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So the rumours of the next generation of consoles are coming thick and fast. As thick and fast, in fact, as a sweet, frothy milkshake served from the catering trolley of the Japanese Bullet Train. There are a ton of variants, a ton of angles, and most importantly, a metric shedload of vested interests at play. And naturally, such a broiling cauldron of conflicting influences is usually likely to impart naught but a seething broth of purest acrid bullshit.
But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case this time. You see whatever the latest subjective interpretations of garbled translations of vague, foreign executive statements (and that's really what they are, if you look around a bit) I reckon the next gen is gearing up right now, and building steam all the time. Of course, nothing has been officially admitted. These things never are. But if you look at the spaces between what has been said; if you look not at any particular event for the truth, but at the general shape outlined out by them; and if you do that with the main potential next-gen rumblings of the 2011… Well, well then you’ll find one hell of a clear narrative, detailing exactly where we’re going.
Allow me to elaborate…
The march towards the next gen started in early March of 2011. You might remember that back then Epic Games, the developer of Gears of War and the Unreal series, and owner of the dominant third-party game engine of this generation, bandied about demo footage of its proposed new graphical tech. This wasn’t just another of those incremental “Look, now we can do meat / water / foliage / incredibly realistic coffee froth!” demos for the standard Unreal Engine 3; the ones that traditionally come along just before a new Gears of War game turns up full of tactile gore, plant-life and motion-controlled barista mini-games.
No, this was a proper, kick-you-hard-enough-up-the-arse-to-make-your-eyes-pop-out upgrade, running on PC hardware powerful enough to bully Tron’s master control program. It was intended purely to show exactly the kind of nonsensical real-time visual fidelity Epic now has its sights set on delivering in the near future.
In August, Epic’s next gen engine-touting was joined by that of its eastern counterpart in the noble art of graphics-whoring, Square-Enix,. A supposed demo video leaked onto YouTube, and a few screenshots were released, which very favourably (read: nigh-indistinguishably) compared Square-Enix’s new rendering to photographs. The lighting effects were staggering, giving the whole thing an almost photo-realistic look. The engine – named Luminous Studio – will apparently feature very impressive procedural animation tools, being able to adapt mo-cap animations on the fly based on new variables like terrain-types and the weight of equipment carried by characters. It will feature some impressive AI too, which will operate based on making characters fully aware of the environment around them.
Above: Admit it. You thought it was the dullest image ever, until you realised that one of them is computer-rendered. Now all you want is games about car parks. Good work, Squenix
So, two notoriously visuals-led developers, revealing showboating new technology way in advance of what current console hardware can run. And doing so, rather suspiciously, without a specific game to show off. There’s a stink in the air, and it smells predominantly of one thing. An early licensing pitch. One intended to entice external developers into using Epic and Square-Enix’s software to build their next generation games.
Tech-leasing has always made up half of Epic’s business model, and having got the current generation sewn up early with the Unreal Engine 3’s ubiquitousness, it’s going to want to lock down the next one ASAP. After complaining of the costs and technical traumas of developing for the current generation – Final Fantasy XIII’s linearity was largely explained as a symptom of this – not to mention funding the development of three other game engines, it would not be at all surprising to see Square Enix looking to recoup some of its investment by setting up stall.
But it would be foolhardy in the extreme to do so without a business roadmap. So whether possessing inside knowledge, or trying to give the wheels a grease themselves, both Epic and Square-Enix must be confident that a market for their engine tech must be coming relatively soon. And neither company will simply be banking on uber-powerful consumer PCs. And that means that more powerful consoles are very likely on the way soon.
And then, just as we’re talking about powerful consoles, we ironically come to the importance of Nintendo within this merry next gen dance…