The Tangent: The Future of Consoles

The Tangent: The Future of Consoles

by August 2, 2012

Challenges of the next great gaming age

Within months, Wii U will be in people’s houses. With the Xbox 360 approaching its seventh year of commercial availability, rumors suggest Microsoft may already be in production stages of their next generation console, unlikely as it may seem. Sony is only a year behind, originally debuting alongside the Wii, and with their massive investment in Cell not paying off the way they hoped, they might be eager to leave the aging architecture behind, upcoming budget-priced flip-top model aside.

With sharper competition from mobile platforms like iOS and Android, not to mention buzz surrounding the Android-based Ouya and talk of an Apple TV update focused on gaming, there are issues all of these traditional platform holders face as they leap ahead. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

1. Game development is too expensive.

With any significant jump in hardware, the jump in costs to fully utilize that hardware rise dramatically. Artists have to be paid to draw massive textures and images. Modelers have to spend countless hours constructing and animating those smooth, detailed character and environment models. Musicians and audio engineers need to carefully mix your Dolby 7.1 soundtrack. Networking specialists need to make sure online features function smoothly and don’t impair the overall operation of the game. And so on.

Wii U, in a sense, dodged this by leaping from the Wii to what appears to be hardware similar to consoles available today, but with more refined hardware, with a little extra breathing room. Developers, for the most part, already have the tools they’ll need and know how to use them, and an idea of what an average production will cost on that scale; developing an AAA title for the Wii U will be a “known evil.” And honestly, all cynicism aside, the bar will most likely be set lower than on other platforms, initially, with their competition mostly being aging ports underutilizing the unique features of the hardware. But it’s not clear, known evil aside, what steps Nintendo has otherwise taken, or will take in the future, to lower painful development costs.

That leaves us with the other two, Microsoft and Sony. Assuming the jump to their next platform is a significant one, compared to taking a Wii-based approach, they face a different problem. Developers are once again challenged with a new platform they’re expected to fully utilize, as development budgets skyrocket to impossible levels, with a single failure, or even middling success, potentially sinking a company.

As I theorized before, vast middleware solutions will be essential to bridge the gap. Console makers will probably need to foot the bill, as they do already in some cases, on licensing or developing new middleware that delves deep into content generation and resource pooling. They might need to design consoles around centralized data stores that games can pull assets from on the fly, so developers don’t have to draw a thousand unique t-shirts just to emulate a crowd scene effectively. But of course, it would have to extend past shirts, or clothing. Developers will need middleware with logic. Middleware that can take high-level structural rules given to it, and from there generate large game environments, complex cities, rural towns, all following clear design logic, creating interesting environments to explore. NPC generation, within the guidelines and art style rules presented to it, has to take place from there to populate these places, and not look like a sea full of clones. Some tools already exist to handle this in limited ways, but they have to develop even more flexibility, and be available on a wide scale.

That’s not to say all future gaming will be randomly generated environments and contents. Random generation can be used as a stepping stool for developers, with the initial result then refined or altered by human hands. But without complex middleware to handle the grunt work, team sizes and budgets are going to spiral out of control as developers desperately try to cope with the demands of crafting a world with the detail and complexity gamers have come to expect.

A final note, there is one small relief on the way, particularly for multiplatform developers. Almost all specs rumored for next gen consoles describe many of their parts as customized versions of off-the-shelf PC parts, many already in production in some form. These processors won’t quite match the custom-tuned nature of Reality or Cell, but they do provide a comfortable, established platform for developers to design tools on to make their lives easier, with a much greater chance of cross-platform compatibility. Simply put: Expect almost everything to be multiplatform. Even more than in this generation.

2. Game prices lack flexibility.

Cell phone gaming has exploded. We’re in an era of $0.99/€0.99/£0.69 games (for simplicity’s sake, referred to in USD in this article in examples), with a few high-quality productions daring to push $2.99. The quality of console games we expect couldn’t be feasibly produced and sold for that price, sustainably. But the problem is bigger than that.

Retail games are typically locked to debut at full price, which right now is $59.99. It can always fall lower, and often does, but at retail, that’s the price you’re going to see for almost everything when it first shows up in the shop; excluding special packages, obscure budget releases, and (strangely enough) console Sonic games in recent years. This is a problem that stretches in both directions; some games are clearly designed for a lower price point, but have to be padded with unnecessary content or useless multiplayer to justify a premium price. Other games have too much invested into them, forcing developers to hack chunks of that out as pay DLC in the hopes of recouping their investment. The market, as it currently is, really doesn’t handle anything but premium-priced products well. The rare times a game debuts lower, it rarely gets the promotional or retail push it needs, relying on word-of-mouth to carry it the whole way. And even consumers tend to shun these products as inferior, somehow, simply based on their price point. Katamari Damacy was a success story against all odds, and one Namco clearly didn’t expect. And it’s not one commonly repeated.

3DS DD Cards on sale

One day all stores will be like this. Even grocery stores.

Part of this issue can be development costs, as described previously, and licensing fees by the platform holder, on top of the cut demanded by retailers. Digital download services like PSN, Steam, etc, can help plug this void, and have been more recently. But as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo push their own software services more, stores can, and already have, begun to push back. Sony first felt the sting of retailers when they promoted the PS3 title Warhawk as intended for both retailers and PSN, and now with the Vita offering direct sales of new release software through PSN, retailers are burying any promotion of the platform. It’s been suggested Sony switched to a proprietary memory card format specifically so it could be sold through retailers at an expensive price, offering them a large cut of the profit, but even that wasn’t enough.

Nintendo is currently readying their own 3DS software download service, already available in Japan, and seems to have a compromise in place with certain retailers. It’s questionable whether this will be enough, and if Nintendo’s full software downloads take off, how rosy relations will remain.

3. Consumers need rights over their digital purchases.

Whether console makers want it or not, this will be the generation when rights over digital purchases are heavily examined. I’ve covered the topic before, and expect platform holders will have to scramble mid-generation as new laws, similar to the ruling against Oracle in the European Union Court of Justice, begin cropping up in many regions. This is something publishers don’t want, as the balance of power is currently swung wildly in their favor. Think about some of the practices we’ve seen this generation. Users being banned from using their premium-priced purchases for naughty forum posts. Online passes reducing the value of resold titles, locking online features to a single user account. Online game servers being shut down after two years, or even a single year of operation, even “Online Pass” titles.

It’s disappointing all three examples come from a single company, one that’s trying to compete with Steam for digital software sales, but they are by no means the only offender. Even Valve themselves have made mistakes, with their Steam ban process being unappealable.

How the legal system will tackle this is… frankly, unpredictable at this point. Companies will of course invest in their interests, just as they did when SOPA and PIPA rolled around. But at this point, consumer rights in the US and many other regions over digital purchases are so low, that there is no place to go from here but up. Publishers and platform holders will not want to give up an inch of ground, but who knows how much, if any, they’ll be forced to budge.

4. Age ratings and game content could become more flexible.

When we first entered this generation, DLC was a giant question mark posed over some horse armor, and we were once again dealing with blustering politicians and legal groups over the violence in games, and other hidden content. Parental controls were a heralded feature, restricting access to games based on their regional content ratings. This was a step in the right direction. But seven years later, questions have arisen.

For example, how should DLC be handled? Up until recently, even extensive DLC had to limit itself to within the confines of the original ESRB rating. Content could not be sold that raised the rating or modified the descriptors, so a game like Bionic Commando Rearmed couldn’t ship with a lower rating, with the more violent, true-to-the-original ending available as free, Mature-rated DLC. That seems to have changed, at least experimentally, with The Blood Pack for Total War: Shogun 2. It features its own, unique M rating from the ESRB, over the T-rated original game. Console makers will need to adjust for this possibility in the future.

But let’s think about that a little more. Games are not prerecorded playbacks of video content. They’re not movies. They are interactive media, organized and generated on the fly. Why should a medium capable of real time change be restricted to a single age rating, based on the most mature content it could possibly present?

Some games already address this, to a degree, letting you select how much violence, or language you witness. Sure, we’ve seen the “YOUR MOM IS A Classy Lady” jokes, but this is something games can do, and with more deeply-integrated and adaptable parental controls, could be trusted to do automatically.

This allows developers and publishers two benefits:

One, this means a game series with traditionally more mature content, that may have attracted a more youthful following in the past (See: Pretty much any shooter ever) could actually target some of that younger audience in an official capacity, without restricting the content for their original target audience. Now, you can’t take an M-rated shooter and scale it down to be suitable for 7-year-olds (or could you…), but you could certainly make enough changes to convert the game to the average T-rated title on the fly, by obscuring or removing violence, censoring language and mature themes, and so forth. And while kids might complain to their parents that they want all the gore and swearing unlocked, they’ll still get to play their game like they want, and parents don’t have to approach the issue as an all-or-nothing decision based on a single age rating.

Two, this would allow developers more freedom in what they put into their games. Games generally have to be targeted for a specific age range, decided far ahead of development by the publisher’s marketing department. They contractually require the developer to deliver, say, an E-rated game, not E10+, not T, but E. Now some readers on this site may not think that such a bad thing, since we’ve suffered through a franchise that tried a little too hard to be “mature” at one point. But this restricts developers more than you think, and influences a wide degree of design decisions. With multiple age rating profiles in place, the restrictions melt away; maybe not completely, but the gains would be significant. Developers would have more freedom to design games as they truly desire, without as many concerns of limiting their marketability and cutting into their earnings.

The trouble is, glitches would sneak through. Valve, for example, occasionally has to patch Team Fortress 2 quickly after their previous update because an added weapon displayed gore in a Low Violence region. Accidents will happen, and platform holders would have to allow free, rushed patches to address these. Maintaining the trust in parents and politicians over such a feature would be paramount, but I think ultimately pay off. And as PEGI ratings become legally enforced, it’s an approach that would benefit them.

In conclusion, the world will explode the very instant the first retail Wii U arrives at a Walmart, so we won’t have to actually face any of these concerns. Convenient, isn’t it?

On a side note, this will be my last opinion piece here, with the Tangent name being retired after four years, four months. But not to worry, there’ll be plenty more editorial content here on TSSZ in the coming days, so keep an eye out for it.

And thanks to all you wonderful readers!