Each new generation of games consoles brings with it new ideas and new innovations. For example, the original Playstation popularised the idea of disc-based games, and the Nintendo 64 which followed it not only introduced an analogue thumb-stick controls, but was also optimised for people with three hands. And of course in the last generation we saw the Wii introduce motion controls, and the subsequent scramble by Microsoft and Sony to half-heartedly match Nintendo's offering. As we move into the next generation though - that of the PS4 and the Xbox One - I'm left wondering if the games of tomorrow will play a lot like the games of today.
Throughout a console's lifetime a number of different hardware add-ons will inevitably be released to keep it relevant - the Kinect camera was released five years into the 360's lifetime, just as how back in the day the Sega Megadrive (Genesis to Americans) had a CD drive add-on, and the N64 saw the release of the memory "Expansion Pak" that enabled slightly better graphics on some games. Later on the Playstation 2 and Gamecube both had network adapters to enable internet play on all four (approx) of the games that supported it.
What all of these accessories have in common is that you probably didn't buy any of them.
As we move towards Christmas and the release of the PS4 and XBO what's really important is what both companies have chosen to put in the box from day one. What I think is particularly notable is that whilst - controversially - Microsoft have opted to include the next generation Kinect camera and require it for gameplay, Sony have - also controversially - elected to not even include their camera, selling it separately instead.
Whilst a blow for the NSA, this also suggests that we're not going to see any radical new ways of interacting with games. Modern games, especially "AAA" titles like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed cost millions to develop and are put together by teams of hundreds of people - so to make this money back, it's within the interest of the games publisher to make the game as available as possible as easily as possible. It's why despite a handful of exclusive first-party titles on both sides, the line-up of games available for the Xbox and PS3 are nearly identical. So I wouldn't expect to see anything particularly interesting done with cameras or motion controls - simply because rather than cameras being there by default, there's now the question of what if the player doesn't have a camera?
The proof for this is in the struggling WiiU pudding - Nintendo's newest console is radically different from the PS4 and XBO in that it is massively less powerful and has a massive screen in the middle of the controller. Like most gamers I have a great deal of affection towards Nintendo and I am sure that they'll use the screen in a clever way for the next Legend of Zelda game, but it's not hard to see why third party multiplatform developers are deserting the platform. In addition to adapting their games to work on a less powerful machine they have to figure out what to do with the massive screen. And so far despite the theoretical innovative gaming potential that a screen offers, nothing spectacular has been done - with the few multiplatform games that are on the platform it appears to be mostly a glorified inventory or menu.
I don't think cameras and motion controls, if they were universal on the new consoles would make a spectacular difference in how we play games - I rather suspect the Wii and original Kinect have shown full-body-waving-about type games to be a niche or party activity - but I think where cameras could have made the difference is in what I guess could be described as the grammar of videogames.
What do I mean? Well if you play a modern game, they're all very similar. The left stick moves the character, the right stick controls the camera, left trigger is aim, right trigger is shoot, the Back/Select button will probably display a map, and on the loading screens it'll display short gameplay tips. These commonalities are no bad thing as it means you can more quickly pick up a new game - so when you load up Far Cry 3 for the first time, you immediately know the gist of what you have to do because you've played Call of Duty. But if we added cameras into the mix - I wonder what this would add?
Perhaps we'd see gesture-based controls - maybe nodding your head up could bring up a HUD-type menu, maybe leaning a bit (whilst still sat on the sofa) will change the parallax and enable you to peer around corners or over cover, perhaps narrowing your eyes and holding the controller closer to your face could stabilise your aim? That sort of thing.
But no - as cameras won't be boxed, what will encourage developers to make use of a relatively niche hardware add-on? If only I knew that answer, I'd spread the word through stickers printed on my Game Boy Printer.
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