Skepticism of the Next Generation.

Skeptical Hippo is Skeptical.

In a stark contrast to Take Two’s CEO Strauss Zelnick, who has stated he is skeptical of the Wii U but not of the next gen by Microsoft and Sony, I’d say that whoever you are and whatever position you work in the industry, we should always be skeptical of what a next-gen brings to the table…

 

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Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick said he was “skeptical” of the Wii-U in a recent interview with Gamasutra.

There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical of the Wii-U – for all the good I can see in it, truth is there’s a lot of questions and a lot of faith being put in third parties, a lot of technical issues to go heinously wrong and most importantly of all, knowing that lightning doesn’t always strike twice – even for Nintendo, the Wii-U is still a gamble in an industry that is focused on pushing the technological boundaries as much as the gaming ones. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us level, grounded, and immune from the inevitable hype. A critical eye and an understanding of the things behind the scenes can really cement you down.

Of course, Strauss Zelnick then undid his interesting point by stating he wasn’t so skeptical of the next-gen machines by Sony and Microsoft. Whoops. Because he should be. As the CEO of a games company, he absolutely should be.

But why be critical of a next generation? I mean, new technology and new ideas are good right? New ways and implementations, more available memory, more graphical grunt. Surely all of this is good?

My argument against the excitement for a next-gen is, consider we’re six years into this generation and we may still have another two years of it left before we see these new consoles on the market. Can anyone really say they’ve seen the best this generation has to offer yet? Watch Dogs, Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed 3 and even the upcoming Wii-U game Zombi-U all look to be serious and hugely broad appropriations of the hardware available. They are incredibly detailed, superbly designed and look utterly brilliant. This is the final part of a generation – the last quarter of it tends to be where you see all the really amazing stuff get released, so we’re still essentially waiting for the games that take advantage fully of THIS generations technology. After six years and heck knows how many casualties along the way. Can we really justify a next-gen where the curve to get the full potential out could be ten years? Will people still call for a next gen after the five year marker there? “We’re bored, we want new tech, tech has moved on.”

The problem with games consoles is that the technology itself has to have legs. You’re talking a set specification that is designed to last five to six years minimum, and the tech-heads will always be impatient and will always compare consoles to their yearly PC upgrades, which they spend hundreds of pounds/dollars on a year, asking why consoles can’t be like PCs. Because then the console would be a PC, you’d have to constantly upgrade it every year and then no-one will be able to get to grips with the technology inside it, or use it properly. This, in some circles, is called “Doing An Apple.” Having a set amount of power means over the years, efficiency and experience can extract some amazing examples of gaming out of even the most antiquated technology. The Wii, in its dying throes, has given us the watercolour artistry of Zelda: Skyward Sword and the depth and texture of Xenoblade Chronicles. They looked, despite the technology, brilliant. The Last Story looked great. Pandora’s Tower looked amazing. These are not ugly games, and they are running on hardware that is – ostensibly – ten years old. That says a lot for the games that are yet to come for the X-Box 360 and PS3 – games yet to take on the full potential of these comparative juggernauts.

It’s not just the games either – the business methodology itself is under threat from smartphones, tablets and Nintendo.

Nintendo proved something with the Wii that the industry itself had preferred to ignore in its hubris – that the consumer isn’t interested in power, specs, technology or even design. It is very hard to pinpoint one main reason why the Nintendo Wii has been so dominant – was it the price? The marketing? The games? The lifestyle software like Wii Fit? It’s hard to quantify, but there’s no mistaking that Nintendo dominated this generation, making gigantic profits whilst spending significantly less than its rivals. Of all the hardware manufacturers, Nintendo are the ones in the strongest position right now. Their current generation battle is long won – it’s already prepared for the next generation battle, much to the bemusement of Sony and Microsoft – both of which are likely still not technically finalised on their next gen plans yet.

The thing is this – if Nintendo dominates again compared to two super-powered consoles selling for twice its cost, that’s going to do more than hurt Sony and Microsoft – that’s going to utterly destroy their internal workings. Businesses need funding – funding comes from shareholders, from investors and partners. All of which invest with the intention of making money on top of that money – that’s business for you. Capitalism is a bitch sometimes. Anyway, can you imagine the next-next generation if the Wii-U manages once again to see nearly double its rivals? “Why are we spending so much on the technology and loss leading when Nintendo makes massive profits from the off?” They will ask, likely also with a, “You want my money again, you’re going to have to change your business practices!”.

This isn’t an unlikely scenario – the next-gen really could be the last time you see a real focus on technology wars. Nintendo have been fighting to undermine the very foundations of pushing next-generations by demonstrating that it’s not power people want, but performance. It could end up leading to longer generational cycles, with less emphasis on the hardware and more on the “features” being bundled with it. Would this be a bad thing? I’m not sure. Truth is, no-one can be sure. But if we’re talking of hitting a maintainable plateau for games, I’d say we’re at a pretty good stage where that could be done, right?

It’s not just that – all the extra tinsel going on in gaming is also something to be skeptical of. Why no, I don’t want to have my win/loss ratio in Virtua Fighter 5 posted and updated constantly on my Facebook page (mostly because I suck, but y’know…), I don’t want every achievement I get in a game broadcast over Twitter and I don’t want my mobile phone to update itself constantly with information about the game I’m playing and the “sights” I’m “seeing”. None of this is necessary – or even doing any good. Gaming achievements being broadcast is the ultimate in nerdy, and I can’t see anyone wanting to buy a game like Pullblox/Pushmo if they felt their progress was being broadcast to the world. Certain breeds of game will never fit into this idea of “social gaming networks”. There’s still a stigma attached, like the fantastic Catherine. Still judged not on the quality of its narrative, acting and gameplay – but on the fact it’s Japanese Anime. We’re NEVER going to escape this kind of stigmitisation. So you will be afraid to buy Mario, or Jak, or any of these games broadcasting your achievements and feats because it might give people the wrong impression of you. Oh dear. Gaming as a fashion statement. What a massive steaming pile of crap that’s going to end up being.

And that’s before you get to how reliable and sustainable this tech will be in the long-term. New generations are notorious for their technical faults – the PS3 Bricking, the 360 Red Ring of Death, the Wii Firmware Fiasco. Previous generations have been problematic too – the PS2 caught fire, the X-Box was reported to get so hot it burned people, the PS1 could spin itself off its own hinges etc. A next generation will NOT mean an escape from the past – in fact, it will launch us into another two or three years of technical uncertainty and limbo as we all tread on eggshells trying not to so much as breathe wrong for fear our new $600/£500 console (that’s a conservative guess of next gen console prices!) might wig out in fear. Worse still is that gaming is generally moving online, which means big online networks like X-Box Live and Miiverse and PlayStation Network. What happened to PSN last year? Oh right. It got HACKED, and lots of games were rendered unplayable for weeks. This is another “technical” issue with which the new consoles will ALL have to deal with – we live in a world where these hackers don’t care about the little people, they care about the publicity and getting attention. Nothing gets the attention of 20 million people quite like taking down their online network service and rendering their games useless until the network can be patched up.

Also should briefly mention that for all the big studios making big next-gen projects already, there are even more out there still struggling to get by with this generations technology. A next generation will always put costs up more – you need more money, new technology, people who can understand the new tech, an engine capable of using the extra power… it’s going to be expensive. Very expensive. Does anyone really feel that everyone is financially ready to spend MORE money on games? It’s another financial gamble that relies on a fast install base of consumers, and the first batch of games will be niche and experimental and for the first year, there may still only be two or three million users.

We should all be skeptical of a next-generation. We should absolutely view the Wii-U with some suspicion, considering all of the above Nintendo is pinning a lot on attracting those smaller studios to its cause and undermining the natural order for its own gain. But this doesn’t mean Sony and Microsoft will be any better – they could indeed be much, much worse and we could all be worse off as a result of what they do. Thing is, we don’t know, and won’t know until we’re in the same position we’re in now in this generation – looking back on it, and asking what was good about it and what was bad.

And once again, anyone who predicts anything is likely to end up looking a right tit. Who’d have seen the underpowered Wii dominating this generation so? Who’d have thought Nintendo could be in a stronger position than Sony? Who could have predicted Sony falling on such hard times? Or Microsoft getting so much heat over trying to turn a profit on its own hardware.

No-one knows. That’s why we should be skeptical – but ultimately, also why we should be hopeful too, because things might indeed get better. Or change because they need to, for the better. The industry has survived this long and arguably, no-one has paid the blindest bit of notice to what actually does and doesn’t work. It gets by somehow, for some reason, and we’re constantly amazed at how it adapts and changes. But not all changes are for the better – I’m still mistrustful of motion controls (even the Wii, thanks), still cautious about this idea we all need to link everything up and still amazed that more people use Netflix on the Wii than on any other console.*shrugs*

None of these new consoles will get everything right. We will have complaints. Anyone who thinks the next-gen will be a miracle cure for this generations ills needs to be yanked back down to earth. But what is interesting is that for all of this, we’ll likely end up with some cracking games – regardless of who, or where, or when.

And that’s something to look forward to, even when you can be forgiven for viewing the consoles themselves with whatever skepticism you want…

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