The Future of Video Games is Bright!
This is part two of a blog series I wrote last year. I’m posting it on PixlBit to tie into the next episode of PixlTalk. You can read part one here.
I kicked off my “Future of Video Games” series yesterday with my fears for the future. Some readers felt it was pessimistic, but in all honesty I had to dig down deep to find enough material for that blog. Because the truth is, I’m extremely excited about the future of the video game industry. This is a major change for me from six years ago, when I was considering walking away from my favorite hobby forever. Things changed for me in a big way since the release of the 360 and PS3, however, and I find myself getting positively giddy when I think about what’s to come. So, before I get into the specifics in the coming days, let me give an overview about my hopes for the future.
The Benefits of Diminishing Returns
When it comes to graphical fidelity, I believe we are already seeing diminishing returns with each new jump in technology. Now, I may end up reading this blog five or six years from now and have a good laugh over that last statement, but the signs are everywhere. Once you pass the Uncanny Valley and get to photo-realism, there’s nowhere else to go. With each passing year, I feel like we’re getting ever closer to that tipping point. Last year’s Heavy Rain was a prime example of that, and then L.A. Noire came out this year and pretty much rendered the achievements of Heavy Rain moot. Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there will always be ways that video game visuals can improve, but in the future these will be much more subtle shifts. And I can’t wait for this plateau in graphics to finally get here.
There are two major benefits of reaching the highest point in what graphics engines can achieve. The first should be pretty obvious. While the cost of game development has been steadily rising (as I talked about in part one), eventually the tech is going to even out. But this doesn’t mean the hardware is going to stop evolving, as well. We’re going to see a point, if not in the coming cycle then certainly in the next one, where the computing power needed to create photo-realistic art assets will be negligible at best. Where home brew developers today are able to create games that can’t compete with the triple-A games from a sheer graphics standpoint, in the future I believe that these high-end tools will be so affordable that even your average high-schooler will be able to tinker with them. I think these tools are going to be vastly more powerful than what we have today, and yet will be much easier to use, and far more efficient, as well. I even think that the need for performance capture that is so en vogue today will be rendered obsolete. And this can only spell great things for the industry as a whole. When you think about it, modern triple-A video games are becoming like movie productions, only twice as difficult. You have to film the actors performing their scenes as you would in a film production, but then you have to take that footage and convert it into polygonal assets. It is my hope that the technology will get to a point where hand animation is not only faster and more efficient, but looks just as good as performance capture, as well.
El Shaddai is visually unlike anything I've ever seen in a game.
The other advantage, and the one that gets me most excited, is the fact that, once artists hit that graphics ceiling, it will be time to spread out instead of constantly trying to move up. I’m going to go into this topic in greater detail later this week, but personally, I’m kind of done with games that mimic the real world. I want to see people try to do new and interesting things with graphics and let me experience worlds that could never exist in reality. It’s kind of off the radar, but the upcoming El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron features an art style that I’ve never seen in a video game before. While the actual gameplay didn’t thrill me in the demo, it’s a game I want to play just to experience the visual journey. In the future, while photo-realistic graphics will be what people want from sports games (I myself can’t wait for WWE Smackdown 2020), I think we as a collective are eventually going to grow tired of games mimicking life. And that’s when the real fun will begin, as video game artists go wild and explore avenues of design that were closed to them before.
The Rise of the Indie
I love my big budget, multi-sequel, triple-A franchises. I can’t get enough of them. But that shouldn’t suggest that I don’t have a great deal of respect for what is going on in the indie scene. Games like Braid, Limbo, and Minecraft capture the imagination and give a glimpse of great things ahead, to be sure. I think the time is coming, and it may be sooner than later, when the Pulp Fiction of video games appears, ushering in a new era of smaller studios finding success. There’s a vacuum in the video game industry today; you’re either a multi-million dollar game or a tiny project put together for a few thousand. There’s a lack of great middle range gaming, and I think the new generation of independent developers are going to swoop in and make that space their own. We could see the birth of the next EA, and by that I mean what EA was at the beginning: Electronic Arts; a place for designers to create media for a new generation. The indie developers are on the rise, and we’re going to see the big studios stand up and take notice. And hopefully these studios will see the vast amount of talent that is out there and snap them up. It’s something that Valve has been doing for years, and with great results. I think we’re going to see the next big franchises take their cues from the indie scene. I’m not saying that the FPS is going to go anywhere, but I see a time where some of the off-the-wall ideas found in smaller games find their ways into much larger projects.
Minecraft: A super successful game that was self published.
Episodic Gaming Done Right
Episodic gaming is something that has been attempted with varying levels of success for years now. From Capcom’s El Dorado Gate to the failed SIN Episodes and the current adventure games from Telltale, this is not a new concept by any means. There have been very few people to pull this off, even though I see this as a viable business model moving forward. It can’t be stated enough how expensive it is to create games these days, and it can take years to build a new game engine and release an original title. Once that engine has been created and the game is out the door, however, wouldn’t it be great if developers could work on a sequel and release it piecemeal, funding development with the sales of each digital download? It has worked well for Telltale, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t work for the console market in the future. I talked about this in regards to Alan Wake, a game that I would love to see get a digital-only sequel. The game sold poorly at retail, but I think enough people would download new episodes of the game to make it worth Remedy’s time. It could also be a great way for bigger companies to take risks before dedicating resources to a new IP that may or may not be successful. Imagine if SEGA had been able to release the first chapter of Shenmue as a digital version before committing to the final product. With all the time and money that Square Enix put into crafting the engine used for Final Fantasy XIII, wouldn’t it be great to see them use that engine to release a brand-new and experimental game digitally while we wait for their next big game? Episodic content is a great way for developers to reduce overhead, try new ideas out in a smaller “test” market, and even capitalize on franchises that only have a cult following.
Alan Wake didn't sell well, but is perfect for an episodic sequel.
Heavy Rain tackled, er, heavy subjects, like being a single father.
BioShock. Mass Effect. Heavy Rain. Alan Wake. L.A. Noire. These are games that, in their own unique ways, have begun to explore deeper, more mature themes. As the video game industry gets older, it is only natural that games become more sophisticated and deal with heavier concepts. There will always be a place for simple and fun games, and in truth I don’t need every game to be a deep, artistic expression. But I do love it when a game has a theme or a message it is trying to convey, and as we look to the future I see only great things on the horizon. I hope to see video games attempt to create characters that are more fleshed out and relatable. I want to see these characters dealing with problems and situations that are much more than an invasion of aliens. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be aliens, of course, but I think it would be awesome for a game to inject some humanity and drama into that scenario. I can’t help but think about Battlestar Galactica, which was a science fiction series that combined the story of a war with sentient robots with themes of racism, religion, and other serious issues. I want games to challenge our preconceived notions and make us think about our place in the world. I want games that get people to talk around the water cooler in the same way that a great movie or book does today. We are on the very edge of that in the current generation, but I think the games of the near future will make games like Heavy Rain look like a children’s book.
This was just the tip of the iceberg, though! Join me tomorrow as I look at some of the games from E3 and defend the sequel!