2014: The 8th (Last?) Generation of Console Gaming
The new year is upon us, and many of us are probably enjoying a new console that we've been bequeathed over the holiday period. We're now at the eighth generation of gaming consoles, and they've never looked better. But are we reaching a dead-end concerning how much further we can go with mainstream console gaming technology?
Where We've Been And Where We're Going
What drove the gaming industry in its early days was the quest for better and more realistic graphics. It's laughable now to think that gamers found 32-bit graphics unbelievably crisp and near convincing back in their heyday. But now, the glorious high-definition revolution has come and we're being bedazzled once more.
What's more, the difference in graphic quality between the last and current generations really is the smallest it's been. Compare some of the latter-day PS3 games against those now available on the PS4. Whilst it is noticeably better, it's not as shocking as, say, the leap from 32-bit to 64-bit. The trend over the past generations have been a longer wait between generations, and the leap in advancements less staggering. The rate of progress has definitely been slowing down over the last decade and a half, with it being eight years since the last console upgrade, and only a six-year gap before that. On the current trajectory, it'll be another decade (2023) before another big advancement.
But is the eighth generation of gaming - the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 - the ultimate pinnacle of our achievement? What is the next step, if there is one? To be honest, there isn't really much more. We've gotten to the point with image definition that the only way we can get a more polished look is to physically reproduce everything in our living rooms.
What About 3D?
We already have it, and it hasn't caught on, as Nintendo have left 3D behind by reverting back to flatter graphics with the 2DS, and even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has pulled its funding for 3D programming. So the future for 3D doesn't look particularly promising, unless you're a Hollywood director. Yes, games like Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception and the high-definition remastering of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are fantastic in 3D, but there are very few other games that have taken to utilising this functionality. The only place it seems to do well is in cinemas.
What About Handheld/Portable Gaming?
Games are now more mobile, but the rise in smart phones and tablets means handheld gaming is moving away from dedicate hardware like the 2DS and PS Vita, taking up residencies on devices that run iOS or Android operating systems.
The PS Vita might stick around a little longer, with its gaggle of interactive features (two touch-sensitive surfaces, back and front facing cameras, motion control, and analogue sticks); especially with the success of Sony's relaunch of the device to tie-in with the PS4.
Both Sony and Microsoft are also investing in creating a smart phone/tablet visibility through PlayStation Mobile and Xbox SmartGlass. It really does look like the days of handheld consoles are numbered.
App-based gaming is where the mobile gaming industry is moving, and the demise of portable consoles is now more a question of "when" rather than "if".
What about Virtual Reality (VR)?
This does seem like the only other direction gaming can go. Yet despite the Oculus Rift really creating some waves at the 2013 expos, the proof is found in the eating of the virtual pudding when it comes to being a viable new platform. There have been countless attempts of developers trying to get VR off the ground over the past 20 years, all of which have failed. However, the Oculus Rift probably has the best chance of succeeding, given the vociferous support of developers like Bossa Studios, and the hype it has trumped-up at expos.
Yet, we can only go two ways with VR. If it fails, we're just left with the next "big" advancement in gaming some ways in the distance, and potentially not being too exciting or revolutionary. But if VR succeeds, then traditional gaming as we know it will start to become obsolete. So it seems a lose-lose situation for console gaming, right?
What About a Different Approach to Gaming?
The only avenue left for console gaming is for games to start moving dramatically away from what we traditionally consider as gaming, and for technology to follow suit. This has already begun in earnest with games like The Stanley Parable and Kentucky Route Zero on PC, but it's still only coming from the indie developers, and not so much from the big publishers and studios. But hopefully both Microsoft and Sony's dedication to bringing indie developers to their platforms will spur this change.
Speaking at Game Music Connect in September, composer of the music for the Halo series, Martin "Marty" O'Donnell, reckons that how games explore narrative and interaction really is the last bastion of progress, given his opinion that technological advancements has reached a plateaux. Certainly, Destiny, for which O'Donnell has written the score for, is one of the first mainstream attempts in changing how we approach gaming.
But when you look at buyer comments on games like Gone Home, one of the most successful and inventive indie titles of last year, and the furore surrounding the debate on "what is a video game?", you do wonder if the gaming community at large really want this paradigm shift, let alone whether they're ready for it.
Is The End Nigh?
It feels like traditional console gaming has reached its terminus. Any new advancements in gaming are either going to sink or swim (VR), or are still brewing amid small beginnings on the indie scene. But there's still plenty of time to enjoy your PS4s and Xbox Ones. The point which we've reached is undeniably the most impressive yet. But come the "next generation", what we now know as console gaming, and gaming as a whole, may well become a thing of the past.