I was thinking of how we are probably approaching another generation of hardware and wanted to share my thoughts on the topic.
The next generation is going to have an uphill battle to sustain growth rates if the industry focuses on the traditional hardcore gamer. Next generation systems are historically sold on graphical advances and we are reaching the point of diminishing returns. Disruptive technologies like the Wii interface or guitar hero are drawing more attention than consoles themselves. Consoles are also running out of “obvious” technical innovations to draw on from PC gaming. To be successful, I belive the next generation is going to have to wait longer and carefully target interface evolution.
People are generally focused on how good games look. The advances from the NES/SNES days to the current generation of hardware is staggering. You could watch the PC market to see what consoles would be getting a couple of years down the road. If that is true today, even though the growth rate of graphic card power is staggering, the visual advances no longer match. If you show your average consumer Crysis and Half-life 2 you will not get nearly the reaction as from Super Mario 3 to Mario World. The Half-life 2 engine is still being used for game four years after its release and they are competitive quality. Graphics cannot be the main selling point for a new generation of hardware and Wii has arguably proven that for this generation by the Wii.
Nintendo’s tactic with Wii has been a suprise success. Not taking part in the graphics war and instead focusing on control innovation proves that audiences are looking for something new. Disruptive technology really defines the game industries progress. Games like Guitar Hero hinted that this kind of innovation could sell not only peripherals, but consoles. With the exception of the interface technologies like Wii and Rock band, nearly every innovation for consoles was first explored on PC. Wolfenstien 3D was the original first person game and it was a huge leap to see through your character’s eyes. Another leap was with Doom which added height, lighting and multiplayer. Doom would not have been the sensation it became without the disruptive influence on business networks at the time. I’m focusing on the example of first person shooters because they are some of the highest profile games in the history of gaming and highlight the delay between PC delivery of features and consoles (COD4, Crysis, Halo, Halflife, DOOM etc.). The issue right now is that there is not currently a disruptive technology available on PCs to point to. There was always a logical massive evolution for consoles to grow into. Currently there is not an obvious example of where the next generation can evolve.
Without a leading market to see what the next big thing on consoles is, what hopes do we have for a new generation? The most exciting thing developing in PC hardware right now is the generalized GPU. They are coming full circle to being general processors. The CELL in the PS3 is similar in design and so will Intel’s larabee architecture. What this means from a technology perspective is that people will be able to apply the hardware in more unique ways to solving problems. Graphically this could lead to some major advancement and differences in how games look if people leverage this technology. This is a huge if, but we may see some advancement. New interfaces are also available, be it brain wave or further advancing accelerometers. I doubt that neural interfaces will take off in the near future given the amount of time it takes to train on them. Voice recognition and camera interfaces haven’t really taken off yet in games. Three dimensional displays may be a huge hit if both film and games can embrace and push the technology. The time line for change in the home TV market is roughly a 20 year turn around if you use high definition as a format example. If none of these changes appear big enough to warrant a new wave of next generation, what should the industry do?
Going forward, the industry should focus on software sales from the current generation and extend the life time of this hardware cycle. Look at the longevity of the PS2 and how great some of the games late in the life cycle were. Will this happen? No, I actually predict that Microsoft will be on a four year cycle again and I believe we will see game quality drop for another year or two when games could innovate and advance with current hardware and the online space for another couple of years. For the gamer in me, I actually hope this console generation targets a seven year run. Even the technologist in me wants to see architectures like Larabee for a year or two on PC before they are on consoles. I guess we will find out in the next two years.