The calendar says "2009". The Xbox 360 launched in 2005. That means we're four years into the "next generation" of video gaming. If so, then where the hell are our "next generation" games?
It's something that's been gnawing at me for a while now, but as we approach Christmas 2009 – the fifth holiday season for the Xbox 360, and fourth for the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii – that gnawing has turned into some serious, unchecked mastication.
After all, a new hardware generation is meant to usher in a new generation of games to go with it. And not just games that look prettier, or sound better; titles that give you something entirely new in terms of game design and mechanics, something that could only be done by taking advantage of the latest in console hardware.
Yet I think only a handful of games this console generation have done so. Which ones? Oh, I'm glad you asked. Games like:
Dead Rising – There has never been a game like Dead Rising. It's open-world in appearance, but the entire game is built around the concept of navigating an endless sea of zombies in numbers previous consoles simply couldn't get on-screen at once.
Oblivion/Fallout 3 – Two games, I know, but they do the same thing, so they go in the same listing. Nobody ever forgets that first time you leave the Imperial sewers/Vault 101 and take in the world around you, realising that Bethesda haven't crafted a level, they've built a seamless, living world well beyond the scale of previous titles like Morrowind.
Yes, they also appear on PC, but remember, these games were also built from the ground up with consoles in mind, rather than being crude ports.
Wii Sports/Wii Sports Resort – To this day, the only games that have truly delivered on the promise of the Wii Remote, integrating it so naturally within the gameplay experience that you can't imagine playing the games without it.
So as good as Modern Warfare is, as good as Mario Galaxy is, I don't call them truly "next gen" games. Why? Because they fail my "next gen" test, that's why.
Here's the test: If a game can be ported to a console in a previous generation and keep its core gameplay and overall design in place, it's not what I'm calling for the purposes of this piece a "next gen" game. Mario Galaxy was great, but really, it's a GameCube title with some star-shaking stuff thrown in. Modern Warfare? Amazing, but as the upcoming Wii port attests, it used the 360 and PS3 primarily for better graphics and sound. LittleBigPlanet? Another great game, but the PSP version shows the core experience could have been done on a PS2.
Other games I think fail this test are Halo 3, BioShock, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid 4…OK, pretty much everything. You get the idea. Sure, they're nice and shiny, and have lovely pre-rendered cutscenes, and there are advanced uses of physics and AI under the hood, and most important of all, advanced online connectivity, but all of those are just tweaks, improvements, icing on the cake, candy for the eyes. None of them fundamentally change the way you approach a game, or a genre.
Not like Mario Kart and F-Zero did with Parallax scrolling. Or Mario 64 with its use of 3D. Or Grand Theft Auto III with its living, breathing city. Those games re-wrote the book. You just couldn't do GTAIII on the PlayStation. Or Mario 64 on the SNES. They were true "next gen" games.
So why do we have so few this time around? What's the problem? There's refinement under the hood. There's games that some, and especially the developers, may disagree with me on (GTAIV, for example, or Halo 3 and its extensive multiplayer modes). And there are some who could argue, with a fair point, that the same problem plagued most games from the previous generation.
Certainly the cost of development can't help. Worlds are built with engines, and engines are built on rules. If you wanted to come up with something entirely new, you'd have to do it yourself, which for many developers and publishers in this current economic climate just isn't feasible.
It can also be argued that a single jump in the mid-90's – from the 16-bit era to the N64 and PS1 – will long be the most significant in gaming, taking us as it did from 2D to 3D, and that subsequent generations can't be relied upon to deliver the same level of innovation. Fair, to a point, but then there are still plenty of games like GTAIII that were able to innovate well past the 32-bit era.
One final possibility, however, is that there is innovation going on in today's games beyond the superficial. It's just, we can't see it. Chatting with Bethesda's Todd Howard on the subject, he put this idea forward:
"I think the visual component of it is the one that everyone notices first, and it's also the prime part that benefits from what the new hardware gives you," he says. "So it's just harder to see the innovations beyond that, but they're there. I'd guess there's just as much pure 'design innovation' with this generation as there has been in the last few."
"Look at the basis now for how games handle physics, difficulty, controls, save games, or simple load screens. I know it sounds silly, but I get excited by innovations in loading screens, because they're the worst part of a game. I'm interested in how games simply start."
Promising, yeah, but does that really hold water when compared to more fundamental changes? Not really. "There's been innovations in AI, but it certainly hasn't kept pace with the graphic fidelity, which yields this overall feeling of it going backwards," Howard adds. "The environments are so complex now in games, that building good AI just to manoeuvre them takes serious time. But that's not an innovation, that's simply the AI doing what it could do before in a game.
"My hope is, as we developers turn the corner on how to make the games simply 'work,' that we can innovate more on how the games respond to the player, whether that is the AI, or socially, or something else."
Maybe that explains it, and in 30 years, we'll look back on the current generation as one where developers were finding their feet, laying the groundwork for sprawling, innovating and revolutionary titles of the future.