Why this year's best games might hamstring the start of next-gen

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, what then?

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 hardware.

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.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.