I arrived in this industry when the 360 and PS3 were considered "next-gen", and like a kid who never grows out of a speech impediment, I've habitually (and incorrectly) referred to them as "next-gen" ever since. But now that there's a new next-gen on the horizon, I find myself much more excited by changes elsewhere in the industry. Specifically, open microconsoles like the OUYA.
In addition to adapting my vernacular, I'm going to have to get used to a seemingly binary choice of closed and open platforms. We're planning a round-up of different hardware options a bit later, but the OUYA has already sent out their development kits, as promised by their Kickstarer campaign, on time - the first sign that everything is going well in their grand plan to "upend console gaming". Here's why I'm more excited by that than anything I can conceive the big players coming up with.
My more interesting, meaningful experiences are coming from smaller games.
You don't need to be a large game to have a large impact. Look at the GOTY awards for the last few years. How many did Braid win? Portal? Journey? Limbo? The Walking Dead? Bite-sized content fits into our busy schedules, and almost makes bigger games seem obnoxious for stealing our time away from other games. There's no doubt these smaller, downloadable experiences can be just as memorable as the time-consuming triple-A, and last year I was far more interested in the high-speed skiing firefights of Tribes Ascend than the terrorist whack-a-mole of CoD.
In fact, the game I spent the most time in during 2012 was Tower Wars, a competitive multiplayer Tower Defence game that racked up an amazing 59 Metacritic points. I'll contend it deserved more than that, but while those six critics weren't impressed, it was the perfect game for me - and I spent over 100 hours getting into the top 50.
It's a sign the industry is becoming less about making one big game that suits everyone's needs, and more about having so many games available, there's one out there that's perfect for you, no matter what crackpot gaming fetish you have. Fantasising about a post-apocalyptic game consisting of zoo animals? It's a thing. Homo-erotic schmup? Yep, that's been around. Got a craving for a Rick Astley-themed adventure game where the theme is never giving up (or letting down) your companion character? Well... You're just sick.
Of course, if you find that perfect game, you're going to go where it's being sold. The success of the OUYA will depend on developer support, but just because you're developing a game for the OUYA doesn't mean you're restricted - you can sell that game anywhere else, too.
Do We Need A Traditional Next-Gen?
How much better can graphics get? I'm sure this is a question some have asked in previous generations. Perhaps at the time, they too didn't see the need for better visuals and were later proven wrong. And yes, every now and then a new lighting technique is shown that wows me, and the graphics of PC games vs consoles is already showing what can be done with better hardware.
But the difference isn't that much. Certainly not enough to make or break a game. I know some gamers who genuinely care only about graphics, but to think that it's the only path of innovation is backwards. In fact, I'd argue it will stifle triple-A innovation further. With better graphics come bigger production schedules and teams, and the bigger the investments in these projects get, the less risk they're willing to take. The real innovators will be those who expand our thinking of gameplay, business models, and more-with-less aesthetics.
The extra hardware power has some other benefits. It'll be easier to double 60 frames per second for 3D, but I've never cared about that. Each to their own, but if a cinema is only showing a movie in 3D, I'll skip the movie. It'll also be easier to make use of 4kHD, which is more relevant, but we haven't even properly started making use of 1080p yet.
There might be some fun in allowing more units to be onscreen at once, but as the developers of God of War 3 found out, there's a point when this stops being fun. Their game had the capability to include more enemies in a fight, but they stopped at around 35 - any more than that felt too crowded, and that's even considered Kratos' locomotive-like crowd control attack.
There are even some ways this generation of consoles have been heading in the wrong direction. It's taking longer and longer to actually get into a game. Feature-heavy games like FIFA have a plethora of unskippable flash screens and menus that require loading before you can play, and more games are requiring you to sign up or log in to some unwanted service like Uplay. Quick, easy interfaces and hassle-free play used to be a selling point of consoles. Now look at them. Their stores are more cluttered than those on PC, and console games have just as much day-0 and day-1 patching as anything else.
That's not mentioning the potential drawbacks of a next-gen console, such as the possibility of publishers blocking the use of traded games. It might be claimed that these would balance out with potential features, such as cloud gaming, but that specific feature might mean less to us due to our internet capability.
To cap all it off (and granted, this is more of a Microsoft thing) I've had technical problems with every 360 I've ever had, which is a nice way of saying they've all died except the current one. Which is dying. I'm sure there are others in the same boat, and the next console Microsoft brings out will have a "neo Red Ring" perception problem that might deter some early adopters.
One possibly redeeming feature is the ability to game over the cloud - that is, streaming a game's graphics over the internet while you send your control data back. It marries perfectly with ADSL technology, and it would provide access to massive libraries of games that we could rent, buy, or subscribe to. The only problem is the quality of our internet - dropouts would mean your game just stops, and if they decide to put their servers on the west coast of the U.S., that would be a dealbreaker.
It's About The Games
Today's consoles are sold at a loss, and manufacturers hope to make back that money by moving lots of units, increasing market share, and collecting license fees. To some degree, we can understand that they need to make that money back somehow. But as Yahtzee so eloquently put it in a recent article, the painting isn't there to support the easel. And when console makers do things like load up your screen with advertising, or introduce obstacles between you and your game to stop trade-ins and piracy, it's going a bit too far.
In contrast to this, the OUYA is very open. Don't like the dash? Get a new one, or change it yourself. It's yours to hack any way you see fit. The only exclusivity there is exists because developers only coded their game for one platform. Hell, there's probably a substantial number that won't even play many games, using it as a media server or something else. Perhaps the next offerings from Microsoft and Sony will have some capability for free-to-play games like the OUYA will, but they'll always be behind the gaming trends that an open platform can adopt instantly.
Of course, you could substitute OUYA for Steam Box in some places, or perhaps in others, some of the upcoming microconsoles are more relevant. The important thing is it'll be great to have control over my experience on the couch in the same way I currently do on the PC. I'm more than open to being proven wrong, and hopefully that'll happen this year at E3. See any flaws in my logic? Got something else you're looking forward to more? Let us know in the comments below!