The games industry today is abuzz with talk of the next generation of gaming. With the WiiU already with us, the Playstation 4 having been announced a while ago and, by the time you read this, Microsoft being about to or having just announced the next Xbox unit, you can’t move around the gaming web without coming across some sort of discussion about the next gen. This is only to be expected of course; it’s an exciting time of promise and optimism, the culmination of one gaming era and the cusp of yet another; one which seems set to bring unprecedented gaming experiences. The gaming community is nothing if not willing to voice its varied opinions, so its unsurprising that there are as many views on offer as there are voices or keyboards with which to express them.
Now, we’ve all heard most of the big things (probably on this very site if you’ve any sort of reading taste!): tales of always-online restrictions, specification layouts, persecution of second-hand games, augmented reality, 3d sound and many more facts, rumours and outright fabrications have done the rounds and purveyed as ‘fact’ by many.
Thing is, even at times of relative serenity in the industry, trying to discern fact from fiction when it comes to gaming is often pretty hard. All it takes these days, it seems, is for one person to claim something with a measure of assumed authority and it can gain momentum rapidly, quickly becoming accepted as truth. It seems in the games industry the old adage of ‘if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth’ holds especially true (and that’s likely to be the last time I ever quote an old Nazi in one of my articles I hope!)
I was given reason to reflect on this recently as I was reading up on the coverage of the PS4 release news and the speculation around the scheduled Xbox announcement. While the reports were fairly standard and seemed to convey much of the same official information, along with the standard speculation, my attention was drawn to a recurring theme in the comments sections of the articles. Curious as to whether the release news was acting as a light to the troll-moths, I took an excursion around various forums and boilerhouse websites to see if the situation was the same. What I found mirrored the comments I’d seen previously. All across the various discussion points of the web, when it came to the subject of next-gen, there was the same ‘fact’ being put forward:
High-end PC gamers are already experiencing the next-gen today.
This puzzled me, as its simply not true.
Look at it this way; while high-end PC gaming has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, it still represents only a miniscule part of gaming companies’ demographic. For a game to be realistically next-gen, it stands to reason that it would have to be playable only on these new systems, as the hardware required would be only present on those systems. You name me one mainstream game that is only playable on next-gen equivalent technology!
Go on… I’ll wait…
What’s that? Crysis 3? Ah, I think I may see the problem here. I fear people may be confusing graphical improvements with next-gen gaming. The fact is that while games like Crysis 3 are graphical powerhouses, wonders of visual design on high-end systems, they’re still designed at a base level to work on all reasonable mainstream systems and the current generation of consoles. This means that, while they look prettier on high-spec PC units, the core game remains the same. What many forget is that graphical quality, in this situation, is really no more than window dressing; graphical eye candy creating the illusion of being a step above the rest, when in actuality the base game runs on the same limitations as all the rest do. It’s the equivalent of putting flashy rims and a new paint job on your car; it’s still the same car as it was before; same speed, handling and feels as before, it just looks a bit flashier. The same is true of games like Crysis 3 and Far-Cry 3; they have all the graphical bells and whistles but under the hood they’re current-gen through and through.
Where the next generation of gaming will prove its step up from today’s is in the behind the scenes aspects. The upgraded processor power, graphics engine and RAM will allow for the game to be doing much, much more in the background, allowing for more environmental and gameplay features. It’s hard to say exactly what, as games being developed now are unlikely to use this to its full potential; that takes time and practice. To use an example from the previous generation gap, Half-Life 2 demonstrated the progression from the old generation to the current with its previously unseen physics engine, which allowed a whole new way of designing and playing a game. While visually a treat, the real revolution there was in the background, contained within the upgraded grunt produced by the better hardware.
Yes Diablo 3 will look prettier on the PS4 and next Xbox than it would on the PS3 or 360, but this is a game that runs on standard, middle of the road PCs now. Unless some exclusive content is produced for the new consoles, the game is going to be the same as it is now, but with prettier graphics.
While graphical improvements are always the most striking and obvious feature of the next generation of gaming when it arrives, in many ways it is a smokescreen, a visual sleight of hand used to impress the public and demonstrate in a easily recognised way the improvements over old technology. This causes many to mistakenly identify improved graphics as evidence of next-gen gaming. As with many things, the truth is really much more complicated. It’s going to be a while into the new generation before we start seeing true next-gen gaming, as it will take some time for developers to adapt to the improved technology available.
In this case, beauty is only skin deep. For true next-gen gaming you have to dig a little bit deeper.
Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org