I’m a bit worried about the start of next-gen. It’s not that
I don’t have faith in the hardware or the eventual quality of the games. I’m
fully prepared for the underwhelming first year, of course. That always
happens. But I know that things will pick up.
No, what I’m worried about is next-gen’s momentum out of the
blocks. The PS4 and the Xbone will sell out at launch. They’re bound to. But
what about after that? When the weary and broken-bodied Grand High Nerds have
slunk away from their midnight launches, heads aswirl with giddy excitement and
mugging paranoia; when the mainstream media have packed up their cameras and
trundled off to cover some other human interest side-show distraction; when the
PS4 and Xbox One are sitting on shelves, in the cold glare of day, to be poked
at and sniffed by the undiscerning, uneducated masses of The General Public,
I’m not sure they’re immediately going to take off.
Now I’m not saying that we’re looking at a console market
crash here. Nor am I predicting some hideous next-gen non-start, with Sony and
Microsoft hitting the accelerator only to hear the soul crushing wind-down of a
broken engine like Anakin at the start of the Pod Race (a drunken Miyamoto
feverishly flicking his fingers from the stands, yelling “Welcome to my world,
dickheads!”). But I do think that once the more enthused enthusiast’s have
ensconced box beneath TV, it might take a little while for Jimmy and Jane
Mainstream to be convinced. And ironically, the current high quality of games
is the reason.
Anyone who’s ever owned a console through its full life-cycle
knows that game quality always follows a long-term upward curve, with both
graphical clout and design flair becoming more impressive as the years go on.
The hardcore gamer understands that a new-gen console is an investment rather
than an instant gratification purchase. But thinking about the mainstream gamer,
and the kind of games that he or she is traditionally drawn to, I can’t help
but feel that this generational transition might be a little underwhelming. It
all comes down to the unique amount of cross-generational games we’ll have
kicking around this time. And one or two of those games in particular.
Call of Duty is the obvious one. Infinity Ward’s upcoming Ghosts is
going to his current and next-gen at the same time, and is bound to be one of
the highlights of the year for those players hovering on the outer edges of the
core. The last time Call of Duty hit around the time of a generational
transition--with the launch of Call of Duty 2 in 2005--it was only available on
next-gen hardware. The Xbox 360 version of CoD 2, in all its gleaning new HD
glory, was a big incentive to upgrade, even before Call of Duty became the
mainstream juggernaut it is now.
This time though, we have the current-gen versions of Ghosts
landing a couple of weeks before the Xbone and PS4 editions. And what’s more,
with the best will in the world, the next-gen versions don’t look that much better. Without the jump from
SD to HD to paper over the cracks between the incremental launch software
improvements, its hard to see how next-gen Ghosts will really showcase the need
for a new console. And when we’re talking about the game that millions use as
their yardstick for contemporary gaming, and play for months on end, that could
be a definite problem.
Ditto Assassin's Creed IV. Could you strictly classify yourself
as blown away by this week's trailer showcasing its next-gen graphical effects?
Me neither. Don’t get me wrong, those sea physics and rain effects were a
nice-looking upgrade, but I can’t see the average man in the street citing
volumetric fog and dynamic foliage animation as reasons to hold out for the PS4
version this November.
And with multiple publishers pledging a low-cost, “buy now,
upgrade later” policy on their cross-gen games, there’s even less pressure to
buy in. The policy is a nice stress reliever for those of us debating just how early to adopt, but to those
debating “Will I?” rather than “When will I?”, it’s hardly an incentive to get
down to the shops.
And that brings us to the giant, tattooed elephant with the
comedy ‘fro, speeding away from the police in a stolen not-Lamborghini with a
rocket launch over its shoulder. Grand Theft Auto V. Even with a new era of
consoles looming, the release of GTAV has dragged attention away from everything
else going on in games. And it doesn’t even have a next-gen version announced. Whatever
bells and whistles the next-gen launch games bring, GTA will be a much bigger
deal than any individual title out there.
What’s more, it’s going to come with a giant, immersive,
open-ended, persistent online world that will absorb its considerable player
base for months, if not years. Where previous Grand Theft Autos were mere
knockabout playthings to the less engaged gamer, bought in huge numbers but
played mainly for the shallow, instant gratification of smashing stuff up and
shooting cops, GTAV looks to have cracked the problem of giving the less
passionate gamer a reason to stick around. Whether you play Grand Theft Auto
for the cinematic story or just the stupid spectacle, GTA Online should keep
you coming back indefinitely. That kind of long-term draw happening exclusively
on current-gen could be a big old stumbling block for the incoming new
I have no doubt that a next-gen GTAV/Online combo will be
announced in the next few months, but when that will be, how long it will take,
and how impressive it will look on arrival are anyone’s guess. As is how much
the cost of upgrade will be.
And it’s not just GTA. Destiny offers similar
cross-generation online investment. As does Titanfall. And Battlefield 4. And
mainstream megatons FIFA and Madden 25. We’ve never seen a next-gen launch have so
much of its appeal eroded by the offerings of the departing generation. The hardcore
won’t care. We’ll dive in during the first few months, as we always do. We want
to taste the upgrades early, and we know that we’ll reap big rewards long-term.
But what about the other guys?
What about the kind of people who only buy three or four
games a year? What about the kind of people who know what they like and stick
to it, and certainly don’t notice the joys of dynamically illuminated mist, or
count the number of individually rendered leaves in a jungle scene? I’m not sure
we’ll have those guys on board for quite a while. They’ll drift over
eventually, of course. They always do. But don’t be surprised if you don’t have
too hard a time picking up a next-gen machine during that first six months.
You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.