On November 22nd the Xbox One will be released in the UK, followed a week later by the launch of Sony‘s Playstation 4 on the 29th. Together, these two machines will mark the official start of the next-generation of console gaming. They are immensely powerful in comparison to their predecessors, have been pre-ordered in their millions and will no doubt both be incredibly successful.
But they won’t be the future of video games.
I should be excited, of course. New hardware! New games! Better graphics! But I can’t be excited about that; after all, every new console generation brings these things. The difference is that previous generations also brought other stuff to the table, genuinely new ideas and technology that have completely changed the way that we enjoy our favorite pastime. 3D graphics, disc-based media, online multiplayer gaming, motion control, additional content downloaded straight into your home; all of these created long-lasting and fundamental changes to way that games are made and played. Where is that sea change here?
When I look at these new machines I just see more powerful versions of the machines already housed underneath my television. It isn’t until you read the interviews and watch the presentations that you start to see where the big focus is for this latest generation. Social features. Home Entertainment. Video calls. Status updates.
Forgive me, but when I was a young lad playing on my Mega Drive, if I had been asked what I thought games consoles might look like in twenty years’ time, I wouldn’t have replied with “we’ll be watching movies on them and making phone calls to each other”. I’d have replied with “Virtual reality! Games that never end! And SEGA will be the only one making consoles!”
Well, it was the early 90s.
When Sony released the first Playstation, it blew my fragile little teenage mind. I first saw it running that T-Rex demo on a display stand in a department store and I was utterly transfixed. Then I picked up the controller and realised I could move the camera round and make the Dinosaur roar. And then I had my first experiences of Tomb Raider, Tekken, Ridge Racer and, erm, Jumping Flash. All of a sudden, that Mega Drive sat at home underneath the television felt obsolete, a dusty relic.
When Microsoft launched Xbox Live a few years later, all of a sudden I could download new maps for Halo straight into my living room and connect and play against millions of others all over the world that, too, felt like the future.
Even when Nintendo launched the Wii and brought motion-control into the living room, that too felt like the future had arrived.
So where is the future in this new generation? Is it in the social networking features? Well, I already have Twitter, Facebook and god knows how many others on my phone, my tablet and my pc. They are far more intuitive and faster to use on those platforms than using a gamepad. Is the future in home entertainment then? Well I already have satellite television with on-demand movies from a library of thousands; I already have an Apple TV and again, my PC, phone and tablet do all that already.
Video calls then? I’ve been doing that for years over MSN Messenger, Skype and other services. Do I really need yet another way to do it? I don’t think I do. I can’t think of anything more annoying than being utterly engrossed in Dark Souls 4 or The Division 2, working up to a pivotal moment, only to be rudely interrupted by someone wanting to know how my afternoon has been or how they can get past End-of-Level-Boss 9 in Generic Action Game 27.
Then there’s second-screen gaming and the ability to continue your big-screen gaming on portable devices. For a start, second-screen gaming isn’t anything new. I was doing that back in the days when it meant connecting my Gameboy Advance to my Gamecube. Arguably it goes back even further to the days of the Dreamcast (R.I.P) and its VMU, that dinky little unit that was most memorable for being used as a virtual pet device for Sonic Adventure. It’s a neat concept, sure, but it’s been around for a long time already and aside from a couple of examples such as Four Swords Adventures or ZombiU, I can’t think of games that have genuinely used the technology in a particularly innovative way. As for transferring your game from the big-screen to the small screen, there’s a glaring flaw in that idea. I play games on mobile devices in short bursts – on public transport, in a doctor’s waiting room, or waiting for a friend to arrive in a coffee shop. I don’t play them for the longer, more involved sessions that many if not most console and PC-based games are designed for. And I don’t imagine that the majesty of something like the Witcher 3 or Beyond: Two Souls would benefit from being restricted to such small displays and tinny speakers where they are unable to show off their scale and detail or create the same level of atmosphere. It’s hard to get immersed or feel moved by a game when there’s a drunken hen party sitting in the carriage just six feet away or when you have to keep one ear open for when your ticket number is called.
And lastly, of course, there’s the games themselves. Without brave new ways to interface with the player and with the pressure of taking advantage of all the vast new graphical power before them, we’ve seen an unprecedented narrowing of focus from developers and publishers who are becoming increasingly risk-averse. There’s an irony that just as consoles have become more powerful and audiences have increased a hundredfold, the actual diversity being offered by mainstream developers and publishers has lessened. In ten years’ time, do we really just want to be playing another Halo, or Call of Duty, or Assassin’s Creed? As good as those games are, don’t we, as gamers, deserve more than that? I look at the line-ups for these new consoles and it’s easy to become rather depressed. It’s a tidal wave of sequels and franchises, publishers talking of consumers and new graphics where they used to talk of gamers and new ideas.
Sure, there’s some diamonds like Octodad, The Witness and interesting mysteries like D4 and Quantum Break. But they seem few and far between, hidden amongst familiar names with a different number attached to them, or familiar concepts re-skinned and given a slightly different name to grab a slice of a pie made popular by another game.
Ok, so Sony has its indie plans, Microsoft has ID@Xbox, and Nintendo is doing its own thing as well to encourage Indie developers, all three of them talking about turning the audience into the designers, gamers into game-makers; but a small part of me wonders why they are relying on their own audience to provide the new ideas and originality. Are they so scared of innovating now that they would rather just say to their customers “you want new games? Here, you make them then”. It’s certainly great to put all of this in their audience’s hands, but it needs to be done alongside their own efforts, not simply relying on others to fill an innovation gap they’re too scared of trying to fill themselves.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the current generation still has plenty of life left in it. This year we’ve already had Grand Theft Auto V, Beyond: Two Souls, and Rayman Legends, to name just a few quality titles. Coming up over the next year we have Dark Souls 2, Tearaway, Sonic: Lost Worlds and Sir, You Are Being Hunted as well as many others. And all those new and shiny games on those new and shiny consoles? So many of those are being released on existing platforms too – Destiny, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Project Spark, Battlefield 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition and the list goes on. With so much still to come on the little boxes I already own, including the games being trumpeted on new hardware, I can’t see myself feeling left out if I don’t jump aboard the new console bandwagon anytime soon.
The Next Generation then. Not so much a giant leap forward so much as an awkward shuffle in an uncertain direction. I don’t know about you, but I like to have a clear idea of where I’m going before I head off on my journeys.
[Editor’s note – this article originally appeared 25th October 2013 on All About The Games. It is reproduced here with permission, with some minor alterations.]