News, Views, and Reviews
I’m always excited when a new generation of video game consoles begins. Even before it starts, I find myself anticipating what’s next, waiting to get my hands on new technology. Will it be faster? Will there be bigger, more detailed virtual worlds to explore? Will it push me out of my comfort zone and bring me experiences I couldn’t have even imagined years ago? Each generation layers new advancements on to the achievements of previous generations; from the 8-bit to 16-bit advancement in the 80’s, the move from cartridges to CDs in the 90’s, and adding online services in the 00’s, each new generation seemed so much better than the one before. Some advancements heralded new ways of playing, like adding a full range of 360 degree movement to platform and adventure games. Other advancements required the user to upgrade their home equipment, like changing from Standard Definition to High Definition televisions. The way we interact with games changes and evolves, too. Arcade cabinet controls evolved into joysticks and digital gamepads, and those digital gamepads evolved into analog controllers. We’ve also added touch screens and motion sensors to supplement or even replace traditional controllers. Sometimes, these advancements are almost too subtle to notice. The sensitivity of those analog controllers, for example, vastly improved from Generation Five to Generation Six, from the PlayStation to PlayStation 2, yet the user experience was so similar, that it’s merely taken for granted. Other differences are really obvious. The transition from Standard Definition to High Definition is a definitive moment, a paradigm shift, widely recognized even outside the video game industry. Generation Seven, The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, are capable of significantly better graphics than previous generations.
The big question on a lot of people’s minds, then, is not “what kind of changes can we expect from the next generation?” it’s “will those changes be really big, or too subtle to notice?”
Those that believe the differences will be subtle, also say that we don’t need a new generation yet. They have a few good points. For one thing, even though we are technically in the “HD Era”, we’re still not seeing consistency and high quality. High Definition Televisions, for example, have finally reached a standard of 1080p. Both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are capable of displaying in 1080p, but most games are actually programmed in a lower native definition, such as 540p or 640p, and the console upscales the display to look better on 1080p televisions. Even these lower-definition games suffer from other problems, such as texture pop-in, screen tearing, and sub-par frame rates. Part of their argument, then, is that there is still room for improvement with the current generation. Some developers ARE pushing Generation Seven pretty far, and we are looking forward to some very good looking games this year. The other part of their argument is that, even if true 1080p games with smooth framerates become more common, where is the room for improvement? Will Generation Eight feature something even better than 1080p? Will people even be able to see the difference?
To their concerns and questions, I optimistically and enthusiastically answer “YES!” For starters, there ARE some hardware limitations with Generation Seven. Sure, some developers are creating some great games, but they seem to be in the minority. Plus, they often have to sacrifice in other aspects to get those higher numbers, such as having fewer things happening on screen, using a limited color palette, or requiring the consoles to pre-load “texture packs” or pre-install the entire game so the system can keep up. I also believe that, even if Generation Seven ends its run full of great looking, true-1080p, smooth frame rate games, there IS room for improvement. Not just visually, although those improvements might be too subtle to notice at first, but through even larger worlds, bigger levels, more enemies, smarter AI routines, more players in the same matches, etc. I also believe our interactions with those games will also improve. Like the changes in analog controller sensitivity, I believe we’ll also see improvements in touch screen and motion sensors – but the changes will be a lot more noticeable. We’ll evolve from broad, arm and hand motions, to ultra-sensitive finger and even lip movement detection.
More importantly, I believe the industry NEEDS a new generation. Maybe the first year will seem barely improved from a technical stand point, but we have to go there. If the next generation doesn’t start soon, it might be too late. Overall hardware AND software sales have declined in the past few years. Prices on consoles have dropped, so the install base is larger, and Sony and Microsoft are finally recovering from years of selling consoles at a loss. However, Generation Seven is the longest video game generation of all time: generations usually span five to six years, but 2013 will mark the 8th year of this generation. Sales are declining because people are getting bored. They’re moving on to other platforms, like PC or mobile games. The “intrusive tech” of iOS and Android devices are definitely intruding into video game territory. The start of a new generation is exciting! It gets people lined up at the register again! More importantly, it gives consoles a chance to re-establish their territory. Game developers will be able to create those bigger, more beautiful virtual worlds, without the hardware limitations that are currently frustrating their efforts. Those beautiful games will also help consoles prove their relevance. So, the cycle can continue. More advancements and improvements are on the way, and maybe some will be too subtle to notice at first, but we have to start somewhere.
I’m ready! I say, Bring it On!
Sony has already announced that they have something big to tell us on February 20th. Many are assuming that this is their PlayStation 4 announcement. Read Sony Says about my predictions and expectations about the February 20th show.