E3 2012 is over. Games like The Last of Us, Halo 4, and Assassin's Creed III impressed many gamers with flashy graphics and plenty of action. Even with those fantastic games, however, the general feeling after E3 was over was disappointment. Disappointment that stems from one question--Where are the next-gen consoles?
Let's be clear by what I mean when I write "next-gen consoles"--I mean the next-generation consoles from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Nintendo's Wii U IS--by my definition, at least--a next-gen console, and I will certainly cover it here. But, the true emphasis of this post will be on what's coming next from Sony (PS4?) and Microsoft (the next Xbox).
Months before E3, the rumor mill was going crazy over next-gen consoles. Would the next Xbox feature a Blu-ray drive? How does cloud gaming fit into the next-gen picture? Will next-gen consoles block used games? Then, a series of statements by both Sony and Microsoft dashed gamers' hopes.
On January 10, the Wall Street Journal reported on a Sony roundtable at CES in which Kaz Hirai told reporters that Sony was "not talking about a new home console now" and said that Sony was "not making any announcements at E3." What's more, Jack Tretton would later tell IGN: "I, quite frankly, would be very distracted if I had to be talking about next generation hardware this year." (Read more about these two statements on GameSpot here and here).
Okay, Sony wasn't planning on showing anything at E3 2012, but what about Microsoft? On March 15, Microsoft sent out a statement to gaming news outlets--including Game Informer and GameSpot--indicating that it would not be showing off the next Xbox at E3 2012. "While we appreciate all the interest in our long-range plans for the future, we can confirm that there will be no talk of new Xbox hardware at E3 or anytime soon," the statement read.
Without either Sony or Microsoft showing off their next-generation hardware, excitement for E3 2012 dropped significantly. Only Nintendo would be talking about its next-gen plans, in the form of the Wii U. Nintendo was poised to capture the most excitement at E3, yet that isn't what happened. This isn't an editorial aimed at illustrating why Nintendo failed to capitalize on its E3 opportunity to blow people away with the Wii U--plenty has already been written on the subject--but it does show the potential danger of launching a new console.
What Nintendo showed at E3 were graphics no better than current generation systems' and ports of titles that already exist on Xbox 360 and PS3 (such as Batman: Arkham City). What gamers wanted from a next-gen system and what Nintendo showed of the Wii U were two entirely different things. It's for this reason that many don't consider the Wii U to be a true next-gen system, and why it's clear that both Sony and Microsoft need to wow gamers if they hope to find success with their next consoles.
How do Sony and Microsoft wow gamers with next-gen hardware? The answer is complicated, but a few games and tech demos shown at E3 point the way. The first of these is Star Wars: 1313. What little gamers saw of 1313 at E3 blew their minds with nothing more than amazing graphics. Same with the stunning Unreal Engine 4 tech demo and Square Enix's Luminous engine demo. It was Ubsioft's demonstration of Watch_Dogs, however, that really got gamers excited about what next-gen hardware could do. Featuring stunning visuals, an intriguing premise, and a mysterious take on multiplayer, Watch_Dogs was the talk of the show at E3.
But, is Watch_Dogs even a true next-gen game? The demo shown at Ubisoft's press conference was running on a high-end computer--same as every other next-gen demo--which would indicate that the game is being made with next-gen console technology in mind. Yet, Ubisoft has stated that Watch_Dogs will be coming to the Xbox 360 and PS3. It's possible that Watch_Dogs is coming to both current-gen systems (Xbox 360 and PS3) and next-gen systems, but if that's the case, then what's the big deal? Gamers want something new and exciting from next-gen consoles, not the same experiences they can get on current systems. Right?
Maybe not. In a recent GameSpot Trax survey, 83 percent of respondents voted that backwards compatibility was either "very important" or "somewhat important" to them when buying a new console. Compare that to better graphics, which 80 percent of respondents thought was important. Are gamers more interested in playing current-gen games than they are next-gen games with amazing graphics?
I'm sure there are many studies/polls out there that indicate that gamers want better graphics in next-gen games more than they do backwards compatibility (remember, the GameSpot Trax survey was conducted at the height of the next-gen rumor mill explosion, when various news outlets reported as fact that next-gen consoles would block used games). But, if all gamers want from next-gen consoles is better graphics, why not just buy a high-end PC? Watch_Dogs and the Unreal Engine 4 demonstration were running on high-end PC hardware; if gamers really want next-gen hardware, why not just spend some money on a new gaming PC?
Actually, high-end gaming PCs are an interesting study. Next-gen consoles are expected to have roughly the same technical specs as a gaming PC does right now. The Unreal Engine 4 demonstration, for example, was running on Nvidia's GeForce GTX 680 graphics card, one of the company's newest and most powerful GPUs. For further demonstration of why high-end gaming PCs are a great barometer as to what to expect from next-gen console technology, let's look at a current PC game that is considered state of the art; Battlefield 3.
Yes, Battlefield 3 exists as an Xbox 360 and PS3 game. However, the PC version of the game is quite different from its console counterparts, with massive 64 player battles (as opposed to a measly 24 players on consoles), larger maps, and--of course--much better graphics. Battlefield 3 on PC takes advantage of new technology like DirectX11 and quad-core processors to provide a PC experience that is significantly better looking than either current-gen console is capable of producing. It's almost a night-and-day difference.
So then, Battlefield 3 on PC (as well as some other PC games, like Crysis 2) is a great example of what the future holds for next-gen console technology. So then, why aren't gamers buying high-end gaming PCs in droves instead of waiting for next-gen consoles? The answer lies in cost; building a custom PC with all the latest technology is expensive. My two year old iBuyPower system is much more powerful than either the PS3 or Xbox 360, yet it isn't state of the art anymore. In order to attain graphics similar to those promised by the Unreal Engine 4 demo, gamers would have to spend well over $1,000. For many, this just isn't possible.
Cost is one of the major concerns many people have about next-gen systems. The economy isn't exactly healthy right now--people just don't have the spare money to spend on entertainment that they used to. If a next-gen console comes out with jaw-dropping graphics at $500, it very well might not be a commercial success. Nintendo's portable 3DS handheld released at $250, yet was such a commercial flop that the price was soon dropped to $170. People simply won't pay too much for next-gen hardware, no matter how much better it might be. Of course, what constitutes "too much" is certainly up for debate.
Regardless of cost, will next-gen games really offer that big a jump over current-gen? Battlefield 3 on PC looks fantastic, yes, but it's not exactly like looking at real war footage. Many gamers consider the graphics put out by current-gen games like Uncharted 3 and Gears of War 3 to be good enough--it would take a vast graphical leap to convince such gamers. Watch_Dogs isn't that leap. Neither is Unreal Engine 4. The biggest leap forward graphically that we've been shown comes from Star Wars: 1313, but even that might not be enough.
Yet, there is still hope in this regard. Battlefield 3--though designed to take advantage of next-gen hardware technology, according to DICE--was still designed with current-gen systems in mind. What will happen when developers take current-gen out of the equation? When a game engine doesn't need to scale down for Xbox 360 and PS3, the resulting focus on better hardware may very well result in a profound graphical leap.
Moreover, with better technology comes new possibilites for game design. Physics systems become better; A.I. routines become more complex; engines can render more stuff onscreen simultaneously. Halo: Combat Evolved wouldn't have been possible on the original PlayStation. This isn't just because Halo featured graphics that would be impossible to render on the PlayStation, but also because Halo featured complex A.I. and physics that older technology would not have been capable of handling. Who knows what the PS4' and next Xbox's technological advances will mean for gamers.
So far, I've been focusing mostly on what consumers want. But, what about developers and publishers? After all, they're the ones making games and taking the biggest risks with next-gen. They're going to be making games for a smaller potential audience at first (those who buy next-gen systems at launch). What do they think?
Opinions are mixed, but many video game publishers and developers surprisingly aren't thrilled about next-gen. Legendary id Software co-founder and creator of such games as Doom and Quake John Carmack told Games Industry International recently that he isn't very excited about next-gen consoles because processing power "won't make that much difference" in gaming experiences. He described next-gen technology as letting developers "do everything we want to do now, with the knobs turned up" (read about it here).
Moreover, publishers and developers are worried about cost. However, this is different from the cost that consumers are worried about; these are development costs. Current-gen games have huge budgets that sometimes reach $100 million or more. In order to recuperate those costs, games have to sell lots of copies. Just look at Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning--according to Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, the game would have had to sell three million copies in order to break even. The fear is that along with better technology comes higher development costs.
It doesn't have to be this way, though. Besides working on improving particle effects and lighting in Unreal Engine 4, Epic Games told Game Informer magazine in their July 2012 issue (issue 231) that the biggest improvement Epic Games is making to the new engine is in streamlining the development tools so that developers can make games easier and more efficiently. "The biggest improvement in Unreal Engine 4 is philosophical...We want designers and creative people to take charge of as much of the game production process as possible," Epic's Tim Sweeney told the magazine. Streamlined development processes means smaller, more efficient teams, which should result in lower next-gen development costs. Brilliant.
So, if next-gen development costs don't rise as much as many publishers/developers think they will thanks to the efforts of companies like Epic Games, then theoretically, next-gen games will not cost more than current-gen games. It's a win-win proposition for all parties.
So, I've established that next-gen graphics will probably be significantly better than anything wer're seeing now, even on PC; that better hardware technology will result in new creative opportunities in game design; and that an emphasis on streamlining next-gen development will result in decreased costs for both publishers/developers and consumers. That's all great, but it doesn't answer the ultimate question; do gamers really want next-gen consoles, or are they happy with what they've got?
To answer this all-important question, let's look at two important factors in determining the answer; hype and game sales. I've already established that many--but not all--gamers are salivating over the possibility of next-gen systems, so let's move on to game sales.
Game sales are tricky. NPD data provides a rough estimate for how disc-based games are selling, but also ignores important factors like digital distribution and free-to-play games. What's more, the NPD Group stopped reporting exact sales numbers to consumers for free, meaning that only those willing to pay the high cost of attaining this data--mainly game publishers themselves and industry analysts--really know exactly how well disc-based video games are selling. Nonetheless. NPD data is still a good barometer for determining how well the industry is doing overall at any given time.
To put it mildly, video game sales are not looking too hot. In 2011, the NPD reported that total video game sales fell by 8%. The most recent sales month that NPD has reported on for 2012 is May, in which overall sales fell by a whopping 28 percent compared to May 2011. In fact, so far this year, every month has resulted in double digit sales declines when compared to the previous year; the "best" month (and I do use that term loosely) so far this year was February, which "only" saw a decline of 20 percent compared to last year. Video game sales aren't doing good, and most industry analysts don't expect them to get much better by the end of the year.
With how wonderful video game sales are currently doing, I'm frankly stunned that more people aren't clamoring for next-gen hardware to perhaps inject some life into the industry. People get excited for next-gen systems, so they should help prop the floundering video game industry's sales up a bit. All eyes will be on Nintendo's Wii U launch later this year; if it's a success commercially, perhaps Sony and Microsoft will feel more confident about releasing their new consoles into the market.
In the end, I feel that gamers are absolutely ready for next-gen consoles. Gamers are always clamoring for the newest and the best in terms of technology and video games, which is exactly what next-gen consoles should provide. Next-gen will bring with it new challenges, to be certain, but the excitement the new consoles generate should more than make up for those. I say, bring 'em on!
But, what do you think? Do you want the next Xbox and PS4, or are you perfectly content with the Xbox 360 and PS3? Are amazing graphics enough to make you shell out money on new systems? Will there really be that big a difference between current-gen games and next-gen? Let me know in the comments below.