Hard as it may be to swallow, this generation of gaming is entering middle-age. With the Xbox 360 turning three years old later this year, it may be worth remembering that the system was released on only the fifth anniversary of the original Xbox. That probably puts us somewhere close to the dead-center of the 360’s lifespan, and it means that just as the phrase next-gen has stopped describing the 360 or PS3 we should begin to expect the first titillating hints of the next-next-gen in the coming months.
You’ll be forgiven for feeling as though the generational cycle is too short. After all the PS2 remains a semi-viable system, and even now doesn’t feel nearly as dated as the PS1 did at this point in the previous cycle. The laws of diminishing returns seem to be catching up with the videogame console cycle, as it seems increasingly hard to fathom exactly what demands a next-gen round of system could concoct to meet. And yet, I have no doubt that in closed door meetings the question of what do we do next isn’t just being asked, but answered.
Along with all the features we expect from a next-gen system, including technical improvements and our favorite franchises revisited, what else should next-next-gen deliver, and what has it learned from this-next-gen. Here are a few thoughts.
Non-Graphical Advancement – The new frontier for gaming is not in poly-pushing. While it’s safe to assume that an Xbox 3 or PS4 will up the ante on visual whizbangery if out of nothing more than a sense of inertia, the real work to be done will be in advancing the capabilities of the machine to create more interesting and dynamic worlds. From better physics to better AI, the realms that gaming needs to explore to create lifelike worlds is not in the textures but the environment.
From a hardware supported point of view a focus needs to be turned on making it easy to create realistically destructible objects and active environments where NPC seem to act in realistic ways, as though they had their own lives. The real holy grail of world building has far less to do with furthering the already impressive advancements in graphical technology, and more to do with sophistication.
Step Toward The End of Physical Media – While still more than a single generation away, the biggest advancement open to next-gen could be in the way that consoles deliver games. The success of the Xbox Live and Playstation Store for delivering all kinds of content, along with the increasing acceptance of digital distribution should be the biggest indicator that the retail method of game delivery is in jeopardy of being replaced.
Unfortunately, there remain so many problems with the current restrictions and limitations of digital distribution, that next-gen needs to be less about making the leap away from physical media and more about refining the consumer experience. Aside from storage concerns about distributing large AAA console games, which will obviously need to be addressed, creating a system that both protects publishers while offering a relatively hassle-free purchasing and playing experience for customers is the big next step.
Sophisticated Online and Community Environments – It doesn’t necessarily make for great feature list fodder, but I don’t think the success of Xbox Live can be understated. In a gaming environment that is more homogenized, with developers creating cross-platform titles that are virtually indistinguishable from one another, it is a huge feather in Microsoft’s cap to realize that people are making buying decisions based on the ease of staying connected with friends.
We see already in the current generation that often the technological improvements of the PS3 over the 360 are negated by developers who create games that have to work on both systems. So, when you have a game like Grand Theft Auto 4, which, according to one retailer, is selling 70% Xbox 360 to 30% PS3, you have to recognize that part of the disparity is because I, like a lot of people who have both systems, chose the 360 because that’s where it’s easiest to connect online with my friends. On the flip side, one of the most common complaints about the Wii is how obtuse the system is at matchmaking, and that’s a hassle that will continue to become more and more significant.
Affordability – Console makers learned quite suddenly with this generation that there is a price ceiling for a videogame console no matter what format of DVD player comes bundled. The success of the Wii in creating a system that is not significantly advanced, that does not try to be everything in a single box, that is dedicated primarily to improving the gaming experience at half the price cannot be ignored going into the next generation.
Next-gen needs to avoid the mistakes of this-gen and create systems at a single consistent price point that stays at or below $300 at launch. Instead of offering massive and repeated price cuts in the first year of production to stimulate growth, there needs to be a more restrained step into next gen. My fear is that those price cuts will come from lowered quality standards, and along with showing restraint in pricing next-gen I hope that console makers remember the one billion dollars Microsoft had to spend to address the failure rates of the 360.
Ease of development – This goes in tandem with the previous point. Along with being too expensive for consumers, this generation of consoles has been prohibitively expensive to develop for, leaving the consoles with fewer games from fewer developers at the worst times possible. This was particularly problematic in the early days of the generation when systems like the PS3 were already having a tough enough time selling systems.
Again, the Nintendo Wii needs to be part of the model that builds the next generation of consoles, with a system that used familiar development tools allowing cash strapped developers to overcome the hurdles of developing for a new system without breaking the bank.
Console makers are certain to focus on traditional advances in technology when selling their systems, but the real generational strides are not in the traditional avenues. The biggest difference in my gaming experience this generation has more to do with online connectivity, streaming media, the rise of casual gaming and new ways to stay connected to friends. I hope that along with lower priced systems, next generation sees more evolution in the way I play games over what the games look like.