As some of you may know, I’m a pretty big fan of video games. I hesitate to use the term “gamer” because, well, I think it’s kind of stupid. I mean, we don’t call people who like to watch movies “movie-ers” or people who enjoy reading books “bookers.” It’s an annoying label for other reasons that I won’t go into here for the sake of brevity (maybe another time). I would, however, describe myself as a video game enthusiast, so the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) is always a big event for me; it’s where companies trot out their latest projects, where we usually get our first look at new games and, as we did this year, new hardware.
As such, I hope those among you who aren’t as into games as I am will bear with me while I take a moment to reflect on this year’s E3, and the state of the state of the games industry as a whole. Check back soon, and I’ll probably have something more up your alley.
Right then. Well, we’re at the start of a new console generation. Ordinarily, this would be an exciting time for me, seeing the new hardware on display, seeing new games and marveling at what the new systems are capable of in comparison to the old ones that are on their way out. I have fond memories of the first time I got to play a Nintendo 64 game, or a Playstation game, when the world seemed to open up and I saw games that allowed for three-dimensional movement for the first time. I remember playing Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast and Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Gamecube and being amazed at their speed, fluidity, and dramatically improved visuals. Those were amazing experiences for me, and I still treasure the memories as much as, if not more than, those Christmas mornings where I actually received those systems and games as gifts. The reveal of new consoles was an amazing, exciting event that only happened once every 5 years, at the soonest; it was like an eclipse, or a comet returning to Earth orbit to amaze and dazzle us.
Notice my use of the word “was” in the previous sentence.
I think the big problems, for me, anyway, started with the previous console generation, specifically with the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. I remember when the Xbox 360 came out, I went to my local Target to have a look at a demo unit. I had owned an original Xbox, and indeed, it was and still is one of my favorite game systems of all time, so I was excited to give its successor a try. I picked up the controller and started playing the demo game, the 360 version of the tie-in game for Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake.
And I remember thinking, very vividly, “This is just like an original Xbox game.”
Admittedly, it was in widescreen, which I had never experienced before in a video game, and it was in HD, at a time when HDTV sets were relatively new and hadn’t yet become widespread, but the visuals, while improved, weren’t improved by much. The game itself was a first-person shooter, just like any other FPS I had ever played on my Xbox. There was no new or exciting experience that was being pitched to me, just more of the same with a fresh coat of paint.
And that was probably the best way to sum up my experience in the 7th console generation, at least with the 360 and PS3: “more of the same.” Don’t misunderstand me, I do own both consoles, and I’ve played my share of exciting, unique games for each; games like Alan Wake, Bioshock, Fallout 3, Infamous 1 and 2, Uncharted 1, 2 and 3 and Lost Odyssey are high points that I won’t soon forget. But to be frank, there’s no reason those games couldn’t have been made on 6th generation systems. Oh, they wouldn’t have had a lot of the graphical bells and whistles that they did, to be sure, but the core of those games and the core of the experience would have been largely the same.
And those are the high water marks; those are the games that haven’t been diminished by being developed in the HD generation. Many games have; most FPS titles have been reduced from having open levels to being linear “cinematic” experiences, because having higher resolution textures and fancy lighting effects is valued more than a better-designed game. JRPGs have continued their de-evolution into barely-interactive CGI movies; Final Fantasy XIII is the most infamous example of this, having famously traded its open worlds, explorable towns and secrets for what amounts to a linear corridor with gorgeous scenery for wallpaper. Where new hardware once brought possibilities of new game design ideas and new ways to play, with the PS3 and 360, it became a set of gilded shackles. Developers had to make pretty-looking games to compete, and they had to make them “safe”; with budgets of upwards of $30 million, a single failed game could torpedo a studio, and so nobody wanted to take risks and innovate, for fear of going bankrupt if sales didn’t keep pace. And so “more of the same” became not just a customer complaint, but a business mantra as well.
The lone exception to this, in my opinion, was the Wii, specifically because Nintendo opted to eschew radical advances in GPU and CPU technology that would have only benefited those with HDTVs (admittedly, in retrospect this was something of a mistake, as HDTVs caught on very quickly after the introduction of the PS3 and 360) in favor of what we now call motion controls. Despite not having superior graphics, by focusing their hardware innovation on the way user input was handled, the Wii gave rise to a slew of games that wouldn’t have been possible on previous platforms, not without diminishing what they fundamentally are.
And while the PS3 and 360 were later updated with peripherals to accomodate this “trend,” I discount those for two reasons; one, they were aping Nintendo’s work, rather than attempting to create something new. And two, their execution was lacking. The PS Move, while actually a decent piece of hardware (I do own a set) was barely emphasized, and fundamentally did exactly the same things as the Wii’s hardware already did, but with slightly greater accuracy and improved visuals. The Kinect, on the other hand, was a train wreck. To this day, I’ve never gotten a Kinect unit to work well for me; apparently my six-foot-five frame is just too much for the camera to keep track of at once, at least while remaining close enough to see what’s on the TV. And I’ve heard much shorter people than myself maintain that, even for them, the device isn’t terribly accurate in the first place, to the point where any game more complicated than Kinect Sports or Just Dance is basically unplayable; Rise of Nightmares and Steel Battalion were the poster children for the “hardcore” Kinect game, and both of them were wretched failures. The Kinect simply couldn’t live up to the expectations that Microsoft had set for it.
And that brings us to this year’s E3. The start of a new console generation; Nintendo’s Wii U has been out for a little under a year now, but now its 8th generation competitors, the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 have been formally announced, have price points, release dates, and we’ve been shown footage of some of the games in development for them. We have our first impressions of what the next generation of console gaming is going to look like. And my impression…well, if last generation was “more of the same,” this generation is looking like “more of the same, only worse.”
In terms of visuals, Nintendo is the only company that’s making a drastic leap forward from their previous console. Granted, this is largely thanks to the fact that the Wii wasn’t much more powerful than the 6th generation consoles, but the Wii U is estimated by some to be more than 20x as powerful as its predecessor. That puts it behind the Xbox One and PS4 in terms of power, but for people who owned a Wii, that’s a huge difference.
The Xbox One and PS4, however, are much more modest leaps forward from their predecessors. Basically, the visual advancements for these consoles are going to amount to native HD rendering (one of last generation’s dirty secrets was the fact that the supposedly HD consoles actually rendered most of their games at sub-HD resolutions and then upscaled), somewhat improved polygon counts and rendering (one of the bragging points for the Xbone was that its version of the new Call of Duty will render curves as true curves, which is really only noticeable in cutscenes). Apart from that, they’re going to offer visual effects and features that have been widely available for PC games for the past 4-5 years. Yay? I realize that PCs have always been ahead of the curve, but the way Sony and Microsoft have been bragging reminds of an elderly relative who just discovered iPods or Facebook and won’t stop talking about them; it’s not impressive, and it’s honestly kind of embarrassing.
So that’s the “same.” Where’s the “worse,” you might ask? Well, that comes from three fronts. First, you have the continuation of “dumbing down” games, to the point where some of these games actually seem to play themselves. One of the big launch titles revealed for the new Xbox, Ryse: Son of Rome (stupid name, but it’s from the people who make “Crysis,” so what do you expect?)…and the reveal consisted of an incredibly linear demo where the player walks from one scripted fight to the next, and has to win via a series of quick-time events (i.e., “push this button or die!”). However, turns out they aren’t even quick-time events; apparently the developers have admitted that the player will win whether they succeed in the QTEs or not, because they “didn’t want the player to get frustrated.”
Forza Motorsport 5, meanwhile, has added a feature called a “Driveatar,” which is a character created by you that, when the game is turned off, continues to race online for you, and when you log back in, you get credit for its work. So, effectively, these games are playing with themselves (pun absolutely intended); why do I need to be a part of this equation? Note that I didn’t bring up any Sony games here, not because I feel that they’re avoiding this trend, but because pretty much all of Sony’s games were shown as teaser videos, and not as representations of actual gameplay, which is disappointing in itself, but that’s been standard practice at E3 for years now.
The second item on the “worse” list is the inclusion of pointless features. Now, admittedly, I’m something of an old fogey in some respects when it comes to technology. I barely engage in social networking at all (though I’m trying to remedy that), and some social networks, like Twitter or Vine, seem completely pointless to me, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon. But be honest; was anybody really clamoring for a button on the PS4 controller that’ll let you instantly record footage of yourself playing a game? Especially when it’s unclear whether or not you’ll be able to edit that footage before it’s posted? And was anybody really begging to use their Xbox as a cable box, and their Kinect as a remote control? Probably not; the people who want to do these things already have devices to do them; they don’t need another, any more than I really need another device that can play DVDs. These features represent resources, time and money that could have been spent on other aspects of the hardware or on exclusive games, and it’s really just a disappointing waste.
Finally, there’s the matter of digital rights and oh, boy, are they taking a beating this console generation. Microsoft has gone ahead and decided to make their console an always-online machine, meaning that it needs to make periodic check-ins with the Microsoft servers and, if it misses a check-in, you’re locked out of playing all your games, on or offline. They’ve also effectively rendered disc-based games pointless, as all games are downloaded to your hard drive and to their nebulous “Cloud” and accessed from those locations. This means that discs are now just a delivery system, not games in and of themselves and, predictably, Microsoft is placing restrictions on how you use the license to the games that you are now effectively renting from them. This means, in effect, that you do not own any games that you purchase for the Xbone, and that the Right of First Sale is effectively dead on that platform.
UPDATE: In a move I would never have predicted, not six hours after I initially posted this blog, Microsoft announced that they’re reversing their decisions to require online check-ins and to restrict resale of disc-based games. So, things are not quite as grim as they appeared around the time of E3. However, it’s worth noting that Microsoft reps swore up and down that the DRM they were planning to implement could not be removed with the way the console was designed. Then, only a week later, they removed it. Microsoft have not only outed themselves as liars, but they’ve also demonstrated that they can add or remove these restrictions if they wish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft’s ever-mutable Terms of Service were altered a few years after the Xbone’s release, and these policies were slipped in the back door. Microsoft and their publisher bosom buddies haven’t given up on this kind of DRM scheme. Not by a long shot.
And this is on top of the issue of the Kinect being able to gather all kinds of data, from spoken conversations in your house to video, even down to your heart-rate and skin temperature. Now, Microsoft has said that they won’t gather any data if you opt out, and that you can turn the Kinect off, and that in that state it will only be listening for the command “Xbox on.” But this means that, even while it’s “off,” the Kinect is still always listening. And given what’s surfaced about Microsoft providing customer data to the NSA in the PRISM scandal, I think we can agree that any promises Microsoft makes about protecting our privacy aren’t worth the air it takes to speak them.
Thankfully, Sony doesn’t seem to be indulging in any of this nonsense (so far, at least), and Nintendo has categorically refused to do it. But there’s still the looming specter that they might, and that’s going to be haunting me until the next round of systems are revealed.
Bottom line, I have owned pretty much every console in every generation that I’ve been alive, aside from occasional one-off systems like the TG-16 or the 3DO. But I don’t see that happening this time around. Microsoft certainly isn’t getting a purchase from me, and Sony has yet to show me anything that would compel me to spend more money on another system, especially since they have no backwards compatibility with PS3 titles. I’ve got my Wii U and I’m happy with that right now; there are some amazing-looking games coming down the pipe for it, and I can’t wait to play them. But as for my other gaming needs, the third-party titles, I think I’ll take the money I would have spent on those other platforms and build myself a nice gaming PC. Leave the console wars behind.
The magic is gone now, and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.