Editorial - 'Brave New World'

by Ben Parfitt on May 24, 2004 @ 3:07 a.m. PDT

With another E3 now behind us I find it difficult not to spend much of my time thinking about the future of the games industry. Does the future look any different now than it did pre E3? Not really, but if nothing else the Los Angeles event has certainly solidified a few truths. In the coming year the battle for gaming supremacy seems as if it’s going to be fought on a new front – the realm of innovation.

First of all the home console market is set to become an even more ferocious battleground than we’re used to. Microsoft can smell blood and honestly believe that with the right strategy they can take the lead in the race of next-generation supremacy. They may well have a point. If they can launch before the PS3 and do so with a good line up of software then it’s possible that we could witness a shift in power. At the same time, I very much doubt that Sony will be losing too much sleep. As games become more mainstream so too do the tastes of gamers. Consequently the strength and importance of the brand becomes increasingly vital to the success of a machine and brands don’t come much bigger than Playstation. It’s a sad truth that the majority of people who walk into a store with money in their wallets don’t shop with an informed opinion; instead they shop on impulse. That’s why games like Bad Boys II and Enter The Matrix sell. It’s often depressing for reviewers such as myself to see substandard licensed games top the charts for weeks on end, evidence in hand that gamers are either ignorant of our opinions or simply don’t care.

But I digress. Ironically it is Nintendo who is perhaps taking the most sensible approach to the next generation battle. It’s a fact that the leap in hardware specs from our current generation to the next will be a far lesser one than we witnessed when changing from 32-bit to 128-bit, and even less than the step up from 16-bit gaming. Nintendo correctly identify that as a result specifications are already becoming far less important. You know that whether you buy and Xbox 2, PS3 or N5 they’re all going to be monstrously powerful. It will be the software that differentiates them.

Microsoft also identifies this with their announcement of the XNA development system. The basic idea behind this is to give all developers a set of pre-designed tools from which to build their titles. It’s estimated that up to 80% of a game’s development time is spent constructing the tools needed to build the game. Microsoft’s supposition is that by providing developers with the XNA set up they will be able to dedicate that time to constructing the game itself and as a result games will improve.

It’s a logical though very cold and methodical approach. Nintendo on the other hand talk in terms of more idealistic innovation. It’s not surprising really; Microsoft has made it’s billions by constructing computer code and computing frameworks whilst Nintendo has risen to ascendancy by constantly innovating and re-inventing the industry. The fact that the Gamecube is currently struggling is surely a testament to the reality that so far the Gamecube has not played host to the kind of innovation we’re used to from Nintendo. There have of course been several fantastic and genre defining games on the system (Metroid prime, The Wind Waker, Animal Crossing) but these titles have been outnumbered by mere re-vamps of N64 titles that lack innovation in any form (Double Dash, F Zero, Resident Evil).

Nintendo, however, have realised this and it’s as a result of this realisation that it is the big N which has kept our tongues wagging after E3. I’m sure Sony are a tad annoyed and perhaps they even don’t get it. Look at the PSP; it’s gorgeous, it’s a fine consumer desirable and, my god, it’s powerful. Surely these are all the ingredients needed to ensure worldwide domination? Well, yes and no. Of course the power and brand will go a long way to ensuring great sales for the machine but there is a rival that may well be worrying Sony a little more than they anticipated.

The Nintendo DS, the Japanese giant’s embodiment of their desire to innovate, is the machine that really stole the show in Los Angeles last week. Some may find this surprising; if you compare shots from both machines there appears to be little competition. The PSP runs PS2 quality games, totally amazing for a handheld, whilst the DS can just about match the N64 in action. No competition, right? Not necessarily. It all relates to Nintendo’s realisation of the importance of innovation. It was very impressive to see demo’s of Need for Speed, NBA Street and GT4 on PSP but I couldn’t help but wonder why on earth I’d want to shell out for a new machine and a new collection of games when I can already play the same titles on my PS2? So far Death Jr is the only original title announced for the machine and whilst you can guarantee Sony won’t allow their machine to release without at least a small selection of original content you only have to look at the current release roster to see the direction Sony are aiming to take the machine. Plain and simple, they want to extend their brand to the portable market, to extend the Playstation experience to cover both home gaming and gaming on the move.

It would be understandable to write off the DS in face of the competition but unlike the PSP the DS doesn’t hope to capture gamers by building a portable Gamecube. Instead it tries something new, attempts to explore new territories; basically, it tries to advance gaming. Whilst it’s hard to initially imagine many scenarios where two screens are going to enable a genuinely innovative gaming experience, you can bet your last penny on the fact that if anyone is able to do this it’s Nintendo. You can’t deny that a second touch-sensitive screen is an intriguing proposition. Add to this the in-built microphone, Bluetooth, backwards compatibility and fantastic third party support and it’s hard not to get excited.

At the end of the day, the last few weeks have fundamentally been about an evolution of gaming. Games like Far Cry and Max Payne 2, along with upcoming titles like Stalker and Half Life 2, are the first steps into this brave new world. The physics engines employed by these titles are akin to the final bridge that needs to be crossed before gaming can explore unknown lands. Back in the days of 16-bit gaming real-world physics were not necessary. Although it’s true that the physics used to control Mario in games like Super Mario World were essential (and brilliant) they worked within the confines of the technology that was then available. As games now strive to produce worlds that mirror the world in which we live, advanced physics are needed to give the gaming world a believable consistency. Once this is mastered and graphical power stretched to truly allow life-like graphics games will have to evolve in order for growth to continue.

It seems strange to say it, but in the face of these realisations it’s Sony that seems somewhat out of its depth. They may have monopolised the current generation of gamers but so far there’s little indication that Sony can see beyond market monopolies and consumer growth. Even the most casual gamer will tire eventually of buying re-hashes of titles already in their collections. Eventually there will have to be something new to convince them to part with their cash and at the moment it looks more and more likely that Nintendo and Microsoft will be the companies that offer this. Only a fool would write off Sony but I can tell you for certain that many journalists leaving E3 last week were feeling more than a little foolish.

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