Arguments Against Change
In the past I have certainly fallen on the side of the fence that says things are fine where they are. Admittedly part of my reluctance for the future is a product of knowing what the future holds for developers like myself. As a developer, I know that the future will be even more trying than the times we have today.
Teams will balloon again before they shrink, and projects will continue to expand into spaces that simply cannot be achieved by anyone other than large and established development teams. Even mobile spaces are experiencing the console-bloat and lone developers rarely make a blip on the radar of media outlets; not without a connection to the inside or pure luck.
Sure languages, both scripted and native, will become more powerful and libraries will continue to help engineers make builder worlds and explore new gameplay potential in marginally shorter periods of time. But I do wonder if these advancements are keeping pace with the requirements put on tomorrows developers. Licensed technologies are helping to keep that pace, but this jump start is not free. Even the use of many of today's modern licensed engines seem to give a samey feel to those games, reducing the unique and quirky qualities that arise from in-house technologies.
Games will continue to grow in scope, mostly because this is a content driven industry. Gamers like to traverse level after level, improving and escalating upon a building block of skills and mechanical sub-systems and meta-games. Games deliver content like no other industry. While films are the closest cousin to video games, they share very little in the way that a game can create experiences outside of the narrative. Video games need to account not just for 1 camera angle, 1 story-line, but for every possible angle and every possible action that the player may take and the content requirements are exponentially higher because of that. If reaching a film-like level of polish is truly the goal of a video game, it will entail that we ostensibly create all possible variants of our "film". Gamers today want more for less and this doesn't seem to be a trend that is going away anytime soon. More powerful hardware is just another excuse to expect more.
New and more powerful hardware mostly presents an opportunity for greater risk of failure and strengthening the crater where the middle class games once thrived. When amazing and beautiful games like Limbo, Amnesia, Bastion, and even Psychonauts are considered to be "indie" games it makes me cringe at the definition of this term for the next generation. The games I listed were made by teams of people that spanned all disciplines; these were not some garage-band games that stumbled onto success. Will a game on the scale of Call of Duty be the next "little indie game that could"? Perhaps Skyrim, or Mass Effect will be the new low bar that future gamers will expect; no, demand from anyone who dares to call themselves a game developer... There isn't a middle-ware or tool on this planet that is going to allow a small group of wanna-be developers, or even professionals, to produce that level of content. And to be honest, there just won't be enough room on the marketplace for the swarm of "retro" games that are created as a product of these demands. Expect countless casualties...
In Defense of Change
Change sparks more than innovation, it sparks interest from the consumer. New consoles are the shiny new toys that people yearn for. After a long console cycle, like the one we've experienced, it's easy to see why no one cares to hear that another 5 million consoles were sold in some fixed period of time or how that compared to last year. What is more exciting is to consider the boundless opportunities of a new device; something that companies like Apple and Nintendo do well. Even if a device is only marginally improved from it's predecessor, it peaks the curiosity of those who simply must have the latest and greatest. With WiiU preorders selling out and iPhone 5 breaking records in spite of some sour reviews, it's proof that people just like something new to color their lives.
As a consumer, I've found myself drifting away. There are plenty of great games to buy and play but there is a sense of, "more of the same" when I browse through my wishlist. There is a sense that these experiences could be better if they were not confined to 8+ year old hardware. Consoles have become the gatekeeper to AAA experiences but they have also become the anchor that is forcing our worlds into small sandboxes instead of open beaches.
There is a strong argument that the current generation has a growing install base and that there is value is continuing to develop for them, but I feel like these numbers might be inflated. If I am one of the consumers included in these statistics then I can tell you that the numbers are a lie. I may own a console, but my gaming-to-Netflix ratio has drastically shifted in favor of the passive experience. Just because there are 100+ million consoles sold to date, it does nothing to convince me that 100+ million owners exist on the active market.
It pains me to say this but the world needs a new console cycle. Console sales may be holding true but it feels more like gamers are replacing existing systems than new gamers entering the market at this stage. Retail sales numbers for what I would consider to be high profile games are under-performing and I get the feeling that I'm not alone in how I've been treating my console they past months.
Development of the games, I feel, is going to reach new levels of pain that we have not yet experienced, with or without the assistance of middle-ware. But as a consumer, I think that we will see worlds realized. Realized in a way that may have been possible on today's PC hardware, but now they will have the funding and support of publishers and the install base of gamers, both core and casual, ready to pay for those experiences on a mass scale. Consoles continue to be the gatekeepers for the widest array of AAA experiences and it might be time to move on from this generation.
Given that few, if any, indie studios truly turn a profit without the need of Mom's basement; moving on to more powerful devices may spell certain death for these studios that lack the financial support they need to create something visually and mechanically intriguing. Large publishers are seeing profit opportunities on mobile devices and cannibalizing anything with a screen and a programmable CPU. New consoles seem like an inevitable reality that may result in more amazing AAA experiences while crushing any hope for indie or middle-class developers to make a return. In one console generation, the industry has already transitioned from an ecosystem of high and low profile studios, modders, hobbyists, and casual gaming tweakers into two distinct parties; AAA developers and the Mad Max wasteland that is everything else. If just one hardware generation was enough to disrupt the ecosystem that much, the only thing I can say is that my heart goes out to anyone not hunkered into a AAA studio when the next console bomb detonates. May your pockets be deep, and stomachs full because it's going to be a long winter for companies that lack the resources to compete...