We’ve had a bit of a trial-by-frustration in the video game console department lately. A few months ago our Wii broke. Well, the optical disc broke. And since we have a nice little stack of games for it we decided to upgrade with a Wii U console so that we could play our games again… because it was backwards compatible. But then, apparently, Wii U has been discontinued and even tho I spent hours surfing online stores and cruising electronics stores, I wasn’t able to find a Wii U for sale. So, instead, I ordered a refurbished Wii (the original one) from eBay. Which arrived, and it it kinda works, but it’s old and Nintendo has always been locked down so now basically we have two Wiis hooked up: one to play stuff we downloaded and one to play discs. I’d given up on anything newer because when I went to check out the Switch it had sold out online in about twenty seconds and pre-orders were neigh-impossible to find in real life… and I’ve never been much of an early adopter anyhow. Except… by some odd confluence of chance and opportunity I found myself in a line up one morning while out on my coffee break –queued up in front of a we’re-not-doing-the-early-thing late-opening store in the downtown core– a few hours after writing this post about giving up on next gen consoles. Twenty minutes later I had a receipt in my wallet for a pre-order on a new Switch console. So, that happened. And of course Claire is giddy with anticipation. So… did anyone else jump into the latest Nintendo fray? Or am I the only sucker out there?
My gaming tastes have veered into the eclectic and strange category lately.
I won’t even bore you too far with the details of my recent infatuation with the unlikely tractor porn sim “Farming Simulator 2015” which I pulled off Steam and have been zenning out with on the couch while harvesting virtual crops.
And I won’t dabble in attempting to justify the clutter of dorky mobile gaming titles that are becoming one of the major double-digit percentage battery-drain items on my phone each day, themselves a kind of un-agriculture coin farming experience in the form of building tiny towers or tiny cities or tiny economies of pixelated wonderment.
I won’t tell you too much about that.
I will tell you that I discovered my old Gameboy Pocket in a box in the basement a few weeks ago, dusty and packed together with a small stack of cartridges for such awesome titles as Zelda, Mario (the Super and the Doctor varieties) and a little bit of red-hued Pokemon to boot.
The nice thing about classic consoles, of course, is that a pair of triple A’s later and the little beast works as well as it did the day I bought it from a train station kiosk in Dusseldorf, or some German city, circa my late-nineties European adventure where I learned that dozens of hours on a train without a book or much of a view is only romantic and interesting for about ten minutes. I hadn’t budgeted for buying a video game system on holiday, but I did anyhow.
I popped in some batteries, dusted off the cartridges, and boom… There are no firmware updates or network authentications or accounts to verify. It just works.
And hey, a few of my save games were still kicking around.
Of course, when you sit on the train in late 2014 playing a Gameboy, you’re just another person with a portable device of some kind. The guy who was sitting beside me today was crushing candies on an iPad Mini with more resolution in the corner of the screen covered up by his thumb than there were pixels rendering the entirety of my rehashing of the Adventures of Zelda’s Link.
But then, that game was probably published before he was even born and I was just a middle aged hipster playing with an antique toy on my way to work.
I, like many folks out in gamer-land, watched Sony’s launch of the so-called PlayStation 4 last week with baited breath. Dozens of questions bubbled within our eager gamer-brains: What awaited us in the next generation of console gaming? What did the experience-masters have in-store for us this time? How was the world about to be re-shaped by a sweeping and amazing new innovation? Who could say?
The results were disappointing, I’m sorry to say.
Ok, not really.
As it were, Sony may have been better off to temper our excitement-level by naming this new system something more in-line with the moderate upgrade it appears to be. They should have called it the PlayStation Three Point One. PS3.1. A point version denoting an moderate-but-iterative upgrade.
But I guess that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue so nicely, does it?
I’m sorry to announce that this is most definitely not the next generation of gaming. Or, I’ll caveat that statement with my humble opinion: What was shown to us was not the “Next Generation of Consoles” so adamantly promised. We had hoped. We had dreamed. We barely contained our salivating excitement. But again, apologies… this ain’t it.
And here’s why…
1. Graphics Don’t Matter Right Now
Game Play and Experience Rule, Of Course
Games that are truly able to grab hold of our imaginations don’t need more polygons. Sure, more polygons equates to a more film-like experience, but think about it: our brains are really good at filling in the gaps left by deficient fake realities. In fact, if you’ve ever read about something called the “uncanny valley” you’ll understand that less-close to reality is actually ideal in most cases… at least until we get it spot-on perfect. Our brains can do that last bit of gap-filling, high-power rendering missing from our machines, and they are probably going to win every time, and for a long time.
Or better, Dwarf Fortress which I played for the first time the other day. Blocky or text-based graphics have massive appeal right now and well implemented game-play-driven titles are finding cult-like audiences. Neither are particularly pretty titles and in fact, Dwarf Fortress is down-right abstract art (in a kind but pejorative sort of way.) But both engage users on either experience or story.
Also, 16:9 Displays are Boring
And then there is the problem of screens. How 2012. No matter how many other screens or screen sharing or device parity — or whatever the buzzword turns out to be — goes on, the next generation of consoles is going to need to leap off the screen. I don’t care how they do it. I don’t know if they look to things like Google Glass technology, or on-the-wall-image projection, or 3D Princess-Leia-like holograms.
I know it’s hard, but until the game finds a way to break out of that 16:9 box, they can throw all the shiny pixels at us they want and it’s still only tweak and a minor upgrade to what’s already available. Simply: Use some of those pixels and polygons somewhere that isn’t on my screen.
2. Some of Us Do Actually Want Creative Freedom
Your Network = My Home
I run my own website. I’m what you might call an indie-content-guy. And I understand: the urge to lock-down and control what’s going on inside of a network is strong. No honestly, I really do get it. But if you want me to be comfortable inside a gaming network — any network — then you’re going to need to do more for me and let me have more control over that space. I need more than what you’re already doing. For example, Sony is infamous in the dark corners of the net right now because they won’t even let a user change their profile name, locking them into a kind of identity-alias limbo for as long as they are customers. That kind of attitude needs to change. If it really is my space at least let me feel some of that control over it.
Now, I understand that with this need for less control and the potential of letting out the metaphorical rope-and-noose to the customer, there is the problem of moderation. Who? How? But, you know what: figure it out. A lot of other companies have found ways to be centres of creative freedom on the net. Youtube? Instagram? Even Facebook, to a degree (and as much as I despise them, I’ll grant them so much that they’ve done better than the game companies.) There are all sorts of models for creative expression with a balance of control with respect to piracy, ownership or even just adult content. So, why does the culture of centralized, no-access Big Brother corporate oversight continue on gaming networks?
A Powerful Networked Computer = Server, Right?
With that idea goes hand-in-hand the elephant-in-the-room fact that this new console is going to ask me to be a power-hungry, always-on, always-connected super-computer. If they want that, then let me use it for something more: as a server, for example. I’m not necessarily talking a website here (though why not?) but instead give me ways to do interesting things for the gaming community: a simple language or construction kit to build virtual spaces, a home or a space, public or private, that is accessible to other users. And not just a cut-and-paste, pay eight bucks and download this cookie-cutter apartment, either. Real code, with real customization, and hosted from my console on my connection where my friends can meet and play and…
3. Social Should Be Central, Not an App
My Phone Can Do That
… because the real problem is that I’m sick of bobbing around from app to game to app to game and back to app again. No really: my phone can load apps. It doesn’t impress me any more. Consoles need to be better than my phone. With enough computational power and enough networked connectivity, the experience of being inside the console should be seamless. There may not be any existing models in reality — though hey, this is the Next Generation of innovation we’re talking about, right — but there are plenty of models in fiction…
Read some of the science fiction favourites that have looked at this exact problem. They’ve all long since predicted where we’re going with this: whole universe, immersive environments, OASIS-like, metaverse-powered, virtual real-estate, and social that isn’t just an e-business card application layered over top of the game, but a persistent persona that is immersive as the rest of reality.
It doesn’t need to be polished and super-pretty at first. It just needs to be seamless and feel like I’m dropping into a different world: a gaming space where I’m a gamer, playing, and there is no need for loading or clicking around from icon to icon. PlayStation tried this, half-ass, with PlayStation Home. It’s neat, but it’s mostly a lot of waiting and teleporting (which is an instant fail, by the way) and, in my opinion, backwards… because:
Broad, Persistent & Deep
As a model, PlayStation Home could and should be the bottom layer of the interface, not the top. It shouldn’t be something I opt-into exploring, a meta game. It should BE the interface… but almost: A lighter, faster, less-trying-too-hard, less-restricted version needs to emerge. Open it up. Let us help you build it (and host it on our ever-connected consoles.)
Gamers expect to interface with a gamer-like space, to explore and walk around virtual environments: heck, if I want to click and navigate menus then I’ll go to work and use Windows. Instead, take me to a world, make that world deep, seamless, load-time-free, and somewhere where I am persistent and able to contribute to. Get developers on board. Games should have real lobbies and front doors. I should be able to check things out without downloading demos and installing and building up new profiles for every game I want to sample. Standards, and a broad, every growing metaphor. And then let me access my games and my gaming by stepping through a gate rather than just clicking a pretty icon.
In end the biggest lesson is that our beloved console corporations are just too big to risk any more than basic hardware-driven iterative development. Nothing this spectacular comes easily from any company, but it seems to me to be even less likely from a giant with more to lose.
Either way, be willing to risk it on something greater or you’re never going to — really — show us the next generation of consoles, and never going to provide the amazing experience that will define that next generation we’re all craving. It may not be anything like my wish-list or my prediction, but unless it’s something ambitious, inventive, and different it’s just going to be another point-one upgrade.
Brad is a part-time gamer nursing a chronic addiction to awesome creative and story-driven game play. He’s currently indoctrinating his daughter on the joys of Minecraft, and occasionally pries himself away from his various glowing screens to level up in the real world. He writes opinionated blogs about that, too.