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We’ve often wondered what would happen if we locked some of The Escapist’s most opinionated contributors in a room and let them talk about whatever they liked. Until we can find a room with strong enough locks (and get sufficient insurance to cover the inevitable destruction), there’s always email.

This week, MovieBob, Yahtzee, and James Portnow tackle the question: What’s the current state of console gaming?

imageMovieBob: From my end, I’d say the state of console gaming is “fractured” – if I had to limit it to one blanket term, anyway.

I don’t know that there’s ever been a point where there’s been such disparity between what consoles are capable of in terms of innovation and what they’re being asked to do in those same terms by the actual games – or that said innovation is happening so overwhelmingly on the console side. What I mean is: The three main players – PS3, 360 and Wii are all remarkably versatile devices in their own right, but much of that versatility seems to be going to waste. To use only what I’d call the most egregious example: You only need to look at what the homebrew hacking/modding community is doing with the Kinect to know that it’s an impressive (if buggy) piece of tech with HUGE possibilities, but right now it’s mostly being used to make HD versions of stuff that was out on the Wii three years ago.

Most of that you can probably lay on the developers, but the audience is “helping” by not really demanding much innovation in the first place. And I’m not talking about purposefully backward-looking stuff like New Super Mario Bros. or the new/”old” Mega Man titles; or even easy-targets like EA Sports selling people a $60 roster update every year. I’m talking about there being next to no sense any more of a gaming culture that somewhat united all the various genres and subgenres under the “videogame” umbrella and drove innovation by at least encouraging people to go outside their comfort zone. You can pretty much build a wall around whatver your gaming likes of the moment and live there, cut off, indefinitely. Lack of new input = lack of desire for change = lack of impetus for developers to innovate.

imageYahtzee: It’s true that consoles are capable of some pretty amazing things these days, but the same can’t be said for developers, who are squashy humans who still need time to go to the bathroom. Game development on the cutting edge is more of a rich boy’s club than it’s ever been before, and it’s no longer just about being able to afford the best rendering technology. The sheer amount of man hours that go into just a single level, between high-resolution textures, detailing, character animation, without even getting into gameplay or story design, is testicle-shrivellingly daunting for any team. It drives independent developers to more manageable platforms like XBLA or mobiles. And that’s why you’re not going to see much innovation on the triple-A side of things, since innovation in almost every creative industry drives the independent rather than the mainstream industry, which inevitably becomes more concerned with the aforementioned $60 roster update, the crankin’ of the guaranteed investment return sequel machine.

Sometimes I have a horrible feeling that creatively, console gaming peaked with the last generation, when consoles were powerful enough to bring one’s creative vision to life but development wasn’t as arduous. The PS2 with its great third party support still has, to my mind, the best (and biggest) library of any console, and is still one of the biggest selling games machines in the world.

imageJames Portnow: I agree with you guys, but I think there’s a little more to it this year in particular. This is the year that Sony and Microsoft have to prove that the market can support three sets of motion controls; this is the year that they have to prove that the Kinect and the Move are more than just disposable peripherals like the lightguns and congas of years past. While the out of the gate numbers don’t look terrible for the Kinect and Move (having shipped about 6 million and 4 million units respectively), unless these devices hit an install base of around 20 million they simply won’t be viable for non-first party development (which almost certainly means that if they don’t hit the 20 million mark by the end of this year they’ll go the way of the Virtual Boy). Sony and Microsoft know this and are dumping resources in that direction, but, unlike a new console generation where there’s really not much to copy from, they’re busy trying to recreate the successful Wii titles in order to bolster sales. This pretty much removes any money available for risky bets from two of the largest entities in the industry.

What really makes this tragic to me is that you’re simply not going to beat the Wii at being the Wii. I think by taking the “safer” route Sony and MS may have condemned their peripherals to a slow death, rather than rolling the dice and really taking some gambles on what their technology could do; yes, they could miss, but they would then at least have the chance at a break out hit.

imageMovieBob: @Yahtzee

Agreed re: last generation probably being a kind of creative “peak.”

I mean, just imagine for a moment what the state of the CURRENT generation might be without the Wii kicking over all the anthills right at the beginning: Sony and Microsoft’s LITERAL business model didn’t go beyond “same thing as last time, but this time in HD.” To me, this is a scary indicator – the single biggest industry reshaping since dual-analog controls happened not because an inventive new game demanded it or because someone had a “crazy” idea… it happened because Shigeru Miyamoto gets bored easily and his bosses had nothing left to lose.

Conversely, it’s already evident that Nintendo’s big hail-mary saving throw of going way outside the box with the Wii was basically a one-off “go big or go home” desperation move, and now that it’s paid off big time and they’re comfortably God Emperor of The World again, they’re settling right back into their comfort zone: New Mario, New Zelda, New DK, New Metroid, New Kirby, etc. Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you – first party Ninty games are so good precisely because they essentially have a 25 year development cycle (i.e. every Mario is the “beta” of the next one) but let’s face it – no one is expecting Wii2 to suddenly be telekinesis-driven or whatever.

Honestly, stubborness of some entities (looking at you, Ninty) aside, I think there’s an ever-increasing chance that the next console generation is going to be the last. Not in a “no more gaming” sense, but in a “different machine, different games” sense. Forget the “one console future” or “PC revival” – we’re heading for a point where there’s no such thing as a “gaming console” and instead “plays videogames” is just one other thing your web-connected, internet-streaming, HD-ready bluray/DVD/music player does through your TV. I’d like to think that would drive dev-costs down, but maybe not.

@James,

Mostly agreed. In fairness to Kinect and Move, though, I was never really expecting them to be anything other than market-ready prototypes of tech that’s going to come standard on the inevitable PS4 and XBoxWhatever; and that’s pretty much what they are. Nonetheless, it’s still a little disquieting to realize that neither of them even TRIED to make a “Wii Sports Killer” (as opposed to a Wii Sports Polisher).

In the mid-1960s, the American movie industry basically collapsed under its own weight – productions were too expensive, returns were declining and the product had gotten safe and stale. Popular culture had left it behind. When that happened, what producers and theaters remained still needed product, so they wound up opening up venues and lines of investment to newcomers, outsider talent, foreign films and “taboo” genres. The net result was a major creative renaissance and a chance for a whole generation of talent who’d come up in this environment to become the new-and-improved ruling class of the new studio system – basically, almost two decades of unbridled artistic evolution climaxing with the one-two-three knockout of Jaws/Godfather/Star Wars. It’s probably too much to hope that gaming could be heading for the same kind of “pop” moment, but if the whole notion of seperated consoles were to waver, or the line seperating “indie” gaming from “A-list” gaming were to get even less visible … you never know.

imageYahtzee: Blimey, we’re agreeing with each other a lot. Let’s find some conflict, make it interesting.

I think motion controls are a complete dead end for gaming. The popularity of the Wii is entirely due to the casual gaming gimmick crowd, very few of whom buy more than one or two games. Something like Kinect might be handy for when someone gets around to inventing those holographic gesture-based PCs like what Tony Stark has in Iron Man, but no form of entertainment has ever been enriched by forcing the audience to exert themselves.

imageMovieBob: I think GESTURE controls are close to a dead end, mostly because what they can “do” they’re pretty-much “doing” already i.e. swing hand = swing bat, etc. Kinect is probably the buggy, mostly-broken “first glance” at the “ultimate” form of it, and it’s a form that’s not far off.

MOTION control, on the other hand, I think has a big role to play in the future. From where I sit, the two most broadly-beneficial “how-did-we-get-by-without-this” transformative things to come out of the Wii are the two subtlest: Having a constantly-accessible onscreen “cursor” and turning “shake controller” into a third action button.

Regarding the first – when I “switch back” from using the Wii to using my 360, I INSTANTLY miss being able to click through the menu’s “mouse-style” and instead having to do it all by buttons. It’s as much an improvement on the console menu-interface as the mouse was for desktops. On a more me-specific level, I think it made the Metroid Prime games the best-controlling console-FPS setup ever.

Regarding the second – the added visceral “oomph!” of being able to execute a move by physically shaking the controller, when done properly, makes games more fun. This is partially why No More Heroes has the best “melee combat” on the system – the way the controls are programmed i.e. “make slash motion” for finishing moves understands player/game emotional response to an almost scary degree: B! B! B! A! A! A! A! A! A! B! B! B!! B!! A!!! A!!!! A aaaaand DIIIIIIIEEEEEEE YOU BASTAAAAAAARDDDDDD!!!!!!!!!! The first time you get into that groove is transcendent – as is the “afterglow” where the bad guy is headless and you actually feel like you used real physical energy to make it happen. On a less “perfect” level, I love that turning the controller like a steering wheel (which we all did off and on anyway) actually makes the car/plane/whatever turn – when it’s done right, I stress – and shaking the remote to make the monkey punch the ground in Donkey Kong is more satisfying than it has any right to be for a grown man.

So… to the extent that they can add a layer of “involvement” to the gaming, I’m all for it. For example: Since some form of motion/gesture control WILL be standard on future consoles, I fully expect “hit-him-with-butt-of-gun” to be mapped to a controller-shake in future FPS games – “WHAM! GOTCHA!” It just fits too well. But the idea that every game is going to handle 1:1 like Red Steel 2? No, probably not and probably for the best.

imageJames Portnow: In this case though, I’ve got one. I think you too loosely use the term audience. Our “audience” isn’t audient, they’re participatory, much like, say, players, in a sport. I do not believe that badminton or polo or even prosy sports like soccer and football would be better if the players didn’t have to exert themselves. Kinetics can be an enriching and communicative part of play. I just don’t think we’ve seen the apotheosis of the form, in fact I’d even go so far as to say the Wii/Move/Kinect have, in general been pale shadows of what we might be able to do with this type of gaming. After all, we can all dream of a holodeck…

imageYahtzee: I always thought there was a fairly massive flaw with the holodeck concept: that I would prefer watching a play, film or sporting event to actually having to participate in it. I know gaming must always involve the audience, but what if I want to play an action game where the characters need to display ability that I’m not capable of? Not even because I might be disabled or infirm – just being able to run around shooting from cover for an entire action sequence is beyond me, I can’t even play Laser Tag without almost giving myself a hernia. I like normal games. Before the Wii I never ever thought to myself ‘This game would be so much more immersive if I was swinging my sword arm myself’. I reserve my sword arm for private, secret entertainments. Gaming is about participation, yes, but why hamper us with our fat, flabby, unattractive forms?

A game with a button controller makes me more immersed than any motion sensor equivalent. I barely have to think about making small, unskilled, untiring finger and thumb movements, so my brain is virtually in sync with that of the main character in the game. It comes down just to reflexes. Peep the name of this very website; Gaming is about escapism, about living through someone else with a more interesting life. My body is free to relax on the couch while my mind goes off to save the universe. I LIKE that. That’s how all my favourite games work. When you suddenly ask that body to sit up and take part then it pulls me out of the experience.

I couldn’t disagree more about having to perform some random Wiimote flail to perform an action like a finishing move or a Mario spin attack. Motion controllers maybe, MAYBE make sense if the game fully replicates your movements, like in swordfighting or driving sims, it’s massively hampered by the lack of physical feedback but it is at least a skill. A vague swing or shake that makes the character perform a skilled move largely unrelated to your gesture, that’s just an overly elaborate button press. It’s just more stages between your brain and the character on screen doing the action you want.

If you ask me, the hypothetical zenith of gaming technology is direct neural interface – no body to hamper you and your brain is in whatever you want it to be in. Plus it leads to existential uncertainty, which could be entertaining.

Come back soon to watch our contributors tackle all the big issues in gaming! If you have a suggestion for something you’d like to see them cover, send it to extraconsideration@escapistmag.com.

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