The next-gen predicament.

As the arrival of the next-generation of consoles draws ever closer, respected members of the gaming industry (please note: this does not include Michael Pachter) are beginning to weigh-in with their personal opinions and considered predictions of what we should come to expect.

Naturally, and rather disappointingly, the majority of the speculation, rumours, arguments and divisive debates always tend to stem from one specific area: the graphics. Traditionally, advancements in graphics have always coincided with the definition of next-gen. But is that fair?

I See You (Lying)

Epic Games were the first to publicly declare their position and expectations of what they want to see from the next-generation of consoles. Speaking in an interview with Wired, Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski had this to say:

“There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of our engine team and our studio to drag this industry into the next generation… it needs to be a quantum leap. They need to damn near render Avatar in real time, because I want it and gamers want it—even if they don’t know they want it.”

Really, Cliff? The next-generation of consoles should “damn near render Avatar in real-time”? Excuse me while I scoff for a moment. Why don’t we stick to the Toy Story target; the kind of in-game graphics we were promised amidst the hype of the PlayStation 2 and are still yet to fully realise. Clearly ladies and gentlemen, the hype train has left the station with Cliff in the driver’s seat; all aboard!

Cliff hopes to unite the sky people with the Na’vi clan.

It’s understandable that Epic Games are championing the traditional route of pursuing dramatic increases in power; a sensible tactic considering their main source of income is licensing their fancy graphics engines. But will pixel and polygon counting continue to define the next-generation of consoles? Is an increase in raw horsepower and impressive technical specifications really the answer?

The Theory Of Evolution

We’ve been bred to believe that for a console to be defined as next-gen, it must meet one strict rule on the itinerary: it must show significant graphical advancements. But nowadays, even that’s not enough.

The Wii U for example has been completely dismissed as a next-generation console. Obviously, the graphical leap from the Wii to the Wii U is substantial, but because it’s technically six years behind and we’ve seen it all before, it would be blasphemous to declare it next-gen. We refuse to even consider the fact it comes with a unique user interface in the form of the Wii U GamePad; it has the smallest form factor for a console to date; it can stream gameplay instantaneously from the console to the GamePad without the need for a TV to be on; and is pioneering a whole new way to play with asynchronous and asymmetric gameplay. Nope, its graphics are the only credentials worth noting. Seriously?

But we’re not finished with our ridiculous idiosyncrasies. Rumour has it that the next Xbox 720 and PS4 will only be 6 times as powerful as their current counterparts. Previously, the technical measurement of a generational leap had been estimated to be around 10 times the power than that of the previous hardware. So, will this lesser leap make the PS4 and Xbox 720 half-gen consoles? And if we’re on the subject of power, what generation would gamers class high-end PCs in?

The graphics arms-race is seemingly becoming a prehistoric endeavour in an industry which is still struggling to cope with the costs of development in this generation of consoles alone, never mind the next. Equally, the consumer is feeling the pinch of a stormy economic climate, with the thought of splashing out £500 on a games console a step too far for many.

“Just wait till I tell them that the PS4 will retail for…. 999 US dollars!”

Interestingly however, in what was once a unified industry – where each member had secretly sworn to uphold a never-ending quest for ultimate power – signs are emerging of a change in focus, with even previous power hungry pioneers undergoing a sudden change of heart.

Hardly An idIOT

John Carmack, id Software’s highly revered computing genius, has delivered a chilling verdict for the graphics whores of tomorrow.

Speaking in an interview with the GamesIndustry.biz, Carmack said, “Sony and Microsoft are going to fight over gigaflops and teraflops and GPUs and all this. In the end, it won’t make that much difference.”

When asked whether he believed the notion that the current generation of consoles’ power and potential had been “drained”, Carmack went on to state, “When people ask how tapped out is the current console generation, PCs are 10 times as powerful but you really are still not technically limited. Any creative vision that a designer could come up with, we can do a pretty good job representing on current generation and certainly on PC.”

Carmack’s prediction may seem hypocritical – especially considering the amount of time id Software spent bragging about the graphics for the disappointingly average, RAGE – however, it’s definitely a more realistic foresight than Cliff’s speculative demands.

What is worrying, then, is the prospect that games will fail to advance further than honing a cinematic-like experience. Carmack debates that even with the added power at developers disposal, it’s unlikely that gamers will witness a truly distinguishable progression from what we see today in regards to innovation or groundbreaking experiences.

Exactly.

“It will let us do everything we want to do now, with the knobs turned up… It will not really change anyone’s world. It will look a lot better, it will move towards the movie rendering experience and that is better and better, but it’s not like the first time you’ve ever played an FPS.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather see advances in artificial intelligence, gameplay and story-telling than an extra level of anti-aliasing or an improved lighting system.

His Body Is Ready

Of course, it wouldn’t be right to consider the next-generation argument without mentioning the view of the Japanese giants, Nintendo. Previously frontrunners in the graphical department up until the GameCube, Nintendo have since veered away from the well-trodden path, swimming far from the blue ocean’s watery grasp.

The Nintendo Wii continues to split opinion. On the one hand, it’s the best selling console of this generation (by a long shot). On the other, it’s a cleverly marketed gimmick which usurped the hardcore gamer for the riches of the casual market. With the Wii U, Nintendo finds itself branding yet another seemingly underpowered system, with the focus once again, firmly placed on an inventive input device.

Doc wasn’t convinced this was the future.

If it was about power, then the GameCube would have been the number one system in its generation and the Wii wouldn’t have been the number one system in this last generation.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Nintendo’s president of America Reggie Fils-Aime reiterated the fact that Nintendo do not simply focus on impressive technical specifications and graphical grunt.

“First, it’s not about power. If it was about power, then the GameCube would have been the number one system in its generation and the Wii wouldn’t have been the number one system in this last generation. It is not about power. It is about fun, it is about the experience.”

In all honesty, it’s difficult to argue with that statement, though I’m sure the hardcore gamer will nitpick at the word “fun” being associated with the Wii (and yes, I’m sure some of you will declare that the Xbox was the most powerful console last generation – which still lost out to the graphically inferior PS2).

Generation Game

So what exactly will define the next-generation of consoles? Epic are placing their bets on significant graphical advancements, Carmack is experimenting with augmented reality, while Nintendo are attempting to redefine the way we interact with the games themselves.

We’ve heard three different opinions, each with their own personal take on every gamers’ favourite buzzword: graphics. Could we finally be witnessing a paradigm shift in the industry? Possibly. Or perhaps such a transition already began with the launch of the Wii. One thing’s for sure, the game has most definitely changed.

“Good game, good game!”

By the time we reach next year’s E3, the ball will be bouncing into Sony and Microsoft’s court. Will Sony push 4K resolutions? Will Microsoft spearhead Kinect 2 as the Xbox 720’s main selling point? Will Nintendo be left in the dust? As they say, only time will tell.

Whether it’s an interactive bodysuit, a holographic input device or literally just an increase in pixels and polygons, whatever the case, I’m sure we’ll all enjoy reading the outlandish rumours that will inevitably circulate prior to the official reveals. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if – for once – the hype about graphics finally subsides for something different.

What do you want to see from the next-generation of consoles?

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