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After taking a break for coverage of Game Developers Conference 2005, the Question of the Week returns with the replies to the question: "What hardware or software technical innovations are going to be particularly important to game creators for the next generation of console hardware?" As expected, the responses were quite varied, ranging from input devices, through the return of "virtual reality", to simply: "It doesn't matter".
It Doesn't Matter!
A couple of the answers we received pointed out that a great game is a great game, regardless of technical innovation.
This is actually a trick question. As a creator, your main focus is just that: to create. This "Arena" has seen the coming and going of various technologies and techniques. Some withstood the test of time, while others faded into history. If the creator focuses more on hardware and software, rather than focusing on making the game better, then it won't matter how great the technology is; they will never be satisfied with the results. Technology is ONLY A MEANS TO AN END. Nothing more. As to answer the question, that decision of innovation is based two-fold: one, the designer of the software/hardware and the creator/gladiator in need of that resource. There is no universal innovation that will appeal to all designers, and there never will be.
It's the same in every studio, in every game, in every hardware cycle. "If we had more memory...", "If we had a few more CPU cycles...", "If we could just push a few more polys...". Enough with the "If we had". The fact is: the original Nintendo, the original Atari, and the original Commodore 64 games were, and still are, lots of fun.
Given a previous generation's AAA titles, our faster CPUs could create more lifelike AI; more memory could hold more vibrant textures and more fluid animations; and faster GPUs can render more lifelike characters. But all of this "technical innovation" does not improve the single largest selling point - the game play. Our next great "technical innovation" is the realization that every AAA game from the previous generation is technologically inferior - but still more fun than - any current generation "B" game.
-Kanon Wood, Cranky Pants Games
On the other hand, a lot of the responses we received (one of which is particularly opinionated!) speculated that the next generation will push realism to new highs.
Improved physics and AI will probably be the big deal in the next generation. With the release of high power graphics engines like Doom 3 and Unreal 3 we should be hitting a plateau on the graphics race. With the advent of multi-core processors and even physics co-processors, as announced recently, we should be able to go leaps and bounds beyond what we have done up until now. Hopefully in the next generation, we will all focus on gameplay more, instead of just technical innovations as many have been though.
-Derick Eisenhardt, Electronics Boutique
Simple: Art and code pipelines.
Everyone's all excited about next-gen, but the reality is that next-gen games will sell next to zero in comparison with current-gen games in North America and Europe for the 2005 Christmas season. There will be one Halo equivalent that will sell a bajillion copies on Xenon, but it will likely come from a Microsoft-sponsored developer.
The GTA franchise proved that gameplay is king, not good graphics. The art is poor, but the gameplay is phenomenal. Microsoft, EA and Activision all have loud voices when it comes to next-gen and how good the games will be, but they're all basing their winning strategies on re-hashing existing franchises with zero new IP.Most developers/publishers are smart enough to recognize that they're not going to get a big bang for their development buck for the first iteration of next-gen, and they'll focus on the PS2 and Xbox as their primary targets. They're all in the same boat of making one series of textures/rendering improvements for next-gen, then scaling them down to work on current-gen hardware at the same time.
Some publishers are going as far as to split their development between current and next-gen development teams, but the end result is that they're stretching themselves thin. Once July rolls around and they smarten up to the fact that current-gen is running late, all those next-gen developers are going to be poured into helping finish the current-gen titles in order to meet the Christmas demand. As a result, the next-gen launch titles are going to have maybe one or two cool features, but will be generally weak in graphical and gameplay abilities.
The smart developers/publishers are going to put a minimal investment into next-gen for 2005, and learn from the mistakes of publishers like Midway, Ubisoft and Eidos who are throwing lots of money at X2. The real players are giving lip service to Microsoft for the time being, and making launch titles with minimal staff, knowing that it's throwaway work until 2006. By the time the PS3 is out in 2006, Electronic Arts and Activision will have learned from the other companies, and will also have their next-gen art and code pipelines split from today's current-gen developments.
We won't see the real nice graphics take over until Christmas 2006 for next gen, trust me. No one knows what to do yet except allow engineers to flail about as they spew great technical terms that mean squat.
The added horsepower in the consoles to come will spur a new leap in graphics benchmarks. As increased graphics abilities (through code and art assets) is a tangible goal, one which is relatively easy to schedule and manage; it is an instant gratification area of games development and something you can present to press and investors so that it will receive attention unproportionally relevant in relation to the importance of the advancement of computer games. It will not be before the second wave of "next-gen" games that we will see the true innovation that the added processing power and hardware capabilities will give us.
-Soeren Lund, Deadline Games
In my opinion, it's always a matter of efficiency and quality. Graphics are a big part of the game, as well as interactivity. The industry has been trying to come up with several ways to innovate our interaction with games. Always trying to find ways to put you "IN" the game. With the way technology is headed I wouldn't be surprised to find a whole other web of access to an independent community dedicated solely to gaming. A good example of this is the audio industry, with services such as Sirius. It would allow gamers to experience a new wave of technology. Take the N-Gage as another example of this. I believe the next generation will definitely be defined by portability, communication, and last but not least kick-ass graphics.
Intelligent narrative will be important. The will develop software that can create non-linear plot lines that gives players a real sense of immersion within the game and influence over the story.
-Hugh McAtamney, DIT
What I'd like to see for next-gen games is less effort put on rendering and visual effects, but instead a greater focus on character modeling, body deformation, animation, facial expression, clothes, etc. The levels we're making nowadays do already look very good, but what's the point in making the environment look ultra-realistic if the people living in it look like cyborg-zombie-puppets? Believable characters are the next big key to great, immersive, believable game experiences. It should also give the player a better emotional response through better anthropomorphism. I also would like to see even more improvement in sounds and physics, with the same vision of creating more evenly credible virtual worlds, instead on focusing on graphics and rendering.
-Marc-Antoine Lussier, Ubisoft Montréal
-David Wu, Pseudo Interactive
It Comes Down to Data
With games becoming bigger in size, a lot of our respondents expressed their concern on how all that data would be transferred:
Above all else is the ability to move data around really quickly. This means either high bandwidth or at least a huge host of bandwidth-saving features. If next-gen gaming is driving towards HD gaming, then the content demands are going to be enormous. While code footprints will overall be fairly small, the fact is that textures, models, animations, hierarchies are all going to massively increase.Similarly, we also need that much more memory and storage capacity for the same reasons. Bandwidth and capacity are not substitutes for one another, though; Both are a must. Whether that will actually happen is something I'm very pessimistic about.
Copy protection and load times. Companies can't ignore the very real affect on the bottom line when their games are pirated. Although apparently futile, this is probably a major area where developers are focusing.Also, as games are increasing in size, load times have also been going up. I would think that this has to be one of the bigger considerations for developers as well.
-Jason Pilgrim, Joy Media
Depending on who you talk to, you can hear some terrifying predictions about the costs and team sizes which could potentially be involved in building next-gen titles. There is no way the industry can support teams twice as big, or ten times as big, or whatever, than they are now. I think the innovations will come in the form of tools which can make developing and distributing games more easily. The industry seems to now be waking up to the importance of middleware, and I would hope to see new middleware products of a higher quality than are available now.
As developers, it's the content we're concerned with, and we won't be able to make any more compromises in the methods we use for creating and delivering that.The other thing which could potentially be the start of a breakthrough in the way we make games is any technology which can tip the developer/publisher scales in favor of the developer again. Steam has shown that online distribution may yet become a viable way to sell games independently, in great enough numbers to make such a thing worthwhile. Both the PSP and NDS are rumored to support some form of downloadable content that can be run from memory.
Although this approach is fraught with technical and legal difficulties, if developers can find a way to make it work for them they could bypass the need for such a heavy marketing investment from publishers. By reducing that dependency and lowering the budget needed to launch a game, I would hope game creators could feel comfortable taking more risks and being more innovative in the games they choose to create. That can only lead to a healthier industry.
Getting data off media fast enough, and dealing with memory limitations. As processing power allows more data to be used, feeding the monster will become top priority.
This is a bit of a poor question, since it really depends on the type of game and the ability of the developers to make good use of the hardware.For many developers, just having vastly more processing power will be the most useful thing because they seem to have difficulty getting their games to run quickly enough on current hardware. For others, having more flexible and advanced graphical capabilities will be more important, because they desperately want to make their games look even more real than they do now.
Still others will find that the increased storage available (both on media and in memory) will make a huge difference to the size of their worlds and the depth of detail which can be included in those worlds. And for those who are there at the cold metal face, coding for the specific machines rather than writing generic code which will run on anything, the most important innovations will be things like the multi-processor nature, or the vastly increased vectorization capabilities.
However I suspect that the overall single most important factor will be the limitations - there will always be one thing which limits us more than we want it to, which will most likely be speed of access to data, both from media (even BluRay doesn't allow you to access data that much faster than DVD, and it still suffers from the same horrendous seek times) and from memory (which on some systems is apparently no faster than it was on the previous generation, for access to data which is completely off cache).