Within the next few months we may at long last receive the next generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft; “officially” kickstarting the new console generation for those who don’t find the Wii U appealing. Usually the arrival of a next-gen console results in gamers being excited about what the future holds since seeing how games will evolve and be pushed is something that we ultimately wait six to seven years to see. But with how the video game industry is, and the world economy for that matter, do gamers and in turn the industry need to re-evaluate what truly constitutes a next-gen game?
Back in the day I think a lot of gamers were very specific about what they wanted to see out of a next-gen game. When we were all gaming in the PS1/N64 era we dreamt of smoother visuals that featured more detail and of course we were all giddy upon seeing the initial Emotion Engine PS2 debut video or even the robot tech demo which showed off what the original Xbox was capable of. Our hype was of course amplified once it came time to teasing what the PS3/Xbox 360 would provide us since by then gamers wanted visuals that nearly matched the level of quality and detail found in CG effects driven movies.
Since we’re now on the cusp of the next-gen consoles where do we go from here? We may still be a generation away from playing a game which allows us to control a character rendered with such detail that it matches the work ILM did in creating The Hulk for The Avengers, but gamers do have certain expectations of what they want.
It may be hard to gauge just how far visuals should be pushed once the next-gen PlayStation arrives since we’re seeing some amazing games on the PS3 such as The Last of Us and further engine refinement in things such as God of War: Ascension. Seeing a console reach its peak more or less is expected towards the end of a lifecycle, but again it leaves us in a somewhat tricky situation of how far things should be pushed and what the expectations of consumers are once the next-gen consoles finally arrive.
The Last of Us is showing the power the PS3 still has.
Right now the industry is in a very precarious place more or less despite whatever façade may be put up to show that things are ok. I don’t think that everyone in the industry is wearing those rose tinted glasses and are oblivious to the things that are going on, mainly that games have high budgets which make it near impossible to make a profit unless an exponentially high number of units are sold, but it seems like nothing is being done to truly fix things as they stand now or figure out an adequate solution.
In some ways developers are trying new business models out like Kickstarter or are going the free-to-play route to push original IPs to the forefront such as the exceptional looking Warframe. Eventually in most cases it all comes back to having to support the consoles in order to stay afloat and make the required bank to stay open and not become the latest studio to be shuttered.
I think the main problem that the industry faces, at least on the heels of the next-gen consoles, is that they may not be taking the right approach to things. With some developers stating that the leap to the next-gen is a frightening time there’s clearly a fear that things could go awry with a continued emphasis on pushing the visual bar despite budgets, and possibly retail MSPRs, ballooning to a price that makes no one happy. As a gamer and someone who enjoys stunning visuals I don’t want to see studios necessarily shy away from pushing the bar as long as it isn’t in a way that is akin to shooting themselves in the foot from a financial perspective.
It’s a given that the internal studios of Sony and Microsoft will likely be the main developers right off the bat that truly show us what the next-gen consoles can do since they have deep pockets to do R&D or to simply support a four year development cycle. We may not see as many titan level 1st party games next-gen, but we’ll definitely see the likes of Naughty Dog, 343 Industries, and Sony Santa Monica provide examples of how technically advanced the hardware is. My main thought is whether or not it’ll be possible, and acceptable amongst gamers, to see games that kind of rest in the middle ground visually while not coming across as old relics of the previous generation.
We likely won’t see a bevy of studios try to take complete advantage of the next-gen consoles to do stunning facial animation or action scenes that look like they were ripped out of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in their scope and overall fidelity, but most game studios will more or less be trying to match what the top games are doing visually. But what if a developer were to make a game that may not be on a triple-A visual level but was more or less a PS3/Xbox 360 game with some really polished visuals yet allowed a greater sense of freedom for whatever the core gameplay or the key secondary features such as A.I. integration were?
The best example I can give is if you could imagine what GTA: San Andreas would be like as a PS3 game. Now when San Andreas came out on the PS2/Xbox it wasn’t that great looking, especially compared to other games such as Metal Gear Solid 3. With textures that were kind of horrible in some cases, gamers accepted San Andreas, flaws and all, since it was a fun game.
The debut trailer for GTA: San Andreas
Now imagine if San Andreas was released on the PS3/Xbox 360 and wasn’t powered by Rockstar’s HD RAGE engine (which powers GTA V) but simply featured a more consistent visual style that still provided three distinct cities to roam around with vast space to explore between them. Is that something gamers would accept back then or even be open to with the next-gen consoles if Rockstar merely kept the RAGE engine as is without doing major tinkering for the new consoles?
Most gamers may not think that visuals are the key driving force for games these days, but on the consoles it’s still is a big selling point. At this point developers are already struggling with high budgets and limited windows to succeed so why not take a step back and perhaps re-examine how games should be made once the next PlayStation and Xbox finally arrives?
What got me thinking about how gamers should redefine their next-gen expectations and what developers should do was a movie I saw last year which I absolutely adored. Based on the poor box office reception I’m probably part of the small minority that saw it, but the amazing tone and direction of Dredd was something that I thought fit the current dilemma of the video game industry. I won’t delve too deeply into why Dredd received a rather cold box office total, but its uniqueness matches the issues the video game industry faces – namely it’s hard for things to become a success.
The chances of receiving a game based upon the Dredd universe are extremely low.
Of course after watching Dredd I got to thinking about how cool the concept would be as a video game since dishing out justice with a Lawgiver and roaming Mega-City One would be engaging despite the small amount of familiarity it may have in the 3rd person action genre. However, given the current climate of the video game industry on the PS3 and Xbox 360, the chances of seeing a Dredd game as a triple-A experience are limited if not impossible in the way it should be delivered: a sandbox style action game. This of course got me thinking to the potential of a middle ground for next-gen games in how a developer may make a game that roughly amounts to a respectable PS3/Xbox 360 game (think Spec Ops or even Castlevania: Lords of Shadow level) but builds upon everything using the added horsepower that’s given to them to address secondary features.
Going the middle ground route with a next-gen game may not immediately lower the budget and potential risk for a game, but I doubt most action games would cost north of $40 million as they‘re expected to be, a number which could triple for Rockstar Games given their desire and motivation to provide the best possible experience to their fans. In a few ways we’ve already seen that some consumers are fine with playing games that rest in the middle ground visually since most of the games in the mobile market are average looking and don’t feature complex shaders or other visual effects. Games on the iOS and Android platforms are definitely stepping up their game in the graphics department, but even titles such as Infinity Blade don’t have mega budgets so why can’t core console developers take a different mentality to developing things for the next-gen when it comes to delivering core experiences?
I don’t think going with a different design mentality/graphical expectation mindset will instantly heal things within the games industry since there are still a load of problems. The issue of game budgets will forever be a constant problem since it immediately creates a huge goal that needs to be made for success. That along with mismanagement that has plagued games such as Ubisoft’s I Am Alive, which reportedly cost $32 million to make before it was rebooted multiple times are things that really can’t happen anymore otherwise the industry will simply implode on itself.
So is it a case of certain developers just losing their minds more or less as to what they should do in a major triple-A action game experience or are they are trying to match what gamers want out of a game? I think it’s a little bit of both actually since I refuse to believer that all of a sudden a mass array of talented developers have suddenly become stupid and let their egos or dreams get the best of them. It may be hard for some gamers to imagine a next-gen in which we may not see an array of games that make the max tech settings of Crysis 2 look like garbage, but such a thing may be a required action if we want to see the studios and companies we love stick around and not shut their doors for good.
Upping the bar for things can indeed provide us with some amazing visuals and experiences though the barrier of entry is going to be too high for developers to have a shot or even be interested in making games like that anymore, a situation which we’re already seeing small signs of through recent departures of key development figures in the past few years.
The last thing I want to see is games adopt the mobile mentality by providing games for $2 that have about twenty minutes of replay value unless you’re killing some time on the bus. Yet mobile games have effectively proved that visuals don’t need to be amazing for something to be a hit, as evident by the mega success that Angry Birds has received. So if gamers for once dial down their expectations, which may be a hard thing to do based on how many meltdowns happen over small pieces of news, the industry could bounce back to the state which saw studios thrive and games come out on a more frequent basis without things feeling similar to one another.
Of course we could find out what sort of next-gen plans and ideology certain developers have once E3 2013 rolls around since we’re bound to see a few teases if not full-blown announcements made.