Saturday, June 15, 2013

E3 2013: The Last Generation (Until We Have Holograms)

A year ago, Nintendo announced the Wii U while Sony and Microsoft bided their time. This led to a lot of wild speculation from a lot of people, myself included.

I was subscribing to the theory that Microsoft might skip E3 2013 as well since that would give them time to let Sony stumble out of the gate and get their prices down.

Of course, I wasn't counting on Microsoft behaving like a pack of idiots, so obviously the landscape has changed.

Still, I feel compelled to give my own speculation again on where the industry is headed in light of this year's E3.

In a nutshell, I think it's pretty clear that Sony will have a substantial lead out of the gate, but that might not matter quite so much this time around. I personally believe that we are witnessing the beginning of what could be the final console generation for a long time.

What Will Happen To Nintendo?

Let's get this out of the way right now. Last year I said that by releasing the Wii U last year, "Nintendo could have done the smartest possible thing they could have done, or they could have just dug their own grave again."

Turns out they dug their own grave again.

The Wii U is a technical joke compared to the Xbone and the PS4. It can probably play current-gen titles really well, but at this point, developers are looking forward. Maybe if the Wii U came out three years ago they'd have something, but it's just too little too late.

Still, with the state of the AAA market being the way it is, the Wii U still could have managed to stay competitive if they made things easier for indie developers, and while the eShop is certainly not as bad as WiiWare was, the barrier of entry is still too high and the incentives for developing on the console are still too low. Nintendo cares too much about tending its own garden. Any indie developer with the kind of resources needed to publish on eShop are probably doing just fine on Steam and PSN and don't need to spend another few thousand dollars developing for the Wii U or the 3DS. Nintendo needs to make its barrier of entry low enough for the startups, the guys and gals who live off ramen and code entire games in their basements. Nintendo shouldn't require a developer to have an office and a pre-established resume. All they should need is a good quality game.

I think Nintendo could manage to catch up if they release another console in about 3 years that's on par with the PS4 and the Xbone, but they probably don't have the resources to manage it. And really, there wouldn't be a lot of point to it.

A part of me will always love Nintendo, and they'll probably always dominate the handheld market until smartphones and tablets can provide touchscreens with the same kind of feedback a button has, not to mention better battery life. But the Wii U is going to be a failure. I've seen this song and dance before. They launched too early, they launched too soft, and they didn't try hard enough to court the developers. It will certainly have good games, but it will just be another product that is used primarily by fanboys and children (not that there's anything wrong with that, I loved my Gamecube as a kid) and ignored by everyone else. I probably won't be buying one unless they come out with an exclusive game that I need, because I know that if I got one, it would just sit beneath my TV and collect dust while I give my PS4 a workout. I don't even think Smash Bros. will be enough to get me to buy it this time since I don't have a ton of friends to play with anymore and Nintendo's online play is reliably terrible.

I'm not sure if Nintendo will go the way of Sega and just move to making software. They probably should, but I don't know if they'll have to. They have pretty good business sense and at this point they don't really have to compete with Sony or Microsoft to stay afloat since they pretty much have a completely separate audience. Plus they still have the 3DS which has managed to do pretty well for itself since the price drop.

How Doomed is Microsoft?

As I've said previously, Microsoft fucked up big time and I don't doubt that it will cost them. They probably won't admit it until 2014 or 2015 (that's about how long it took for Sony to realize the PS3 wasn't going to turn around until they dropped the price), but they will most certainly be outsold by the PS4.

I don't think they'll be outsold by the Wii U, simply because the price gap between the Wii U and the PS4 is actually rather small. In the PS3/Wii/360 generation, the Wii was the cheapest console by around $150 dollars and it had newfangled motion controls, so it was a pretty major alternative. Even though the Wii U is technically still the cheapest console, because it lacks a gimmick and because it will be a year old come Black Friday, I don't think it will land second place when all is said and done.

So the Xbone will probably underperform, but in the long run, I actually think Microsoft will probably do fine.

You see, while customers hate the Xbone right now, and while early adopters will probably be unpleasantly surprised by these confusing new restrictions, the biggest factor in deciding the fate of a console is generally how developers feel about it.

And AAA developers love the Xbone. It provides a ton of resources, guarantees that all of its users will have a camera looking at them at all time, pretty much guarantees that all of the users will have an Internet access at all times, and they'll have less to worry about regarding piracy or used game sales. They won't have to risk PR nightmares by implementing DRM since Microsoft already did that for them. Even with the lower userbase, publishers will probably make more money per customer from the Xbone than they will from the PS4, and that will probably be enough to keep them interested.

I know that the AAA industry is looking more and more unsustainable every year, but even if it crashes, it will never go away. If EA falls apart, those IPs, employees, and executives will have to go somewhere, and so another company will just take its place. Microsoft will probably be fine even if they continue to ignore the thriving indie scene.

There is one major caveat, however. If Microsoft pretty much stays at about their current level of ineptitude, they'll probably manage to see this generation through and stay competitive. They'll release a slimmed down version of the console in a few years at a more competitive price point, they'll make certain components either significantly cheaper or optional, and they'll probably find other ways to sweeten the pot. But all of that assumes that they don't somehow make things worse.

Let me put it this way. Remember in 2011 when the PlayStation Network crashed? When it was unusable for about 3 months? Well, that was a PR nightmare, but it ended up not being completely terrible because people could still play games, use Netflix and Hulu, and they basically just couldn't download games, DLC, or play online.

But imagine if Microsoft has a similar catastrophe after the Xbone launch. Imagine if their network becomes unreachable. Check-ins become impossible. Since Xbox Live Gold is required to use Netflix and Hulu, you can't use those services. You've effectively turned all Xbones into over-priced blu-ray players.

That sort of catastrophe could very well end them, and given the track record of other games that have required an online presence, it's not outside the realm of possibility. Still, Microsoft has a massive infrastructure and even if something like that happened, they could probably push out an update that temporarily (or permanently) disables the check-in requirement.

However, that's the kind of disaster they're setting themselves up for. They're crossing their fingers and hoping that their new paradigm will slowly be accepted, but in order for that to happen, they have to avoid anymore major fuck-ups.

The Fate of the "Winner"

And finally we have Sony. The victors of E3 and possibly of the generation.

It is important to note, however, that while the good people at Sony are certainly Internet heroes right now, they are not set for life just because they are having a good week.

The PS4 will undoubtedly sell well. It already is selling well. It will probably continue to sell well.

But where will we be in a few years? Or in a decade? Or two decades?

Well, this is going to take a while to explain, but let me sum up first: Sony will win the battle, Microsoft will win the war, but only if they continue to make operating systems that pay homage to every other Microsoft operating system since Windows 98, and so long as that is the case, they will never be able to truly control the market. And in the end, we won't be using an Xbone or a PS4. We'll be using a futuristic little all-purpose device that will render gaming consoles (and other dedicated hardware) obsolete. At least until we develop holograms.

I swear, I don't enjoy making these blog posts so long, but when I say something like "we won't have another console generation until we invent holograms", I kinda have to explain myself, don't I?

It might seem silly for me to think that we won't be doing this console war again in another few years. I'm sure people were saying the same thing 7 years ago. "With graphics like this, who needs another generation?"

Before the present generation, gamers were clamoring for online integration and better graphics, and this present generation basically hit that peak. The reason Microsoft and Sony took so long to push out a new entry was because it really did take this long for these consoles to feel lacking.

But if you asked most gamers, we're not really foaming at the mouth for a new console. It's not as though we enjoy cluttering up our houses with consoles and throwing down hundreds of dollars every few years. We're pretty much fine with the graphics and controls we have now, and some of the more popular games in recent years have had comparably primitive graphics. But we want to be able to play new games, so we're going through this again. And it's not as though Sony and Microsoft are crazy about moving to new consoles either. As I've said before, it takes a lot of money to develop a new console and they often don't make that money back from console sales alone. It's a major investment. They'd much rather just keep selling PS3's and Xbox 360's until the end of time.

So if the customers didn't want new consoles and the big companies didn't want new consoles, who did?

The developers.

Developers will no longer have to squeeze everything on a half a gig of RAM. They can stretch their legs, be less conservative, build more advanced AI and environments. I might be dooming myself in saying this, but 8GB of RAM is probably all they'll need for a long time. We've hit the point of diminishing returns when it comes to processing and RAM in an x86 architecture.

More importantly, by moving towards an x86 architecture on consoles, development will generally be simpler. And with the potential of the cloud technologies used by both consoles, they will never be truly limited by their current hardware.

Developers ought to be content with the kind of resources they'll have available to them.

So really, what next step could we possibly take that would require another generation of consoles?

In my mind, the only thing that could probably warrant another generation would be developers doing more than just creating life-like models in 3D space. More than just realistic hair. More than objects that break in realistic ways.

If I were to guess, I'd say the next step is building a virtual world that mimics the physical laws of the real world with such precision that you won't need to imitate nearly as much. Right now, if you throw a ceramic pot against a wall in a video game, the pot shatters in precisely the way it was programmed to and it produces a sound that was recorded in a studio somewhere. In a more advanced game, the pot might break in a unique way depending on the way it was thrown, but the sound it makes is still hollow and fake.

Imagine instead a virtual world where the empty space is actually filled with invisible virtual air that vibrates just as real air does. Virtual pottery with virtual molecules that respond to various forms of energy in such ways that when you throw it against a way, it shatters in precisely the same way ceramics would, and the impact vibrates the molecules in the air so that they produce a completely unique sound that is completely procedural and true to life.

This probably seems ridiculous. Who needs to dedicate this much effort into building a virtual world?

Well, imagine the real-life benefits of being able to create a virtual rendering of the physical laws of our universe. It would not only affect games, but so many other facets of science and technology.

Then imagine the next step. Holograms.

OK, yeah, now I'm sure I sound ridiculous, but I really think that's the next big step we need to take to justify dedicated hardware. We as consumers have spoken and we are not interested in 3D television, so much so that ESPN has given up on the experiment. The only way we could truly embrace it would be if we could experience it without glasses and without optical illusions (such as with the 3DS). Holograms are probably the only way to manage that. Images that truly fill a 3D space. No more tricks.

If you managed to create holographic technology and paired it with the kind of low-level physics engine I described, you'd basically have your first basic holodeck. Sure you couldn't interact with anything directly, you couldn't feel anything, but replicated objects could respond to your touch in a believable way. It would be less Star Trek and more Tony Stark.

A lot of people think that we're more likely to head into games that are controlled by our thoughts, but I don't think that technology will catch on very quickly. We as humans are still a very long way away from truly understanding the brain and using it as a reliable control device without requiring some level of surgery. And even then, as I've said before, the present generation is very touchy when it comes to privacy. The idea of a computer reading our thoughts would make us nervous. Even if such a control scheme existed, it would probably go the way of the Wii. We'd use it a little for the novelty, but would never depend on it.

The thing is, pretty much everything I've described is a pipe dream. These are technologies we've dreamt about for decades and we're probably decades away from them still.

In reality, new games will be focusing more on unique and gimmicky game mechanics. Clever ideas. The sorts of things that currently make indie games stand out. And for that stuff, we don't really need that much horsepower. It just makes it easier to focus on those things when you don't have to dedicate all of your manpower to figuring out how to make this world fit on 512MB of RAM.

So while I'm sure NVIDIA will continue producing more advanced graphics cards, I don't think the difference they produce will matter enough outside of the PC Master Race until those graphics start affecting actual gameplay in meaningful ways. Until the worlds they create feel truly immersive. Until the things they accomplish can't be imitated by cloud computing. Until the information is so vast that 8GB of RAM is a joke.

While PCs will always be capable of more power than consoles, game developers generally don't make games with those sorts of specs in mind. They target the sort of specs used by the average consumer, and frankly, those specs aren't going to change much in the next decade. RAM is no longer holding us back. Processors aren't doing much either now that we can't make faster processors that don't instantly burst into flame (suck it, Moore's Law). Graphics cards are too expensive and desktops are too immobile to go mainstream again. Average PC specs aren't going to overtake the PS4 or the Xbone for a very long time, and by the time we get there, I think our entire idea of computers and consoles will have changed completely.

Right now we live in a world where your phone and your tablet and your laptop and your desktop and your console all live in the same ecosystem and talk to each other and come together as one overall experience through various networks and interfaces. Even so, they all exist separately and serve their own individual purposes. Some we barely use at all, except in very particular circumstances. That's partially why Microsoft is so focused on turning the Xbone into a media center.

I envision a world where we just have one device with a handful of "shells" that the device fits into. Imagine, if you'll indulge me, something about the size and shape of an iPhone. It functions in all of the same ways as a mobile device would, but instead of a limited mobile OS, it carries a fully-featured desktop OS compatible with the Win32 API. Then you have a "shell" that's about the size of a tablet. You slide your mobile device into it like a battery, and voila, now it's on a bigger screen and functions just like a tablet would. Then you place that shell next to something like a laptop and it wirelessly connects to it. Or to a desktop monitor. Or to a TV. I think in the future, rather than have a separate device for each of these different functions, we'll merely have a device that can fulfill each role as needed. We may own more than one, but they would be interchangeable. During the day, they function as a desktop and a phone, but at night they become your tablet and your laptop, or your video game console and your webcam.

We've already made baby steps in this direction, as I'm sure you're aware. Phones and tablets that become "laptops". But so far they are limited by how much power can be fit into such a small space, battery life, heat dissipation, and hardware costs. Still, these are all technical limitations that computers have been working through at a blistering pace for the past two decades. It won't take long to come up with a handheld device that's just as powerful as an Xbone and has enough battery life to sustain itself for an entire day at full operation. Once we're there, it's just a matter of time before Microsoft or Apple develops an all-encompassing version of their OS that truly allows for a device to be both a handheld and a desktop without sacrificing functionality or convenience. And when that day comes, the world will change yet again.

In this world, dedicated console hardware will just stop making sense, and unless they develop holograms before they develop a better smartphone OS, I don't think the Big Three will have much reason to go for another round before that world arrives.

That's why I think Nintendo might still have one more console in them if they care enough. They could probably make a better Wii U that can stand alongside the graphical capabilities of the Xbone and the PS4 before gaming consoles become obsolete.

But it's clear that Sony and Microsoft have little interest in rushing through this generation. They're happy, their costumers are going to be happy, the developers are happy, and if they come up with new ideas or control schemes, they'll probably just add them on as accessories like they did with Kinect or Move.

Even if this isn't the last console generation, it will certainly be another long one. At least 10 years, I'd wager.

So if I'm being perfectly honest, I think that while Sony will probably win this generation, Microsoft is still probably going to win in the long run as soon as people can buy a device the size of a hockey puck that can run a full version of Windows and play Steam games as well as their PS4 can play similar games, because that, my friends, will be the true end of consoles. And Sony and Nintendo could probably try and do the same thing, but Microsoft already has a fully-formed OS with the biggest gaming library in existence, and Sony and Nintendo don't.

Unless someone develops a new OS that can install Windows applications without virtualizing Windows, Microsoft will always have the winning hand simply because they have owned the most ubiquitous software API in the world for the past two decades. Even they can't release an OS that is incapable of installing Win32 applications. Well, they can, but it doesn't sell (see Windows RT). We have no use for phones and tablets that can do most of the things a laptop can. We need phones and tablets that can do everything a laptop can. Anything less is a waste.

At the end of the day, software is king, and Microsoft has the most software support. They just lack a method to carry that support outside of the realm of desktops and laptops. They've made their first steps with the Surface Pro and other similar Windows 8 tablets, and in time, it will be all-encompassing.

Microsoft isn't untouchable. The Wine project has tried for years to allow Win32 applications to function in a Unix environment, but it's like trying to piece together a language without a dictionary and it may never be truly complete. Or perhaps Microsoft will suffer before its time arrives and be forced to sell its licenses and assets to Apple or someone else.

I do know that I will never buy a laptop that can't install and play "Grim Fandango". I just won't. There's too much gaming history tied to the many forms of Windows, and so long as a Windows OS is the only way to access it, Microsoft will always be the true winners.

Microsoft may have developed a shitty piece of hardware in the Xbone, but they have never made a lot of money from hardware. Their money comes from being the gatekeepers of software, and that much hasn't changed. Steam can sell more games, but most of those games need Windows to run.

That's not to say Microsoft will get everything they want. Honestly, Microsoft's Win32 API is a curse they wish they could rid themselves of. They want an app store like the one Apple has. They want to be able to approve and manage how people can use their OS like they do on the Xbox. But they'll never be able to do that. Too many people depend on legacy software. Too many software developers don't want to go through Microsoft to get their software on PCs, and because of Win32, they don't have to. So long as they can put a .exe file on a website or a DVD, Microsoft will have no claim to it. They hoped that their new touch interface would change things, that it would be popular enough that developers would HAVE to go through them to stay afloat, but people just aren't that interested in a touch interface for a desktop or a laptop or even a tablet. And if Microsoft ever did render Win32 obsolete, all it would do is put them on equal footing with Apple. And I don't think that's a fight Microsoft can win.

We may have reached the beginning of the end of an era, but the era still to come will probably be wicked awesome.