Eras or generations in gaming have always been defined by the consoles that were released and supported during the said time-frame. The Nintendo Entertainment System (released in Japan in 1983), or as most of us in the Philippines have come to know it, the Family Computer, ushered in the 8-bit era of gaming. The “bit”, which in computing is the basic unit of information, is a reference to how much data the FamiCom can store/process and is directly related to the game console’s graphics capabilities. The generation that followed, the 16-bit era, saw Nintendo’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990/1991) go head to head with Sega’s Genesis/Mega Drive (1988/1989). Both consoles offered greater graphics capabilities and greatly expanded on existing game genres.
In 1994, the then newly-formed Sony Computer Entertainment released a game console called the Playstation to critical and commercial acclaim. With an extremely rich and diverse game library and cutting-edge tech for its time, the Playstation became a household name and sold more units (over 100 million) than offerings from both Nintendo (Nintendo 64) and Sega (Sega Saturn) combined. This generation of consoles is best known for 3D gaming, which enabled players to move around in a 3-dimensional space (as opposed to only being able to move horizontally or vertically). The generation that followed, dubbed as 128-bit era, saw the release of the Sega Dreamcast (1998), the Playstation 2 (2000), the Nintendo GameCube (2001), and newcomer Microsoft’s Xbox (2001). The Playstation 2 had an even larger and richer game library and topped the sales of the original PlayStation on its way to becoming the best-selling game console of all time. In addition to even better graphics, this generation saw game consoles that had online capabilities and enabled online play and communities (the Dreamcast’s modem, the PS2’s Network Adapter and more importantly, the birth of Xbox Live).
With that very brief history lesson on the bygone eras of gaming over, it’s time to talk about the current generation of game consoles. The first current-gen console, the brilliantly named Xbox 360, was released in 2005. This was followed by the Playstation 3 and unusually named Nintendo Wii in 2006. The current-gen consoles (well, 2 of them anyway) introduced high-definition (HD) graphics, which in my opinion, showcases the biggest leap in graphical capabilities in a single console transition. Opting for new control methods, Nintendo backed off on an HD-capable console and designed the Wii around a wand-like controller which players would move around. This move gave birth to motion controls and soon spawned similar accessories like the Playstation Move. Current-gen consoles have also offered greater online capabilities, with the Playstation Network and Xbox Live not only enabling online play, but also including features such as universal account systems, achievements/trophies, downloadable content/patches, digital distribution of games, movies, music, etc., and media streaming services like Netflix.
In previous console generations, much of the focus was on how much processing power (bit count) a console has and the games that are exclusive to the console. This is still true to this day, and many are expecting the PS4 and Next Xbox to have beefed up versions of Halo and God of War. However, as seen during the current generation of consoles, services, such as Xbox live (better online play, first to have an achievement system, better user-interface), have proven that exclusive services are also important. The Xbox live service is probably the main reason why the 360 is continuing to outsell the PS3 in the US, despite the PS3 being the more powerful console and having arguably the stronger line-up of exclusive games.
Looking towards the next-generation of game consoles, here are some things that I think players can expect from the Wii U, Playstation 4 (codenamed Orbis), and the next Xbox (codenamed Durango): greater online functionality with a focus on digital distribution and social interaction, media/game streaming (see Sony’s recent purchase of game streaming company Gaikai), cross platform play (play on one device, continue playing in another), and a greater use of new business models ( more free to play console games, selling single player and multiplayer components separately).
Unlike older consoles however, it can be said that the next-gen consoles are defined less by the consoles’ processing power and hardware features (16/32 bit, HD) and more by the services that will be available to players using the consoles (Xbox Live, PSN/Gaikai, Nintendo Network). And if that is the case, it’s reasonable to think that when the next-gen is over and the current technology/trends makes it more profitable, no new game consoles will be made but new forms of games/services delivery will take their place. The origins of this paradigm shift are happening right now as game streaming company Gaikai (recently purchased by Sony) struck a deal with TV giant Samsung which enables the 2012 Samsung LED 7000 series and higher SmartTV systems to stream AAA/HD-level games such as The Witcher 2. Let me repeat that, Samsung Smart TVs are now able to stream current-gen AAA games and the only gaming hardware needed is a controller. Of course, the biggest factor when it comes to game streaming will always be internet speeds. Current internet speeds in the Philippines are definitely not capable of streaming HD-level games, but in say, 7-10 years (maybe even earlier), it could be possible.
Another reason why the next-gen would probably be the last one is that unlike in previous generations, next-gen consoles are no longer the only devices that offer unique gaming experiences. The last few years have seen the rise to prominence of smartphone/tablet gaming (iOS/Android); and games available on the said devices will continue to look better and will get more complex as the years go on. Smartphones and tablets already sell more than dedicated gaming handhelds (PS Vita); and it’s highly probable that the success of the said devices will lessen the sales of the next batch of dedicated gaming consoles. Convergence will always be a part of technology and as more technologies converge, more dedicated devices will become irrelevant (Smartphones are phones, cameras, music and movie players, gaming devices, PDAs, and computers, all in one device).
The future of gaming is bright. All of us can look forward to better graphics, new gameplay ideas, better online play, and smarter implementation of gaming technologies. The dedicated gaming console however, is on its last leg. Console manufacturers will have one last generation and then they’ll realize that they have to find more better ways to deliver games to the gamers. It’s not that hard to imagine a future where a cellphone is used as a controller for games streamed by Playstation-certified TVs; or being able to play the same game on the go by streaming it on the same cellphone. Gaming will never fade away, but the times sure are changing.