The Technological Plateau

Forgive me if I get serious for a moment, but this is something I’ve had on my mind for a while:
This generation of game consoles is probably the final truly significant generation.

NOTE: this is the second draft.

The exponentially expanding capability of computers at one time meant the difference between 4 bit and 8 bit graphics. The difference between 2D sprites that were colorful silhouettes and 2D sprites that actually resembled, crudely, actual objects and characters.

The next time around, it meant the difference between 8 bit and 16 bit graphics. The sprites that actually looked like something could now look beautiful, though still relatively pixellated. This generation also brought about pseudo-3D graphics in the form of multiple background layers in Sonic The Hedgehog and “mode 7” scrolling and scaling in Pilotwings. Both these and other innovative 16 bit games represented vast improvements in terms of graphic and game design.

Then came 32 bit graphics and Compact Disc storage. If there was just an improvement in graphics, the Nintendo 64 would have beaten the Playstation if the PS1 was also cartridge-based. However, CD storage meant not only a quantum leap in the quality of graphics but also the quantity. This came at a crucial time when games also incorporated better pseudo-3D elements (such as the various versions of Doom) and mixed true-3D with the best 2D graphics (such as Final Fantasy VII-IX) as well as just plain fantastic 2D (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). There was even some significant improvements in pure true-3D at this time, mostly on the PC and Nintendo 64. (HOWEVER: The PC was held back by having multiple competing all-of-them-ridiculously-expensive 3D card standards, and the Nintendo 64 was held back by sticking with a ridiculously archaic storage format. Despite these two major problems, some very good true-3D games were produced on both systems.)

The leaps were coming in such a way that people stopped measuring them in powers of 2. The next generation focused on true-3D games almost exclusively, though some of the greatest 2D games ever were also produced for these systems(specifically: on the PS2).

Meanwhile, towards the end of the GC/PS2/XB generation, the handheld consoles had finally caught up and even slightly surpassed the previous stand-alone consoles in quality.

The average lifespan of a successful stand-alone game console is 5 years. However, the exponential increase in raw computing power, storage, and communication potential is still accelerating. However, the number of separate pixels the human eye is capable of distinguishing has not changed. There will reach a time, very soon, where any further increase in screen resolution is absolutely redundant. Then any increase in texture resolution will be absolutely redundant (and may already be as of this generation). Then any increase in polygons will be absolutely redundant. Then, eventually, any increase in processing power will be redundant and I’m talking real-time rendering of whole fully-scalable planets with no loading and fully-implemented game-elements like ecosystems, economics, battle systems, object physics and so on.

There is really no need to render multiple solar-systems of these planets in real-time. The number of possible game-elements becomes too cumbersome for humans to playtest effectively at this point, and all hardware improvements other than new game interfaces (whatever wacky controller Nintendo comes up with next, proper cheap workable VR headsets) will be absolutely redundant. In fact, the sit-in-front-of-the-TV consoles will probably be replaced altogether by hand-helds and/or personal computers and/or something completely new we don’t know about yet.

Furthermore, even if realtime rendering of these hyper-detailed worlds was necessary, there’s the software side of game development. Each successful console goes through three phases:

1) Launch or just-post-launch games. These are developed quickly and are either glorified tech demos or conversions/updates of games that were originally intended for other systems. There’s really not enough time to make anything of lasting worth. This always happens simply because of time constraints.

2) Second-year to third-year games. These games include some that are actually worth playing for an extended period of time, and if the console is to survive into year 4, this is also where we see the first Console-Exclusive Killer Apps.

3) In the fourth year, developers have had a chance to make several good games on a particular system and now they’re ready to really push the system to it’s true potential. Tragically, some truly awesome games get ignored, especially in the fifth year, because consumers have bought the next gen and don’t want to bother with games for the old console. This is worst when the new console is not backwards-compatible with the old one.

When the Plateau is reached, games using the True Potential of (for example) the PS3 will far outshine Launch titles on the PS4 that aren’t conversions. (This is already happening, to a lesser extent, with the PS2 and PS3.) With the PS3 being cheaper, consumers won’t want to bother upgrading. The PS3 will actually become a PS4-killer.

The proof of all this is in the fact that the current fighters of this generation are all exactly the same as the previous generation. It’s Nintendo vs. Sony vs. Microsoft… again. This never happened before. There was Atari, there was Sega, there was Nokia, there was Commodore, there was always a fresh source of competition in each generation. (Sony was originally the fourth-runner in the 32 bit generation and Microsoft was originally the fourth-runner in the 64 bit generation, but they have since become Major Players. Even Nintendo was briefly the little fish in Atari’s pond.) But in the Wii/PS3/XB360 fight no one else is even trying. There are rumors of Sega doing something in hardware again, and there are always international markets, but the Three Big Winners have been announced. This is symptomatic of the fact that the Plateau is almost reached.

What happens next depends on the ability of the latest consoles to adapt and serve needs other than the traditional market. The ability to download games (FINALLY) is a huge step in the right direction, but once The Best First Person Shooter is made, developers should really consider making games for the older crowd. Gamers are aging. They want more and more sophistication and more new experiences. Furthermore, the younger set has already experienced many of the same sophisticated games that the older crowd has. New genres need to be invented or re-discovered (like the RPG genre circa early 2000s). Games within the genres have to break free of the “sacred cows” of those genres, possibly mutating into new genres if necessary.

Ultimately, developers need to stop taking for granted the current cycles of console hardware development, because it won’t last forever. And if Sony and Microsoft don’t get their act together concerning the horrific technical issues of the XB360 and PS3, the Wii is going to crush them and the plateau will be reached by Nintendo alone.

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