It was a late night in March 2007 where deep in the bowels of the Belconnen shopping mall dozens of consoles gamers gathered. I sat there, my extremely patient and soon to be wife by my side, alongside them eagerly awaiting what was to come, adrenaline surging despite the hour rapidly approaching midnight. We were all there for one thing, the release of the PlayStation 3, and just under an hour later all of us would walk out of there with one of them tucked under our arms. I stayed up far too long setting the whole system up only to crash out before I was able to play any games on it. That same PlayStation, the one I paid a ridiculous price for in both cash and sleep, still sits next to my TV today alongside every other current console.
Well, apart from one, the Wii U.
The reason behind me regaling you with tales of my more insane gamer years is not to humblebrag my way into some kind of gamer cred, no it’s more to highlight the fact that between then and now 6 years have passed. I’ve seen console games rapidly evolve from the first tentative titles, which barely stressed the hardware, to today’s AAA titles which are exploiting every single aspect of the system that they run on. Back in their day both the PlayStation3 and Xbox360 were computational beasts that could beat most other platforms in raw calculative potential without breaking a sweat. Today however that’s no longer the case with the PC having long retaken that crown and people are starting to notice.
Of course console makers are keenly aware of this and whilst the time between generations is increasing they still see the need to furnish a replacement once the current generation starts getting long in the tooth. Indeed if current rumours are anything to go by we’ll likely see both the PlayStation4 and Xbox-something this year. However the rather lackluster sales of the first installment in next generation consoles (the Nintendo WiiU) has led at least one industry critic to be rather pessimistic about whether the next generation is really needed:
Whatever the case, what lessons can Sony and Microsoft take on board from how their rival has fared, as they prepare to make their moves into the next console generation? Well, there’s one immediately apparent lesson: Don’t start a new fucking console generation, because it’s a bad climate and triple-A gaming is becoming too fat and toxic to support its own weight. If you make triple-A games even more expensive and troublesome to develop – not to mention forcing them to adhere to online and hardware gimmicks that shrink and alienate the potential audience even further – then you will be driving the Titanic smack into another iceberg in the hope that it’ll somehow freeze shut the hole the first one made.
The thing is the problems that are affecting the WiiU don’t really translate to Sony or Microsoft. The WiiU was Nintendo’s half-hearted attempt to recapture the more “hardcore” gaming crowd which, let’s be honest here, was a small minority of their customer based. The Wii was so successful because it appealed to the largest demographic that had yet to be tapped: those who traditionally did not play video games. The WiiU, whilst being comparable to current gen consoles, doesn’t provide enough value to end users in order for them to fork out the cash for an upgrade. That then translates into developers not wanting to touch the platform which starts a vicious downward spiral that’ll be incredibly hard to break from.
However the biggest mistake Yahtzee makes is in assuming the next generation of consoles will be harder to develop for, and this is simply not the case.
Both the Xbox360 and the PlayStation3 are incredibly complicated beasts to program for with the former running on a custom variant of PowerPC and the latter running on Sony’s attempt to develop a supercomputer, the Cell. Both of these had their own quirks, nuances and tricks developers used in order to squeeze more performance out of them, none of which were translatable to any other platform. The next generation however comes to us with a very familiar architecture backing it (x86-64) which has decades, yes decades, of programming optimizations, frameworks and development behind it. Indeed all the investment that game developers have made in PC titles (which they’ve thankfully continued to do despite its diminutive market share) will directly translate to the next generation platforms from Microsoft and Sony. Any work on either platform will also directly translate to the other which is going to make cross-platform releases far cheaper, easier and of much higher quality than they have been previously.
In principle I agree with the idea, we don’t need another generation of consoles like we have in the past where developers are forced to retool and spend the next 2 years catching up to the technology. However the next generation we’re getting is nothing like the past and is shaping up to be a major boon to both developers and consumers. As far as we can tell the PlayStation4 and Durango are going to be nothing like the WiiU with many major developers already on board for both platforms and nary a crazy peripheral has been sighted for either of them. To cite the WiiU as the reason why the next generation isn’t needed is incredibly short sighted as Nintendo has shown it’s no longer in the same market as Sony and Microsoft are.
The current generation of consoles have run their course and its time for their replacements to take the stage. The convergence of technology between the two major platforms will only mean good things for developers and consumers alike. There are issues that are plaguing the wider industry, there’s no doubt about that, and whilst I won’t say that the next generation will be the panacea to their ills it’s good step in the first direction as there’s an incredible amount of savings to be made in developer time from the switch to a more common architecture. Whether that translates into better games or whatever Yahtzee is ultimately lusting after will have to remain to be seen but the next generation is bright light on the horizon, not an iceberg threatening to sink the industry.