What to Expect From the Next Generation of Game Consoles
Controllers: 'Accessibility' Is Not a Four-Letter Word
Alex Wawro (editorial assistant): Game controllers haven’t changed much since the Atari 2600 debuted more than 30 years ago. If you were playing a console game before 2006, you were probably playing it with a gamepad sporting some combination of joysticks, buttons, and triggers. That all changed when Nintendo released the Wii console in 2006; although hard-core gamers had previously dabbled with motion control (never forget the Nintendo Power Glove), the startling success and widespread adoption of the Wii proved that video games don’t need complicated controllers to be fun. Microsoft and Sony soon marketed motion-control devices of their own; and while most PC games still rely on the stalwart mouse and keyboard combo, it’s clear that the future of the console is controller-optional.
That’s great news for anyone seeking to share their passion for gaming with family and friends, because a gamepad with dual joysticks and ten or more buttons is awfully intimidating to anyone who didn’t grow up playing games. Innovative input devices such as the iPhone and Wii Remote make video games readily accessible to a wide audience of potential players, which is ultimately a good development for the game industry and gamers everywhere.
Of course, we’ll never abandon physical controllers completely. Touchscreens and motion control offer exciting new possibilities for player input, but they still can’t duplicate the accuracy and precision of an analog controller. We already know that the controller for Nintendo’s upcoming Wii U console incorporates a touchscreen, motion sensors, and dual analog joysticks in an effort to make the Wii U appealing to hard-core and casual gamers alike. In the future, Microsoft and Sony will take a similar approach and introduce gaming devices that offer more input options to accommodate a broader audience of players. Whether it’s tapping a screen, waving a remote, or speaking into a microphone, the next generation of home consoles will offer you plenty of new and exciting ways to play games.
Mobile Gaming: Is It Dead Yet?
Nate Ralph: The handheld console is dead. We killed it.
Don’t pat yourself on the back just yet--we had plenty of help. Apple’s brushed-aluminum wundergadget laid the deathblow, serving up dirt-cheap entertainment to the masses. I’m not one to ascribe any real credit to piracy, as cheapskates who downloaded a game very likely weren’t going to buy it anyway. That said, you can’t fault developers for steering away from platforms that weren’t moving many units of software, as opposed to the comparatively low development costs to get a game in front of the droves of iOS- and Android-device owners.
Our strongest ally, however, was the inexorable march of time.
Dedicated gaming devices have come a long way--you need only look at your ancient Game Boy to see that. The Game Boy was compact for its era, with a running time that was essentially unlimited (provided that you were armed with a sack of AA batteries). It also helped that Nintendo was pretty much the only worthwhile portable player in town.
Once the Nintendo DS arrived, we saw a new golden age. The tiny cartridges stacked well for transport. The handheld offered up a novel control scheme, and provided an innovative design platform for creative developers. How could things go wrong?
We wanted more. We clamored for games that were fun, but also demanded graphical fidelity that Nintendo simply wasn’t known for. And we were sick of toting carts around--give us downloads!
Sony made a bold attempt with the PSPGo. But it was, to be blunt, stupid expensive, costing about $50 less than the Blu-ray-slinging PlayStation 3. And don’t get me started on the average gamer’s inability to understand that downloading a 4GB game over an 802.11b/g connection wasn’t a bright idea. We rightly raged at the price, and wrongly raged at the lack of UMDs, scaring developers away from a system that was perhaps simply ahead of its time.
It would be only a matter of time before Sony would correct that mistake (see the PlayStation Vita), so Nintendo had to act first.
The company gave us the Nintendo 3DS. You want graphics? How about 3D graphics! You want fun? It has more features than you can shake a reasonably large stick at! You want downloads? Err...we’ll get right on that. Promise.
But it’s too little, too late. Smartphones are svelte by nature, and always with you, and they give you access to a wide array of digitally distributed titles. And no complaints about downloads here: Most titles are exceptionally small files, and phone owners are used to syncing via computer to get their music collections on there anyway. The 3DS, by contrast, is bulky and nonessential, and it requires you to carry a stack of cartridges to swap between games. You might be concerned about battery life and using your phone for, well, phone stuff. But with the abysmal battery life on the 3DS (and the upcoming PS Vita), that gadget that’s taking up extra space is also likely to be dead, too.
More important, in an era of 99-cent, disposable entertainment, the $40 blockbuster of yore simply has no place. It's simple math: Will you get more out of a single 3DS game, or 40-plus iOS titles (many of which are free)?
Developers see it. Take a look at the titanic list of titles available on Apple’s App Store, and compare that with the paltry list of upcoming titles on Nintendo’s end.
My honest opinion? Good riddance. I’m still likely to pick up a PlayStation Vita, in spite of my unused PSPs and Nintendo DSs (I’ve unwisely bought several over the years). A dedicated gaming console will still offer an unparalleled gaming experience, in much the same way that curling up with a book is probably more aesthetically pleasing than reading on my iPad. But it boils down to accessibility: My $250 iPod Touch puts 32GB of music, books, and games right at my fingertips, all day. My 3DS (also known as my Pokémon Delivery Station) just can’t compete.
Online Services: Welcome to FarmVille
Patrick Miller: Xbox Live and PlayStation Network are arguably the two defining features that separate the current generation of consoles from the previous one. Game distribution, downloadable content, online multiplayer, and messaging are a huge part of modern console gaming. (Unfortunately, so are legions of trolling teens determined to ruin your impeccably crafted multiplayer experience.)
Trash-talking aside, we've seen that Xbox Live and PSN are great for connecting people who are playing games, but they haven't really become a destination in their own right. PlayStation Network tries with PlayStation Home, a neat virtual-lobby service that lets PSN users socialize and play games, but it's simply not quite there yet. Xbox Live TV might be able to further attract users with streaming TV shows that can supplement their downloadable video content, but that will depend in large part on Microsoft's ability to land the right programming.
My prediction: The killer app for our next-generation game networking services will be social games. Hate on FarmVille all you want, but the fact is that these games are very good at making money and getting people to visit a site more often. I like to think that I'd be above watering plants to earn in-game currency to buy a new hat that I can wear on my Xbox Live avatar (or worse, paying $5 outright for the hat), but I don't think I'd be able to resist for long. And if there's one game I can beat obnoxious trash-talking teens in, it's Words With Friends.
Once Xbox Live and PSN start tapping into the same addictive design that keeps me visiting Facebook every hour, Microsoft and Sony will be able to turn their respective services into social networks, video-delivery networks, and anything else they'd like. They might as well own my TV by that point.
What do you want to see in the next generation of gaming consoles? Sound off in the comments!