As summer steadily marches past its zenith, we in the U.S.A. start to anticipate the lush colors of fall, the school year, football, sweaters, brewers’ seasonal Oktoberfests, baseball playoffs, and hot apple cider, all leading up to the commercial clusterf*ck of the holiday season. The video game industry obviously looks forward to the latter (and the football, in the case of EA), and this is a particularly noteworthy year, one that has something in common with only five or six previous years before. This year happens to be one in which the industry titans pump out their new console systems (yes, yes, the Wii U was last year, but I’ll get to it later), and the holiday-focused marketing blitz that comes with them.
This new phase in the industry’s history began at this summer’s E3, and after the industry’s premier trade show wound down, I was left pondering all that I had seen and heard. It slowly began to dawn on me that I was in strange territory. The previous console generation launched when I was still in college, and the one before that when I was in middle school. The one before that was when I was eleven years old. This time around, I notice a very different tone to the anticipation for the debut of the new technology, and it’s not just because I’m an old, world-weary fogey who thinks he’s seen it all. Let me put it bluntly, directly to the reader: what is it about the new hardware that has you excited for this next generation of video games?
I ask this question because I’m honestly not quite sure myself. In previous E3s and previous console generations, the answer was always clear. The leap in graphics from the Sega Genesis and SNES to the PS1 and N64 was monumental: suddenly, 2D sprites were 3D polygons on the regular. The GameCube, Xbox, and PS2 subsequently had the ability to occasionally make those polygons look lifelike enough such that my reaction was, “Holy balls, that looks phenomenal.” The Xbox 360 and PS3 were yet another graphics upgrade coupled with the rise (and, I would argue, dominance) of online functionality for games and multimedia capability for the consoles themselves. The Wii went a different direction, but I’ll come back to that. My point is that for the past two and a half decades, it was always very apparent at a glance what the technology would do to wow me into demanding that the industry shut up and take my money.
So now we’re at the Xbox One and the PS4. The prevailing story that went down at E3 was about the PR fiasco of Microsoft’s DRM and, to a lesser extent, its mandatory Kinecting. PS4 was declared the clear “winner” of E3, but it struck me that the title was less about what the PS4 was and more about what it wasn’t. So I started pondering: if Microsoft hadn’t made all these business decisions about DRM policy, if the Xbox One and PS4 were to have the essentially the same consumer-end functionality, restrictions, and freedoms, then what would the story of the Next Gen have been about?
Microsoft made that thought experiment a reality a few weeks later.
So that brings me back to the question: what’s the story, folks? In previous generations, it has been graphics, graphics, graphics, then graphics + online/multimedia capability. We’ve gotten to the point where fancier graphics have diminishing returns. Graphics on the Xbox 360 and PS3 already can look damn near lifelike – they’ll be better on the Xbox One and PS4, but did any game trailer really give you the sense of leaving the previous generation completely in the dust visually the way the Xbox, PS2, and GameCube left the PS1 and N64 in the dust? Yeah, it’s better, but is it that much better? Does it fundamentally change your experience?
As for online capability, we’ll see more and more media available, I’m sure, but will it be a sea change for the industry the way Xbox Live and PSN blew up with the 360 and PS3?
What are you stoked about? Set aside specific games – there are games on the horizon for all systems that look to be glorious. I say comparing the games catalog right now is a wash. I’m talking about the hardware. The Kinect stuff? I’m one of the most charitable folks I know for the Kinect; I think it’s a real slick technology, but it has yet to really change our relationship with game controls in a meaningful way, aside from dancing-focused party games. I saw the Xbox One has the ability to multitask applications, so that’s kind of neat. I’m not sure if the PS4 can do that as well, but even if it can, it’s somewhat of a detail for both of them. This brings me back to Nintendo – say what you will about their gimmicks and weird crap, they’re the only game in town for which there is clear distinction of hardware between their newest generation system and everyone’s previous and current systems. I can see lots of potential applications for the tablet, I’m not sure any will be seismic shifts, but it’s possible it could eliminate pausing menu navigation for everything from Borderlands to Batman to Madden. I think secondary-screen controls will be in the future of video games and other multimedia functions. Maybe the Wii U is going to crash and burn and take all of Nintendo with it, but at least I got a clear idea of what the hardware is all about.
As for Microsoft and Sony, what I see is more powerful hardware that can render better graphics which, for the first time, don’t seem to be worlds better than the ones previous. I expect a further march toward integration with online functions, continuing to break down barriers between stuff that you do on your console (games, streaming video, perhaps even live sports) and stuff you do on your PC (social media, file-rich communications). Microsoft promises to bring the might of cloud computing to bear, and Sony looks to have easy integration with lots of your other gadgets. Perhaps these functions will affect major change that I can’t forsee. Perhaps the new hardware will enable game AI to be smarter and more responsive in ways currently impossible. Perhaps AI Madden coaches will become as ruthlessly wily as Bill Belichick, and Dragon Age will have countless possible divergent storylines and endings based on player choice. But all those suggestions are speculative. At face value from what we know for sure, none of the new offerings results in a gaming experience that is as different as Super Mario 64 was from Super Mario World.
I turn the floor over to you, internet: what new console technology has got you excited?