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Rumors abound about what the new consoles will be and with this generation feeling like it's coming to an end perhaps as early as next year, it's a great time to start thinking about what gaming will be like in the coming years. Let’s face it, the Xbox 360 is pretty old now. We’re talking about hardware that was built and manufactured in 2005 and already there are PC games making the console look positively dated. Some PS3 titles still manage to stand out but even they are running the end of their course. Because of the extended cycle we’ve experienced this generation, and will likely still be experiencing even in 2013, the gap between that 2005 hardware and the hardware of today is widening. By the time we see a PlayStation 4, the cutting-edge games for it will be doing things akin to the jump from the early PlayStation 1 days to the late PlayStation 2, perhaps even bigger.
It isn’t a simple matter of higher resolution textures and
polygon counts because this generation has and continues to prove graphics are
easy now and they aren’t going to be massively different when we do see the new
machines; they'll just be simply more complex in the ways we automatically expect. What will be hugely different is how
refined everything surrounding those graphics will be. Although I do imagine developers such as
Naughty Dog will continue striving for greater levels of perfection in their
presentation alone and thus will continue to outshine other studios in that
regard. It isn't unreasonable to envision photo-realism being a reality, at least for companies like them.
A developer once said, “There have been tons of very nice-looking games with amazing graphics this generation but as soon as they start to move you see where everything else is falling behind." I could not agree more. If there is one pet peeve I have above all others when it comes to a game's presentation, it is bad animation. Sub-par visuals, simple AI, glitched physics; these are all normal to all but the most polished of high-budget titles and I accept that getting rid of them entirely is simply impossible given the nature of how games are made and work. Luckily in most cases they aren’t what ruin a game's ability to be enjoyed. Fallout 3 and other very open content rich titles are great examples of games that often fail monumentally in these regards but continue to be enjoyed by millions of gamers.
Some people – let’s be nice and call them misinformed – may think what is most impressive when they look at a game is how nice the graphics are, but what is truly impressive and makes a great game stand apart from a good one is its animation. Half-Life 2 did not have the most cutting-edge visuals when it released, but Valve spent so much time making everything else in their engine amazing it made the game's characters, story and entire experience that much more memorable and satisfying. Fast forward to Portal 2 and their animation is so good it rivals that of the best film special effects companies in existence.
If you are going to be excited about what games will look
like on a PlayStation 4, keep in mind everything outside the initial thing you
see. Graphics are nice and they will
certainly get better but what you really need to be aware of is how they are
used. The biggest misstep of this
generation was developers thinking good graphics were enough and we ended up
with hundreds of games that look great in screenshots but are utterly awful to
Animation will, and needs to, get better in all games; it will be one aspect of all the things that separate next gen from now. It isn’t the only thing that makes or breaks a game and the two other biggest areas of growth and complexity we will also see are physics and artificial intelligence. What are physics? In regards to games they are the backbone of the animation and the interactivity of everything. When you launch yourself off a jump pad, this is a physics system calculating weight and velocity to enhance motion. When a character walks up a flight of stairs and their feet are individually adjusting to each step, this is a physics system telling an animation to behave subtly different. Open world games such as the Assassin's Creed titles have benefitted greatly from physics with, for example, almost every NPC reacting to Ezio should he bump into or perform a direct action on them. Things like this when combined with good animation and AI makes for better and more interesting experiences.
We already see advanced physics at work in games like Burnout with the speed and angle your car hits something affecting how the car is damaged. In the next generation the precise detail of this will be even greater and be made more gameplay-centric. While I am not personally excited for this, the advancement of car physics particularly in simulation racers will be astounding. What I will be looking forward to is a sequel or similar title to the MotorStorm franchise in which the terrain deforms uniquely based on your vehicle and things like this actually affect gameplay. New technology needs to benefit the design and implementation of gameplay for it to be worthwhile, but as with past generations, I can see the first year or so of games on the next machines being graphics showcases more so than step-ups in game design.
Shooters or any game where destruction and violence is a huge element will obviously get the most benefit from better physics. Bricks crumbling individually, enemies reacting to how, where and with what they are shot by and things like explosives actually changing the environment in real-time will be the next huge advancements. I’ve never been a huge fan of realism, even in my shooters, but if I can finally play a game where I can drive a tank, shoot a hole in the ground and have this cause an enemy vehicle to fall into it and be disabled, I will be impressed. Games like Battlefield will be that much more dynamic with this kind of gameplay design built on these new systems.
Artificial intelligence is the other big cornerstone of game technology. While more dynamic, reactive NPCs are expected, why, when and how they behave in reaction to both the player and the world they are in will be what defines many aspects of many games in the future. The biggest problem with AI is how much memory and processing power it requires since above all other calculations in game engines it is quite often the most resource intensive. This won't be anywhere near as huge of an issue next generation, assuming Microsoft and Sony don't once again bottleneck their machines with lackluster memory.
To use an example with what will most likely be Assassins Creed 3, if the protagonist chooses to, say, stab a random civilian, with a much more advanced AI system than that of the current titles this could have a unique consequence at a unique point in time based on how the AI programming chooses to behave. You may very well stop playing for a week, come back later and find a group threatening to kill a character that is significant to your experience because of your past action.
Alternatively perhaps the same group would never be summoned and whichever NPC rallied them would instead slip into depression and commit suicide with another NPC significant to them then showing up upon spotting you and informing you of what your random action had caused, resulting in you actually caring about your random gameplay actions now knowing they could have consequences. For countless years people have talked about these kinds of experiences in games but not until the next generation do I believe we will see them become more common. People love options and depth in their games and if ever there is a consistent complaint among gamers it is that countless titles of this generation are too dumbed-down and lack the depth and complexity they crave.
My greatest hope is that even with all the amazing new
technology that will be used in the future of gaming it does not get used
solely for the purpose of creating greater levels of realism; but rather I hope smart
game developers think of new exciting ways to utilize the extra power and
capabilities the new machines will provide in very intelligent and clever ways – ways that I,
nor anyone else can predict.