The Next Gen – Some thoughts and predictions.

So, the buzz has started that at E3, to try and take the wind out of the sails of Nintendo and it’s Wii-U unveiling, Sony and Microsoft will be showing at least a flavour of their next-generational offerings, likely due in 2014 at the latest (and most realistic).

I suppose this isn’t a surprise, and it’s really only two years before my early predictions that we’d see it happen in 2016. This generation has been longer than previous generations – but not by much, and it has rapidly exposed the financial strains that so many studios are forced to operate on.

So, what do I expect will change in the next-gen…

Well, if Sony and Microsoft value the industry… not much.

I don’t believe, if they’ve already got working prototypes, that we will see anything that we can’t already get for the PC. The Epic Games UDK-NG that we so drooled over was running on a PC that costs nearer three grand. By the time 2014 comes around, that may still be a grands worth of kit – but if past behaviour is anything to go by, Sony and Microsoft will both be prepared to take the financial hit.

And it will be a sensible decision too, because I firmly believe this is the last time we may even use the term “Next-Gen”.

If we’re going to be honest, the idea of a next-gen is a silly one. The technology available to us right now is capable of so many wondrous things, so many fantastic games and concepts, that for all this beating of the graphical drum, I don’t think it will improve much. Or even change much, save adding an extra nought on the end of a budget.

The Next-Gen should focus primarily on sustainability. These will be consoles that will be around for ten to fifteen years, if not more – much like movies and TV, the equipment and costs have to level out sometime. There will be no instant rush to move on so quickly, for fear of it tearing the industry apart – a bubble that has grown so big that the consequences for bursting it are economically catastrophic.

So it will be right to make an initial loss – perhaps even sensible – when the model proposed is for a much longer strategy.

The second thing I expect to see is a change in media.

Nintendo and Microsoft will not want to use Blu-Ray, it’s so intrinsically tied to Sony that such a route is off-limits. So, what to do? Nintendo haven’t even confirmed the Wii-U media format yet. Actually, Nintendo haven’t confirmed ANYTHING yet. It could be a surprise.

But I suspect that this generation will slowly see the end of the CD-based media format. It’s not that I don’t like it – it is simply that SD-Cards have become much more economically viable. We’ve come full circle – the cartridge-based format of the N64 kept the prices of those games artificially higher than those of the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation. And yet, the CD is facing the end of its reign at the hands of, arguably, a cartridge-based format. The irony isn’t lost on me.

You may see SD-Card readers come in with new generation consoles. At first, they will hedge their bets. But I suspect, after a year or two, consoles will end up being redesigned – and ditch the CD in favour of the cards. It’s not something we should mourn either. It’s something we should celebrate. These things are capable of storing a lot more data – you could see larger games, longer games, more content or more detail. Eventually, the SD-Card may be killed off by digital download – but that remains a sore point, and until DRM issues are resolved, it’s quite possible that a fully digital download future isn’t on the cards.

Of course, it could be argued SD-Cards may be the next-next generation. But see my post about the Neutrino Experiment. That will be a Super Generation. And it’s some way off – but this is one I’m happy to concede on. As long as there is room, and the games are good, then I don’t care in what format they come. It’s all semantics.

The third thing is control. Nintendo laid down the gauntlet when rather than show off their machine, they showed off the Wii-U controller. A cross between a classic controller and a touch pad tablet, it will probably see design tweaks but arguably is the most logical next step in controlling games – why clutter up a game with a UI when that data can be displayed on the touch screen? Why force a player to stop a game to go into a menu and equip a sword, when they can do it on the fly on their touch screen? It’s a brilliant concept.

And it is one that Sony and Microsoft are probably busy beavering away on. Nintendo showed the world that by changing the interface, you could attract new gamers. With this touch screen, it’s saying, “Old gamers. We understand you don’t like the Wii Remote. It’s okay. We know. So, here’s a touch-screen in your controller for menus, data, organisation, minimaps – you’ll never need to pause again… well, unless you need the loo!” This makes it inherently interesting to its competitors – who are nothing if not willing to explore the same concepts.

That said, I do predict the Kinect, Move and Wii Remote will still exist. They have to. The next-generation isn’t just for gamers – now we have a much wider demographic, with wider genres and titles. Ignoring the expanded population of the gaming consumer is a mistake made at their peril; they must cater for all.

My final prediction is that these things will cost a lot at launch.

I doubt the Wii-U will be under $400 at release. Same with whatever Sony and Microsoft are working on. The initial release price will probably be closer to $499.99, taking heavy losses at the start with a longer, more sustained approach to the finances. Nintendo, with their heady reserves, are in a good position to take the strain of this on. Sony, less so, with their dwindling reserves. And Microsoft is… well. Microsoft. They’ll throw money at it regardless.

There is always at some point a machine redesign, so perhaps these companies might want to start thinking of more respectable trade-ins and recalls. But redesigns will be done largely as the media storage world changes, and if it does change quite radically, then things are liable to disappear.

But why consider such a long-term strategy? Simply, the Neutrino Experiment. If Japan replicates the results, then in 15-20 years we may have moved beyond current technology in its entirety. You don’t want to be caught on the hop – why plan a console when the very technological goalposts your business is founded on are being moved?

The reasoning here isn’t just that developers are begging for a slowdown. Everyone will slowdown, before the technology we use comes to a slow and inevitable stop. One era has to end before another begins – and stringing out technology just as long as is necessary is a perfectly sensible solution to the problem.

And even if we don’t move on – it may be at least a decade before we see any significant evolution in the tech we have now anyway. I prefer to believe we’ll be moving on to better things than improving on what we have now. But either way – it won’t happen for a very, very long time. So you’d better get used to the next-gen stuff. Because you’ll have it for a long, long time.

Of course, I don’t believe we need to rush a next-gen anyway. I never have. I don’t see what technical improvements can be made to games that we can’t do now – graphics may get crisper, sharper, slicker, but will that really change games? I’m not so sure it has. We expect pretty as standard. We should be wanting more.

But it seems we’re moving into it, whether we want it or not. But I don’t think I’m that wrong. The next generation must focus on entertaining all the new gamers it has bred the past six years, it must think about a longer-term strategy and it must above all other things produce new, exciting games and concepts with which to thrill us all.

Media formats will change – it is already changing. And, should the Neutrino Experiments see a conclusion in Japan, it will pave the way to, quite naturally, end the next generation when it becomes a more financially viable solution – by improving on the actual basis of the tech, not just squeezing more power from it.

Of course, I will have to wait and see what each plans to do. Nintendo have at least laid their cards on the table. Microsoft and Sony… well. Seems they plan to be pretty coy about it for now.

One thing is for sure – I do think we’re in for a great E3. And a great next-gen. I just hope people don’t get too surprised by how much it’s going to cost…

You want your next-gen graphics? Well sir or madam, you’ll have to pay for them. And if you reacted badly to the PS3’s original pricing, I think you may want to sit down…

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