Everybody with even the slightest interest in technology is well aware that new consoles are on the way from Sony and Microsoft later this year. Whilst PC gamers are always in the ‘next gen’ era in the sense that upgrading to newer more powerful graphics cards is always an option, new console generations do push the industry forward. For the more casual gamer, for those that simply don’t want the hassle of buying and installing new parts and for those that want platform exclusives, a new console generation ‘is’ the equivalent of upgrading to a new GPU or to a new PC. Wether you’re a PC purist or prefer console gaming, new console generations always return us to the same question. What does the future of gaming look like?
Every new console generation comes with expected improvements to graphical fidelity. Unsurprising as processors become more advanced, graphics cards leap forward in capability and new ways to store data become standard. A fancy new box, maybe an updated controller or tweaked control layout, a new UI (user interface) and more ways to connect are all things that we typically expect.
The Seemingly Obvious?
When considering the future of gaming, many people probably start to think about technologies like VR. Sony had a good crack of the metaphorical VR whip with the current PS4 hardware. It offers some interesting new experiences but tellingly hasn’t converted us all to wanting to play exclusively in VR. Microsoft doubled down on motion control with the launch of Xbox One with their Kinect camera. Remember how well that went down?…..yeah poor Microsoft. Sony certainly has seen more success with PSVR of course but it isn’t converting players into full time VR players. We don’t see huge swathes of demand for more VR titles from the casual player. Surely this is the future? stepping in to the world we play in, not just controlling a character on screen?
Whilst VR is a much more viable platform than Microsofts failed Kinect sensor, both of them suffer with the same problem. The experience of using them isn’t better than the experience we have already. Now to be clear VR absolutely is a great concept, it genuinely has massive potential. The current state of VR however, includes too many barriers to make it a truly great experience.
VR is limited right now for various reasons. First of all, the headsets aren’t good enough to create real, true immersion. The problems that exist include weight, cable mess, practical issues such as having enough space, the quality of the displays and even the control schemes are limited by current design paradigms to name but a few. Sure there are a few wireless VR headsets but they often trade graphical quality for portability. Then of course we introduce a new problem, the need for a battery and the limitations that batteries bring with them.
Until the technology reaches a point where by the experience of using VR is as good if not better than regular gaming, then it won’t be the future. It will remain a nice side quest but never the main campaign.
It occurred to me recently that for all the talk of fancy graphics, new shiny boxes and controllers, one thing that has truly defined a new console generation from one to the next has been the ‘primary storage medium’.
- Sega Genesis/SNES – Cartridges
- PS1/Saturn/N64 – CD ROM/High Capacity Cartridge
- PS 2/Gamecube/Dreamcast/Xbox – CD ROM/DVD
- Xbox 360/PS3/Wii – DVD/BluRay
- Xbox One/PS4/Wii U* – HDD
- Xbox Series X/PS5/Switch* – SSD/Flash
*Yes these consoles support physical media but these were the first generation where even if you own the disc, the game actually runs from the built in drive and has to be installed
Now this is interesting. Every new console generation comes with the expected leap in graphics etc but one of the biggest changes from a functional stand point is actually the storage medium for the games. The change from cartridge to CD allowed developers to fit more content into the final product. The change to DVD popularised the switch away from VHS for starters thanks to the PS2 but also offered a leap in the size of games and what developers could actually build as a result. Moving to Blu-Ray allowed for 4K visuals thanks to even higher capacities. With the current generation storing our games on hard drives offers increased convenience, performance in games and has made for a truly digital eco-system.
The next jump to SSD’s is something PC gamers have been able to take advantage of for a while. The benefits for gamers and developers however are huge. Instant on, drastically reduced load time, virtualised ram for additional resource, faster read and write speeds enabling much higher quality visuals. Without these leaps forward in storage medium, new games and the experiences we expect today just wouldn’t be possible.
My argument is that a new console generation is in actual fact defined by a change in how we store and access our content rather than the box itself. Which brings me to the original question. What is the future of gaming?
Microsoft haven’t been shy about their ambition to move gaming into the cloud. Neither has Sony. The idea that we can pick up any device and take our triple A titles on the go is both exciting and inevitable. The Nintendo switch scratches the surface of this concept but can’t offer quite the same level of graphical performance as stationary home console.
Cloud gaming is yet another storage medium only this time, we the gamer don’t store the content, we stream it. We’re not quite there yet (Hi Stadia!) but I think over the next few years and certainly by the end of the current generation that the cloud based future will start to become more and more clear.
I think consoles will still be around and will serve as a hub of sorts but based on what we’ve seen with each console generation, the future of gaming has been defined by a new way to store games. I don’t see the future as being any different right now. The building blocks are already in place. The jump to true, immersive VR will some day be the future of gaming but in the way way way distant future. For now, the future isn’t in a box in our living room, it’s in somebody else’s box inside a data server.