If you know your gaming history then you know that one of the greatest ages of gaming was the SNES/Genesis generation. This generation was one of the most heated console wars, with major marketing campaigns against each other and leaps and bounds in technical innovations. From this console war also came some games that would be remembered as the best video games of all time. As the year have gone by, the console wars hadn’t been quite a ferocious and as a result, I think we have seen a kind of stagnation in the rate at which great games come out. We’re not at a period where only great and innovated games sell, but a time where publishers and developers are too afraid to innovate in a meaningful way. This of course isn’t true for all games, but in general, the battlefront for gaming supremacy seems to have turned more into about which service offers a way to turn on your stereo and replace your cable box than video games.
Then I watched the Nintendo press conference for the Wii U and it eventually hit me. This is the first step into another golden age of gaming. While it may seem a bit controversial to think so, Microsoft and Sony are having less and less of a reason to be in the console race unless they emphasize an innovation in their hardware rather than just provide us an upgrade to the existing consoles. Way back when this gaming generation started, it became very clear very quickly that one problem the PS3 was facing was that it jumped too far ahead in terms of technology. Big name game developers were shutting down left and right and as the years went by it became evident that developers could not keep up with providing top notch experiences along with the costs of development. So even if the next Xbox was able to produce better graphics and support bigger game worlds, most developers wouldn’t be able to use that new tech in a meaningful way. We’ve hit that wall where human imagination is no longer bounded by technical limitations, but where it is bound by practical business sense. The tech is unlimited but it would be like writing the longest and greatest novel, eventually would would have to stop because it has gone past the point where the project’s time and cost of production could not be recouped.
What makes Nintendo so brilliant though is that instead of pushing inner technologies farther than anyone knows what to do with, they have given developers and gamers new toys to play with. The Wii Remote and the Wii U Gamepad have provided an excellent platform for developers to try new things out and even if they fail, the loss wouldn’t be nearly as devastating. Many developers seem interested in what the Wii U can bring to the table and I not believe that the only way a console is going to make it in this market is to provide a completely unique experience which would usher in more and more exclusive titles designed to work with each individual input, which would mean we are facing an explosion of creative and innovating games for the next generation.
1) Nintendo: Staying The Course Less Taken
This one is pretty obvious, but the Wii U, like the Wii before, offers a whole new experience for both developers and players alike. Just looking at Nintendo Land alone has shown how different games can be with the addition of that touch screen and some genres are being totally reinvigorated with that addition of games like ZombiU. While the Wii faced the problem of being a game with motion control or being a big HD fancy looking game, now there is nothing holding anyone back. While many people consider Nintendo “catching up” in terms of graphics and online connectivity, I have always maintained the position that had gone the same distance just in a different direction. The Wii U now puts Nintendo leaps and bounds ahead of their competitors (which is should as it is technically a next-gen console), because we’re seeing platformers done better, shooters done better, zombie games done better, and hopefully we will see that bottom screen take a front seat for all game genres that were growing stale.
Additionally, Nintendo also added in features to make give the Wii U a unique selling point different than other devices available that relates to both their hardware and software. During their conference, as they were talking about watching Netflix, YouTube, and HuluPlus on the device, I was immediately going to tune it out. I have an IPad and my computer is hooked up to my TV so it’s not like I don’t have devices to play video on. Then they revealed that more social aspect of the whole deal. A way to comment on certain scene in real time and being able to post them to various social sites on the gamepad screen while the video played on the TV. Suddenly, my PS3 was looking more and more like a doorstop as I was losing reasons to ever use it anymore. I’m not even sure I’ll use my IPad to watch video anymore once the Wii U comes out. This is what I’m talking about. Nintendo may have changed the face of the console war by no longer making it about having a service, but providing a unique service, something that made console wars of the past so exciting.
2) Microsoft: Time to Kinect Everyone
This is what I believe Microsoft’s next move is: regardless of graphical prowess that the next Xbox console can achieve, it is going to be bundled with a Kinect, or Kinect 2, device. They are going to make voice command and hand free gaming something that developers will know is always available to the players, which means they no longer have to make this optional content.
Now I know a lot of gamers are so afraid of change that the idea of no controllers ever scares them and I’m not saying take away the controller forever, but if Microsoft wants to be competitive in this race, they have to get 3rd party developers interested in their devices. Smart Glass, as best I can understand it, isn’t all that interested when developing game tech and Kinect games are always being tiptoed around it is a limited market. I know that there are good ideas for Kinect games floating around out there, and all Microsoft needs to do is make it so every game can use Kinect and if that happens, it is going to be rough in the beginning. Like the Wii’s early days, the current problem with Kinect is that the developers working on it haven’t found the right way to use it. Instead, they are being birdmen, looking at popular games and trying to transplant their games into that genre. Shooters are fun, but they don’t work on Kinect when the player has to hold their hands out for 15 minute periods.
Eventually those cool ideas like Kinect RTS games and squad command games that use actual voice commands will make it through. One day we’ll get that Star Wars game that actually does it right and entire games can be built around the concept of the player’s voice and it is a day I cannot wait for.
3) Sony: The Biggest Hurdle is Themselves
Sony is in an interesting position. I say that as someone who is losing confidence in their ability to produce innovated games and as someone who it has become clear that they are the most corporate of the big 3. Now of course, they are all corporations but Microsoft has a lot of support for indie games and seems genuinely interested in innovating games. Nintendo, as Michael Pachter said, are artists as much as they are businessmen and they have said themselves that they would stop making games all together before putting Mario on a non-Nintendo console (lets ignore that they have done that before for a minute). Sony on the other hand just hasn’t shown the gaming community anything to collectively get excited about.
Now before you come to tear me limb from limb, hear me out. I get that people are excited about PSASBROMGBBQWTF, in a way, I am too. I also know that people love their Vitas and I’ll say more power to them. But hardware wise, Sony’s selling point was that it had the best graphical capabilities of the 3 and that didn’t really help them in the end. They have constantly proven to ride along the coat tails of successful ideas like the PS Move and touch screen gaming. While Microsoft introduced the Kinect and Nintendo introduced the Wii motion +, Sony has kind of come up with nothing exciting and if I had to put money down, they would be the first to drop out of the console war next gen.
This isn’t to say that Sony can’t think of anything new, but it sounds like even concepts like cross-play isn’t unique to them anymore and Nintendo might actually be doing it better. History has shown us time and time again that it is the most technologically advance console that usually does the worst. The Genesis ultimately lost the console war against the SNES, despite its blast processing, despite its more advanced bit capacity, and it wasn’t even the most advance machine available at the time. The Dreamcast failed despite its power. During the last generation, the Gamecube and Xbox had to submit to the PS2, not despite its lower tech but because of it (having a larger install base and being a cheap DVD player to boot). Now that we are entering the aftermath that was the Wii bomb, Sony has to either find a way to engage players in a completely unique way, or pack up and go home, because as much as I love some of their exclusives, every other developer has shown that they don’t want to play with the kid with the most money, they want to play with the kids with the better toys.
This was a kind of unconventional spec. Friday, but after the Wii U conference I am more excited than ever to see what else lies ahead for gaming. What new innovations can be made, what unique twists have remained untaken, and how can old genre get a fresh new start?