A little while ago my boss asked me what the next big thing would be. I hate it when this happens – my gut tells me that, really, we’re not going to see any real seismic changes in either gaming or hardware. The PC is pretty much always going to have the classic array of gear; there’s simply too much investment in its form factor, much like the investment car manufacturers have in working on petrol-based vehicles.
Similarly, gaming ain’t in for much of a shake-up – remember when motion gaming was going to change everything? Well, yeah. Mobile gaming? Sure, I play a lot of games on my iPad or phone, but I still do the serious stuff on my PC. And as to business models, yeah, there are some interesting shifts, like free-to-play games and micro-transaction models, but folks are still going to drop a C-note on every new Call of Duty game each year.
However, the one thing I could come up with – and was predictably wrong about – was that in the next 12 months we’d almost certainly see a new console release. This discussion happened last year, when everyone was pretty much taking it as granted that Microsoft would release its next Xbox (not, by the way, called the 720 – its current codename is Durango, nothing else) at E3 this year.
It occurs to me you could probably make a good living from seeing what people like me are guessing at down the road, and then betting on the opposite. News has been firming up that there’ll be no new consoles at the big show this year, and that means there probably won’t be any new consoles for at least a couple of years.
Microsoft confirmed all this in a chat with the gang at Kotaku (or, at least, one of the many gangs, to be accurate). “For us, 2012 is all about Xbox 360 - and it's the best year ever for Xbox 360,” says the company statement.
The reason this is of concern to us at Atomic is that we were figuring that, with a new and powerful breed of consoles, we’d see game development leap ahead to match. It’s commonly assumed, these days, that consoles drive the majority of game design; titles like Crysis 2 are designed the way they are purely so they can be optimised for the narrow memory bandwidth of current console designs.
There’s already a mess of speculation floating around for what this might mean in the living room; it might give Apple an opening, or run MS up against the next PS3 launch, or... whatever. I’m a PC gamer. So what does at least two more years of Xbox 360/PS3-lead game development mean for folks like me?
Why upgrade? Why innovate?
Can anyone think of any game on the horizon that’s going to push hardware more than, say, Shogun 2 or Battlefield 3? I know I can’t – in fact, upcoming games from DICE, like Medal of Honor: Warfighter, are going to run on the same engine, so we can safely assume it’ll run on the same hardware. Yet my PC is built with, as it stands, hardware that is now one generation behind the curve, and it’s safe to assume that my system is still probably far gruntier than most people’s. Looking at the Steam Hardware Survey pretty much confirms it.
In fact, in a number of our recent reviews of current generation graphics hardware we've noted that, while it all may be fast, it remains the case that none of its really necessary for the average, even enthusiast gamer. And with the majority of titles being ported to PC, rather than designed for it... Well, look at it this way – I cannot foresee a single reason to switch up to, for instance, the new generation of video cards. Maybe if you go for a multi-monitor setup, but even I think that's overkill (also, I have tiny desk).
It’s a chicken and egg argument from the other side of things, too. I have no doubt that the same guys working on Far Cry 3 or whatever could make a truly amazing game that really pushes a whole new cycle of hardware upgrading, the kind of thing you used to get in the days of new id Software releases, but, again, why would they? The real money is in being able to develop fast, and for console – the CoD Principle, if you will. Make fun of it (Gods know, we do) if you want, but it works.
Sure, there are some games that are purely PC, but of those, MMOs are generally made with older hardware in mind, so as to have the widest audience, while strategy titles often tend toward abstraction and even cartoony graphics, with the aforementioned Total War a particular exception – that series has pretty much always pushed hardware.
It’s basically a stalemate, and like in war, it’s a situation that doesn’t help anyone.
This is why
This is particularly annoying because, for the next couple of years, the PC is THE platform that’s going to let game developers really stretch their legs. Imagine a Frostbite engine unfettered by the need to run on hardware that’s five years old and pretty much terminally throttled; imagine a game engine (with, ideally, a great game to match it) that made you think “Gee, I cannot wait to upgrade my machine!” the way they used to.
What I’m hoping, though – ‘cause I’m a glass half full kinda guy at heart – is that someone out there sees this for the opportunity that it is. We’ve already got a lot of smaller developers looking to take advantage of the free-to-play model to monetise their work, and of course the very exciting Kickstarter initiatives; given the democratic nature of the PC platform – you’re not having to license anything, or get your code certified – it’s a great platform for that end of the business. But what I’d really like is for a new generation of Carmacks and Meiers to start reminding folks of just what the PC is capable of; for someone to make games that’ll have even console gamers wondering what they’ve been missing out on all these years.
Because, damn it, I don’t want people like Razer being the ones to shout out that the PC isn’t dead. It isn’t, but over-drastic re-imaginings of the platform are not the answer. Good games are.