Anyone would be hard-pressed to argue with the assertion that gaming has changed over the years. Once regarded as the flagship hobby of the social outcast, it has been interesting to see gaming grow into a mainstream entertainment medium, encompassing anyone from “professional” tournament players to children hardly old enough to read.
But, as with anything we dedicate our time to, the question must inevitably be asked: How is it going to change?
In this feature, I’d like to explore what awaits us in the near future, and share with you what I hope we will see in the years to come.
Previous Patterns May Not Hold True
Perhaps the greatest difference between this generation and its predecessors has been the development of games’ graphical capabilities. Beginning with titles such as 2003′s Doom 3 and continuing with such triumphs as Valve’s Half Life 2, we all knew that a new era had dawned.
With 2007′s Crysis, gamers were treated to features never before seen in interactive media, including (but certainly not limited to) more complex lighting models, truly three-dimensional water effects (before only seen in theatrical releases), and highly detailed particle and physics effects. It was, and largely still is, the definition of cutting edge graphical capability in gaming today.
To say the change was drastic would be a complete understatement. Much like the move to 3D in the mid-to-late 90s, the move to new lighting techniques revolutionized the way we looked at our games, and furthermore, led to an explosion of immersive titles. From The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to Mass Effect 2, we’ve seen the detail of our games’ worlds take great leaps.
But where do we go from there? As far as is known, the next generation of consoles is set to roll out in 2012, and with it will come…what? Will we see some kind of new graphical technique that will make our jaws drop, as has been the case before?
I’m apt to think such isn’t true. While it is typically foolhardy to predict the future in such explicit terms, looking at what’s becoming available to us yields a clue as to where gaming is going. The release of DirectX 11, for instance, while hailed as the most innovative change in the API in years, promises not to completely change what we see, but rather make more of what we see possible.
Several articles out there show how Dx11 gives developers access to new ways of rendering assets so as to cut down on the impact they have on the system, as well as techniques to increase detail without as much of a performance hit. Most notable of these features is “tessellation”, which allows for less complex, yet more realistic-looking meshes. Instead of having to draw millions upon millions of individual, triangular polygons, the system renders polygonal “patches” that allow for a more rounded figure without nearly as much effort.
Basically, I would not expect something awe-inspiring along the lines of Crysis. I would, however, say that we should expect much higher levels of detail, in the sense that more can happen as more resources are freed up in the development process. The chaotic nature of titles such as Just Cause 2 or Grand Theft Auto IV would likely become amplified, as there would be more room to introduce new assets into the game world.
This all hits home in the same way for consoles. We will see more action, more detail, but I would not expect something like the differences between (for instance) a PS2 and the PS3. To boil this down a bit more, I would expect a change near the same level as seeing the maximum-quality PC version of a game today being played on the console of tomorrow.
Of course, the increasing popularity of what were once seen as “gimmicky” concepts such as 3D-vision televisions and computer monitors may yet become more standardized, though at the moment it’s hard to say. Having experienced it for myself, I’m not hooked, and most of those I know who use it don’t necessarily swear by it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean there will be no changes in interactivity. Other peripheral technologies, most notably the kind present in development projects such as Microsoft’s Project Natal, may yet introduce us to a new method of playing games, which will open us up to new ways of experiencing the media.
A Change in Preference is a Change in Experience
The biggest change I see on the horizon comes from the rapidly changing tastes of gamers. As evidenced by the massive amount of casual and indie titles prevalent today, I would expect a steady increase of both as the years go on. There is no question that gamers are leaning away from the multiple-dozen-hour epics of the past in favor of shorter, easier-to-pick-up experiences.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ll lose the mainstays of today’s genres. Titles that have sold very well in the past aren’t going anywhere; as evidenced by the continuation of franchises such as Mass Effect (including its now in-the-works movie adaptation), Assassin’s Creed, Street Fighter, etc. There are some things that gamers as a whole still seem to enjoy despite the overall change in preference, and the companies that produce them would be crazy to let them go.
However, that change of preference is going to mean that these titles are going to become fewer and farther between, because if anything, their development is going to be left to the large-budget companies that can consistently afford to produce them. While this might seem to stifle innovation in those franchises, I would hope it results in something very different.
If the market changes focus to “short and simple”, the developers of lengthier, more complex games are going to have to make their games worth the effort. Obviously, the days of grind-happy Japanese RPG’s will soon find themselves in a bind, and Western role-playing games are going to have to step up their already promising techniques in order to maintain their appeal. My hope is that this will result in greater narrative complexity, with much greater development on the plot and characters of games so as to make the experience memorable.
Especially considering the costs of developing these games, I think that more meticulous care will be taken during the development process; the opportunity to market complex games will quickly disappear if they are seen as buggy or simply ill-conceived. Lengthy titles will be judged much more harshly, and as such, developers will need to buckle down and make sure everything is on-par before releasing their products.
What Happens Wallet-Side
Eventually, something has to give. Either publishers lower prices, or gamers run out of money. Either way, the increasing prices of games are going to have to end.
Hopefully, this kind of change will tie into what I’ve expressed earlier regarding the change in trends of what gamers prefer to play. The time and effort needed to develop a casual game is a pittance compared to big-budget titles, and eventually someone other than PopCap is going to cash in on it.
That said, the developers of high-end, triple-A titles are going to have to do one of two things: Either they’re going to have to find more cost-effective methods of development, or cut aspects of development altogether. The many line items that get put into a game, from embracing high-end tech to hiring famous actors for voice acting, all figure into the development budget of a title, and eventually the average gamer’s wallet just won’t be able to handle it.
My hope is that this leads to the same kind of improvisation we used to see when tech wasn’t as advanced, where developers would attempt several different ways of achieving complex effects without as much effort. If the API lives up to its name, DirectX 11 should assist with this, allowing for the implementation of highly advanced techniques without the same cost they would have incurred before.
The Final Run-Down
Basically, there are three major things I see as figuring highly into the future of gaming:
First, new tech is going to make the complexities of today’s games much simpler and more cost-effective, translating into more detailed and immersive gameworlds, though without as huge a graphical upgrade as we witnessed over previous generational changes.
Second, the lack of severe graphical change is going to mean change in other aspects of play, such as narrative structure, artistic design, and interactivity.
Third, and finally, the ever-increasing prices of our hobby will have to either be staved off or reversed, as support for such a structure is rapidly decreasing.