In Memory of Moon Leaps

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.

Comments

I've been thinking about this a bit as I idly pluck drywall dust out of my hair and wait for my shiny new Kinect 360 to become accessible again. My thoughts largely mirror your own, in the sense that I crave the turnover, that tilling of the mental pasture to sow the thrill of the unknown — but can't imagine what developers could come up with next.

If I had to guess, though, I would put my money on a Kinect-style input or something similar being designed as the core system. The Wii kicked it off, and with Move and Kinect not too far behind, I think it's a field still ripe with possibilities (and a nice economic first-mover advantage, for those who can put the best tech together). I think we've largely reached the downslope on the law of diminishing returns for more tech power vs. the manpower it takes to code for it, so the advances will probably take another form than the one we're used to.

But maybe a fully-immersive 3D console with Kinect motion is next? That's probably about as close to the holodeck as we'll get for a generation.

You hit the nail on the head, Sean. This is a defining console generation. Our consoles are ludicrously powerful; they have built-in Internet capability out of the box; they have hard drive mass storage; they have integrated online services (well, two of them do). What else do you need, besides incrementally more processing power? And you know what? I'm glad for this. This is also the age of digital distribution and DLC. What happens when a new generation eventually comes around? All those digital downloads and DLC had better damn well work on the next box, I can tell you that much!

This generation is massively more complex in terms of the overall experience of owning a console. And to top it off, the two major power players just joined the motion control party. This is going to be a long generation, and I for one am glad. No more constant upgrading. We're finally at the point of "good enough". Hell, in terms of graphics, I'd argue that we were basically there last generation already. Development costs have skyrocketed enough, thanks. Let's focus on making some truly innovative and different experiences now.

My backlog is already huge, and my time is low. A new console will just be more that I want to play but cannot. However, it would be awesome to see what they come up with.

Naturally, Game Informer is reporting, not even an hour after this article has been on the web page, that multiple sources have confirmed that an announcement of a new HD Nintendo console will happen at this year's E3, if not sooner.

I see this as a continuation of the Apple effect. We no longer see and sell computing in terms of giving you more power. Why? Because most people aren't waiting around for the computer to finish anymore. If anything, computers have gotten too complex for people to parse. So instead of gearing your technology business on raw power, the successful are aiming for something else. Bringing you just enough information at just the right time (i.e. enlightenment )

When new consoles show up, they'll show up precisely because somebody way smarter than any of us found that just right new idea for video games. The next-gen won't be more, it'll be something else entirely.

The sad thing is looking back, this is the end of the view the founders of computing had about it's role in the world. Those guys who thought in the 50s that really, really fast computers would be so smart they'd run cities for us? We've just recently gotten to proving them fatally wrong. I honestly don't think anybody knows what's next.

The thing about new console generations is that those faster processors/more memory/faster video processors need titles that use higher polys/texture resolution to justify them. This makes developing a game potentially more expensive (for any given title, there's always the option of checking out of the visual fidelity arms race, of course). The consequence of this is either: seeing less risky/innovative choices being made (because it costs more if you bet on the wrong horse) or less content (more asset reuse/filler or shorter single player gameplay length because assets are where the extra costs are going). I'd just as soon not see either of those things happening any more than they already do; that's not a scenario I find "utterly desirable" at all.

OzymandiasAV wrote:
Naturally, Game Informer is reporting, not even an hour after this article has been on the web page, that multiple sources have confirmed that an announcement of a new HD Nintendo console will happen at this year's E3, if not sooner.

Which means Nintendo simply catches up to where the other consoles are now.

The Wii was the first out of the gate with motion controls but an upgraded HD Wii would just be coming up to the level of a PS3/Move. Even if they go to full motion control they just catch up with 360/Kinect. Short of direct neural input or something they aren't going to do anything except catch up with the others.

Maybe something like simulated 3D via head tracking but that's about the biggest advance I can see right now.

tanstaafl wrote:
OzymandiasAV wrote:
Naturally, Game Informer is reporting, not even an hour after this article has been on the web page, that multiple sources have confirmed that an announcement of a new HD Nintendo console will happen at this year's E3, if not sooner.

Which means Nintendo simply catches up to where the other consoles are now.

The Wii was the first out of the gate with motion controls but an upgraded HD Wii would just be coming up to the level of a PS3/Move. Even if they go to full motion control they just catch up with 360/Kinect. Short of direct neural input or something they aren't going to do anything except catch up with the others.

Maybe something like simulated 3D via head tracking but that's about the biggest advance I can see right now.

That's not Nintendo's M.O. They're anything but predictable, and whatever comes next from them won't be playing catch-up, it'll be shooting off in a whole new direction nobody saw coming.

PyromanFO wrote:
Because most people aren't waiting around for the computer to finish anymore.

I don't think that's really true. It's generally true of processor stuff, but disk/io stuff and waiting for stuff to transfer over internet still happens all the time.

What's next? So much is possibly next. Games like Crysis 2, GTA IV, and Fallout 3 are just barely touching what is possible with A.I. routines, graphical impressiveness and physics, and you can practically hear the modern consoles creak under the weight of just producing those, not even at proper 720p resolutions no less.

But at the same time, it doesn't look like expansion as rapid as it has been in previous console cycles is a wise choice. This has been the era of iteration, of software updates bringing new options that used to be impossible without a full hardware upgrade.

Not to mention the fact that it doesn't seem economically feasible right now. The PS3 struggled to take off by being branded too expensive, despite being sold at a massive loss. HDTV penetration has just recently been getting over the 50% mark (and since those stats usually come from the industry, they may be embellished).

And of course, there's the fact that this generation has led to a reality where your game can sell a million copies and you still might end up bankrupt in the end. I'm sure developers are not excited about the idea of the number of resources to make a typical game increasing exponentially yet again. Maybe once basic animations or typical art assets can be procedurally generated by computer programs effectively will we be able to justify that huge leap again.

The old console generations were boring. Everyone knew what the SNES was going to be: it was just a faster NES with better graphics, just as the PS2 wasn't much more than a beefier PS1. I honestly have no idea what the next console generation will have to offer, and I find that uncertainty exhilarating. We finally live in an era where innovation is the primary bottleneck, not processing power. It's an exciting time for games, and technology in general.

juv3nal wrote:
The thing about new console generations is that those faster processors/more memory/faster video processors need titles that use higher polys/texture resolution to justify them. This makes developing a game potentially more expensive (for any given title, there's always the option of checking out of the visual fidelity arms race, of course). The consequence of this is either: seeing less risky/innovative choices being made (because it costs more if you bet on the wrong horse) or less content (more asset reuse/filler or shorter single player gameplay length because assets are where the extra costs are going). I'd just as soon not see either of those things happening any more than they already do; that's not a scenario I find "utterly desirable" at all.

I can agree with the argument that visual fidelity is an expensive arms race (and games don't need to get any more expensive), and I'm not sure we really need to pursue it as zealously as in the past. The density of detail on screen is pretty much about right now for the screen size and resolution most people have, I'd say a little bit of progress in the quality of what is rendered and good stable framerate is more important now.

However, I'm not sure all is quite yet settled in the technical horsepower department. Even if nothing is done to improve shiny graphics, things can still improve. Current consoles are starved for memory, in RAM, built in hard-drives/flash, and in the case of the 360/Wii on the disc the games come on, that leads to longer loading and reloading as data is swapped out, leading to a diminished experience. General CPU horsepower could be higher too, as designers are always thinking of ways that better and more numerous simulations can result in more interesting games.

I can think of a few things I'd like to see:

- Native 1080p (no more scaling, pls)
- 4x MSAA standard (or 8x CSAA)
- Dedicated hardware to facilitate lower Kinect latency in the 360 successor
- True hardware backwards compatibility (ie. not emulation or separate hardware)
- Wireless n
- USB 3.0
- hybrid SSD/HDD storage
- recording capability for all games, direct upload to youtube (mic input option)
- all retail games also available through digital distribution

(i want to say 60fps and lower input latency, but they'll probably opt for fancier graphics instead)
(also, there might more 3D push, unfortunately)

0kelvin wrote:
That's not Nintendo's M.O. They're anything but predictable, and whatever comes next from them won't be playing catch-up, it'll be shooting off in a whole new direction nobody saw coming.

Maybe you're right. In a way I hope so. I'm with Elysium here; I want to be surprised at something.

As one of the resident old farts I've literally watched the industry go from Pong to Crysis 2, from monocolored blocks to scaling the far wall of the uncanny valley. There really isn't much further the industry can in terms of graphics, sound or processing power, which is where the push has been for the past three decades.

In other words, what Elysium said.

I'd love to see something new come out if only because I can't imagine what it could be. But I suspect I'll be waiting for a while.

I would argue that we're already getting the excitement of new platforms on a regular basis - it's just that they're not longer traditional under-the-TV consoles. They're phones, portables, tablets, or even intangible software platforms.

To a certain extent, the 360 has become the old battered armchair that has a perfect imprint of my ass on it. Sure, a new couch would look nicer and might even be more comfortable, but it would take a while before sinking into it's embrace brought that warm glow of familiarity.

On a more practical note, I'm wondering which is going to happen first - my 360 dying or a new console generation. Either situation results in me needing to buy a new console - and that's the situation in which I'd find myself lusting after the new, wanting those dollars to be bringing the new and shiny into my house, instead of the known and staid.

I understand your nostalgia for the olden days of console excitement, but I think part of that had to do with the controlled messages we received from marketing. As you said, 32 is better than 16!!!! And that was all that mattered. Back then we didn't have the kind of media coverage and journalism that spoiled the careful mystique that "good" marketing creates. I knew exactly how I felt about the Kinect before it came out (mostly ambivalent, considering the wide variety of journalistic opinions about the tech). If I had just been force-fed marketing and ignored the online discussion, I may have felt otherwise...

I'm on the Onlive wagon at the moment, so I'm definitely feeling a sense of excitement about what that platform can and will do in the future. Especially since there isn't the prospect of having to drop another $400 when all the new consoles launch.

I agree with tanstaafl, Nintendo needs to catch up with the current generation. I can imagine the next Wii (doubt it'll be called that though) will be comparable with the 360/PS3 with some added gimmicks to differentiate itself from the rest of the herd.

I feel like we have one more generation of traditional consoles ahead of us with enhanced graphics and very possibly motion controls either built-in or bundled. After THAT generation runs it's course, I can fully imagine the 3D motion-controlled holodeck wannabe being the next step. Between the proliferation of motion controls and the forcing upon us of 3D it's only another step or two before we're there, all we really need now is glasses-free 3D and all the pieces are in place.

The next PS + XBox generation will definitely have a marketing problem on its hands. While hardware on both systems could be greatly improved (faster read/writes to hard drives, an actual built in hard drive, faster disc reads from a newer blu-ray drive, faster i/o on USB ports, faster and more accurate bluetooth connectivity), the end result will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. It'll make everything work better -- which is good, sure -- but at what price, and in THIS economy?

DorkmasterFlek wrote:
This is also the age of digital distribution and DLC. What happens when a new generation eventually comes around? All those digital downloads and DLC had better damn well work on the next box, I can tell you that much!

This. Oh God in heaven, this more than anything.

PseudoKnight wrote:
- True hardware backwards compatibility (ie. not emulation or separate hardware))

This too (see above). Otherwise, PseudoKnight, I think what you're looking for is a PC.

juv3nal wrote:
PyromanFO wrote:
Because most people aren't waiting around for the computer to finish anymore.

I don't think that's really true. It's generally true of processor stuff, but disk/io stuff and waiting for stuff to transfer over internet still happens all the time.

I don't think it's true for disk access times, at least for non-professional users (not heavy Photoshop users, coders, etc.)

Very true for internet access, which is why every ISP on the planet advertises mainly transfer speeds (and cell phone companies as well).

Gravey wrote:
PseudoKnight wrote:
- True hardware backwards compatibility (ie. not emulation or separate hardware))

This too (see above). Otherwise, PseudoKnight, I think what you're looking for is a PC.

True backward compatibility on a PC? Talk about pie-in-the-sky idealism.

PyromanFO wrote:
I don't think it's true for disk access times, at least for non-professional users (not heavy Photoshop users, coders, etc.)

Ever seen a loading screen on a (non-internet) game? I sure have, and I have an SSD in my current computer.

juv3nal wrote:
PyromanFO wrote:
I don't think it's true for disk access times, at least for non-professional users (not heavy Photoshop users, coders, etc.)

Ever seen a loading screen on a (non-internet) game? I sure have, and I have an SSD in my current computer.

Most people don't play non-internet games on their PC

PyromanFO wrote:

The sad thing is looking back, this is the end of the view the founders of computing had about it's role in the world. Those guys who thought in the 50s that really, really fast computers would be so smart they'd run cities for us? We've just recently gotten to proving them fatally wrong. I honestly don't think anybody knows what's next.

- Emphasis is mine.

I work in a place where that assumption is being challenged. I think there is a pretty clear vision of the future in terms across the board about how computing can/will be brought to bear in addressing real world concerns/problems. Part of that, though, is being able to embed and therefore leverage real computing power into virtually anything. We are now at a stage where it is economically and computationally feasible to install computers into associated devices that read, or can overlay things onto, physical reality.

Not entirely sure how all of these advances (at places of work such as mine and elsewhere) will impact the gaming sphere, but it will precisely because as you point out, people smarter than us will make that leap.

For me the next generation will revolve around controlling games with our minds, having control nodes planted deep in the centres of our brains and having video projected directly on our retinas. I don't plan to be an early adopter; I'll wait until they iron out the red rings of lobotomisation first.

I cannot stop thinking about the next generation either. I would love to see true AI, dynamically created environments, convincing physics engines, giant displays with pixels so small you need a microscope to see them, and 3D graphics that can convince me, in a late night pot induced stupor, that the world I am viewing, just might be real.

I know the next generation will not bring any of that, but I continue to dream about it nonetheless. I honestly thought that last year's holiday season was going to be the coming out party for the Xbox 720. I was more than a little disappointed that it turned out to be the Kinect; a wonderful new way to control a from-the-couch interface, but it is nothing more than a really cool remote control. I don't have Chardonnay fueled Wii Sports parties at my house, so the novelty of motion control, even sans controller, is completely lost on me.

Finally, where are the big leaps in game design? I know there are a ton of cool little games that are not a shooter or a RPG or a a sports game, but those are the games that I and the majority of gamers, really like. What I tend to see is a lot of well worn design with better mechanics and prettier graphics, but is Call of Duty all that different than Doom? Even critical darlings like Bioshock are fairly old looking when you strip off the high sheen of it's polish. Ken Levine is the man, but he didn't re-invent the wheel. He just gave me a beautiful cherry red Ferrari to drive for a few hours, but what I really want is the video game equivalent of the flying car I was implicitly promised as kid while watching The Jetsons.

My personal expectations for the next console generation will be the continuation of cloud computing and onLive style gaming. In fact, with the right software we could be doing that without new hardware. What I expect we'll see afterward will be the integration of smartphones with our home entertainment centers. You'll play streaming WoW to your iPhone on the bus and when you walk into your living room it will sync up with your TV and you'll continue playing on the big screen.

tanstaafl wrote:
There really isn't much further the industry can in terms of graphics, sound or processing power, which is where the push has been for the past three decades.

I dunno. When I compare the latest console games - Crysis 2, Far Cry 2, Uncharted 2 - to a Blue Ray movie there's quite the difference. It's not resolution, it's quality. Far better AA; the ability to pump more polygons and textures and then resolve them correctly when their on-screen size approaches individual pixels. There's plenty of room for this kind of improvement.

Right now I play these games (on console or PC) and think "so close, almost there...."

3-D will also help. A lot. I have nVidia's new 3-D glasses and when I use them it makes a huge difference to the feel of a game.

I've been a video gamer since Pong and for me, it's been exciting ever since I got a sound card and Wing Commander 1. What's that? 21 years?

Close? It's not close at all. It's night and day.

Compare DA2's cinematic trailer and DA2's in-game graphic engine. There's a world of difference. Maybe several worlds.

I'm aware that it may be impossible to produce a game with that much graphical fidelity, but that cinematic is just darned sexy. It would be fabulous if a game (even a fighting game) could have that level of graphics.

I think there's two sides to graphics, art (textures, models, and generally 'detail') and rendering (the quality of displaying the art, how smooth a framerate), and both can still be improved.

While both are ultimately limited by hardware (memory and processors), art can be improved either by having very skilled artists able to make a great art style that fits the game and the hardware constraints, or by throwing money at the problem to get more artists to make more art. The rendering can be improved by paying clever people to make a high quality, efficient bit of code, or buying the engine of someone else who's done the hard work already.

The other option of going for a new base of hardware has it's problems, as unless it's just a more powerful revision of the existing hardware, then the game designers are going to have to relearn all the tricks again. Back when the current generation launched, most games were coded for a single CPU core, multiprocessors were rare among games, and for the first few years few games were taking full advantage of the hardware.

None of the options are free, or even cheap.