The Next Gen Cometh

We are on the eve of the ‘next generation’ (or ‘next-gen’ for ease of communication) as the Xbox 360 arrives this Christmas. Microsoft have been working hard lately to ensure the public perceive the 360 as ‘next-gen’, although reports do suggest that the Japanese have yet to be wooed by the good looks of the 360. Neither have I.

It would be easy to point an accusatory finger at Microsoft: the launch packages (the cheaper of which is an insulting offer), an unclear day 1 software line-up and a rushed release for the Christmas period, amongst other things, have made for a decidedly lacklustre ‘next-gen’ launch (not including the thorny issue of development costs and the consequences). However, it would be utterly stupid to single-handedly blame Microsoft. A share of the blame belongs with many of us gamers who seem so eager to see the ‘next-gen’ early (enthralled as we are by pretty lights), when the Xbox itself still has enough life in it. I should be careful though as outside of my own clouded mind there is an air of excitement as European and American gamers wait for the launch, especially with Perfect Dark Zero, Project Gotham Racing 3, and Kameo as ‘launch’ titles (although no-one knows what constitutes the launch period). For me though, this doesn’t yet feel like next-generation gaming.

I have no doubts that both the 360 and PS3 (which are heading down similar paths) will provide genuinely exciting gaming experiences which many people (including me) will enjoy. However, both Microsoft and Sony realise that their respective consoles are launched at one group and one group only; the current generation gamer. So far, the majority of major titles announced are sequels including PGR3, PD Zero, Metal Gear Solid 4 (which does admittedly look stunning) or franchises such as Fifa. This is great for gamers who have grown up with these games and love the respective franchises and/or developers; the emergence of a Perfect Dark sequel, for example, is a wet dream for many gamers. The problem is, for every non-gamer/cynic, the next generation will do nothing more than highlight the problems that emerged from the last two generation shifts.

The last genuine generation shift was the move from 2D gaming (SNES) to 3D gaming (N64/PS1). The move to 3D can not be underestimated; it opened up gaming to a whole new generation and market. Gaming became exciting again. The PS2/Xbox/GC sought to consolidate this new market and with improved graphics managed to attract even more ‘casual’ gamers. However, the shift to more ‘realistic’ and ‘cinematic’ (the two most frightening and misused words in the industry) gaming has been opening it up to controversy (GTA, Manhunt etc) and to ridicule, especially with its crude, rudimentary stories and characters.

This is where the next generation becomes a problem. Improved graphics will leave gaming open to more controversy, especially as they become more ‘realistic’ and depict ‘real-world’ settings. Throw in a largely ignored rating system and misinformation amongst parents, and the Daily Mail will look to garner even more support than before. The other problem is increasing ridicule. Large sections of gaming seem determined to become more aligned with cinema and make games even more ‘cinematic’. For many developers this means less time playing and more time watching, as cut-scenes attempt to explain hole-ridden plots written with all the skill of one of my stories (which are truly awful). If developers want to continue this then they have to hire professional writers with known pedigrees otherwise as games become more ambitious in scope, the stories accompanying them will become more absurd. Some hardened gamers will put up with this, but introducing a new gamer to these absurdly written worlds will only become more and more difficult.

All this without even talking about cost, not only for gamers but for developers, and other problems like more ‘realistic’ AI to coincide with more ‘realistic’ worlds (poor AI will become even more obvious during this next generation), and the re-use of controllers limiting possible genre expansions.

Sony and Microsoft will successfully pander towards current gamers needs (which is a good thing) but we all need to be careful of the consequences the ‘next generation’ could bring if it follows the trends set in this current generation. Luckily then Nintendo looks set to offer a genuine leap in generations to maintain a healthy balance the current generation seems to be lacking (although they still need to work on their attitude towards Europe and stop putting Mario in every game they release).

I am hopeful now, by this time next year I may well and truly feel in the ‘next-generation’ mood. For now though, I’m going to stay firmly rooted in this generation, hoping that developers will be aware of the what lays ahead and what they need to change to attract new gamers.