The Future of Video Games: Cracking Open the Sears Wishbook
And at last we come to the end of my Future of Video Games blog series that comes from the past. If you have gotten this far I applaud you! You are now armed with the knowledge to partake in the next episode of PixlTalk, hosted by yours truly and the rest of the Tri-Force crew, Patrick and Rob.
Still need to catch up?
Ah, the Sears Wishbook. I have fond memories of getting that huge treasure trove of toys and spending hours upon hours poring over the pages. All of the Transformers and G.I. JOE and Ninja Turtles figures were always set up in elaborate scenes with all the accessories and vehicles you could ever want. Even though I knew I’d never have such a set up at home, I derived a lot of pleasure from just looking at it all laid out.
Porn for 8 year olds.
I’ve been writing about the future of video games this week, and I can think of no better way to close this series out than by gazing into my virtual wishbook, so to speak. We’re right at the cusp of getting new information about the next generation of consoles. There will certainly be more Wii U details released soon, and even if Microsoft and Sony don’t make any official announcements I expect we’ll be getting some rumors leaking out about their new machines. Now, I’m not going to spend this blog talking about how mind-blowing the graphics are going to be in the next generation. I think we should all temper our expectations. The shift from the previous generation to now wasn’t the sea change that the leap from the 32-bit days to the PS2 days was, and I expect a smaller change moving forward. I don’t think it’s going to be obvious at first glance how the next generation is better than what we have. It’s going to be in the details once we take a closer look. But I truly believe that, once we take that closer look, we’re going to be blown away. So, here is my wishlist for the next generation.
I remember playing Resident Evil way back in 1996. I loved the game, but I remember a specific moment in the game where you had to drain a dirty bathtub. When I was prompted to do it I had a great feeling of dread, because I was just sure something was going to pop out and kill me. But when I pressed the action button, Jill stood in place and the bathtub emptied seemingly by magic. It completely took me out of the game. I’ve seen plenty of other games where I felt like there were animations missing that would have added to the immersion and mood of the scene. I’m sure it always comes down to space and time constraints, but I think as we move forward the idea of having a character stand there while a switch magically gets flipped will not be forgiven. I want to actually see my character performing these actions. Not only is it more immersive, but it can add to the tension and suspense in a game where you have to turn a crank or place an item while your enemies pursue you.
Animation is something that can make or break a character-driven game. For the past 10 years or so I’ve dreamed of having games that don’t constantly repeat the same animations for the entire adventure. When you attack in Final Fantasy VII, Cloud swings his sword the same way every time. When Kratos opens a large door, he does it the same way, every time. Any time you are tasked with a button-prompted “quick-time event” in a video game your character goes through the same animations every time. The Uncharted series has been the leader in creating nuanced, contextual animations, and it’s something I hope becomes a standard in the next console cycle. Nathan Drake stands in slightly different positions as he takes cover. Many of his running and walking animations vary as you traverse the environments. These are very small things that most people don’t notice, but you come away from the experience with a sense of having been in the shoes of your character the entire time. This will obviously add to the time needed to produce new games, but I think it will be time well spent.
Perfect Collision Detection
I talked a lot about collision detection during my series on love in video games, but since this is my wishlist, it’s worth repeating. As great as our games look today, the illusion breaks down when a character needs to pick up an item or interact with another character in small ways. Any time I see an on-screen handshake or hug things just go wonky, with clipping issues and character models just not lining up in a believable way. Most developers get around this with camera tricks and quick cutaways, but the time has come for them to solve the problem of collision detection for good. If I go to pick up a glass my hand curls around it. My fingers flatten as I grip the glass. The glass doesn’t slide into my hand and stick there. When I lift the glass to my lips to take a drink, my lips touch the rim of the glass. I don’t just hold the glass in front of my mouth as the liquid magically drains. But this is the way video games have looked for years. Game designers have gotten their characters to kill people in all sorts of interesting and convincing ways, but ask that same character to do something normal like pick up a stick or kiss a girl and the whole thing breaks down. Again, this is a small detail, but it’s an important one that I want to see taken care of once and for all.
Oh, and while we’re at it…can we please have a wrestling game where the wrestlers run off of the ropes realistically? I’m looking at you, Yuke’s.
Clothing and Hair-it’s Not Just for Cutscenes Anymore!
There’s a joke amongst members of the enthusiast press that you can measure the improvements of video game graphics by the believability of the hair. Back in the PSX days anyone with long hair typically had an ugly texture plastered to their heads. In the PS2 era that flat texture became flat polygons that looked a great deal better. But when we made the move to the current generation, hair looked somewhat the same. No one has hair that looks believable, nor does it move in a realistic manner. Either every video game character uses the same brand of hyper-hold hairspray, or this is just a problem that is more difficult to solve than I think it is. Maybe that’s why we see so many protagonists sporting the Jason Statham look. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have people sport some realistic shine and bounce in their hair. Or if it is, maybe pay a little less attention to making women’s boobs jiggle. But this is my damn wishlist, so get it done!
I'm beginning to detect a theme here...
Think really hard: have you ever seen a character in a video game take their shirt off? No? I didn’t think so. It’s because clothing seems to be an even more difficult problem than the whole hair issue. Clothing is never something that is worn by a character; it’s a texture painted onto them. It may look good in screenshots and the like, but anytime the story calls for clothing to be removed or changed there’s always that quick cutaway because the system is loading the new textures. I’ll never forget the first time a wrestling game had Hulk Hogan doing his signature shirt rip. It looked awesome and terrible at the same time, because it stood out like a sore thumb, but at least they pulled it off. Er, no pun intended. Next time around, I want realistic clothing that moves with the character, gets dirty or torn as things get hectic, and generally looks like fabric instead of a rigid texture map.
NPCs That Look Like They Belong
So, your protagonist is comprised of over 30,000 polygons. He sets his jaw like an action star, smiles like a movie star, and speaks like a theatre star. Then he walks by “pedestrian model type 3-A” and the illusion is broken.
The "man on the street" in Dragon Age looks boring compared to your party.
The fact of the matter is, once the work has been done creating the major players in a game, there’s not much space left over for non-player characters that look anywhere near as good. It can be a jarring thing to interact with people sporting the same faces, or having a drastically lower polygon count. It makes the player character look like it doesn’t really belong in the world it inhabits; like there’s this one bit of vivid color in a sea of grey. This is most noticeable in RPGs, where you can spot the “important” characters because they look more detailed and original than the random townsfolk and other assorted NPCs. I dream of a future where the people in the background are every bit as detailed and relatable as the person you’re controlling. People that look and behave realistically, and are more than mere window-dressing designed to populate an otherwise barren landscape.
So, that’s a look into my wishlist for the upcoming generation. Again, it may not seem like things that would drastically reshape the way video games look, but when you put them all together you get a bigger picture; one that creates a much more diverse and immersive experience. Let me know what you’d love to see as we move into the next console cycle. Then, let’s come back here in a couple years and see how far off we were.
Thank you for sticking with me during this look into the near and distant future. I hope it was as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write. As I close this out, there’s a lot that is unsure about the coming wave of home consoles. But one thing is certain: the future will be more than we could possibly imagine.