“Bigger, better, louder, more.” That was the way God of War and Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe described the next gen when I questioned him about it earlier in the year. What I found interesting from that interview was that even an industry visionary like Jaffe couldn’t shoot me a straight answer on what the next generation of consoles and games would even bring and, for the past 10 months since that interview, I’ve wondered the same exact thing.
Obviously, the gaming industry needs to constantly move forward. Hardware is the vehicle that keeps it on its course. But even with shiny new hardware, how much better can things really get, especially compared to what we’ve seen in the past five years?
Visuals, just as they do every generation, will obviously be the thing that pushes the industry forward. But once the novelty of “whoa that looks way better than last year” wears off, we’re right back to where we started. When it get’s to that point, just as we do now, we’ll be relying on characters, stories, and experiences to dictate our purchases.
I get it. It’s all about having the next big thing. Trust me when I say that there’s no one that likes having a new toy as much as I do. Even more, I think the wait and lead up to the launch of new hardware is just as exciting – if not maybe even more so – than actually taking the new hardware home. Once you get to the point where you’re hooking it all up the honeymoon is officially over. The wait (and all the excitement that came with it) is now gone.
Now, getting back to what Jaffe mentioned, what are we really buying into by going into next gen? The “bigger” and “louder” part sure, I can somewhat see how that makes sense. But, then you have huge titles like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim or the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V, and you can’t help but think to yourself ‘how much bigger can things really get?’ But, the more important question that you should be asking yourself is will that really enhance my experience?
If rumors are to be believed about the next gen plans for the big three manufacturers, it seems as though all three of them are banking on gimmicks to set them apart.
Nintendo’s Wii U has already launched with their gamepad; a reach and hope (or prayer) of bringing in the “connected tablet experience” to the mainstream console market. The jury is still out on how that will turn out for the company, who’s hoping they can recapture the magic of the Wii. Yet, they’re attempting to do so without a killer app equivalent to the immensely popular Wii Sports (nor is there one in the foreseeable future).
Sony’s “Project Orbis” will allegedly see PlayStation dropping the sequential branding for the mysterious “Omni” name. Also, the Omni is set to introduce a pair of glasses that will help to mimic a “3D experience.” Really? Goggles?
Also, coming in as a surprise to no one, the next generation XBOX, which I still think will simply be named “XBOX”, is set to include a supercharged Kinect 2, which will have the ability to see what you had for breakfast. OK, so it won’t do that, but it will be able to decipher up to four players, tell apart their different voices, and include objects in its field of view. So basically, after three years of this nonsense, you are still the controller. Great.
So, now that the gimmicks are out of the way, what we’re left with are the experiences that the games on these platforms can deliver. If you were to ask me, I’d say the current generation of games that we’re in right now delivered among the best that I’ve seen in my 25 years of gaming. I’m not sure how adding in a few gimmicks will add much to the overall experience.
What can a new piece of hardware give me that we don’t already get today? How will they create an even more engaging and cinematic experience than Heavy Rain or the upcoming Beyond 2 Souls? How can they out-do the epic set pieces from games like Halo 4, Uncharted 2, or the upcoming The Last of Us. What can they really add to make the incredible lore and stories found in games like the Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls franchises to merit new hardware purchases?
If your response to that is “more pixels” or “60 frames per second” then I don’t think you really get it. You may be in the “let’s wait and see what E3 shows us” camp, but technically, if you caught a glimpse of last year’s Watch Dogs or Star Wars: 1313 demos, then you should already know what to expect, or at least have an idea of games early on in the next gen cycle. Both demos looked pretty, but there wasn’t a single gameplay element in either of them that hasn’t already been done in one form or another. What stood out to me the most was that the visual leap wasn’t as substantial as it was from, say, the PS2 to the PS3 (or XBOX to XBOX 360 respectively), and that’s because there’s a new bottleneck besides the hardware – it’s the price.
Sony figured out where the bar was six years ago when they priced the PlayStation 3 at a price point $200 higher than it’s closest (hardware wise) competitor. Since then, Sony has gone on record on multiple occasions stating that they can’t (and won’t) make that same mistake again. With that said, if current PS3 consoles (during non-holiday promotions) are being sold slightly above cost at $270, how much more tech will we really getting for another $130 bucks (assuming the next gen PlayStation hits the $399 sweet spot) and taking into consideration manufacturing and marketing?
In their defense, Sony took the time in 2012 to realign itself under its “One Sony Initiative” — focusing on succeeding segments of business (imaging, gaming, mobile) while backing out of less fruitful ones. Since then it has been outselling the XBOX 360 outside of the US. By focusing on PlayStation, Sony is investing in its gaming future, but in the grand scheme of things, the rest of the company isn’t exactly poised to take losses based on hopes that it will turn a profit down the road. The traditional way of selling a console (at a loss) is a losing bet, and with the profit driven pricing of the most recent PS3 SKU, Sony knows that.
Not only can Sony not sell at too high of a price point, because no one will buy at the volume they would need to turn a profit in a desirable time frame, but they also can’t go all in on hardware because they cannot afford to have razor thin margins. Sony’s goal will be to make money on every unit sold. Even if next gen meant “MOAR PIXALZ”, the leap (hardware wise) that Sony could afford to make, and the one that consumers could afford to buy, may not be as mind-blowing (or next gen) as you might think.
Then you have XBOX who, even though they’ve experienced a rather successful console generation, turning a profit every single quarter since it launched, it finds itself in a similar “next gen” predicament as Sony, but for other reasons altogether. Despite being dead on arrival in Japan and stagnant in Europe for a couple of years, XBOX 360 in the United States is absolutely caking it for Microsoft. The company has made over a billion dollars through their online XBOX Live service, let alone any money it has made through hardware and software. They may not (arguably) have as good of an exclusive portfolio as Sony or Nintendo, but the Xbox business is in a wonderful position to do some serious damage. But, what about the price?
The funny thing about the price of the next XBOX is that it won’t be dictated by Microsoft at all. Instead, it will be based on what’s going on around them. No one wants to pull a Sony (that’s right, I’ve dubbed it “pulling a Sony”), and it’s for that very reason that the pricing of the Wii U this year, coupled with whatever Sony has up their sleeves, is what will make Microsoft’s decisions difficult for their own next gen plans.
Even if Microsoft wanted to go nuts with solid state drives, high end PC-levels of ram, and willing to take a loss on every unit sold, they still wouldn’t do it. Like Sony, they, too, know that loses at the point of sale is not a desirable option. Then there’s Nintendo, who will be undercutting them (assuming the Wii U price drops in 2013 combat any next gen efforts) at every turn. Microsoft, as a console manufacturer, is in the definition of a “you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario for next gen.
It’s not to say that the next generation of consoles are going to be a giant waste – that would be crazy to assume. It’s just that I think we can all afford to set some appropriate expectations on what is probably headed our way. Gimmicks are going to be at the top of the list for all three console manufacturers, especially since the games themselves will likely be the closest they’ve been across the platforms in years. Even if console manufactures wanted to completely amaze us with cutting edge visuals, they couldn’t really do it because selling the hardware to achieve such results doesn’t put them into a position to succeed and profit off of the hardware.
Again, we’re coming from a generation filled with arguably the best games that we’ve seen, and a big part of it was because of the technical jump that was made from what came before it. Unfortunately, that same kind of technical jump will be noticeably absent next holiday season. The next generation of consoles is very much an “expect the worst, hope for the best” scenario, particularly when we don’t know if it’s worth buying what Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are trying to sell us.