thread of discussion coherent, so here it goes.
There’s definitely some liberties I’m taking in saying this, but Battlefield 3 for me was the definition of next generation graphics. Consoles were clearly not able to handle that definition and were given a much more scaled-down version of DICE’s true vision. PC gamers with a few extra dollars in their rig, however, were treated to that exact vision: truly dynamic lighting, spectacular particle effects, believable indoor/outdoor differences, fine textures and great amounts of destructible terrain. All next generation games, graphically, will have these things. Most games of the current generation represent a great portion of this list, but usually do so with one or two minor disparities and usually a huge suspension of disbelief. I don’t think the difference between last gen graphics and next gen will be quite as dramatic as what we got between 2004 and 2005, but without a doubt next gen is already here and it will only get better.
But without a way to enjoy it on the set-top box at home. PC gaming will continue as the uncontested bastion for graphics lovers and I think PC gaming may even begin to surge back in popularity (more on that later), but consoles have accessibility that is unlike any other. They are now the entire rack of audio-visual gear that your dad used to have next to the TV, but then some. Without a next gen console things will likely stagnate a bit and the major developers will want to hold out to release their masterpieces. This is just a time of huge uncertainty. Will major consoles be released at all? Of course. Will they be anything like today’s consoles? Probably not and that’s what I think will make people nervous. There will probably still be disks, but there will also be a major push on digital distribution and so things will probably start to get a little weird eventually.
The bottom line, however, is that current gen consoles are stretched to their limits. They were already at their limits years ago to be quite honest and games have pretty much stayed looking about the same graphically for some considerable time. Its a bizarre time for console gamers as we literally have no idea what will come next.
Then there’s the problem of the Wii-U. Is this next generation? I might be so bold as to say its not. Its not even the radical side-step that the Wii took years ago. What I see instead is evolution and a natural synergy between a lot of products that should be working together already. The Wii-U, to me at least, looks like a PlayStation 3 shoved into a Wii and to the left there’s an iPad being shoved into an Xbox 360 controller.
I shouldn’t try to sound cynical here, because Nintendo is doing something they believe the market wants and I can’t fault them for that. This just isn’t the sort of huge risk and game changing product that the Wii ended up being. Back then we had no idea if the other people in the living room would want to play something given that it was presented to them in a different way. It turns out they wanted to play all along.
Its just that the Wii-U is part current gen gaming hardware, part Wii, part AppleTV and apparently part Stack Overflow and Twitter. It doesn’t qualify as next gen as its neither a graphically robust piece of work that could handle Unreal Engine 4, nor is it a risk-taking “didn’t see that one coming” sort of excursion like motion controls were. Its a “me too”, a “plus one”, a Matrix Reloaded. Its not even the next generation of motion controls, which is what Wii-U arguably should have been. In only a couple of short years the Kinect showed us at least the idea of next gen motion controls and it looks like nobody is quite ready to take us to the next level beyond that (but John Carmack is willing to show us apparently).
Development itself is in the midst of becoming next gen. Those who know the world of programming would know that it is quickly shifting from the old style of waterfall process, where a boss tells the programmer what to make and then they make it, to an agile process where the programmer and boss continuously work together to come up with ways to make the product and make it better, even after releasing it. This sort of mentality must be pretty bizarre at a video game developer where there is someone who has a vision, someone who writes a story, some who create art and basically all of these things that just downright don’t have anything to do with core programming. Watching Epic’s development walkthrough video shows the result of this: a desperate need for real-time rendering and editing on the fly. Where programming, art, writing and gameplay can be changed on a whim as needed. This is not just the next generation of graphical prowess, but of game development overall.
And with better development also comes more frequent updates to games and a bigger push on making games last longer and longer. I think WoW showed us that a single game can be successful and long-lasting for almost a decade. How do we get that sort of success with other games? Now, when PCs are becoming the place to try new things is the time to experiment and find those success formulas. Free to play gaming? Would have sounded absurd years ago, but now its quickly becoming not just accepted, but desired. Charging for subscriptions to competitive multiplayer? Seems crazy even now, but Call of Duty and Battlefield are already doing it. Offering extras and free DLC to keep people glued to their favorite games and coming back for more every year. Right now, especially on the PC, is the next generation of gaming overall. This generation is not going to have any of the same trends as years before and new ways to play and pay are going to keep coming up.
The next generation is upon us whether we like it or not, console or no console, this is by and far the weirdest period gaming has ever faced. Where it comes out in the end is very, very uncertain.