The original Xbox was but four years old when its big brother burst on to the scene. The Nintendo Entertainment System was six when the Super Nintendo launched in North America in the late summer of 1991. It would go on to reign for five years. The PlayStation 2, arguably the most successful console ever manufactured, launched in 2000 and dominated the gaming scene until the current generation took hold and Sony pushed forward with the PS3 six years later.
By the end of this year, the Xbox 360 will match that six year cycle, and likely blow right past it.
This is the year it should be happening. Not just the announcement of the eighth generation of video gaming, but the actual launch. There should be gabbling buzz about hands-on opportunities at the upcoming E3. There should be bickering across every corner over the internet as unrealistic promises are backed with cryptic hardware spec-sheets. There should be codenames, leaked images and price speculations.
And as I sit back and think about this well practiced tradition of sniffing out new-console-smell, I can’t for the life of me imagine what the point of a new generation would be now, and I find this incredibly disappointing.
There was a time when gaming systems were capable of producing barely a handful of colors. A time when memory was measured in single digits of kilobytes. A time when audio was little more than a series of delightful bleeps and bloops. A time when approximating a 3D space in a virtual environment seemed all but impossible. A time when creating a curved line was an act of genius. A time when playing a console game with a friend required a couch (or at least a nice open spot on the floor). A time where a physics system within a game seemed like the math of gods. A time when you couldn’t watch a crappy Will Ferrell, much less television , on a gaming system.
Now, it’s hard to imagine things that consoles can’t accomplish. I can integrate entire platforms of multimedia and gaming through my systems, switch on the fly between fantastic computer-derived worlds into social networking systems, streamed television or ultra high definition films stored on remote hard drives across a network, all through a software interface.
I ask you, what’s really next? What’s missing from this picture that we should want a new console generation to spring up from the ground and supply?
I realize of course that games could perhaps look incrementally better, and maybe there would be some gains in just packing a box in your entertainment center with more memory and faster raw processing power. But, we are a people who have become accustomed to bounding moon-leaps of improvement for our dollars. What could the industry even try to jump toward?
And yet, I have to admit that I want smarter people than I to come up with this imagined next generation, to wow me with the spectacle, and—despite my better judgment—to lust after meaningless numbers. As gaming evolved through the spectrum of 8, 16, 32 and 64 bits, the truth is that I had no idea what that meant or how it impacted my play experience, but I did know that 32 was a bigger number than 16—like, twice as big!—and so that meant that it was definitely, absolutely, empirically better.
It didn’t matter that the practical upshot of the increase was beyond my meager tech capacity. It was a great marketing message, and I just wanted to get wrapped up in the anticipation and the spectacle of a new generation. The thing is that half the fun of being a fan of this industry is about the thing around the next corner.
I find myself missing the sense of growth, the sense of speed and momentum of an industry and culture hurtling toward the future, with the unerring sense that year after year games are going to keep getting better at a geometric rate. It feels like we all hopped on the bullet train to The Future, and had a big party as technological hurdles whizzed past outside the window. Now, suddenly, we’ve reached the end of the line and we’re all standing around in The Future we had so looked forward to—and we’re wishing we were back on the train having the party.
Gaming systems pretty much do anything I can practically imagine. Sure, it’d be great if they had some kind of artificial sentience, or if they could project some kind of artificial reality for us to play in, or even if they would just sprout legs and clean the litter box, but really I’ve got to go to those kinds of ludicrous lengths to think of the things I want that machine to do. Most other things just seem like the kinds of things that can be accomplished now with a creative enough programmer, a big enough budget and enough time to make it all cook right.
That’s kind of disappointing. It tells me that the fun I’ve been having all this time is as much about the evolution of this young industry as it was the games it produced. If that’s true, this is kind of like a video game mid-life crisis, and my desire for the meaningless flash and sexy curves of an otherwise pointless new generation is a lot like wanting to get hair plugs and buy a $60,000 sports car.
It’s childish, impractical and utterly desirable. So as we sit idling through the sixth year of this generation with no sign of change on the horizon, I will dream of the wind blowing through my hair and the promise of impossible fun just around the corner.