When it comes to the next generation of consoles, you already have a fairly good idea of what the headlines are going to be. We will all coo over things like the appropriately impressive lighting effects and shading, while the detail on the 3,000 terrorists you just butchered in the name of freedom or whatever is likely to be astounding. You will also be able to indulge in your social networking to the point of obnoxiousness (honestly, no one on Facebook needs to know that you just got a 5-point achievement for completing the first chapter of a game – that’s sort of like proudly displaying a trophy you received for participation), and there will be more ways than ever to offer up your cash on the altar of both gaming and general media consumption. These are the features we expect, and fair or not, this is what we’ll end up judging the new systems on.
But it’s really the little things that endear us to a new system – the intangibles that no one would think about beforehand and no one would give more than the occasionally derisive “pfft” to if they weren’t there. Gamers would adapt. No one is going to pass on playing a new console solely because of average load times – we accepted these when the jump from cartridges to CDs happened, even if most of us did so grudgingly at first. By now load times are a given. On the other hand, things like Xbox 360’s party chat – the easiest way to talk to people on any console system without question – hasn’t been enough on its own to move consoles. It was a nice feature, but no one woke and thought “I can’t wait to spend $300 on a system so I can talk to my friends who are playing Call of Duty while I play BioShock!” And if you did, you’re weird.
So while the headline features are going to define the next gen, here are a few things we hope that we end up taking for granted when we’re being lovingly embraced by our couches and deep into a gaming session. They won’t make or break the new consoles, but they could make for a better experience.
1) Body movement that is consistently fluid and natural
When it comes to bringing a digital character to life, the emphasis has generally been on facial animation first – entire games have been built around that technology. Movement animations in sports games are usually solid as well, and action movements during most games are more and more often handled by mo-cap. Yet for some reason there are still issues with body movement in cut scenes – specifically the cut scenes using the in-game engine. This might sound like a minor complaint, but when you have graphics so detailed that you can see the pores in skin, you’d kind of expect that characters’ arms wouldn’t look like some horrible marionette was controlling them. If we can realistically recreate the flow of dandelion spores in the wind, why is it so hard to make a realistic-looking elbow that doesn’t make the character look like they are doing trying to bust the robot out on the dance floor?
In the image above from Mass Effect 3‘s latest DLC, Commander Shepard moves his arms like his elbow like he is a robot pretending to be a human. “Perhaps these fleshbags won’t notice that I am here to destroy them if observe their interactions. One day I will kill them all,” he seems to say with his awkward and stiff movement. The lack of movement in his clothes further adds to the disillusionment. Granted, this isn’t an issue in every game, but it is in enough that we tend to take it for granted that while movement in CGI cinematics looks epic, the scenes using the in-game engine look awful.
It all comes down to computing power. While it would be nice to see a person wave and not make you cringe in fear under the current-gen consoles, that would take away from the resources of the actual game. In other words, we can suck it up for now. With the next-gen though, that shouldn’t be a problem. The additional processing power will allow in-game engines to power some remarkable graphics, including movements where things like hands and body movements will be on par with facial expressions, and clothes will move naturally. Or at least, that is the dream.
Chances of this happening: High
Microsoft has pioneered the gaming chat scene in consoles by actually allowing, well, people to chat while they game. The PS3 allows game chat, of course, but it is miles behind the 360 and its party-chat options. As for the Wii U, it has a few chat options, sort of. The video chat and social integration are nice, but it’s bizarre that there isn’t a simple voice chat that you can do across multiple games. Are friends supposed to be bad in some way?
When it comes to talking with friends online, there are few better ways to do it than casually speaking with a friend who may be watching a movie, while you are busy chainsawing demons in the face. Hiding a maniacal cackle behind a mute button is one of the pure joys of gaming. The omission of this on other consoles is not just a bad move, it’s foolish. Even if you never use it, just having it there makes sense. Hopefully the the next Xbox will continue this and the PS4 will adopt it as well. The Wii U is already kind of screwed here, as Nintendo decided to go in a different direction.
The voice chat is just a small part of the social integration we expect from the next systems. Nintendo is already doing this – in its own special way. The Wii U’s slant on social interaction with things like game forums and chat boards is cool, but it should be a small piece of the bigger pie, not the whole pie.
For as much crap as gamers take for being solitary creatures, that often isn’t the case. Give people the chance to connect digitally, and many will take it. No one should have to not talk to their friends because a piece of hardware decided they shouldn’t. That’s how Skynet was born.
Chances of this happening: Good
3) Loading Times
It’s tough to explain to non-gamers why this is a big deal. If you tell them that you are disgruntled over waiting whole seconds, you further justify the stereotype of gamers being impatient. It’s easy to roll your eyes and think that the delay of a few seconds means nothing, and when you put it on paper, you are right. But goddammit, load times suck.
It isn’t just a matter of having to wait a few extra seconds, staring at what is usually a handy and helpful hint of how to do the most basic operations like reloading, it’s a good way to kill the pacing. Say you are playing a game where you need to travel to multiple sections of a city. And further say that this may not be entirely necessary to the plot, but does further help to flesh out the relationship with the crew serving under you – again, just for example. And go one step further and say that exploring this section of the area that we’ll call The Citadel, just for example, can quickly grow wearisome and irritating, and leaving offers you no respite since much of the game wants you to explore, but each new locations takes up to 30 seconds of staring at a screen to reach, and then you may end up finding nothing anyway. Just for example. OK, yeah, it’s Mass Effect 3.
It wasn’t that game’s fault. You can’t give BioWare too much grief for wanting to make a game with an epic scale and plenty of areas to explore. Instead, blame the hardware. Even downloading the game to your hard drive won’t alleviate this significantly. The odds are that this won’t change much with the next-gen, but we can dream. In fact, as games get bigger it may even get worse. In the meantime, there are things you can do to make the longer load times in certain games more palatable. Read small sections of a book perhaps, or maybe have a movie going on your laptop. Write postcards to friends, and send the odd text asking your friends “what chu doin’,” then head online to research why your autocorrect changed it to “weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” Take the time to grow as a human.
Maybe one day we’ll look back and laugh at load times. One day.
Chances of this happening: Low
4) Respectable AI
There are few things that can take you out of a game more than watching the enemy AI hide behind a barricade and stick their head up, take cover, then wait five seconds and stick their head up in the exact same spot again.Five seconds later they’ll do it again. And again, and again, until you take mercy on them and shoot them. This also includes enemy AI that see a door open as if by magic, then walk up to it and decide that it must have been the wind or something and just walk away. You can argue that it makes the game more fun, but a good designer could easily find a way around that. Of course that is nothing compared to watching your friendly AI run into a wall, or get lost. The problems with poor friendly AI are compounded when friendly fire is on, especially when your tactics are to patiently fight your way forward, while your AI controlled cohorts stick more with the “What are you shooting at? Should I stand up and look? Hey what is – OH GOD YOU SHOT ME WHY DID YOU SHOOT ME YOU MONSTER!”
It’s one thing to have friendly AI be unhelpful as you execute your plans of tactical superiority, but it’s another to have them border on treasonous when they wander into a steady stream of bullets from you and then complain about it. It’s times like that you wish you could suddenly just say to hell with it and impart martial law on your team.
Beyond that though, smart AI makes for better games. Outwitting enemies is usually more fun than just waiting for an unfortunate enemy to play “whack a mole” with guns and heads. It’s not just in shooters either, but those are perhaps easier to identify the problems in. The intensity of the combat is just notably increased with good AI. With static enemies, it becomes more of a game of patterns than battle. It’s satisfying to outwit the AI rather than just wait for them to try to punch your bullets with their faces. With the additional power available for the new consoles, this should improve exponentially.
Chances of this happening: Excellent
5) Space on the hard drive
It would go beyond obvious to suggest that this generation of consoles radically expanded the online presence of home gaming. PCs were already doing this for years, but this generation of consoles created the potential to think of gaming hardware in a different way. And with that expansion came a 49er-like rush to find ways to monetize that.
The digital gold rush opened up new possibilities that simply hadn’t been possible before. Indie games found a new method of distribution, DLCs have become a given for almost every game, and digital content like movies you can purchase and download online moved in like a community of squatters and refused to leave. But assuming you decided to loosen the purse strings and accept the digital goodness, where do you put it? It isn’t like an Xbox 360 can get fatter. There is a very limited amount of space available, and once it is full, out comes the “delete knife” to trim away all the things you no longer need or use.
That sounds like a simple enough solution, but once you start adding up DLC and digitally distributed games, that space disappears quickly. Remember when a 100GB hard drive was massive and people would joke how we’d never fill that much space? Good times.
With the new systems coming, downloadable content is only going to increase. Microsoft and Sony are sure to offer multiple bundles with different hard drives, but so far only Microsoft has offered an easy way to upgrade those drives. Hopefully this will continue and Sony will follow suit. Nintendo decided to go in an… unusual direction. The Wii U has a miniscule amount of storage in both bundles, although it can accept an external hard drive. Nintendo just doesn’t really seem to be as interested in this aspect of the gaming industry. The eStore is still fairly bare, and while Nintendo’s exclusive library would make for an easy source of revenue for the company that would cost them next to nothing to distribute, that doesn’t seem to be part of the strategy. Go figure. Hopefully for the Microsoft and Sony consoles, there will be more, easy ways to expand the storage in order to prevent us from having to delete our beloved digital clutter.
Chances of this happening: Good