The next generation of consoles is finally upon us, and with its arrival, visions of new technology dance in our heads. For many, graphics take center stage. More bits and bytes could pave the way for previously unimaginable experiences, and even if developers fail to innovate, at least games will look like a digital re-creation of our unrestrained dreams. For others, it's a new control type that's most pressing. How we interact with our games is more important than how they look, and a new controller could open the door to better accessibility and more nuanced input. And yet, as impressive as the idea of these new technological plateaus is to me, there's another category that is taking all of my attention: flexibility.
Consider, for a moment, how recent technological breakthroughs have changed entertainment. Physical media demanded that we needed to procure a tangible piece of software to watch a movie or listen to a song. It's a strange concept now, but only a decade ago, downloading our favorite creation seemed like a futuristic pipe dream, best left to science fiction wizards inhabiting a crazy utopian future. But now, we need only be near an Internet source (which flows through the air like data-carrying oxygen), and we can stream our favorite piece of entertainment directly to whatever state-of-the-art device we have in our hands. It's a fundamental shift in how we consume goods that has overtaken every aspect of our lives. We can now watch our favorite movies, listen to our favorite songs, read our favorite books, play our favorite…
Wait, that last one isn't right. We can't play our favorite games wherever we want. While riding a commuter train, I could stream Rocky IV directly to my smartphone. I could watch Mr. Balboa fight the unbeatable Russian to end the Cold War with one seismic punch. I could shout with delirious glee alongside cheering passengers while we shook our fists yelling "USA! USA!" Oh, sure, such a scenario is preposterous, but it is possible. And yet, if I wanted to plant a plasma grenade on the face of a chattering grunt in Halo 4, I would be unable to. The only way I could steer a Warthog into a brute or hijack a Banshee out of the air is by commanding the faceless Master Chief from my living room couch. Halo 4 can only be played on the Xbox 360, after all, and trying to fire up a console on a commuter train just isn't realistic.
The disconnect between my demands and reality have to be shattered in the coming generation. We've grown accustomed to games being delivered and playable in only specific places, but it's an archaic situation that offers a sharp contrast to every other form of mass media. Imagine if you could only read J.K. Rowling's latest non-magical novel from the throne in your bathroom, or were restricted to rewatching the third season of Community in the library. Pretty asinine, no? And yet, we're perfectly fine with playing Halo 4 sitting on our comfy couches in front of our high-definition televisions? Well, I sure as heck am not fine with that. At least not anymore.
Whether Sony or Microsoft takes the reins on my dream console, or another company that's waiting in the wings jumps in on what is assuredly a gold mine, doesn't matter to me. What does matter is that technology is used to tear down the walls that are separating video games from their destiny as the most consumed form of mass entertainment. There are so many rules right now, so many types of games restricted to one device or another, so many excuses to make and explanations to dole out that it's incredible games are as popular as they are. Imagine a device that removes all of those "nos" and instead offers a hearty "yes!"
The diversity and flexibility of every gaming device would be possible, so long as a large enough audience demands this wealth of entertainment.
My idea is not as preposterous as it might initially appear. There have already been systems that fill the exact purpose I have described. Take, for instance, the often neglected though wondrously adventurous PSP. Not only did Sony's first handheld have access to a prodigious online store offering all manner of satisfying morsels of entertainment, but it could connect to a television as well. The middle ground between handheld and console the world desperately needs, the PSP strove to be the perfect entertainment device no matter what situation you found yourself in. Problems arose, which seems to happen to anything with untold potential, that derailed its success, but nothing insurmountable. As a mere handheld, the PSP never received the wealth of support of its console brothers, and though it could display on a television, it never replaced a proper console because the image quality was poor, and it did not support extra controllers.
But it was a worthwhile start.
My dream console would have a library that caters to the needs of all who fancy themselves gamers. It does not matter if you crave match-three puzzlers or first-person bloodbaths--avian slingshots or dragon yells--an ideal console would have the best games from every genre represented. Take the cartoony adventure you were enjoying at home on the train to make your commute fly by, or slap the social game you've been bugging your friends to play on the big screen to annoy your entire family. Need help? Plug in an extra controller to tackle those conniving demons with a friend, or just log into the online infrastructure to procure the best talent from Western Europe. The diversity and flexibility of every gaming device would be possible, so long as a large enough audience demands this wealth of entertainment.
Caveats arise in every situation, even one as ideal as my proposed console. The freedom this new system would deliver would cause a serious hit to one important facet of gaming: graphics. Technology has simply not progressed enough to allow a fully portable device with graphics that fulfill what we imagine would be found on a next-generation system, so our flights of visual fancy would have to be tempered slightly. To release a product such as this with a digestible price would require sacrifice in polygonal might. Still, games that look as good as what we're currently playing would still be possible, so it's not like we'd be stuck in the 8-bit ghetto. But where one element might stagnate, the other parts would rise up in its stead to create a glorious new regime.
We've seen glimpses of my proposed console becoming a reality. OnLive was a service capable of streaming graphically stunning games, without forcing you to chase the upgrade cat every time new hardware came out. Windows Phone uses Xbox services, and even lets you play some Arcade games, but that only scratches the surface. At some point, a company is going to understand that handheld vs. console gaming is a silly distinction and that any game should be playable at any time. And that's when gaming will realize its enormous potential.